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Detainee release farce reopens Ghouta’s wounds

Rather than healing the country's wounds, Ghouta’s recent experience with Assad’s promise to release detainees suggests a careless disregard for unifying the country.

22 June 2021

AMMAN — After eight years of waiting, Wafiqa al-Shami (a pseudonym) gave up knowing the fate of her disappeared husband, detained by the Bashar al-Assad regime since February 2012. So, at the beginning of this year, she had a death certificate issued for him. 

But on June 5, Wafiqa, a 35-year-old mother who lost one child to the regime’s bombing of the East Ghouta city of Douma in 2017, was among thousands of the city’s residents who gathered to greet detainees released from regime prisons. She hoped her husband would be among those released under the “Loyalty Initiative” launched by Bashar al-Assad. 

During his visit to Douma on May 26 to cast his vote in the presidential elections at the city’s municipal building, Assad promised to release detainees “without blood on their hands.”

Until the morning of June 5, Wafiqa had decided “not to go out to receive the detainees, since I got a death certificate for my husband early this year,” she told Syria Direct. But that morning, “my hopes were roused by the news that came out about the possibility of 10 buses arriving, carrying the city’s released [detainees], and detainees who had been [counted] among the dead before that.” 

Family members and loved ones of Douma’s detainees went through hours of anticipation, “hoping that the detainees would get out of prison, but were shocked by the arrival of a single bus,” Wafiqa said. “May God break their hearts. They broke my heart and the hearts of many women like me.”

Dozens of Syrians welcome the single bus carrying released detainees as it arrives in the city of Douma, 5/6/2021 (Facebook)

Similar to the scenario in Douma, the regime released a limited number of detainees from other East Ghouta towns and cities days ago. 

On June 19, “the regime released 32 detainees, who arrived at Kafr Batna: nine from Saqba, eight from Kafr Batna and a single detainee from Zamalka,” Thaer Hijazi, a human rights activist, told Syria Direct. “The rest are from Bayt Sawa and Jisreen.” Prior to that, the regime released five detainees from the city of Arbin. 

In Douma, the shock of detainees’ relatives reached the point of  women “fainting from losing hope of their loved ones getting out, after only one bus arrived,” according to Hijazi. 

This was repeated in Arbin and Kafr Batna, especially since the total number of detainees released from Ghouta during the latest initiative was no more than 64 out of “more than 6,555 detainees I documented myself during my work with the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, before leaving East Ghouta on the displacement buses,” Hijazi, who currently lives in France, said.

The Douma Municipality, where Bashar al-Assad cast his vote and where family members of detainees in regime prisons gathered, is around 1.5 kilometers from the site of the April 2018 chemical massacre.

Releasing Detainees

With the beginning of presidential elections-related activities last month, prominent regime-aligned figures in Douma—headed by Amer Kheiti, a member of the People’s Assembly (Parliament) and businessman close to Iran—mobilized to prompt the city’s residents to participate in the elections and declare loyalty to Assad. 

They made “promises to the people of the city that their loved ones would get out of the regime’s prisons in exchange for their participation in the elections—showing their allegiance to Bashar al-Assad as well as participating in the vote,” according to Hijazi. 

The regime and its loyalists “are playing on the emotions of detainees’ families since relatives are willing to do anything to get that person out, or even get information about them.” 

In a similar scene to that on voting day in the presidential elections, more than 10,000 people gathered in Douma Square and its streets on June 5, one of the city’s residents told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity for security reasons. They raised “pictures of Bashar al-Assad and also chanted slogans in support of him.” 

While forcing people to demonstrate loyalty to Assad is not unusual in a country like Syria, it was “both strange and painful in a city with a long history of bombing and siege,” Hijazi said. The Douma Municipality, where Bashar al-Assad cast his vote and where family members of detainees in regime prisons gathered, “is around 1.5 kilometers from [the site of] the April 2018 chemical massacre that killed 45 people and injured more than 300.” 

Selling the illusion

On the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution in mid-March, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) issued a report documenting the detention and disappearance of 149,361 people, including 4,924 children and 9,264 women. That includes 131,106 people in Assad regime prisons alone. 

Assad has issued several general amnesty decrees, the latest of which was Legislative Decree No. 13 of 2021, but prisoners of conscience have permanently been excluded

Assad’s policy on the issue of detainees “is a malicious game that he uses constantly,” Hijazi said. “On more than one occasion, he has promised to release detainees. But rather than releasing prisoners of conscience and those involved in demonstrations against him, he releases those arrested on criminal charges.” 

Although this policy has not changed and is known to people, detainees’ relatives can’t help but have their hopes roused with every amnesty decree and declaration on this matter. This is what happened with the wives, mothers and sisters of Douma’s detainees, one of the city’s residents told Syria Direct. They were “longing to meet after years of detention” but “struck by disappointment,” like every time before. 

For Wafiqa a-Shami, the hours of waiting and anticipation earlier this month were equivalent to “years of my husband’s detention,” she said. While she had gotten used to life “without a husband, with the burden of supporting my children,” the feelings of loss “came back, as though it happened yesterday.”

A version of this report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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