The Syrian ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, recently said all Lebanese political prisoners in Syrian jails will be released. It was a surprising announcement: since December of 2000 both Syria and the Syrian-backed Lebanese government have denied there are any Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails. The ambassador's announcement gave renewed hope to hundreds of Lebanese families who have tried for as long as 15 years to secure the release of their loved ones.
The last time Sonia Eid saw her son was 14 years ago.
"He was born in 1970, he is 35 years old now," she says.
Jihad Eid was captured October 13, 1990 as Syrian troops overcame Christian militia forces in East Beirut. Eventually he would end up in Syria's notorious Mazzeh prison. After bribing the right Syrian and Lebanese officials, Sonia says, she was allowed a glimpse of her son as he was being led into interrogation, hands bound, along with several other prisoners -- all stripped to their underwear.
"He was the seventh in line, and I almost fainted when I saw him. I couldn't do anything and they were being kicked and shoved by the guards," says Ms. Eid.
No one knows exactly how many Lebanese political prisoners are in Syrian jails. Syria and Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud have denied there are any. They claim all political prisoners were released in December of 2000. Those who dared to inquire about prisoners were often threatened.
"This is our group, SOLIDE, Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile," says Ghazi Aad. He has been working with the families of detainees for 15 years. He says his organization has files on 176 known detainees in Syrian prisons -- and there could be more.
"There are people from everywhere -- all political parties, from all confessional groups in Lebanon, Druse, Shia, Sunni, Christians Maronites, Christian orthodox people from everywhere in Lebanon," says Mr. Aad.
When asked why Syria would hold political prisoners for so long, Mr. Aad said the Syrian government is a Baathist regime -- just like the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
"The point is to spread the atmosphere of fear. Make the Lebanese live in fear all the time and forcing them into submission. Submission to the Syrian control of Lebanon," says Mr. Aad.
That control is weakening. The last protest held by the families of detainees was broken up by water canons and riot police. But on this night, families have gathered in Martyr's Square in Beirut for a piano concert. They are hopeful about the new political climate in Lebanon. And they have been pressing the international community to demand the release of Lebanese prisoners as well as a total Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.