Syrian activists’ dangerous haven in Lebanon

Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissent has reportedly spread to Lebanon, as activists in exile are targeted.

Beirut protests in solidarity with Syria
Beirut saw several sit-ins and protests against the Syrian state measures to quell the uprising there [Reuters]

After being on the run in his country for more than three months, Omar Edelbi, a Syrian poet and an outspoken critic of President Bashar al-Assad, managed to escape to neighbouring Lebanon – fleeing the Syrian government’s crackdown on dissidents.

Many intellectuals in the region call it the Arab world’s “bastion of freedom”; indeed, Lebanon initially appeared to be Edelbi’s best route out of Syria, given its proximity, its familiarity and the many illegal border crossings available.

But a few weeks after his arrival to Beirut, he started receiving death threats on his phone and via his friends. A couple of months later, he found himself at a branch of the Lebanese military intelligence service, undergoing a four-hour interrogation for “attempting to weaken relations between Syria and Lebanon” and for attempting to “disrupt the Lebanese national fabric”.

“Those who come to Lebanon face the risk of psychological terror, physical terror, arrest and disappearance…”

– Moeen Merebi, Member of Parliament

“The investigation led nowhere because they could not charge me with anything,” said 41-year-old Edelbi, the spokesman of the Syrian Local Co-ordination Committees activist network. “But I believe the reason I was called for investigation is because they wanted me to stop what I was doing.”

Edelbi, like dozens of activists who took refuge in Lebanon, organises anti-Syrian government protests, contacts media organisations and documents human rights abuses taking place in his country. But he says that the Syrian government has, through its own agents and in co-operation with the Lebanese intelligence, managed to extend its crackdown onto Lebanese soil.

Most of the activists in Lebanon still operate undercover and communicate online, exactly the way they used to when they were living in Syria. “As a group of activists, we try to look out for each other’s safety. Despite the constant threats, nobody provides us protection; neither the Lebanese authorities nor non-governmental organisations,” Edelbi said.

Moeen Merhbi, a member of the opposition in Lebanon’s parliament, has been monitoring the situation of Syrians in Lebanon. He told Al Jazeera: “Those who come to Lebanon face the risk of psychological terror, physical terror, arrest and disappearance at the hands of the Syrian intelligence and its Lebanese agents.”

“This country is certainly not the country of freedoms many perceive it to be.”

Kidnapping attempt

Mohammad Inad Sulaiman, a Syrian activist and a member of the Syrian Revolution Supreme Council, used to live in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, about 65km from Beirut. He had fled the Damascus suburb of Al Kiswa to avoid being arrested by the Syrian government.

Sulaiman fled to Jordan after an attempt to kidnap him

“But soon after I arrived, I felt I was being followed. And only a few weeks into my arrival, two men tried to kidnap me off the street,” said Sulaiman, who suspects the men of being Syrian agents. “But thank God, people in the neighbourhood noticed and ran toward us. The men let go of me and fled, driving their unmarked Mercedes-Benz.”

While Sulaiman knew his life was in danger, he said he did not even think of going to the police to file a complaint, because residents told him that they were powerless against Syrian Mukhabarat agents.

Some of his acquaintances in the city kept him hidden until he found an opportunity to leave the country. He now resides in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where he says he finally feels safe.

“It is a different world here. The government is welcoming. The people are welcoming.” said Sulaiman.

“I feel horrible every time I think of my Syrian friends I left behind in Lebanon.”

Twin brothers Ahmed and Mohamed Malas, celebrated Syrian actors, have also recently left Beirut and settled in the Egyptian capital Cairo. They had fled to Lebanon from Damascus after producing plays inspired by the country’s uprising.

“Walking in the streets of Beirut felt like walking in Damascus. The Syrian intellegence are there. Assad supporters are there. We always had in mind the possibility of getting kidnapped. We announced on Facebook that we were in Algeria just to create a confusion about where we really are,” Ahmed said.

“Now that we are in Cairo, we worry less about our safety and thus can focus more on producing more plays in support of our revolution.”

An alarming trend

Nabil al-Halabi, the head of the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, said his organisation had documented at least 13 kidnappings since the Syrian uprising began in March.

