ALEY, Lebanon – A former Syrian vice president who became one of the country's most prominent dissidents was kidnapped in Lebanon five months ago while visiting his daughter and is believed to be secretly imprisoned by the Syrian regime as it tries to crush a 7-month-old uprising, his daughter and Lebanese police said.
The abduction of Shibli al-Aisamy, an 88-year-old who holds permanent U.S. residency, has raised alarm among some in Lebanon that members of the country's security forces are helping Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in its crackdown on anti-government protesters, effectively extending it into Lebanon to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for the Syrian opposition.
"The kidnapping is very surprising," al-Aisamy's daughter, Rajaa Sharafeddine, told The Associated Press this week while choking back tears. Sharafeddine, who is in her 50s and married to a Lebanese, decided to speak to the media out of concern that her elderly father's health is deteriorating. She said details of the case are only coming to light now because police briefed her and parliament's Human Rights Committee on the investigation last week.
Syria had direct control over Lebanon for nearly 30 years before pulling out its troops in 2005 under local and international pressure. But Syria still has great influence, and pro-Syrian factions led by the militant group Hezbollah dominate the government in Beirut. At the same time, Syria's regime is becoming increasingly more isolated internationally.
The case illuminates the long arm of Syria's pervasive security services, which are the backbone of the regime and the driving force behind the culture of fear and paranoia in Syria.
It also highlights the lingering ties that bind Syria and Lebanon.
Lebanese security forces and the Syrian embassy in Beirut are suspected of being involved in the abduction, working at the behest of Syrian authorities, according to Lebanese officials, including anti-Syrian lawmaker Sami Gemayel and police investigators.
Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, denied the embassy was involved.
The kidnapping is one of at least two recent cases in which Lebanese security forces are suspected of handing over Syrian dissidents to authorities in Damascus.
There also have been reports of Syrian troops crossing into Lebanon to pursue dissidents. Last month, the Lebanese army said in a statement that Syrian troops briefly crossed the border and opened fire at people trying to flee the violence in Syria.
More than 5,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the crisis began.
Gemayel, a member of parliament's Human Rights Committee, said police confirmed to the panel last week that Lebanese forces have abducted dissidents on behalf of the Syrian regime.
"Lebanese security officers working at the Syrian embassy kidnapped Syrian citizens while using police cars," Gemayel said. "There should be no diplomatic immunity when a crime is committed on Lebanese territories."
Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut urged Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn to protect Syrian dissidents in Lebanon.
"Ambassador (Maura) Connelly emphasized the importance the United States places on the Lebanese Armed Forces' role in protecting members of the Syrian opposition residing in Lebanon," the statement said.
Lebanon's police chief Gen. Ashraf Rifi told the Human Rights Committee last week that the investigation indicates that al-Aisamy's case is identical to that of four Syrian brothers abducted on Lebanese soil in February.
The Jassem brothers, accused of distributing anti-Assad leaflets in Beirut, were kidnapped by Lebanese police working at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut, Rifi said in remarks carried by local media. The men are still missing.
Sharafeddine attended the committee's meeting and confirmed that Rifi said the case was identical to the Jassems' case.
Sharafeddine said her father's history made him a target.
She said he quit politics in 1992 and eventually got a green card, making him a legal United States resident. He has lived in Fairfax, Virginia, since 2009, she said.
A prominent dissident over the years, al-Aisamy was a founder of the ruling Baath party and served as a vice president to Amin al-Hafez for three years until radical Baathists overthrew them in 1966.
His decades in Iraq solidified his position as a strong opponent of the Syrian regime. Al-Aisamy held senior posts in the Baath party in Iraq, which was a key rival to the branch of the party that still rules Syria.
He left Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein and moved to Egypt, where he stayed with his son. In 2009 they moved to the United States.
In the hour or so after al-Aisamy went missing, Sharafeddine assumed he was hurt or lost. She called the police, who combed the area. But three witnesses soon came forward with chilling details, she said.
One of the witnesses told authorities he saw al-Aisamy being bundled into a black SUV, Sharafeddine said. The others told the family and authorities that they spotted three black SUVs with dark windshields driving through the area around the time of the kidnapping — an unusual occurrence on a narrow mountain road that sees little traffic.
Sharafeddine said the abduction was all the more heartbreaking because her father was careful to avoid running into Syrian agents over the years. He never visited his daughter in Lebanon when the Syrians were in control, but he started coming every year since 2009.
That year, the Syrian ambassador to Washington suggested that al-Aisamy return to Syria, but asked him to write "a letter of compassion" to authorities in Damascus as a peace offering, Sharafeddine said.
Her father refused to write the letter.