Not all prisoners are created equal

This week, as the Lebanese government continued to throw parties for the return of the Hezbollah prisoners from Israel, Lebanese soldiers were beating the families of Lebanese prisoners still in Syrian jails. MENASSAT's Layal Abu Rahal was there and filed this report.

BEIRUT, July 23, 2008 (MENASSAT) – They decided to protest on the road leading up to presidential palace in Baabda on the very day when Lebanese president Michel Sleiman was receiving Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem – the first visit of a high-ranking Syrian official since Syria pulled out of Lebanon in 2005..

"They" were the parents of Lebanon's "disappeared." They had come to hand Sleiman a petition, signed by sixteen organizations, asking the Lebanese President to bring up the fate of the more than 600 Lebanese detainees still in Syrians prisons during his meeting with al-Muallem.

But much in contrast to the festive welcome reserved for Samir Kuntar and four Hezbollah prisoners after their release by Israel last week, the families of the Lebanese detainees in Syria were met instead by the rifle butts of the Lebanese soldiers providing security for the Syrian minister's visit.

"The enemy Israel released our children from its prisons. What is the President of the sister state waiting for?" one mother shouted at the top of her lungs, tears rolling down her face from a blow from a Lebanese soldier's gun.

And yet, they had not come to Baabda with guns or sticks. They had not set car tires on fire or blocked the roads. They were satisfied with shedding their tears and carrying photos of their sons, husbands and brothers, many of whom have been lost in Syrian prisons for years.

A sign of hope

Monday's demonstration was in sharp contrast with the hope that President Sleiman's election had brought to the families of the detainees. In his inaugural speech, Sleiman had himself brought up the issue of the Lebanese prisoners in Syria.

And so the families, through the advocacy group SOLIDE (Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile), doubled their efforts to bring the fate of their loved-ones to the attention of the public and above all of the politicians.

They drafted a letter in which they listed their demands and their vision for a solution. They then asked for an appointment with the new President.

When no word came, SOLIDE held a press conference on the eve of the President's trip to the "Club Med" summit in Paris, where they knew he would come face to face with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They reminded Sleiman of the inequity of the situation, and they pleaded with French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the summit's host, to bring pressure on al-Assad over the prisoners issue.

When the President returned from his trip without a word about the prisoners, SOLIDE decided that the Syrian Foreign Minister’s visit to Lebanon was another ideal moment to raise public awareness.


The protest started safely behind the metal barriers protecting the presidential palace. But an attempt to get closer to the palace put the protesters in direct contact with the palace security. As al-Muallem's convoy appeared in the distance, the army thought the protesters were going to block the road and stop al-Muallem's from reaching the palace.

What followed was mayhem.  Men and women in there sixties and seventies were beaten by rifle butts and fists. Some women fainted. Those who tried to protect SOLIDE's wheelchair-bound president, Ghazi Aad, also got their share of blows.

Journalists on the scene said the violence reminded them of days they thought were long gone, referring to the 29-year Syrian security presence in Lebanon.

In the end, Red Cross ambulances arrived to treat the wounded, and Elie Roumyeh, brother of missing Lebanese detainee Bashar Roumyeh, was detained for about an hour.

Sensing the government needed to save face, a Lebanese military vehicle then took three  representatives of the families inside the presidential palace. There, a high-ranking member of the President's staff promised to deliver their letter to the President before his scheduled visit to Syria.

The same car then brought them back to the rallying point, with a recommendation from the Presidential Office's director, Brigadier General Mkari.

"If the media reports that you were beaten," he said, "issue a denying and clarifying statement."

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[Editor's note: On May 23, NOW Lebanon reported that President Michel Sleiman received a delegation of the families of Lebanese detainees in Syrian prisons on Wednesday. Sleiman said their cause would be "taken seriously because it is a humanitarian issue first and foremost."

[He also confirmed that he had been dealing with the issue since his days as Army Commander, prior to his election, and had worked on the file of missing soldiers.

["We cannot rush the discussion with the Syrian authorities, and the cabinet should set a methodology through a committee responsible for solving this dossier by inquiring and investigating their positions," Sleiman said.]