Syrian prisoners in Lebanon face deportation risk

Syrian refugees preparing to leave their camp in Lebanon for Syria - October 26, 2022 (AFP)

Syrian refugees preparing to leave their camp in Lebanon for Syria - October 26, 2022 (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Abeer al-Ayoubi

Syrians are facing ongoing pressures and threats of deportation from Lebanon, including prisoners who have been the focus of Lebanese statements and measures in recent weeks.

On March 5, the Lebanese Ministry of Interior launched a “roadmap” to regulate the legal status of “displaced” Syrians and the mechanism for their return, exemplified by the meeting that included several ministers, security officials, and judicial officials to discuss the file of Syrian prisoners.

The issue of deporting Syrians has dominated the political and human rights discourse in Lebanon, and the past few days have brought events that brought the Syrian refugee crisis back to the forefront, approaching it both politically and security-wise.

Lebanese news sites reported about an attempt by four Syrian prisoners (including two brothers) to commit suicide in March by hanging themselves with blankets inside the Roumieh central prison, the largest in Lebanon, in protest against the deportation of a prisoner (the brother of the two) to Syria by the Lebanese General Security after serving a ten-year terrorism sentence.

Lebanese-Syrian coordination

The acting Lebanese Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, chaired a meeting on April 23 that included several ministers, security officials, and judicial officials, to discuss the file of Syrian prisoners and convicts.

The meeting concluded with the acting Director General of General Security, Major General Elias al-Baysari, being tasked to communicate with the Syrian authorities to discuss the possibility of them receiving the Syrian detainees.

After the meeting, the Justice Minister, Henri Khoury, according to what was reported by the National News Agency (NNA) of Lebanon, confirmed that the problem of the detainees and convicts can only be solved by communicating with the Syrian state to take them back.

Following the meeting, Mikati called his Syrian counterpart, Hussein Arnous, to inform him of al-Baysari’s assignment, noting that it was not the first contact between them, as reported by the newspaper Al-Akhbar, while the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan published an article titled “Lebanon confirmed that solving the problem of Syrian prisoners is by communicating with Damascus”.

In response to a question about the results achieved by the committee previously tasked with following up on this file, the Lebanese Minister of Justice said that its work has not stopped “but the communication with the Syrian authorities has stopped, and will be resumed through Major General al-Baysari”.

Al-Baysari visited Damascus in April 2023, where he met with several Syrian security officials, aiming to coordinate the file of the return of Syrian displaced persons.

Extortion in the prisoners’ file

The director of Cedar Center for Legal Studies, attorney Mohammad Sablouh, accused the Lebanese government of extortion in the file of Syrian refugees in order to collect money.

Sablouh told Enab Baladi that “prisons in Lebanon, under all the governments that have taken turns ruling, have never been a priority or received attention, even before the economic crisis that is battering the country”.

He clarified that the crisis now is not a crisis of prisons, for the Prime Minister or the Minister of Interior to raise the issue of deporting Syrian prisoners, based on their percentage being 35% of the total prison population, but the point is that the pressure by this issue is what brings in the aid, and naturally, the aid collected does not go to the prisons.

Sablouh lamented the fierce racist campaign some Lebanese parties practice against refugees and the government’s exploitation of this matter in inciting the Lebanese public opinion, considering pushing the hypothesis that refugees are the reason for crises in Lebanon comes to absolve responsibility towards corruption and create enmity between Lebanese and Syrians.

He attributed the reason for this campaign to the donors’ conference in Brussels, noting that Lebanon is promised $400 million, pointing out that he is not against the aid that Lebanon receives, but it must be conditioned to ensure where it ends up, which in reality is not spent on either Lebanese or Syrians or prisoners, according to him.

The campaign is also linked to the visit of the Cypriot President, Nikos Christodoulides, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to Lebanon, on May 2, with a general refugee issue focus, amid talk of a plan with Lebanon granting a billion dollars in exchange for reducing migration to Cyprus.

Sablouh pointed out that Lebanon is pressing the international community by “turning a blind eye” to the illegal boats launching from Lebanese shores towards Cyprus and then to Europe.

Lebanon cites overcrowding

Lebanese Justice Minister Henri Khoury stated that the number of detained Syrians in Lebanon, according to the Ministry of Interior’s statistics, stands at about 2,500. He clarified that if the Syrian authorities agree to take back the convicted among their citizens, there would be no objection to letting them serve their sentences in Syrian prisons.

During a meeting dedicated to discussing the issue of Syrian prisoners, Khoury highlighted that “everyone knows about the situation in Lebanese prisons and the overcrowding they experience, which includes both convicted and detained Syrians awaiting judgment.”

In turn, lawyer Mohammed Sablouh told Enab Baladi that the 35% figure previously mentioned by the Lebanese government is exaggerated, clarifying that the number of Syrian prisoners ranges between 1,700 and 1,800.

Legal violations

Sablouh remarked, “A Syrian prisoner, whose brothers attempted suicide in Roumieh, is just one among many whom the General Security forcibly and arbitrarily deports without meticulously reviewing each case. Among those deported are individuals with criminal penalties and also Syrian opponents or military deserters.”

“We were surprised by the legal violations committed by the Lebanese state, deporting opponents to areas under regime control and the random arrests at checkpoints,” he said, indicating “this deportation sheds light on issues of prisons which mobilizes the international community, as Lebanon is bound by international treaties, including the Convention against Torture, which prohibits deporting anyone to a country where they might face torture under penalty of accountability. Nonetheless, these violations occur.”

