BEIRUT: Officials in Beirut revealed on Tuesday that 23 Lebanese detainees in Syria were supposed to have been freed from prison last month, as local media reported that the citizens had been freed. Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar told The Daily Star he had received from the Lebanese-Syrian commission for detained persons a list of names of 23 Lebanese who were supposedly set free by Syria. Najjar declined to confirm that the detainees had been released, as he said there was no indication of where the 23 Lebanese might be. An-Nahar newspaper published a report of the potential release on Tuesday.
Ammar Qorabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, told AFP that 16 of the "common law criminals" had been freed by special amnesty while the rest had completed their jail terms.
"Most of the freed prisoners did not complete their sentences but were pardoned," Qorabi said, adding that one of the ex-detainees had been sentenced to death while another was serving a life sentence.
Families of many Lebanese who went missing during the 1975-1990 Civil War have long maintained that their loved ones are being held in Syria. Militias and other states took advantage of Lebanon's turmoil and weak government during the war to take political and civilian prisoners.
Syria occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and maintained an extensive intelligence apparatus in the country that is accused of imprisoning Syrian dissidents.
The problem of missing persons not only includes Lebanese who are thought to be detained, but also thousands of people who disappeared during the Civil War and remain unaccounted for.
Najjar was hopeful that the announcement of the names of the 23 prisoners who were reportedly freed would enhance efforts to learn the fate of others, although he cautioned against too much optimism.
"But let me put it very clearly: The question of the detainees is not the question of the whole disappeared people," he said.
Ghazi Aad, founder of Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE), confirmed that the prisoners were supposedly released last month before the June 9 elections, and said that their possible freedom was kept silent to encourage the release of more prisoners.
SOLIDE is an organization that was created in 1990 to support the families of the detained and disappeared and help lobby for their family members' release.
"For us yes, it's a positive step," Aad told The Daily Star about the announcement from Syria. But he said this should not mean that pressure is reduced for future releases of prisoners.
Aad said there were 107 Lebanese still held in Syrian prisons.
SOLIDE says that about 17,000 Lebanese were either detained or disappeared during the war.
Lebanon's government first publicly acknowledged the detainee issue in July 2005, just after the Syrian pullout from the country.
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005 under international pressure two months after the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri in a Beirut bombing. The attack was widely blamed on Syria, but Damascus has denied involvement.
Last October, Lebanon and Syria agreed to establish formal diplomatic ties for the first time, after years of strained relations.
Lebanese politicians including Phalange Party leader Amin Gemayel and Free Patriotic Movement MP Ibrahim Kanaan welcome the report on the release of prisoners.
"The release of Lebanese detainees in Syrian prisons is a positive step toward enhancing relations with Damascus," Gemayel told Future News on Tuesday.
Gemayel said that Syria should continue working toward the release of the remaining detainees in its prisons and called for resolving all pending issues between Damascus and Beirut.
Names of released prisoners
The names of the released Lebanese detainees are the following:
Abbas Mohammed Abou Hamdan, Massoud Mohammed Hassan, Ismail Jamil Kalash, Ali Mustafa al-Jammal, Nizar Ali Yaghi, Nayef Mohammed al-Abdi, Ismail Attiyeh Gharli, Hani Abdel Rahim Mustafa, Hassan Mohammed al-Hujairi, Mohammed Shehade al-Flayti, Siham Ahmed Murtada, Rashed Mustafa Karnabi, Nadwa Khalif al-Sayyed, Jihad Saleh Yaghi, Hisham Hassan al-Dirani, Mahdi Nour Amoun, Nicola Nakhle al-Tabbal, Mohammed Deeb Youssef, Hassan Youssef Nasser, Mohammed Mahmoud Qanso, Hassan Ali Jaafar, Ibrahim Mohammed al-Haq and Shehade Assad Wehbi. - The Daily Star