Warmer Lebanon-Syria ties puts focus on prisoners' fate

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's visited Damascus Wednesday, raising the prospect that perhaps hundreds of detainees in Syria will be released.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
Thaw? Michel Suleiman (l.), Lebanon’s new president, began talks with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday aimed at improving relations between the two countries.

Fouad Fawal hasn't seen his son for nearly 20 years. In 1985, Toufiq was arrested in connection with the murder of a Syrian janitor and disappeared within that country's vast prison system.

But Mr. Fawal maintains that his son was merely an unwitting accomplice and should be released. He hopes that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's Wednesday trip to Damascus will lead to Toufiq's return, as well as the freedom of many other Lebanese detainees who continue to languish in Syrian jails.

"We are begging that President Suleiman comes back from Damascus with Toufiq with him because he's an innocent man and his family is suffering," says Fawal. "He's spent nearly a quarter century in prison and that's enough for any crime."

Mr. Suleiman's long-awaited fence-mending visit to Damascus on the same day a massive bombing in Tripoli killed at least 18 soldiers and civilians will be his first since being elected president in May. He and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, are expected to address numerous pressing issues in a bid to improve ties between the two neighbors after three years of bitter tensions.

Among them are the establishment of formal diplomatic ties and the opening of embassies for the first time, the delineation of the two countries' joint border and the fate of dozens, possibly hundreds, of Lebanese detainees in Syria.

"We really want a positive relationship with Syria, and this is best achieved through the establishment of diplomatic relations, the proper demarcation of our shared border, and the resolution of all pressing issues, including the question of Lebanese persons still detained in Syria," said Ahmad Fatfat, a former minister, during a parliamentary debate Monday.

Last month, Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah scored valuable political points by securing the return of the last Lebanese prisoners held by Israel in a swap for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

The fate of Lebanese incarcerated in Syria has either been ignored or regarded as an embarrassing and awkward legacy of Damascus's dominion over Lebanon, since Syrian troops first entered the country in 1976 to their withdrawal under Lebanese and international pressure in 2005.

Some 17,000 Lebanese remain unaccounted for from Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. While only a fraction of them are suspected of still being in Syrian jails, an accurate figure is almost impossible to derive.

"We are not saying all 17,000 are in Syria, but we know that there are a few hundred from the testimonies of family members and witnesses," says Ghazi Aad, the head of Solide, a group that lobbies for Lebanese detainees in Syrian jails.

Since 1990, Solide has compiled a list currently totaling 580 Lebanese who are either in Syrian prisons or are known to have died while in custody. Other lists drawn up over the years have cited lower figures.

Mr. Aad says that Syria refuses to hand over detailed information about Lebanese it detains. In 1998, for example, when Syria released 151 Lebanese, Solide only had the names of four of them. In December 2000, Syria released 54 Lebanese, but Solide had records for only 12.

A Lebanese commission appointed in 1998 by the then Syrian-backed government declared that all missing Lebanese should be formally declared dead, a decision that was heavily criticized at the time. The issue continued to be unresolved.

After the 2000 prisoner release, Syria said it no longer had any Lebanese prisoners. But last month on a trip to Beirut, Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister hinted that there could be some Lebanese still in Syrian jails, adding their fate could be decided shortly.

"I say to the families of those missing and those detained that he who has been patient for 30 years can wait a bit longer," he said.

Although his remarks were criticized as being callous to the waiting families, it did spur some hope in the Fawal household that Toufiq may soon be released.

Toufiq was arrested in Tripoli in 1985 after a friend shot dead a Syrian janitor in an apparent act of revenge against a Syrian crackdown on the city. The friend, who could not drive, reportedly asked Toufiq to take a car to the Abi Sabra neighborhood in Tripoli. Toufiq obliged without realizing that the Syrian janitor and his son were locked – and still alive – inside the trunk, according to Fawal.

After Toufiq left, his friend shot dead the janitor but his son survived.

Fawal, a moderately successful businessman, believes his son was arrested because the killer was poor and unable to placate the dead Syrian's family with money, while he could potentially buy his son's freedom. He was unsuccessful and last saw Toufiq in 1989, then was denied further visits.

Last month, he recounted his ordeal on a popular live phone-in television talk show. The next day, the murdered Syrian's son, now an intelligence officer, called the show to insist that Toufiq was guilty. He also disclosed that 18 other people had been arrested for the crime.

That was news to Solide's Aad. "It's an example of how the Syrians never disclose whom they have."

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