“Mind you, these are the cases we know of. The kidnapped were activists, refugees living near the border and even people who simply expressed dissent against the Syrian regime.

“We know that many of the kidnapped were taken back to Syria. We have evidence that diplomatic cars belonging to the Syrian embassy were used to transfer them. These cars never get checked on the borders.”

Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, recently confirmed in an interview that Syrian opposition figures had been kidnapped in Lebanon, but said they were isolated incidents.

Some disappearance cases have gained media attention in the west, including the kidnapping of three Syrian brothers from the Jasem family for allegedly distributing flyers calling for protests. The kidnapping of 89-year-old Shibli al-Ayssami, a founder of Syria’s governing Baath Party – who later voiced his opposition to Assad – has also been recorded.

In both of these cases, General Ashraf Rifi, head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, blamed Syria’s rulers. He presented the findings of his investigations to the Lebanese parliament in closed-door testimony, which included statements from witnesses and mobile phone records, implicating both the Syrian embassy and Lebanese security officers.

When asked about the police inquiry, Mikati said that, “the judicial system will do its duty and we will support it”.

The Syrian embassy in Lebanon could not be reached for a comment on these allegations, but Ambassador Ali Abdel Karim told local media that the accusations were “baseless”.

‘Exhaustive documentation’

The street in front of the embassy saw several demonstrations and sit-ins by Syrian and Lebanese activists against the Syrian state measures to quell the uprising. In at least one of these sit-ins, protesters reported being attacked by pro-Assad supporters, armed with clubs and belts, under the watchful eyes of Lebanese armed forces – who remained stationed at their positions nearby.

 The Arabic text at the top reads ‘Pay Attention!’ while a security officer looks away as a “Shabbeeh (or Thug)” beats a demonstrator [Beirut Walls]

In August, contributors to the Lebanese “Beirut Walls” blog posted two photos of people they said were members of the Lebanese forces filming and photographing demonstrators in Beirut’s city centre.

The bloggers, who keep their identity concealed, asked: “Who is this exhaustive documentation for? Where are these photos stored? And leaving the complicity between the Lebanese intelligence apparatus with the Syrian regime aside, who ordered these men to take photos of people during the march?”

Lebanon, which was under Syria’s direct control for nearly 30 years before Damascus withdrew its troops in 2005, is still under influence from its neighbouring country. Syrian intelligence, which has a long history of cooperation with Lebanese intelligence services, is still perceived to use Lebanon as an operational ground. In addition, the Syrian administration enjoys the support of the Lebanese government, which is particularly influenced by Hezbollah, which leads the March 8 Alliance, the largest of the government coalition partners.

‘No accountability’

Activists interviewed by Al Jazeera blamed some of the attacks and harassment they endured on those affiliated with political parties within the government’s coalition: namely Hezbollah, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the Lebanese branch of the Baath Party.

Officials from these parties denied their involvement in suppressing Syrian dissidents. Ali Kanso, a state minister and the head of the SSNP, told Al Jazeera that the attacks and kidnappings reports were “part of the overall incitement campaign exercised by media against the Syrian regime”.

He added: “In any case, I do not think the Syrian regime needs us.”

There are different theories about who did what, said Nadim Houry, the director of Human Rights Watch in Beirut.

“The reason why people continue to speculate is because they never receive specific answers from the state as to who is really responsible for these incidents,” he said.

He said that the Lebanese judiciary has so far failed to undertake a serious inquiry into the kidnappings, leaving the culprits responsible for them unpunished.

“There has been no accountability whatsoever,” said Houry.

But Omar Nashabe, an expert in criminal justice and the head of the research unit at Al Akhbar newspaper, said the judiciary cannot investigate such cases – for lack of sufficient resources.

“How can you expect so much from a judiciary has always been allocated a budget amounting to less than one per cent of the government’s national budget? There is no political will to strengthen it, as it is in the favour of all Lebanese parties to have a weak judiciary.”

But while the attacks and the kidnappings have led to a debate about an entrenched problem in the judicial system with no solution in sight, Syrians living in Lebanon continue to wonder who attacked them, where their friends have disappeared to, and even whether it is safe to go grocery shopping in their own neighbourhoods.

Their wait, and the national debate, will inevitably continue.

Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_

Source: Al Jazeera