“Such violations against those deported do not discriminate between opponents or non-opponents, with the absence of criteria that outline the concept of opposition. We have numerous eyewitness accounts with disappearance and unknown fates of those handed over to the Syrian regime.”

“And in the cases of political prisoners, we strive to legally pursue the prisoner’s case to prevent deportation, and if we fail, we raise the issue in the media.”

Human rights concerns

Recent Lebanese official actions have heightened international organizations’ concerns about handing over these prisoners to the Syrian regime, which coincided with a broad campaign led by Lebanese activists and politicians demanding the deportation of Syrians, alongside a security campaign targeting refugee camps searching for weapons and contraband, resulting in detentions subject to preliminary investigations supervised by the appropriate judiciary.

These governmental plans trigger human rights entities’ fears, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) which, in a report on April 25, claimed that Lebanese authorities have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly returned Syrian refugees in recent months, including opposition activists and military deserters from the Syrian army.

Syrian human rights activist Suhaib Abdo spoke to Enab Baladi about the concerns and fears of activists and organizations defending human rights and involved in the Syrian refugee file.

Operating within “The Lebanese Campaign against Discrimination and Racism,” the activist works to refute Lebanese legal decisions and texts concerning foreign law and international treaties ratified by Lebanon, in order to file a complaint before the State Council (Supreme Court of Lebanon) to halt arbitrary and forced deportations.

Single circulated statistic for Syrian prisoners

“In the absence of transparency from the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and the General Directorate of General Security, and due to the prohibition of local and international organizations from entering prisons and understanding the reality of prisoners, the credibility of the official counts announced by the Lebanese government cannot be ascertained,” stated rights activist Suhaib Abdo.

Abdo explained that according to official statements, “the number of condemned Syrians are 350 out of 2,535 prisoners, making up 31% of the population in Lebanese prisons, and these are the only figures circulated.”

These condemned Syrians are permissible to be deported and handed over under an agreement that Lebanon signed with Syria, while the number of detainees is 1,500, with no judgments issued against them, making it unlawful for Lebanese state to hand them over to Syria, along with 650 precautionary detainees not only in central prisons but scattered across police stations and holding cells, who also cannot be deported.

Among the announced statistics there are 600 prisoners undergoing trial, which can be considered political opponents, given the offenses charged against them related to terrorism. Abdo clarified that “these charges are cause for concern and we can say they are random and speculative, and we rely on defending these specifically on the United Nations Convention against Torture of 1984, which Lebanon has ratified.”

Dreadful conditions in prisons

Many investigative reports and rights studies have spoken of dire conditions in Lebanese prisons, with a deplorable level of healthcare, amid government neglect in paying due bills that threatens food supplies for prisons.

Lawyer Mohammed Sablouh noted that “the prisons are absolutely inhumane, witnessing protests and sit-ins by prisoners over the years due to poor living conditions, food, and health standards.”

Tens of deaths have been recorded due to medical neglect and failure to secure medical costs from the ministries of Interior and Defense, according to Sablouh.

According to a Human Rights Watch report published in August 2023, prisoners’ families complained that the food inside prisons became “insufficient and of such poor quality that it often was unfit for consumption.”

Amnesty International warned in a report published in June 2023 of the doubling number of deaths in Lebanese detention centers and prisons in 2022 compared to 2018 before the economic crisis began.

Arbitrary measures

Regarding the random deportation of Syrians in Lebanon, the Access Center for Human Rights documented in a report published in January 2024, 1,080 cases of arbitrary arrest, and 763 cases of forcible deportation to Syria from the beginning of 2023 until December 30 of the same year.

Syrian authorities committed violations including arbitrary detention and arrest, “in some cases, refugees were subjected to enforced disappearance, torture, and mistreatment, and those eligible for compulsory or reserve military service were forced to join the Syrian army.”

Many Syrians who fled the war face severe human rights abuses and violations upon their return to Syria, according to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on February 13.

The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon, Dalal Harb, called for “respecting the principles of international law, ensuring the protection of refugees in Lebanon from forcible return,” noting that the Commission “seriously follows the reports concerning this.”

The Lebanese government’s plans to deport Syrians rely on Lebanon not signing the 1951 International Refugee Convention, thus granting Syrians the status of “displaced” and not “refugees,” thereby depriving them of their rights including legal protection from deportation.

Statements encouraging violations

Lebanese Minister of Displacement, Issam Sharaf al-Din, categorized Syrians by saying, “There are three categories of Syrian presence: workers, craftsmen and business owners, displaced fleeing civil war and those displaced for economic reasons, and political refugees oppositionists and weapon bearers,” as reported by the Lebanese National News Agency.

He mentioned that “political refugee opponents and weapon bearers have options, either benefiting from presidential pardons and returning to Syria, or being deported to a third country under international norms and agreements, pressing on the obstructers who are donor countries—the United States and Western Europe—and the uncommitted UN Refugee Agency to international norms and treaties regarding the reception of Syrian refugees,” he said.

He added, “lists have been prepared for those wishing to return and handed over to the General Director of Lebanese General Security, and then to the Syrian National Security pending verification of the names and awaiting a response soon.”

Lawyer Mohammed Sablouh told Enab Baladi, “These statements by Lebanese officials perpetuate racism and incite the Lebanese public opinion, creating what resembles encouragement and cover for security forces and the army to arbitrarily deport Syrians and entrench cases of violations against the deported Syrians.”


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