Regime, rebel kidnappings become commonplace across Syria

By Nuha Shabaan and Kristen Gillespie

May 28, 2013

AMMAN: Kidnappings carried out by both Syrian regime forces and rebels purportedly under the auspices of the Free Syrian Army appear to be on the rise across the country, based on a weeks-long investigation by Syria Direct.

There seems to be no pattern to the kidnappings; a victim may be targeted for being wealthy, being a journalist, having relatives serving either the regime or the FSA or simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), an independent, non-profit organization that documents war crimes across the country, issued a statement on Monday calling for the release of a member of the Local Council in the northeastern province of A-Raqqa.

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Attorney and A-Raqqa City Local Council Member Abdullah al-Khalil, who was kidnapped on May 19 after being accused of supporting the regime.

An unmarked black car reportedly stopped attorney and council member Abdullah al-Khalil’s vehicle in A-Raqqa City on May 19th. The men in car accused al-Khalil of being an Alawite who supports the regime, the VDC said in its statement. The lawyer denied the accusations, but “the armed men appeared not to believe him and arrested him.”

Jabhat a-Nusra, the Islamist group in charge of the last checkpoint where al-Khalil was seen in the black car, denied arresting al-Khalil, the VDC said, condemning the kidnappers “regardless of who they are.”

Kidnappings have become enough of an issue for President Bashar al-Assad to issue a decree sentencing kidnappers to life in prison or the death penalty depending on the severity of the incident. “Kidnapping for reasons of politics, money, revenge, ransom or sectarianism will result in life imprisonment,” according to the decree, issued in April.

The new law is “meaningless,” said Osama, 21, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Yalda who asked that his last name not be disclosed for safety reasons. The regime is responsible for kidnappings by providing support and weapons to Local Committees, he said.

The committees are armed citizens empowered by the regime, with pro-revolution Syrians maintaining they are unaccountable to any laws and wreak havoc and terror where they operate. Over the course of this investigation, Syria Direct found kidnapping at checkpoints to be a technique used by both rebels and the regime.

The committees are responsible for many kidnappings, said Oruba Qabani, 20, a student who lives in Zabadani, a suburb of Damascus over which both rebels and the regime continue to fight.

Committee members “kidnap people in the streets,” Qabani said. They appear to have no fears of repercussions for their actions, she said.

Regime-sponsored kidnappings “are a way to punish civilians for accepting the FSA in their midst,” said Osama, the activist from Yalda. He said he has documented dozens of cases of kidnapping in the Damascus suburbs.

Abu Omar, 23, a citizen journalist from the town of Rankosi in Outer Damascus province, was hired last month to arrange the filming of an Italian documentary, said he was kidnapped and held for five days “by those who called themselves FSA.” He says he was held on charges of being a spy in the service of foreigners, and was released after being blindfolded and thrown out of a moving car. Abu Omar says he still does not know who was behind the kidnapping.

“Thieves and highway robbers claim to be FSA,” Abu Omar said, adding that “they steal from people and if they come across someone important, they kidnap them and demand a large ransom.”

In the so-called liberated areas of northwest Syria, lawlessness persists to varying degrees to the extent that an association of Islamic scholars issued a fatwa, or Islamic-based ruling, denouncing, among other things, armed robbery and kidnappings.

In Aleppo province, the Aleppo Islamic Scholars Front recently issued a fatwa condemning kidnappings and armed theft by members of the Free Syrian Army.

“Any vigilante kidnapping is forbidden, and anyone disobeying this fatwa is no different from Assad’s gangs and will have proven himself to be neither a real fighter nor a true Muslim,” the fatwa said.