On September 1, 2022, the MENA Prison Forum was honored to host a conversation with Ali Abou Dehen. Abou Dehen is a Lebanese activist and writer with whom the MPF has been in collaboration since the very beginning in 2018, and whose work the MPF is exceptionally grateful for. Abou Dehen is the President of the Association of Lebanese Political Prisoners in Syrian Prisons and he has written and spoken extensively about experiences in prison, not only his own but those of others who were similarly detained as he was. His work has been relentless in seeking the right to know about the fate and location of Lebanese who were detained in Syria. He has participated in the Lokman Slim and Monika Borgmann documentary TADMOR, as well as in two plays, the German Chair and Untitled, all of which draw on his 13 years as a political prisoner in Syria.
Abou Dehen spoke about the motivations behind his drive to write and speak about his experiences, driving from his dreams in prison of writing his story and the experiences of those he was detained with. When he was released, he wrote the book “Back from Hell: Memories from Tadmor and other Prisons,” which Slim published in 2012. He spoke about the dehumanization experienced in Syrian prisons, and the experience of returning to Lebanon where he did not recognize his children and his mother had passed away. During the emotional talk of the conditions and treatment he experienced, he pointed to the contrast between the public perception of Lebanese who had been imprisoned in Syria versus those who had been imprisoned in Israel. He noted that while both groups were taken from Lebanon by occupying forces at the time, those who were held in Israeli prisons are seen in a more positive light for what they experienced and their experiences are more recognized, while those who were detained in Syria are not as recognized for what they suffered. Participants in the talk expanded upon this, adding that Lebanese who were imprisoned in Syria were accused of being Israeli agents, and were still seen with suspicion upon their return, while Lebanese who were released from Israeli prisons were greeted as national heroes. Those returning from Israeli prisons could also speak about their experiences more openly, while those coming back from Syria felt pressure to keep silent about what they experienced.
Abou Dehen also spoke about the international nature of Syrian prison; the fact that so many different nationalities, identities, and dialects was a big part of his prison experience. He reflected on the identification of the speaking styles of the different prisoners, as well as the prison language that was developed among prisoners. He also spoke about the work of the Association of Lebanese Political Prisoners in Syrian Prisons, and the vital role UMAM D&R has played as a partner to the Association. The Association has over 470 former detainees, most of whom spent between 3-4 years in prison, while the longest period detained was 17 years. They have collected and documented these experiences, and the support provided to one another among the community has been important not only for the survivors but also for the families of and to seek justice for those who disappeared and died in Tadmor and other prisons in Syria.
This allowed Abou Dehen and participants to address what is still needed for the rehabilitation of former prisoners in Lebanon, as the community has many needs still being unmet. They spoke about the need for psychological support, as well as recognition and financial support they are hoping for from the government. There is also a need for medical support and care, for illness and physical problems due to their imprisonment. This points to the fact that there is legal and financial recognition of former prisoners in Israeli prisons, but not for those who were held in Syrian prisons.
Participants in the talk expressed their overwhelming gratitude for the work Abou Dehen is doing, and for his willingness to share his story and experiences. He instead expressed his gratitude for being able to tell his story and to share his experiences and the experiences of others with the support of Lokman Slim, Monika Borgmann, and UMAM D&R. Abou Dehen noted that while in recent years there was an increased willingness to speak and hear about prison experiences in Syria, it was because of his work with UMAM D&R that people knew of these stories and truths beforehand.