BEIRUT: A recent court decision allowing the “right to know” has given hope for answers to the families of those who went missing or were kidnapped during the Civil War.
But they and their lawyers would like to see some concrete steps taken by the government to ensure they get the answers they have been seeking for the past two decades.
A news conference held Wednesday to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the beginning of the 1975-90 Civil War as well as emphasize the importance of the ruling was held at the Journalists’ Union in Verdun.
In the audience, weary elderly wives and mothers held black and white framed photos of young men who have for them remain frozen in time until they get answers on the whereabouts and the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of their loved ones.
Imad was 18 years old in 1982 when he disappeared on his way home from a funeral. Tayseer was 28 in 1982 when he failed to return home from his work as a clothing salesman. There are thousands of similar stories throughout Lebanon.
“The government has recognized the right for the state to provide all the documents for families to get the truth about mass graves and any other information that’s important,” said Nizar Saghieh, executive director of the NGO Legal Agenda who has been representing families of those missing from the war for the past 10 years.
Saghieh was referring to a ruling on March 4 that annuls a previous decision by the Cabinet’s Secretariat denying the families full access to official documents relevant to their loved ones, including those pertaining to mass graves and confessions by former militia members in the cases of Lebanese that went missing during the Civil War. The official estimated number of those missing during the 15-year conflict is 2,200, but some unofficial estimates put the number at around 17,000. Many are believed to be in prison in Syria, while others are likely in mass graves throughout Lebanon.
Last month’s Shura Council decision cited international resolutions, such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s recognition of “the right for families of victims of enforced disappearance ... not to be subjected to torture or ill-treatment given the psychological torture, which relatives of missing people undergo.”
The recent ruling is part of a long and tedious history of legal processes carried out by families of the missing.
The case against the Cabinet’s Secretariat and the state was filed in 2009. In 1995, the government passed a law enabling families to declare anyone missing for more than four years dead, which allowed inheritance and property rights to be settled. In 2000, a report was issued stating that all missing were presumed dead. A year later, it formed a new commission to investigate the cases of Lebanese held in Syrian jails, and in 2005, the government backed a joint Syrian-Lebanese commission to look into prisoners in both countries.
Speaking before the families of the missing, Wadad Halawani, head of the families’ committee, which was formed in 1982 to pressure the government to share information, said that this new development “recognizes the failure of the state to do what is necessary to provide information on the fate of the missing and hidden, which amounts to ‘torture’ and is contrary to the Convention Against Torture adopted by Lebanon in 2000.”
She urged the government “to accelerate as much as possible in the development of the draft agreement with the Red Cross on the collection and preservation of genetic samples to the families of the missing.”
Still, Saghieh, the families’ longtime lawyer is skeptical that the government, which he believes is hiding critical information on the missing, will willingly open files that they have kept closed until now.
“The government has always refused to cooperate with us,” he told The Daily Star. “They’re afraid that talking about the missing will create hatred or start a new war. That’s just a pretext.”
“The mass graves might diminish the legitimacy of leaders,” he added. “Some people in the government are responsible for the disappeared.”