BEIRUT, 22 November (IRIN) – "One day the Syrian secret service came to the factory where Koshaia used to work," said Jozef Chehwane, displaying a photo of his cousin. "They asked him to come for five minutes. That was in 1980, but those five minutes have lasted until today." Born in the northern Lebanese city of Batroun, the then 29-year-old Koshaia was a member of the Christian Phalange Party, which was opposed to Syria’s presence in Lebanon.

In 1981, his wife managed to visit him in a jail in Damascus

The faces of hundreds of men, along with some women, who disappeared over the last 30 years stare out from a makeshift wall of photos. Their relatives, meanwhile, say that many of them were at one point held in jails in Syria.

According to human rights watchdogs, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the practice of making political opponents simply vanish is common in several countries, including Colombia, India, Iraq, Syria and – particularly since 9/11 – the United States.

"Persons subjected to ‘disappearance’ stand outside the protection of the law," HRW noted in a 1997 report, while the practice "inflicts severe suffering on them and their families."

New discoveries

"Before the Syrian retreat in April, we knew of about 290 cases," said Ghazi Aad, chairman of the Paris-based NGO Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile, or Solide. "But since people are no longer afraid to talk, that number has grown to 643."

AI confirmed in a 2004 report that "scores of Lebanese" were being held in Syrian jails. HRW, meanwhile, which has documented numerous cases, emphasised in a 2003 report that a number of Syrian and Palestinian nationals had also disappeared.

Both groups say they have been denied official access to Syria since 1997 and 1995, respectively.

Aad pointed to the recent excavation of the bodies of 13 Lebanese soldiers, killed in 1990 when the Syrian army defeated Lebanese troops and took control of the country. They had been buried within the walls of the Defence Ministry in Beirut.

"We call upon the government to open other mass graves, especially the one in Anjar [in the eastern Bekaa Valley], where the headquarters of the Syrian intelligence was based," said Aad.

The bodies discovered are currently undergoing DNA tests to establish their identities.

Aad emphasised, however, that those killed and anonymously buried in Lebanon represented a separate issue from the 643 disappeared registered by Solide.

He estimates that, during October of 1990, some 150 people – most of them soldiers – were taken to Syria as political prisoners.

According to Sonia Eid, a Lebanese mother, her son, Jihad, was amongst them.

"In 1991, I briefly saw him and 20 others appear before a Syrian tribunal," she recalled, adding that this had proved to be the last time she had seen him.

Albert Cherfane and Suleiman Abu Khalil, both priests, also disappeared in October 1990. Several former Lebanese and Syrian prisoners, however, claim to have seen the two in Syrian prisons.

"When the Syrian soldiers came, they not only arrested soldiers, but also my uncle," Cherfane’s niece, Therese, remembers.

Most Lebanese disappeared during the civil war, but not all; one Lebanese woman, Marie Mansurati, told IRIN that her son Daniel had been arrested during a visit to his uncle in Damascus in 1992.

Daniel never resurfaced, said Mansurati, and Syrian authorities consistently deny that Daniel, who was an active member of an anti-Syrian Christian party, is even in the country.

Intimidation tactic

The UN defines "forced disappearances" as "persons arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials or different branches or levels of government, or by groups or individuals acting on their behalf." This is generally followed by "a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned."

According to Marie Daunay, president of Solida the Paris-based Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily (Solida), appearances are not so much to silence the detainee, but to intimidate his or her family.

"If friends or family dare to talk," she said, "the one who disappeared could be harmed."

Mahasin Abdo’s son, for example, was arrested at a Syrian checkpoint near the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in 1985. While he himself wasn’t politically active, his older brother was.

"We never dared to talk after that, as Tripoli was controlled by the Syrian Mukhabarat [secret service]," Abdo recalled. "But now that the Syrian occupation is over, we want our son back."

According to Daunay, people from all walks of life and from all parts of the country have disappeared. These have included Christians, Palestinians and members of Sunni fundamentalist groups.

Denials and counteraccusations

In the past, the Syrian-controlled Lebanese government also denied the existence of Lebanese prisoners in Syria. In 1995, it even issued a law declaring anyone who disappeared during the Civil War as officially dead.

An estimated 17,000 people went missing over the course of the ruinous, 15-year-long conflict.

In 1998, however, Syria released 121 Lebanese prisoners, some of whom had been known to AI and Solide. Again, in 2001, the Lebanese leaders of the Sunni Tawfid Party, held, were released along with 46 others.

Since then, Damascus has admitted the existence of at least some Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails.

Syrian Prime Minister Najj Otari, in a June interview with Spanish daily El Pais, defended the detentions.

"Those detained all fought on the Israeli side [of the war], and killed Syrian soldiers," he was quoted as saying. "Of course we punished them – just like terrorists in Spain or any other countries are punished."

The Syrian government, meanwhile, has also claimed that 795 Syrians have disappeared in Lebanon.

In May 2005, then Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati first raised the issue with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Shortly after, a joint Lebanese-Syrian commission was established to probe the matter.

Solide’s Aad, however, has criticized the commission, calling it "a waste of time."

"The Syrian claim [regarding disappeared in Lebanon] is nonsense anyway," he added. "It just serves to slow things down."

Treatment in prison

Some of those lucky enough to have been released from Syrian prisons speak of human rights violations, including torture.

Raymond Boubane, for example, was among a group of prisoners released by Damascus in 1998. He had originally been arrested in 1986, when he was first taken to the infamous "Hotel Beau Rivage" in west Beirut, which at the time served as Mukhabarat headquarters.

"The Syrians accused me of firing a rocket at the Beau Rivage on July 7, even though I was in Germany at the time," he recounted.

Boubane was beaten severely, but refused to confess. He was then taken to the so called "Onion Factory," a former vegetable storage room near Anjar in the Bekaa Valley.

After being beaten again, his interrogators threatened to arrest his father, which compelled Boubane to sign a confession.

Hussein Jabr, from Tyre, in south Lebanon, remembered, "In Anjar, they beat you so badly that, after a few days, you sign anything they want." He had been arrested by Syrian authorities in 1987 for allegedly collaborating with Israel.

HRW has confirmed the widespread use of torture in Syrian detention facilities, both in Lebanon and Syria. In a 2005 report, the organization noted, "Syria has a long-established record of torture."

No one from the Syrian government was immediately available to comment on the issue.

Boubane said that he had met several other Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails, but noted grimly that many had died over the years, due to often inhumane conditions.

"When they are dead, tell us," pleaded Abdo, who still hopes to see her son someday. "But don’t let us suffer, not knowing their fate."