September 16, 2014
Introduction and interview by Kristen Gillespie.
Syria is one of the places in the world where people still disappear off the streets. It has been that way for decades. A car pulls up, men in civilian clothes grab someone without a word, throw him in the car and speed off. I’ve seen it myself on more than one occasion, most notably in Damascus just days after arriving as a student in 1999.
A man whom I had seen around the neighborhood accosted me in the street. Within seconds, at least three men in civilian clothes were on the scene and started beating him. We all went to the nearest police station and were brought into the office of, ostensibly, the chief, also in civilian clothes. He heard the story, said to the agents holding the bloodied prisoner, “take him downstairs,” dismissed us and then picked up the handle of a jade telephone to make a call. At this, the prisoner visibly slumped, or possibly fainted.
Six months later, I saw the man again in the neighborhood, limping and looking directly at the ground as he walked. His glasses were taped in the middle, where a punch in the middle of his face broke them that night.
The knowledge of extrajudicial kidnappings and arrests is commonplace in Syria, but not so much outside. The Syrian Commission for Transitional Justice, which documents human rights abuses within Syria, such as the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons and enforced disappearances is composed of judges, lawyers, former political prisoners, and human rights activists. The group recently issued a report entitled “Enforced disappearance in Syria: A forgotten ongoing crime” which estimates the current number of missing in the tens of thousands.
Enforced disappearance “takes away the victim’s human traits,” the report notes. The perpetrators, who now include not only members of the Syrian security agencies but rebel groups who have taken up the practice, hide or erase all evidence of these crimes, making it difficult to prove they even happened.
In other words, the kidnappings take place off the books– no documentation, no charges filed, no appearance in a court to admit or deny culpability.
It is the lack of resolution that provides its own form of torture for surviving relatives, the report concludes: “An unknown fate is the toughest challenge for the families because the renewed hope of seeing their loved ones once more inflicts a deep psychological suffering, and the ongoing waiting consumes their minds considerably.”
Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Syrian Commission.
The phenomenon is part of Bashar al-Assad’s fight for survival at any cost, says Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, the head of the Syrian Commission.
“He doesn’t care if he has to fight the whole population.”
Q: Your report talks about why the regime uses enforced disappearances, for reasons that include silencing the opposition, punishing people who participate in opposing the regime and generally promoting a climate of fear amidst Syrians. Has it worked?
Let me emphasize here that this is a continuous practice of the Assads. Assad senior began doing this in the late 1970s.
In 2007 we did a report on enforced disappearances in the ’80s, and estimated the number at more than 17,000 disappeared—their relatives had no information about them.
Since the uprising started, [enforced disappearance] has become a systematic practice by the security forces and armed forces. There is a culture of impunity in the branches of Assad’s security [agencies]. There is no accountability at all.
The legal framework gives immunity to anyone from the security forces doing that. This is the upper hand the security apparatus has over all the other executive offices, legislative offices or anything else.
This is why there is a misuse of the security apparatus and the power they already legally have, in theory and in practice.
Q: Syrians were quoted in the report saying they avoided protests or other overt demonstrations of anti-regime sentiment but were arrested anyway for reasons not known to them – one man had been checking on his home in Darayya and driving back to Damascus and was arrested along the way. Do you think the regime is benefiting from enforced disappearances or is it simply gratuitous cruelty?
The opposition, unfortunately, they use kidnapping [also] against some of the Assad officials. That [practice] increased dramatically when IS took control of A-Raqqa and other areas.
[Last week] 76 human rights organizations asked for the release of three prominent activists, among them Mazen Darwish, who is an Alawite. We have no information about where he is right now.
Even though we were established by the interim government [the Syrian National Coalition], our responsibility is to monitor human rights violations on both sides.
We noticed a large number of detainees have gone missing at the hands of IS.
The Assad government has no tolerance for anyone with a different opinion from its own. This is why you have Sunnis, Alawites, Shiites all being detained.
The same practice and policy is being practiced against the Kurds. This leads us to say in the report that it is a widespread practice and systematic policy which fits under war crimes or crimes against humanity committed by the Assad government.
