March 9, 2005 | New York Sun

Lebanese Democrats Under Siege

As dusk falls, Martyrs' Square lights up, and Lebanon's Cedar Revolution pushes on. The democratic movement to oust Syria finds itself increasingly under siege, following a huge demonstration in Beirut Tuesday by the pro-Syrian terrorist group Hezbollah and reports yesterday that the pro-Syrian prime minister who resigned last week, Omar Karami, will return to office. Despite the growing risk of Syrian reprisals, scores of democratic protesters gather in what has become over the past three weeks an evening ritual, waving Lebanese flags and standing tall as the national anthem is played.

At the edge of the crowd sits Ghazi Aad, who knows plenty about the Syrian regime's punishments for Lebanese who stand up for their rights. Mr. Aad runs a Lebanese organization called Solide, (which stands for Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile), which for years has been the leading human-rights group trying to track and defend Lebanese who have been detained, interrogated, tortured, and in some cases, disappeared into the prisons of Syria for defying the Baathist regime in Damascus.

The only reason the 47-year-old Mr. Aad does not rise to his feet is that he has been confined to a wheelchair since a 1983 car accident. But he deems these demonstrations vital enough that he is here, a cell phone in his lap, ready to run the risks and explain the stakes. With Lebanon under Syrian sway, says Mr. Aad, the norm is that “everyone in Lebanon is afraid. They are living in fear. It's an instrument of the state.”

Currently, Mr. Aad has a list of some 280 Lebanese political prisoners detained in Syria, though he has reason to believe there are hundreds more. In the occasional amnesties with which the Syrian regime releases prisoners, he has discovered repeatedly that Lebanese not on his list had been held in Syrian prisons, in some cases for years. In many instances, their families were left with no information, afraid to protest or even ask about what has happened. “Everything happens in the dark,” says Mr. Aad. “People are detained secretly, released secretly, kept in secret places. Everything is secret.”

Mr. Aad has for some time been appealing to the United Nations, among others, to address this abuse, which seems so far to have escaped the attention of Secretary-General Annan. This past Tuesday, Mr. Annan responded to the large Hezbollah turnout that dwarfed Lebanon's democratic protests by saying, “We need to be careful of the forces at work in Lebanese society as we move forward.” Hezbollah's pro-Syrian stance, said Mr. Annan, is “a force” that “one will gave to factor in.” Missing from Mr. Annan's statement was any acknowledgement that while Hezbollah's protesters gathered with the approval and by some accounts with the complicity of the prevailing Damascus regime, for Lebanese democrats, it is a risk to demonstrate at all. “Just being here is risky,” says Mr. Aad, nodding toward the flag-waving democrats gathered nearby. Should the Cedar Revolution falter, its more prominent figures, he says, “are in danger of being disappeared.”

Mr. Aad's conversation is punctuated by calls on his cell phone, and the greetings of protesters, some of whom he has defended over the years. At one point, several of them present him with flowers, in thanks for his work. Among those who stay to chat is 67-year-old Oubad Zoueim, who in the 1990s was twice detained by Syrian security agents. Mr. Zoueim recounts how he was first detained in Beirut, held in a basement, and beaten until “I thought I would be happy if they would treat me even as an animal.” He was then taken for interrogation to Syrian intelligence headquarters at Anjar, in the Bekaa Valley, by the Syrian-Lebanese border.

Mr. Aad picks up the thread of this story, explaining that the typical pattern for detainees is to be held and interrogated at Anjar – in effect the Lubyanka of Lebanon – then shipped to Syria for interrogation in Damascus. Because Syria's multiple security agencies each have their own specialized detention centers and prisons, it becomes horribly difficult once a Lebanese has disappeared into Syria's security maze to find out even where the prisoner is being held. In some cases, they disappear forever; in others, political prisoners have been held for years with no charges, or condemned as spies simply for having had contact with Israel, or in some other way displeased Damascus.

The history of Mr.Aad's organization tracks back to Syria's invasion of Lebanon in 1976. Among the first Lebanese detained and interrogated by the Syrians were two of Mr. Aad's cousins. Years later, in October 1987, Amnesty International published a report on torture in Syrian prisons. It was enough in the way of outside support for Mr. Aad to set up Solide, which he founded in 1989, the same year the Taif accords gave Syria custody of Lebanon on the understanding that Syria would withdraw within two years.

Since then, Mr. Aad has been fighting for any official acknowledgement, either from Lebanon or the world community that Syria along with keeping troops and intelligence agents in Lebanon, serves as jailer for Lebanese dissidents. The chronic threat of Syrian detention has long been enough to make many Lebanese wary of speaking up for their rights. That they are now doing so, says Mr. Aad, that political factions formerly at each other's throats – including Maronite Christians, Druze, and Sunnis – have now come together to protest Syrian occupation, means for Lebanese liberties “a resurrection from the dead.”

Except that resurrection remains far from a done deal. Pro-Syrian Hezbollah, following on its Tuesday turnout, has scheduled more demonstrations, this Friday in northern Lebanon, and Sunday in the south. The democrats have planned their next big protest for Monday, the four-week anniversary of the bombing that killed former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and sparked the current uprising. In the complex showdown now under way, before taking yet another call on his cell phone, Mr. Aad underlines for a reporter the simple bottom line: “We want our liberty back.”



Hezbollah Lebanon Syria