Lebanese government releases information about the disappeared

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Families of those who disappeared during the Lebanese civil war protest in Downtown Beirut over the right to know what happened to their loved ones. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Hadeel Farfour

Published Monday, September 22, 2014

The Lebanese government yielded on Saturday, September 21, to pressure from activists and families of the disappeared to reveal their fate. The government handed over a box that contains investigations conducted by a ministerial committee in 2000 over to their attorney, Nizar Saghieh, after they had resisted doing so for a long time under the pretext of turning over a new leaf and not disturbing the ghosts of [the civil] war.

After a long and grueling wait, families will be able to examine documents that are supposed to detail how their loved ones disappeared and to tell them some abridged or incomplete stories about “pardoned” crimes of kidnapping, killing and torture. The file will inform them of political leaders who decided to pardon themselves because they never knew about their loss, because they used other people to kill for them and then went on to exercise their authority over those left alive.

The box of files, akin to Pandora’s box with its own demons, was handed over to Saghieh, the lawyer for the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared and the organization Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE), on Saturday on behalf of the families of those missing, kidnapped and forcibly disappeared. This step required an arduous struggle and the suffering of mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters who begged for the information, just to know what happened to the thousands of people who “disappeared” during this never-ending cycle of madness.

Lawyers and specialists will examine the content of what was handed over to decide their next step. Their expectations, however, are very modest, or at least that is what MP Ghassan Moukheiber suggested when he told Al-Akhbar that the information contained in the file is only partial and incomplete. Naturally, no one expected the Lebanese political authorities to carry out their duty and fulfill their obligations. The purpose of the committees they formed to investigate the fate of the disappeared was never to find out the truth in order to complete the process of reconciliation. Rather it was to appease the families and waste time hoping that as more time passes, they will forget.

Enshrining the right to know

Handing over the files dealing with the investigation prepared by the Official Committee of Inquiry to Investigate the Fate of Kidnapped and Missing Persons in Lebanon is considered an important step on a path that successive political forces sought to block. However, presenting it as an “achievement” does not conform with the idea of a state’s duties and responsibilities. A mere formality required tremendous pressure from the street, the courts and political will although the state has a duty to respect its citizens, address their problems and maintain the credibility of its constitutional institutions. Everything that happened in the past violates the rights of the families of the disappeared to get a conclusive answer that calms the fire burning inside them for more than 30 years.

“This is a rare example of the state pledging to do something and actually fulfilling its pledge.” That is how head of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, Wadad Halwani, commented on handing over the file. Although she does not see the step as a “victory,” she acknowledges that “it is a fundamental step to reclaim and enshrine the right to know.

Halawani did not hide her joy as she hugged the box that “contains information about my loved ones.” She pointed out, however, that they need to take their time and not make any announcements before studying and discussing the file “because it is a sensitive and delicate issue that requires one to deal with it carefully and cautiously.”

“As to the question: how will we react to the report? We will renew our demand to adopt the mechanisms embodied in a draft bill submitted to the parliament aimed at resolving the issue of missing persons and those forcibly disappeared and a proposal in the cabinet to draft an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to collect and preserve genetic samples from the families of the disappeared.” That is why Halawani stressed that protests by the families of the disappeared in front of the cabinet will go on next Thursday to follow up on the issue in order to resolve it. We will hold a press conference during the protest in which the families of the disappeared will announce their position regarding the handing over of the box and its content. Halawani argues that just as the families of the disappeared have the right to know the fate of their loved ones, public opinion has the right to know the content of the file. After all, “it is the result of efforts by the Lebanese state over 24 years,” said Saghieh.

Saghieh, who received the box of files from the government, stressed the need to study the content of the file before commenting on it.

It is important to note that Halawani was informed by the head of the prime minister’s office, Mirvat Itani, that she does not have the power to receive anyone other than the lawyer to hand over the file.

The decision to hand over the report announced by Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam represents a turning point in the way the cabinet dealt with the decision issued by the State Shura Council which enshrined for the first time the right to have access to information in general and the right of the families of the disappeared to know the fate of their loved ones. This ruling overturned a previous cabinet decision not to hand over the investigation conducted by the Official Committee of Inquiry to Investigate the Fate of Kidnapped and Missing Persons to the families of the disappeared. The council reached the decision by having established a new basic right, namely, the right of the families of the disappeared, on the grounds that this is a natural right that stems from the rights of a human being to life, a dignified life and proper burial and the right of the family in terms of respecting familial foundations and allowing family reunification and the right of the child to family care, emotional support and a stable life. These are rights enshrined in international laws and conventions that Lebanon ratified.

Partial information

MP Ghassan Moukheiber points out that the decision to hand over the file should not be taken for granted. It was preceded by a serious effort by the government not to hand it over. On May 6, 2014, the department of cases in the Ministry of Justice filed a request with the State Shura Council for a retrial in its binding decision to hand over the file to the families of the disappeared accompanied with a request to freeze the decision under the pretext that implementing it jeopardizes civil peace. The Council, however, declined the request and reiterated its decision to hand over the file. The parliamentarian underscored the hard work that led to the decision.

Moukheiber argues that this decision is tantamount to an obligation that the state was late in carrying out, that it is binding for the government because it was issued by the State Shura Council. He welcomed the decision to hand over the file because it reinforces a basic right, namely, the right to know. He stressed, however, that “the objective is not to get the file. Getting the file is a means to achieve our coveted goal,” namely resolve the issue of the kidnapped and the disappeared.

Although Moukheiber said he has not examined the file in detail, he stressed that the information included is partial and inadequate. The report includes the work done by the first committee established in 2000 “and its work is incomplete,” said Moukheiber. He pointed out that “the file for instance does not include information about the disappeared and kidnapped in Syrian prisons.”

He added: “The relevant bodies did not work in a professional and complete manner, therefore we need independent institutions with powers that enable them to carry out such a task.” That is why Moukheiber stressed the need to adopt the proposed draft law to establish a national public body to resolve the issue of the disappeared. He pointed out the need to complete these steps in order to achieve the hoped-for goal, namely, a comprehensive solution to the problem. The fact that handing over the file, which was only a means to an end, required a battle, “proves that the issue is very sensitive to some politicians.”

Successive Lebanese governments pledged at the highest levels to look into the issue of the disappeared and to provide answers and support for their families. Three different committees were established to address this issue. The first one was the Official Committee of Inquiry to Investigate the Fate of Kidnapped and Missing Persons established in January 2000. The second committee was established through a ministerial decree in 2001 to receive complaints from the families of the disappeared. Its mission was extended twice and ended in February 2002. The third one was the Lebanese-Syrian Joint Committee established in August 2005. It still exists today even though it has not convened any meetings since July 2010.

According to a study prepared by the ICRC, 77 percent of the families of the disappeared believe that their loved ones are still alive or at least they are not sure about their fate. Although they realize that the odds of having been killed are high, nevertheless, they have not stopped hoping to see them alive.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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