In a letter to President Hafez al-Asad, Human Rights Watch demanded an explanation of the circumstances surrounding the death in custody of Adel Khalaf Ajouri, 52.

This case is a dramatic and tragic reminder that there are scores of Lebanese citizens and Palestinians who are known or believed to be imprisoned in Syria following their "disappearances" on Lebanese soil. The families of these individuals have received no official notification from Syrian authorities of the whereabouts of their loved ones. The families also do not know why their relatives are being held and have no information about the legal basis for their continued detention. Letters that Human Rights Watch has written on behalf of some of the families to Your Excellency and other Syrian officials have gone unanswered.

With respect to the case of Adel Khalaf Ajouri, we respectfully request information from Syrian authorities about the date and circumstances of his transfer from Lebanon to Syria and the charges that justified his detention in Syria for over nine years. If Mr. Ajouri was tried and sentenced in a Syrian court, we request information about the exact charges against him and details about the legal proceedings, including any appeals process. In addition, given the unexplained circumstances of Mr. Ajouri's death in custody, we also respectfully request a copy of the official autopsy report and death certificate.

On behalf of the other Lebanese and Palestinians who "disappeared" in Lebanon and may currently be in custody in Syria, Human Rights Watch reiterates the recommendations that we first made to the Syrian government in 1997:

* Make public the names of all non-Syrians—including Lebanese citizens and stateless Palestinians —who are currently detained or imprisoned in Syria.

* In addition to releasing the names, make public the following additional information about each individual:

1. Nationality or place of permanent residence, and date of birth;
2. Date and place of initial arrest, and the name of the security force that took the person into custody;
3. Date of transfer from Lebanon to Syria, and the basis in Syrian or Lebanese law, if any, for such transfer;
4. Name and location of the facility where the person is currently being held in Syria;
5. Whether the person has been permitted to contact his family and lawyer, and the date on which such contact was initially made;
6. Whether the person has been permitted family visits, and the frequency of such visits; and
7. The basis in Syrian or Lebanese law for the continuing detention and imprisonment of each person held in Syria.

* Individuals who are unlawfully detained should be immediately and unconditionally released.

* The Syrian government should instruct its judicial authorities to determine, on a case-by-case basis, if foreign nationals and stateless Palestinians have been subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention in Syria. In cases of arbitrary arrest or detention, authorities should set forth and disseminate widely in Lebanon information about the official legal mechanisms by which victims can exercise their enforceable right to compensation, as provided in Article 9(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a state party.

* To ensure that individuals in the future are not subjected to arbitrary arrest or "disappearance," Syrian authorities should undertake the following measures:

1. Communicate to all Syrian military, intelligence and security forces that "disappearances" will no longer be tolerated, and that commanders who order or condone such actions will be held responsible for these criminal offenses to the fullest extent of the law.

2. Require that at the time of arrest or detention, the arresting authorities identify themselves, and that all individuals take into custody be held only in publicly recognized detention facilities, where accurate registers of detainees and prisoners are maintained and available for public inspection. Such procedures should be instituted at each of the now-secret Syrian detention facilities in Lebanon — alternatively, these centers should be closed.

3. Inform individuals taken into custody of the reasons for arrest, and enable them to challenge the legality of their detention before a judicial authority.

4. Permit individuals taken into custody to inform without delay their relatives and lawyers of their arrest and place of detention.

5. Establish effective procedures for prompt response to inquiries from families, lawyers and nongovernmental organizations about the whereabouts of individuals who have been detained.

Your Excellency, "disappearances" are among the gravest crimes in international law and may constitute crimes against humanity, whether committed in times of war or times of peace. The Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitation to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity makes clear that accountability for crimes against humanity "apply to representatives of the State authority and private individuals who, as principals or accomplices, participate in or who directly incite others" to commit the crimes, or "who conspire to commit them, irrespective of the degree of completion, and to representatives of the State authority who tolerate their commission." We therefore strongly recommend that Syrian authorities fully account for all "disappeared" individuals who may currently be in its custody and release them immediately.

We have enclosed with this letter an Arabic translation of "An Alliance Beyond the Law," our 1997 report that documented "disappearances" of Lebanese citizens and Palestinians in Lebanese territory.

Thank you for your immediate attention to this most grave matter. We look forward to a reply at Your Excellency's earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

/s/

Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

enclosure

cc: His Excellency Farouq al-Shara', Foreign Minister
His Excellency Dr. Muhamed Harva, Minister of Interior
His Excellency Hussein Hassun, Minister of Justice
His Excellency Nasser Qaddur. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs