Three Syrian brothers have been missing for two weeks after handing out pamphlets in Beirut urging demonstrations for democratic change in Syria, an international human rights group said Thursday, calling on Lebanon to investigate.
The men's family said they disappeared early on Feb. 25 after they distributed fliers in the Lebanese capital calling for change back home, where the regime of President Bashar Assad closely controls the media and routinely jails critics of the regime.
The family told Human Rights Watch they are concerned the men might have been forcibly transferred to Syria.
"We fear that Lebanon may be back to doing Syria's dirty job of shutting up its critics," said Nadim Houry, Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. "Lebanon's judiciary should open an independent inquiry into why the Syrian men were detained in the first place, and the murky events surrounding the disappearance of Jasem Mer'i Jasem and his two brothers."
He urged Lebanon to investigate the disappearance and make the results public.
Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has been spared the wave of uprisings sweeping the Middle East. An online attempt to rally protests in February fell flat because of a host of factors, including intimidation by security agents.
Assad, a 45-year-old British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father, Hafez, in 2000, after three decades of authoritarian rule. He has since moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, throwing the doors open to imports and empowering the private sector.
Although he keeps a tight lid on any form of political dissent, he is seen by many Arabs as one of the few leaders in the region willing to stand up to Israel.
His backing for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups opposed to the Jewish state, as well as his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, appears to have helped him maintain a level of popular support.