Q: How is enforced disappearance affecting the revolution?
I don’t think it’s affecting it at all. It could not stop the uprising – it still went on.
We’re now collecting evidence about the killing of Hamza al-Khatib [a 13-year-old boy reportedly tortured and killed in a regime detention center in June 2011]. We have eyewitnesses. He was killed in Security Branch 248 in Kafr Sousa, just outside Damascus.
The president himself, Bashar al-Assad, appeared in two interviews at least, including one on CNN denying it. And he met with the father of Hamza al-Khatib to say, ‘we did not do it.’
But we have two eyewitnesses who gave us the details, who saw how Hamza al-Khatib was tortured. This to explain to you how disconnected Assad himself is. Assad is denying, but the security apparatus does this systematically.
Q: Does the regime arrest people randomly or is it deliberate? What is the purpose of disappearing people from the street?
This happens a lot. I think the Assad regime tries this indiscriminate disappearance to create fear among the population. This strategy was very effective in the ’80s.
Q: Just randomly arresting people?
Exactly. And this is why the people will be feeling the fear of talking, of participating in demonstrations or even talking online. They are full of fear of doing anything because they know the government has no tolerance and will arrest people randomly.
But that backfired against the Assad government, because when they started the arrests in different cities, that galvanized the protests. People said, ok, whether we participate or not we will be punished, so let’s do it and help the uprising and get rid of the regime because that is better for us in the long term.
Q: One of the problems you in the opposition have is proving the regime was behind the kidnappings. How can you establish that when you have so many different groups? You mention in the report that people will be thrown in a car by men in civilian clothes – they do not appear before a judge and no paperwork is processed in relation to their arrests. In other words, the regime does not leave a paper trail with certain detainees. How are you certain as an organization that the regime does what you think it does?
Basically, it depends on the eyewitness and sometimes the documents could be leaked by the government. This is the only way to show the person has been disappeared.
Q: Just looking at Syria in the last year, we’ve seen Qusayr, Qalamoun, Mleiha, Homs fall – we’re seeing Jobar being pounded with airstrikes every day. The regime appears to be prepared to bomb towns and cities until nothing is left and until they fall back to the government’s column. Is that what you’re seeing?
Assad got back Al-Qusayr. Has anyone from there returned to their homes? No. Assad can get some territory back, but it’s still disputed. He got back Mleiha last month and last week the rebels got part of it back [there are intense battles nearby].
Q: It appears that only one person, Haytham al-Malah, has sued the government to find out information about a kidnapped relative even though according to the Syrian constitution, a citizen has the right to information, to file suit and go before a judge. Is it true that only one person has filed suit?
Yes and even that, there wasn’t any response from the government. We find other ways – by working with the UN working group on enforced disappearances, by which relatives can file documents and the UN will actually contact the government on behalf of the family. When they get an answer from the government, they pass it on.
We tried that but got a funny response: They [the Assad government] have no information about these people, but even if we did, they are all terrorists.
Q: I’ve seen some of Syria’s correspondence to the UN…
Imagine – this is the official response to the UN.
I remember when I met with then-UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva to brief him about this issue, and then met with him later. He told me that when he met with Bashar al-Assad he gave him a file that includes the names of 24,000 political prisoners.
Brahimi was surprised by Assad’s response when Bashar, with no change in his face, said about the large number: “I know.”
Q: He did?
Yes – and this is why Brahimi told me, he knows everything, he knows what is going on, but he believes that this is a battle for survival. He doesn’t care if he has to fight the whole population, and he is doing that now, in the same way that he arrested hundreds of thousands of Syrians. It doesn’t matter since he has to stay in his office.
Q: Do you think Brahimi was able to communicate to Assad that the violence has to stop?
When it comes to the Assads [and their behavior], you’re talking about a historical phenomenon.
There is no way to get rid of all of these unspeakable practices and horrific torture and killings which have become normal for the Syrian public without having an international coalition to get rid of the Assad regime and put Syria on track.
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