Nadine Elali and Aline Sara
General Security confiscated the passport of Lebanese activist Wissam Tarif at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport on Monday as he was heading to Turkey.
Tarif heads the non-governmental organization Avaaz’s Syria-related activities in Lebanon.
The NGO provides aid and assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon and to Syrian civilians displaced inside their country.
Tarif tells NOW that although General Security claimed that they confiscated his passport because of a technical error with it, he feels the reasons were political. And although his passport was returned the next day, the move raised alarm among many Lebanese activists.
Can you tell us how General Security confiscated your passport?
Tarif: I was leaving to Turkey when General Security confiscated my passport. A General Security memo had ordered the confiscation of my documents, but it didn’t specify which documents exactly.
It was very odd, because I wasn’t banned from leaving the country by any judicial order, which is required by Lebanese law prior to any confiscation of documents.
Why do you believe they returned your passport?
Tarif: The news made it to the media, and many politicians and civil society activists intervened. The message to General Security was clear: Avaaz is an international organization which is welcome in Lebanon, what happened was not acceptable, and General Security should provide a valid explanation of why it happened.
Also, as an organization, we addressed the issue legally, and so we handed the case over to our lawyers, who contacted General Security and so I received my passport the next day.
What did General Security tell you upon returning your passport?
Tarif: I received a call from General Security asking me to go to their office to take back my passport. While I was there with my lawyer, they told me that I had applied to renew my passport and that I didn’t follow the proper procedure and so I should have been notified before the confiscation. But of course none of this is true. I have not applied to renew my passport.
Do you believe the confiscation was a message to you?
Tarif: I personally think it is for political reasons. But regardless of their motives, I am happy that it was resolved. As an organization, our priority is that we continue with our work and efforts in supporting the Syrian people.
Was there any previous harassment? Were you expecting this to happen?
Tarif: We are running a huge program from Lebanon, and so we did expect some security issues because we’ve had prior ones. But we didn’t expect it to come from the Lebanese government. We actually coordinated with the Lebanese government on multiple levels on the Syrian refugee issue. I hope this will be the end of it.
How does the confiscation make you feel about working in Lebanon?
Tarif: I’m a proud Lebanese, and Lebanon has always been known for its freedom. But we have a long way ahead of us to achieve liberty, freedom and civil rights. The confiscation itself has made me more determined, and I believe we’re doing a good job and I want to continue with that. For many people, the act rings alarms; it reminds them of when [slain writer and activist] Samir Kassir’s passport was confiscated, and I understand their fears. But we do need to stay fixed on our goals. This is just a part of our long struggle.
Tell us a bit more about your work in Syria.
Tarif: Avaaz has been involved in Syria since April 2011. I was in Deraa doing research. The numbers of casualties was just too high to be random, so my interest was the chain of command: Are these officers just shooting people, or is Damascus ordering the killing? You document the kind of injuries. I found that over 70 percent of injuries were chest, neck and head, meaning they are given orders to shoot to kill.
At that time, Avaaz got in touch with me, and asked about what was needed—cameras, satellite phones, SAT modems, DSL phones. Avaaz ran a fundraiser and sent the stuff into Syria. Today, we run six programs in Syria, one of which is our humanitarian one—providing basic needs such as food to internally displaced people. We also help refugees with housing in Lebanon, bread, kitchen supplies, etc. in addition to what the NGOs give them. Our mission is to fill the gap.
Would you say Avaaz has been more active in Syria than elsewhere in the region?
Tarif: I think the nature of how things developed in Syria made the program of Avaaz much more known, even though we have been active worldwide. Obviously, we are very proud out of our Syria project because our mission is to fill the gaps, and in Syria, there are lots of gaps. We support citizen journalists with equipment, security training, and connecting them to the media on a daily basis through our media team.
We also research forced disappearances, death tolls. We haven’t issued a number recently because it is a not a simple process.
About your organization: How do you respond to accusations that Avaaz promotes “slactivism?”
Tarif: We have managed to be successful by giving people a voice and joining these voices in a petition, which we deliver to policy makers. For example, no one had thought of the “no oil for fuel” idea to encourage the EU to boycott the Syrian regime, not even the Syrian opposition. The boycott took place and started in the UK.
On Libya, we advocated for military intervention on a humanitarian basis, and it was a community feeling that it was the right thing to do. For Syria, we are asking to increase the number of monitors. We started the campaign directly after the Houla massacre. So we observe what is happening and suggest what should be done to have change.