Prisoners of Assad: What Syria's Detainees Are in for

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Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty Images

Lebanese women whose loved ones have been missing since the 1975-1990 civil war, including some believed to be held in Syrian prisons, demonstrate on April 11, 2011 in Beirut.

Joseph Hallit knows all too well what may happen to the scores of Syrians snatched in recent weeks by a regime in Damascus that polices anti-government thoughts as much as actions. The doctor was one of thousands of Lebanese political prisoners locked away in a labyrinth of Syrian jails for their opposition — real or suspected — to Syria's political and military domination of its tiny neighbor, Lebanon.

Hallit completed his medical degree in Damascus and was nabbed from university just after graduating in 1992. He spent four of the eight years he was incarcerated in solitary confinement, languishing in a dark, dank windowless cell just big enough to stand up in, but not to stretch his legs. Still, he says Cell 16 was a refuge from the violent interrogations on the other side of the door. "I changed my perspective so that the opening of the door did not mean release," he says, "the closing of it did."

The 50-year old (who jokes that he is 42 because he doesn't count those eight years as part of his life) was eventually released in 2000 as part of a general amnesty by the new young "reformist" Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who had just inherited the post after the death of his father Hafez. That same president is now trying to crush opponents — real and suspected — as he seeks to survive the most serious threat to his authoritarian regime since he assumed power.

Hallit bears two pale, wide scars, about three centimeters long on the inside of each upper arm, just below his armpits. "They're from the German chair," he says casually, referring to a torture device that suspends a prisoner on the empty metal frame of a chair, placing all of his weight on the upper arms, while stretching his spine to near breaking point. "My flesh was torn so deeply I could see the nerve," the doctor says, referring to the scars.

As Hallit watches the unrest across the border, he fears for Syrians recently rounded up by their government, as well as Lebanese detainees still being held. Damascus denies such Lebanese detainees exist and successive Lebanese governments (both pro- and anti-Syrian) have abandoned efforts to learn the truth. "I know what they will go through," Hallit says. Some may eventually be released, but the fate of others, like so many detainees in Syria, may never be known. Ghazi Aad, co-founder of the Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile, fears an even worse fate for the Lebanese detainees. "I'm afraid they'll just kill them all," he says. "After all, they've never acknowledged their presence there, so why not get rid of them?"

The topic of detainees is perhaps one of the most sensitive between the two neighbors, an issue with a long, tortuous history. Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 as a peacekeeping force, but soon became a party to the bloody civil conflict that raged from 1975 to 1990. Damascus initially sided with Christian parties against leftist, pro-Palestinian groups, but then switched allegiances as the Lebanese state fractured along ever-changing lines. Syrian troops and intelligence officers detained Lebanese with political or military allegiances to anti-Syria groups during and after the war, often with the help of the pro-Syrian authorities in Beirut, human rights groups say. The detainees were from across the country's many religious divides, reflecting Syria's shifting enmity with the country's sectarian groups.

Still, the issue of Lebanese prisoners was taboo until the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, which at the time, was widely blamed on Damascus. Anger over the murder unleashed a torrent of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon that helped propel the Syrian military back across its border. It briefly brought anti-Syrian politicians to power in Beirut.

Aad, the activist, says his organization had 280 detainees on its list before Hariri's murder in February, a figure that jumped to 640 just a month later as families came forward with names. The number is now at 575 (the Syrians released a group in 2009), although Aad says it is much higher. "I know of many cases where families are still visiting detainees in Syria, but they won't say it publicly," he says. "They are afraid to talk about it because they are afraid to lose those visiting rights."

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