Interview with Marie Daunay
Marie Daunay is President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights – www.solida.org
WSN: Tell me Marie about the center.
MARIE DAUNAY: It is a human rights NGO, founded in Paris in 1996. We focus on three main issues: Arbitrary detention, forced disappearance and we fight impunity of perpetrators of gross human rights violations. We worked from France from 1996 - 2005, during the Syrian and Israeli occupation. The political situation in Lebanon did not allow us to open an office here, but we worked and lobbied international institutions such as the United Nations, the European parliament and the French parliament on behalf of Lebanon. Also, in Canada and the United States we provided information on the human rights sector.
WSN: Did you come to Lebanon during this period?
MD: Yes we did. We came once or twice a year to gather information and to try to find a strategy in order to help the local NGOs that were under heavy pressure by both the Syrian and the Lebanese authorities. For example, we organized tours in Europe for families of the disappeared detainees in Syria and we sponsored many activities. In 2006 we decided to open an office here since the Syrians withdrew.
WSN: Do you know how many people have disappeared and are either now dead or are still being held in Syrian jails?
MD: There are thousands of people. Some talk of about 17,000 but we think this is an exaggeration. When someone disappeared, the family went to file the case at one of the political stations but when the person reappeared the family did not withdraw the case. In some cases the family went to more than one police station so we have the same person recorded as missing three or four times. More likely the number is around 3,000 people. The Lebanese government organized several committees to investigate this matter in 2000, in 2001 and since 2005 there is a Lebanese-Syrian commission. Not all families appealed to these committees because they know that the Lebanese government will not do anything to help them.
WSN: Did these official investigation teams reach any conclusions?
MD: The first commission in 2000 said that they investigated more than 2000 cases to find out the whereabouts of the disappeared, but in the end they said that all of these people are considered to be dead. Once a person has been missing for 4 years, one must go to the municipality and have the missing person declared dead. Less than one month after reaching this conclusion, one person reappeared from Syria. The people asked the officials if they are sure they investigated all cases properly. In December 2000, an additional 50 people returned from Syria. Some have been declared dead. They were all imprisoned in Syria and kept in secret detention places.
WSN: Did this NGO or SOLIDE (Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile) run by Ghazi Aad meet with these people? And why were they jailed in the first place?
MD: Most of them were jailed for political reasons, but also by accident such as when someone had a car accident with a Syrian army truck or accidentally killed a Syrian soldier in a road accident, or if a Syrian soldier was in love with a married Lebanese woman. In order to get rid of a person the person was kidnapped. There are many such cases.
To answer your first question: When some of the people were released we were hoping to get information about others, but all were under pressure.
WSN: Pressured by Syria?
MD: Yes. The Syrians told them not to speak or they’d come back to get them. This is what happened when Syria was in Lebanon.
WSN: Did you have contacts with the Syrian authorities?
MD: In 2002 we organized with the families of the detainees a visit to Syria. We announced it at a press conference. At first there was no answer from the Syrians. We rented a bus to take the families from Beirut to Syria. We did not accompany them knowing that they would accuse us of being politically motivated.
We thought that the bus would be stopped at the border, but the Syrians allowed it through. A Syrian officer waited for them and they met the Syrian minister of the interior. Some of the families were able to visit their relatives once or twice and then the visits were forbidden. All wanted to know what happened with their family members and to see them. These maneuvers are a way of putting pressure on families. When families know that their members are in Syria, they will do whatever the Syrians ask them to do, be it pay money, provide information, be obedient, etc. If we invite them to meetings organized at an international level some will not come, fearing the Syrian pressure.
WSN: Are the Syrians still doing this since the withdrawal?
MD: I heard about a case a few months ago. Someone received a call from a Syrian who said that the person’s family would have good news before the end of the year. Maybe in a few months time this man will go to the family and say that he needs $5,000 to facilitate the release of their son, and the family will pay.
WSN: They are asked to pay?
MD: Yes. Some have sold everything to be able to pay. Sometimes it works well, other times it does not. But families continue to pay hoping it will work.
WSN: Do you work in Lebanon with the UN and the EU?
MD: We work a lot with the UN and its procedures in these cases. For the disappearances it is not a dynamic procedure. It takes time. However, with the arbitrary detention it works well. The working group on arbitrary detention oftentimes helps the families to obtain information from the Syrians and/or permission to visit their loved ones in Syria.
WSN: What about the Lebanese parliament and government? Do they help you?
MD: There is a parliamentary commission on human rights. It is useful because they raise issues like tortures and disappearances, and we are invited to attend the meetings and so we can talk with them and discuss the cases. It is a good opportunity. This has not changed since 2005. The parliament is made up of the same people who not too long ago were close to Syria. Now they speak against Syria. So we thought that maybe now they would ask to have the detainees back. But they did not. This is not a priority for them.
WSN: Any particular reason for this behavior?
MD: Most of them were involved in the disappearances back in the days of the civil war. They sent some of the people to the Syrians.
WSN: Is there hope that this problem will be solved?
MD: The only hope is from the international community.
WSN: From outside then?
MD: Yes, but for that to happen we need stability in the country.
WSN: You also deal with local and national issues.
MD: The justice system is like a jungle. No justice. We are very disappointed that the practice of torture continues in Lebanon.
WSN: And you know this for a fact?
MD: In detention places, in police stations they use torture. They use all means of torture from hanging to electricity and so on.
WSN: What can you do when you hear of such acts?
MD: We go to the media and we are in permanent contact with the authorities. In most cases all the procedures of detention are wrong. They are neither in line with Lebanese law nor with the international law standard Lebanon ratified. We work on these issues. We work with the UN special rapporteur on torture for follow up. Now we are opening a rehabilitation center to provide professional help in terms of doctors, psychologists, etc. for the victims.
WSN: I appreciate your time Marie and good luck!