BEIRUT - Joseph Hallit's eight horrifying years in Syrian prisons go a
long way toward explaining why the roundup of people who want Syrian
troops out of Lebanon sent a shudder through many people here.
Although the arrests two weeks ago were supposedly carried out by
Lebanese forces, few doubt that Syria was behind the crackdown.
Damascus has kept thousands of troops in Lebanon since it intervened
to end a bloody civil war in 1976, and its presence still looms over
Lebanese politics. ''I'm shocked'' by the arrests, said a Beirut
activist who asked not to be named. ''I thought all that was over.
Now I don't know what to think.'' Over the past 10 years, hundreds of
Lebanese have been imprisoned by Syrians and by pro-Syrian Lebanese.
Most in Syria have been released by now, but Hana Nasif, assistant
director of a prisoners' support group, said that about 2,500 people,
mostly Christians from southern Lebanon, remain in Lebanese jails on
Yesterday, apparently trying to ease tensions, the Lebanese military
released more than 50 of those who had been rounded up two weeks ago.
But authorities also charged a senior Christian political activist
and a journalist with the crime of contact with Israel, which can be
punished by death. Hallit's experiences also help to explain why a
group of Syrians, some of whom suffered even longer terms for
political ''crimes,'' are now sticking their necks out in Syria
itself, trying to form an independent human-rights organization in a
land where such activity has been unthinkable for decades. Syria does
not comment on allegations of repression, which have been documented
by rights organizations.
Hallit was a new doctor, and a leader of the Lebanese students'
association at the University of Damascus, when Syrian agents came
looking for him in 1992. Hallit was days away from leaving the Middle
East for advanced studies in the United States. Instead, he spent
eight years in Syrian prisons, much of the time in a tiny underground
cubicle where light entered only when guards opened the door to leave
food or lead him to a toilet. What Hallit did, in 1992, was to
express his opinion, privately, to friends, that with Lebanon's long
civil war over, it was time for Syrian troops to leave his country.
Syrian security found him at his favorite coffee shop in Damascus,
and thrust him into a hellhole less notorious than those of South
Africa and the former Soviet Union, but hardly less horrific. First,
Hallit said, came 15 days of torture and interrogation, in which the
new doctor became his own first patient, using a plastic spoon and
crude bandages to repair gouges in his underarms.
''They kept asking me: `Did you know this person? Did you know that
person?''' said Hallit, a solidly built man with a ready smile, a
calm manner, and a steady gaze. ''There were all sorts of
accusations - car theft, drug use, talking with the Lebanese Forces,
talking about the health of Hafez Assad - I didn't know which
accusation was really mine.'' (Talk of the Christian Lebanese Forces
and of President Hafez Assad, who died last year, were taboo in
Syria.) Then came ... nothing.
Without being told of any charge against him, without any trial,
Hallit was confined alone in a three-foot-long, three-foot-wide cell,
without light, except what filtered through a slit in the door. He
was allowed out for one minute, three times a day, to use the
toilet. ''When the door closed, I felt free; when it opened I felt in
prison,'' Hallit said in an interview in the offices of the
Association for Justice and Mercy, a Beirut-based prisoners-support
group. Hallit got very particular about keeping track of time. Every
50 days, he got to take a shower. After 1,600 days, exactly, he got
out of solitary. On Christmas Eve 1997, five years, one month, and 13
days after he was detained, Hallit, a Christian, got a 10-minute
trial, was convicted of ''communicating with the Lebanese Forces,''
and received a 10-year sentence.
But after his years alone in the dark, the notorious Mezzeh political
prison was ''like a five-star hotel,'' Hallit said. ''It was there
that I really became a doctor.'' First with the tolerance of the
guards, then with their assistance, Hallit accumulated a stock of
medicines and equipment, and began treating prisoners who otherwise
would have gone without medical care of any kind. Eventually, he
said, ''I had my own clinic, my own pharmacy, even an
electrocardiograph. The guards came to me'' for treatment. Hallit,
who was released in December, now works for the YMCA, overseeing
distribution of medications to Y-supported dispensaries in Lebanon.
He plans to go to St. Joseph's University in Beirut this autumn, and
to study hospital administration. ''I really wanted to be a doctor,''
he said, ''but now it is too late. I missed so much in eight years,
I'd have to start over.'' Along with the Lebanese, unknown thousands
of Syrians, including human-rights activists, communists, labor
organizers, and critics of the government of the late president, have
had similar experiences.
On a sweltering recent day in Damascus, some of those Syrians who had
been imprisoned gathered to discuss their plan to make sure their
suffering had not been in vain. They were hoping to form an
independent human-rights monitoring group. Stooped by age but
resolute, they met at the law offices of Haitham Maleh, 70, a rights
advocate who was himself imprisoned for seven years. There was Salim
Kheirbek, 53, an aircraft engineer who spent 13 years in confinement;
Riad Turk, a communist party official who was held for 18 years in
isolation; and Faez al-Fawaz, 67, a doctor, who got 15 years. Their
sins: advocating unions, harboring forbidden political sentiments,
criticizing officials, anything that disturbed the political peace.
Unlike Joseph Hallit in Lebanon, these Syrian activists actively
sought confrontation with the dictatorial regime of Hafez Assad, who
was succeeded last year by his son, Bashar. Kheirbek left Syria on a
trip to Western Europe after the 1980 convention of engineers, at
which he spoke up for unionism and civil society; he returned to
Damascus knowing he would be arrested on the spot. ''It is necessary
to defend society from inside, not outside,'' he said.
From 2,000 to 3,000 people remain in prison in Syria on political
charges, said Maleh, a fiery partisan who holds that the United
States is largely responsible for the dominance of undemocratic
governments in the Middle East. He said the nascent rights group,
which also is attracting young doctors and lawyers, does not expect
its application for a permit, required by Syrian law, to be approved.
They expect to be denied, to be put on trial when they persist, and
to use their trial to put Syria on trial. The Syrian activists also
are determined that their long years in jail will not be in
vain. ''This is a sort of tax, a tax for freedom,'' said Maleh, who
says security monitors his phones and mail. ''I am not feeling safe,
but I am going to pay this tax.''