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SYRIA, LEBANON: Critics of Syrian regime disappear in Beirut; rights group calls for independent probe

March 10, 2011 |  8:16 am

Syrian-embassy-beirut-021609034133 Human-rights groups are becoming increasingly concerned about the fate and whereabouts of three Syrian brothers who disappeared in the Lebanese capital about two weeks ago after they distributed fliers calling for demonstrations for democratic change in Syria.

On Thursday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called on Lebanon in a statement to immediately launch an independent probe into the matter.

The circumstances of the brothers' disappearance are murky. According to Human Rights Watch research, agents from Lebanon's Military Intelligence took at least six members of the Jasem family into custody on Feb. 23 and 24 after they handed out pamphlets calling for more democracy in Syria, a country ruled by the Assad family for decades.

One of them, construction worker Jasem Mer`i Jasem, then disappeared in the early hours of Feb. 25 along with his two brothers, who had gone to pick him up from a police station in Beirut's Baabda district, according to the rights group.

Family members worry that the brothers might have been sent back to Syria, where, rights groups say, authorities regularly arrest political and human-rights activists, block websites and detain bloggers.

Meanwhile, over in Lebanon, the country’s Internal Security Forces have said they will open an investigation into the case, but so far officials have not made any information public or given any information to the family of the men who disappeared, says Human Rights Watch.

The organization's Lebanon and Syria researcher, Nadim Houry, has criticized the handling of the  case by  Lebanese authorities.

The case has "all the factors of what's really rotten these days in Lebanon," he told Babylon & Beyond. "Frankly, Military Intelligence needs to explain why it went about detaining these people. Internal Security Forces need to come clean on what they know and what they don't know. On the ministerial level, the ministry of interior, justice and defense need to ... explain what efforts have been taken to reveal the state and whereabouts of these three men."

Earlier this week, in Arabic media reports, Syrian opposition sources accused Lebanese security official Salah Hajj of kidnapping the three brothers. Hajj was said to have been tasked with protecting the Syrian Embassy. The Syrian Embassy reportedly has denied having any role in Jasem's disappearance.

According to Houry, the missing men had been handing out fliers calling for protest outside the Syrian Embassy in Beirut.

The disappearance case is not the first time critics of the Syrian regime have gone missing in Lebanon. Rights advocates say there is a long history of Syrian dissidents being hauled into detention in Lebanon and then illegally transferred to Syria, where they're never heard from again.

But Jasem was in no sense a known Lebanon-based Syrian opposition figure like Nawar Abboud, who disappeared in the Lebanese city of Tripoli in 2008. Jasem was a poor construction worker who'd been earning a living in Lebanon for a couple of years.

Houry says the case of the disappearance of the Syrian brothers raises concerns about a continued lack of oversight of Lebanon’s security agencies and brings into question the extent of the level of cooperation among security agencies outside the law.

"There is a question mark ... about the cooperation between security services outside the realm of the law," he said. "It has always been a concern because even after Syrian security services pulled out of Lebanon, there was never any process to question that practice." 

Lebanon's caretaker, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, said in a statement Wednesday that the case of three Syrians who allegedly were abducted in Lebanon had been transferred to the judiciary after the Internal Security Forces did its investigation.

Houry called on Lebanon's decision makers to step up efforts in the case and for perpetrators to be held accountable.

"This is a priority case for decision makers. They all need to be concerned with shedding light on what happened and to ensure that this doesn't happen again," he said. "And whoever ordered this arrest needs to be sanctioned."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A Syrian flag flies over the Syrian Embassy in Beirut. Credit: Ramzi Haidar / Agence France Presse