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In Syria, Lebanese detainees still languish

Activists hope the new Lebanese government formed Tuesday will aid the prisoners' plight.

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When Ali Abou Dehn was asked to meet a Syrian intelligence officer during a trip to Damascus in 1987, he expected a five-minute chat over coffee.

"That cup of coffee and five minutes of my time cost me 13 years of my life," says Mr. Abou Dehn, a Lebanese Druze.

Accused of spying for Israel, Abou Dehn became one of thousands of Lebanese from all religious backgrounds and political persuasions to disappear into the black hole of Syria's brutal prison system over the past 29 years.

The subject of Lebanese detainees in Syria has long been taboo here, given Syria's domination of Lebanon since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

But that fear is now fading. With Syrian troops close to completing a withdrawal from Lebanon in compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, Lebanese human rights activists are redoubling their efforts to find more than 280 detainees in Syria who remain unaccounted for.

"Times are changing," says Ghazi Aad, the cofounder of the Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE). "Syria acted with impunity in Lebanon and the international community ignored these violations. But the international community's attitude is changing and Syria is being forced to clean up its act."

The formation of a new government in Beirut Tuesday, ending seven weeks of political deadlock, has raised hopes that parliamentary elections can be held as scheduled by May 31. The Lebanese opposition is confident that it will form the majority in the 128-seat parliament, possibly giving a boost to efforts to reveal the fate of the detainees in Syria.


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