Lebanon: Journey for truth begins for families of the disappeared

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Families hold portraits of their loved ones who disappeared during the Lebanese civil war as part of a protest to pressure the government to release the details of their abductions. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Friday, September 26, 2014

In a press conference held on Thursday, the families of the disappeared revealed that all the investigations carried out by the successive governmental committees only reached the data collection and classification stage. The committee – which was set up to follow-up on the 17,000 people who went missing during the Lebanese civil war – did not carry out any in-depth investigations or reveal any clear information about the disappeared. However, the families will continue to fight for the resumption of the investigations through local courts and international complaints.

On Monday September 21, 2013, lawyer Nizar Saghieh stepped out of the Justice Palace in Saida, accompanied with Najat Hachicho and Wadad Halwani. The court had just ruled in favor of three defendants in the case involving the kidnapping of Mohieddine Hachicho, who was kidnapped 31 years ago, for lack of evidence. According to Saghieh, the only consolation for Hachicho's widow was the possibility of appeal and strategic litigation against the responsible side for withholding evidence.

Almost one year later, on Saturday September 20, 2014, Saghieh received a copy of the dossier related to the official committees set up to investigate the fate of the missing and forcibly disappeared, on behalf of the Committee for the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon and the organization Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE). Saghieh could now keep the promise he made to Najat Hachicho and hundreds of families to continue looking for the truth. The "box" contained ample data and several secrets which could reveal important details, "with what this entails of the required remembrance and disquietude needed to leave behind the values of the war," Saghieh explained.

Saghieh knew that the box, full of files and reports, will be a major turning point, allowing the initiation of strategic litigation. However, during the weekly sit-in by the families of the missing near the government headquarters at the Grand Serail, Saghieh was cautious about announcing details from the case files. He said all options are open for family committees to take necessary measures to put the information to good use, as it will be an important first step to continue the historic struggle to uncover the fate of their loved ones, which began more than three decades ago.

Superficial and fragmented investigations

But, how would the content of the box contribute to their collective right to know? How would the information contained within be used and built upon to continue the search? Saghieh elaborated on the questions by explaining the primary information gathered from the file, regarding the manner in which successive governments had dealt with the question of the missing during the 1975-1990 civil war.

"Reading through the investigation files, it quickly becomes clear that the information therein is fragmented and, in many cases, remains in the form of raw data, regardless of importance. This meant that it was stuck in the primary stages of the investigation process, without being assessed by the successive committees to arrive to the truth," Saghieh explained. He added that the dossier contained a great deal of forms filled by the families of the missing, who provided all the information they knew.

Except for the data collected, the investigations were superficial and fragmented. The efforts made by the committees were limited to classifying the disappeared according to the alleged abduction and the availability of evidence of who could have kidnapped them such as Lebanese militias and groups, the Syrian army or Israeli agencies, and so on.

In the first case, the committee issued a request to all the security forces (General Security, State Security, and Internal Security Forces) to hand in all the information they have. The replies were almost identical; they claimed the information was not available, according to Saghieh. In some rare cases, the security forces relayed some information, which remained on the level of rumors about certain individuals. But it seems the committees were satisfied and did not bother to probe any of the militias or organizations accused by the families in the questionnaires.

In the second case, where the persons were thought to be in Syria, the head of the 2001 committee MP Fouad al-Saad sent a request to [head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon at the time] Brigadier Ghazi Kanaan, which began with the phrase, "regarding the conversation we had… and based on your request," according to Saghieh. However, no answer was contained in the dossier. In Israel's case, the committee sent a request through the International Committee of the Red Cross and received a reply from Israel that some of the people mentioned are indeed detained there.

What about military intelligence? Saghieh maintained to Al-Akhbar that the investigating committees did not request information from the Lebanese army, which raises several questions about the exclusion of a major force on the ground with the largest experience during the civil war in documenting the kidnapping of army soldiers. Furthermore, military intelligence is supposed to have documented information about hundreds of abductions that took place in areas under its control during the civil war, according to the families' lawyer.

In 2000, a fact-finding committee declared that it found several mass graves; some were mentioned and others remained secret. But with the exception of one mass grave, where remains were examined, the report presented to Saghieh did not contain any evidence or the intelligence information on which the committee based its findings. To make matters worse, the discovery of mass graves was not accompanied with quick measures to safeguard the sites and prepare for the identification of remains. The families should also be allowed to mourn their loved loved ones and bury them according to their traditions. Instead, according to Saghieh, the discovery was considered grounds for closing the case.

Saghieh preferred not to point to the exact location of the mass grave. He assured Al-Akhbar that the case will be exposed very soon, but through the Lebanese courts. However, he indicated that more than 60 people were buried in that grave, located in a village in Mount Lebanon. Saghieh also announced that he will be presenting the International Red Cross with a complete copy of the dossier, due to their persistent work in uncovering the fate of the missing and forcibly disappeared in Lebanon.

Call for reparations

After establishing the to access official records, the committees of families are planning to create a DNA database for the victims' parents and establish a national committee for the missing and victims of forced disappearance. However, the families will reserve their right to demand reparations from the state, due to neglect, whose compensations will be earmarked to create the DNA bank. This will be in addition to the employment of all international tools available to expose the policy of neglect by the state, whose conclusive evidence is now available to the families.

Official Inquiry Commission: "Consider them dead"

One of the files contained in the box received by the families is the report of the official inquiry commission, issued on 25 July 2000, under decree number 10/2000 by Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss. The following is the text of the report:

"The Commission based its investigations on information provided in each of the questionnaires. Representatives of the security forces in the Commission conducted intelligence work related to the names of the missing, exploring the circumstances of the kidnapping, disappearance, and responsible sides, case by case and in a calm and clandestine manner. Committee members were keen on utilizing all scientific and technical tools to be able to uncover the facts and determine the fate of the missing.

"The committee conducted field intelligence operations in all Lebanese regions and examined mass graves of unidentified persons. Based on this examination, some samples were extracted from the bones in the graves. According to information regarding the missing, 216 were reported to be detained in Israeli enemy prisons [...] After communicating with the head of ICRC representative Fournier, he indicated that the Israeli authorities admitted to only 17 detainees [who were all freed at a later date]. According to information provided by the families of the missing, 168 were identified, according to the questionnaires, to be in Syria [...] Following a query to the concerned authority, it was confirmed that they were not located in the Syrian Arab Republic.

"Whereby there is a lack of evidence that any of the kidnapped or missing on Lebanese territories are still alive, following confirming the absence of any of the kidnapped being held at any of the parties and organizations active on the Lebanese terrain up to 1990.

"And whereby all armed organizations and militias carried out reciprocal physical elimination during the events; the bodies disposed of in various areas of Beirut, Mount Lebanon, the North, the Bekaa, and the South, some buried in mass graves in the Martyrs Cemetery in Horsh Beirut, Mar Mitr Cemetery in Achrafieh, and al-Ingliz Cemetery in al-Tahwita, others thrown into the sea,

"And whereby forensic doctors and DNA experts were charged with examining the extracted samples,

"And whereby the tests were inconclusive in identifying the bodies due to their nature and old age,

"And based on laws governing disappearances and personal status law of all sects, which concur on considering deceased those who went missing in circumstances dominated by demise and whose bodies had not been found in the past four years at least,

"The committee thus recommends that their families be notified to petition the relevant courts to establish the death by law."

Follow Bassam al-Kantar: http://about.me/bassam.kantar

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