One year on, activists demand answers in Razan Zaitouneh disappearance

December 9, 2014

By Dan Wilkofsky

AMMAN: Tuesday marked the first anniversary of the disappearance of internationally recognized human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and three of her colleagues, and while no new information has been released about their fate, local activists are holding out hope that the Douma 4 remain alive.

“Whoever kidnapped her does not want to harm her, but rather move her away from [center] stage,” a friend of Zaitouneh's and fellow activist living in the Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta, who wished to remain anonymous, told Syria Direct Tuesday.

“I think that she's outside of Ghouta,” the friend said of Zaitouneh, the founder of one of Syria’s most prominent civil society organizations, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC).

While the friend’s account could not be verified, other activists and local news organizations from Douma say off-the-record―fearing repercussions from local rebel groups―that they believe Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Zaitouneh’s husband Nazem Hamadi are still alive.

Unknown gunmen showed up at the VDC’s Douma office on December 9, 2013 at 10:40pm, and no trace of the four activists has been seen or heard since.

RazanCampaign22 Tahrir Souri ran this graphic on Tuesday reminding readers of the Douma 4. Photo courtesy of Tahrir Souri.

Fellow activist Bassam al-Ahmad, who is now the point of contact for the VDC, posteda call to action on Facebook Tuesday asking people to contact the leader of Jaish al-Islam, the most powerful rebel group in Douma.

“Please send a tweet… to Zahran Aloush, head of Jaish al-Islam, one of the most influential armed opposition groups in Douma, to ask about the steps that his group has taken to ensure the safe release of Razan and her colleagues,” al-Ahmad wrote.

Aloush has repeatedly denied responsibility for Zaitouneh’s kidnapping on the grounds that Jaish al-Islam (JAI) “fights on the fronts” and does not have a presence in the city of Douma proper.

The East Ghouta suburb, however, is JAI’s stronghold.

“Many Qs for @Zahran1970 today,” tweeted Kristyan Benedict, the UK campaigns manager for Amnesty International on Tuesday, referring to the Twitter account of Zahran Aloush. “What's he doing to free the Douma4?”

Also on Tuesday, a coalition of 57 human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,requested that rebel groups in the area—mentioning Jaish al-Islam by name—“immediately release the four human rights defenders if they are in the groups' custody, or work toward ensuring they are released unharmed and without delay.”

A Jaish al-Islam spokesman told Syria Direct Tuesday said that the brigade is working towards securing Zaitouneh's freedom.

“The committee responsible for finding Zaitouneh… composed of all brigades in East Ghouta, the head of which is Jaish al-Islam, has started to make progress on this issue,” said Ghazwan al-Hakeem, speaking on behalf of JAI leader Zahran Aloush.

Zaitouneh’s capture “was connected with external parties,” al-Hakeem said, without elaborating further.

Al-Hakeem’s phrasing is nearly identical to language Zahran Aloush used in August when asked about the Douma 4, as they are known on social media. “The issue is connected with some external parties.”

In the same press conference, Aloush expressed disbelief that activists were focused on Zaitouneh's disappearance while “hundreds of thousands of Muslim girls” are being held in regime prisons.

“Razan is not the only captured woman,” he said at the time.

Zaitouneh herself understood the growing risk of her work in Syria, but said in interviews that she had no intention of letting up and would never leave the country.

As activists across Syria were targeted not only by the regime but rebel groups, Zaitouneh used her formidable writing skills to argue her case for the revolution.

In her absence, the Violations Documentation Center is one of the few bodies to still record casualty counts in Syria.

Zaitouneh has won numerous awards for her work, including the Sakharov Prize in 2011, which the European Parliament grants to distinguished human rights activists (Nelson Mandela won the first prize in 1988).

Zaitouneh was also honored as a Young Global Leader at the March 2014 World Economic Forum.

The lawyer struck a cautiously optimistic tone with regards to her safety amidst increasing threats in a September 2013 interview, just two months before her kidnapping, with NOW Media's Doha Hassan.

“I feel a ‘symbolic’ strength, which may not be able to withstand physical threats but is able to face all kinds of setbacks and provide whole cities with the energy needed to go on until the last stand.”

A Syria Direct reporter from Douma contributed to this article, but wishes to remain unnamed.

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