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Deportation of anti-regime Syrians creates political storm

Syrians cross into Lebanon through the Syrian-Lebanese border checkpoint in the eastern village of Masharih al-Qaa, Lebanon, Thursday, March 22, 2012. (The Daily Star/Nidal Solh)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s deportation of 14 Syrians, including anti-regime activists, to Damascus drew wide condemnation Thursday from the opposition March 14 coalition as well as from the U.S. and the EU.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt demanded the dismissal of the chief of General Security for taking the decision. The Syrians’ expulsion also sparked a heated debate during a Cabinet session, with Jumblatt’s three ministers denouncing the decision and demanding a clarification of the circumstances that led General Security to hand them over to Syrian authorities.

Reaction to the deportation reflects the wide schism between the March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc over the 17-month uprising in Syria. The March 14 coalition strongly supports the rebels who seek to topple President Bashar Assad, while Hezbollah and its March 8 allies back the Syrian regime.

Speaking to reporters after the Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said: “Our information indicated that the number of Syrians handed over by General Security to Damascus was one. Later, we learned that the number has risen to 14 people.”

He added that he and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi and Minister for the Displaced Alaaeddine Terro discussed the matter with Mikati.

Abu Faour said that neither President Michel Sleiman, nor Interior Minister Marwan Charbel was aware of the decision to deport the Syrians.

But this was disputed by Charbel while Abu Faour was speaking to reporters. “I challenge that any [security] apparatus under my command does anything of which I am not aware.”

Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, who belongs to Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc, defended the General Security’s decision, saying the deported Syrians were sentenced on various crimes that were not politically motivated.

Responding to Jumblatt’s ministers who defended the Syrian activists, Hezbollah’s Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish said: “If some had questions, we also have questions about the wounded that are being treated in Lebanese hospitals. Most of them are fighters against the Syrian regime who were wounded in battles.”

A Human Rights Watch representative told AFP that the 14 men were deported Wednesday, despite the fact that four of them had asked not to be expelled for fear of persecution if handed over to Syrian authorities.

General Security said in a statement that the expulsion of the Syrians was not politically motivated. It said the Syrians had committed violations and criminal acts, including thefts, attacking the house of an army officer, insulting the military establishment and the use of forged documents.

“Therefore, the decision to deport the 14 Syrians was based on criminal acts and violations committed during their stay in Lebanon,” General Security said. “Any decision to deport Syrian, Arab or foreign nationals is a decision based on judicial and security cases in line with the standards set forth in regional and international agreements and treaties.

“Exempted from this are those where evidence shows their lives might be in danger in their country if they were deported,” it added. “This procedure has been used with Syrian nationals since the beginning of the painful events in [Syria].”

But Jumblatt, a harsh critic of Assad, demanded the dismissal of Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, chief of General Security, accusing him of carrying out Damascus’ orders.

“We call on the Lebanese government and the relevant authorities to clarify all the circumstances relating to this issue and to launch a probe to determine responsibility and take disciplinary measures against the director general of General Security, leading to his sacking, if need be, in order to stop this ongoing farce,” Jumblatt said in a statement. He said that four political activists are among the deported.

“Here the director general of General Security is giving a new proof of his total submission to the Syrian regime,” Jumblatt said. “After his [Ibrahim’s] police adventures with the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, which threatened to ignite Tripoli and the north and plunge the region into massive strife, he hands over 14 Syrian citizens who sought refuge in Lebanon to escape the repression of the [Syrian] regime – including four political activists – under the pretext that they are wanted by the Syrian judiciary.”

Jumblatt said he opposed the handover of any Syrian citizen who sought refuge in Lebanon “under any pretext or for any reason.”

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, condemned the deportation of the Syrians, saying the move was contrary to the Human Rights Charter.

“The handover of 14 Syrian nationals to the Syrian regime is an act condemned together by heart and conscience. It is not possible to hand over 14 activists to a regime that is killing its own people no matter what reasons General Security uses as an excuse to deport these people,” Siniora said in a statement.

The Lebanese Forces expressed surprise over the deportation of the Syrians, saying the move showed “a complete bias” to the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly said her country was deeply disturbed by the deportation of the 14 Syrians, according to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy.

Connelly also “stressed the importance of protecting all Syrians, including dissenters and deserters, who have rejected violence, in keeping with Lebanon’s international humanitarian obligations,” the statement said.

Connelly’s remarks came during a meeting with Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, at his residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut, with whom she discussed the political and security situation in Lebanon and developments in Syria.

“She praised the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces for their efforts to maintain calm in Lebanon, and supported the government’s decision to increase the Army’s presence along the border,” the statement said.

EU Ambassador to Lebanon Angelina Eichorst expressed concern over the deportation of the Syrians. Asked to comment on the Syrians’ deportation, Eichorst told the state-run National News Agency: “Lebanon has endorsed the U.N. Agreement to fight torture and it must respect its international obligations. It must not deport people who might be exposed to torture or mistreatment.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 03, 2012, on page 1.

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