(Beirut) - Lebanon should open an independent inquiry into the disappearance of three Syrian brothers more than two weeks ago and make the results public, Human Rights Watch said today.
Military Intelligence agents detained at least six Syrians, all members of the Jasem family, on February 23 and 24, 2011, after they distributed flyers calling for protests demanding democratic changes in Syria. One of them, Jasem Mer`i Jasem, disappeared in the early hours of February 25 with two of his brothers who had gone to pick him up from a police station in Ba`abda, a suburb east of Beirut. Their family is concerned that the three might have been forcibly transferred to Syria. The Internal Security Forces told journalists that it had opened an investigation, but to date officials have made no information public nor communicated any information to the men's family.
"We fear that Lebanon may be back to doing Syria's dirty job of shutting up its critics," said Nadim Houry, Beirut office director at Human Rights Watch. "Lebanon's judiciary should open an independent inquiry into why the Syrian men were detained in the first place and the murky events surrounding the disappearance of Jasem Mer`i Jasem and his two brothers."
A relative told Human Rights Watch that Military Intelligence had taken Jasem, a construction worker who has been in Lebanon for five years, from his work place in Hazmieh, east of Beirut, on February 23. That evening, two military intelligence officers in civilian clothes came to Jasem's house and took his computer. During their visit, they allowed Jasem's wife, Thakila, to speak with him briefly on the phone.
Thakila Jasem told Human Rights Watch that her husband's Lebanese employer told her on February 24 that her husband would be released at midnight from the Ba`abda police station. Two of Jasem's brothers, Shabib and Ali, drove to the police station in Jasem's gray Toyota sedan to pick him up. At 12:30 a.m. Thakila called Jasem on his phone to see if he had been released; a man answered saying that they were "finishing his papers" and that her husband would call her back soon.
At around 2 a.m. Thakila Jasem received a call from her husband's number. When she answered an unidentified man told her that "they were taking Jasem to Syria" and threatened her with reprisal if she publicly spoke about the case. She said she was unable to tell whether the man had a Lebanese or Syrian accent. When she tried to call the brothers' cell phones, another man answered, saying they had "willingly" gone with Jasem to Syria.
Jasem's family has not received any information about him or his two brothers since the early morning hours of February 25. The gray Toyota has not been found, and Military Intelligence has not returned Jasem's computer to his family.
Around February 28 - they could not remember exact date - Jasem's family filed a complaint about the disappearance at the Ba`abda police station. On March 2, Thakila Jasem and Jasem's father went to the Defense Ministry, where Military Intelligence regularly detains suspects, to ask about Jasem. They told Human Rights Watch that a clerk told them Jasem and his brothers were detained there. However, it remains unclear whether the clerk confused Jasem and his two brothers with the other Jasem family members who had been detained by Military Intelligence.
"Given Lebanon's painful history of people being detained and illegally transferred to Syria, the disappearance of the three Jasem brothers should concern the highest levels of the Lebanese state," Houry said. "Only a credible and transparent investigation will put to rest fears that Lebanon's security services may have acted outside the law."
On March 4 and March 6, newspaper articles reported that Syrian opposition sources had accused Salah al-Hajj, a Lebanese security official tasked with protecting the Syrian embassy, of "kidnapping" Jasem and his two brothers. A March 6 article in al-Hayat, the pan-Arab daily published in London , cited an unnamed Lebanese security source as saying that a policeman from the Ba`abda police station - where Jasem was held on the evening of February 24 - saw three cars driving around the station the night of Jasem's disappearance and identified one of the passengers as al-Hajj. The Syrian embassy issued a statement on March 6 denying any role in the disappearance of Jasem. Human Rights Watch has been unable to verify these allegations.
The other five men originally detained in February, including Jasem's brother Ahmed, were released after a few hours. But Military Intelligence called them again a day later, ordering them to report back to the Military Intelligence offices in the Museum area of Beirut. Ahmad did not report back, and al-Hayat reported on March 6 that he may also have disappeared. Human Rights Watch has no information on whether Ahmad was forcibly disappeared or went into hiding. The other four relatives did report back and were detained by Military Intelligence, which transferred them on March 8 to Roumieh prison, where they await charges.
"Lebanon Military Intelligence needs to explain why it has detained these Syrian nationals," said Houry. "If it is simply for distributing pamphlets calling for a peaceful demonstration, authorities should immediately release them and discipline the officials who ordered their arrest."