By Amer al-Hourani
AMMAN— On September 7, two men from Daraa province were arrested while receiving medical treatment, increasing Daraa’s residents’ mistrust of Damascus.
Shabib al-Masalmeh and Maher al-Sayasneh were arrested in Damascus after their doctor at Darra National Hospital transferred them to a hospital in the Syrian capital, a source close to the families of the two detainees told Syria Direct.
As a result of the efforts of the so-called “Crisis Cell,” a local group formed by former opposition military leaders and notables in the province to negotiate with the government and look after civilians affairs in Daraa, “the Political Security Service released al-Masalmeh, while al-Sayasneh remains in detention,” a Crisis Cell member told Syria Direct, speaking under the condition of anonymity.
“Al-Masalmeh suffers from an old war injury,” the source said. “He was taken to Daraa National Hospital for surgery. Despite undergoing the surgery and his condition improving, his supervising doctor requested that he be moved to Damascus, where he was arrested after staying in the hospital for a few days.”
Al-Sayasneh was also taken to Daraa National Hospital on September 4, after unknown gunmen shot him. The doctor removed the bullets and then, despite al-Sayasneh’s improvement, “issued medical orders to transfer him to al-Muwasat hospital in Damascus, where he was arrested at one of the government’s military checkpoints on the Damascus-Daraa road,” according to the source.
The source also added that “Al-Sayasneh settled his status at a settlement center in Daraa and carries a settlement card.”
Settlement cards were issued after government forces retook southern Syria in the summer of 2018, and amnesty was given to many opposition members and fighters under the Russian-supervised reconciliation deals.
Though settlement cards are supposed to give its bearer amnesty, there have been numerous reports of the Syrian government arresting those who had ostensibly been pardoned.
Service centers or security centers?
The arrest of al-Masalmeh and al-Sayasneh could be unprecedented, as it was conducted under “medical cover”. The Crisis Cell member stressed that “one of Daraa Hospital’s doctors coordinated with the Political Security Service to transfer patients to Damascus to arrest them there to avoid facing anger directly from the people [of Daraa].”
As a result, a Daraa city resident warned others from going to Daraa National Hospital in a Facebook post, as it had “turned into a security branch and a trap to arrest patients.” The post has since been deleted.
Nonetheless, the arrest of al-Masalmeh and al-Sayasneh is part of a larger phenomenon whereby civilian service centers and facilities are used by government security services to pursue and arrest citizens.
On August 4, security forces arrested 15 citizens who were at the Civil Registry in Izraa, in the northern countryside of Daraa, following a security check on their names. Some of the detainees were released, but there are still others whose fates remain unknown.
In addition to the ambiguity surrounding the degree of cooperation between medical personnel and government forces, the Crisis Cell member noted that “service centers deal poorly with people in areas that were previously under the control of the Free Army factions in Daraa.”
According to data obtained by Syria Direct from the documentation office of Houran Free League, a local body that monitors military and security incidents in southern Syria, 20 citizens in Daraa province were detained while visiting government offices between early August and September 12.
It is possible that “the actual number of citizens detained is larger than what was documented, because the security risks and fear associated with reporting information to documentation centers makes collecting accurate statistics challenging,” Oqbah Muhammad, a member of the documentation office told Syria Direct.
Muhammed confirmed that “arrests have occurred while residents were in government service centers to obtain documentation or conduct legal transactions.” He also pointed out that most of those who were arrested were “settlement card holders.”
Cognizant of the risks associated with visiting the government service centers, Radi al-Amr, a 20-year-old from the city of Sheikh Miskeen in the countryside of Daraa, did not go alone to get his documentation. He told Syria Direct that his friends who held settlement card were taken to security branches after they were arrested in government offices in Daraa city.
In addition to the risk of arrest, obtaining legal papers from government offices often takes days and requires “wasta [connections] or the payment of bribes to employees.”
Under the terms of the July 2018 reconciliation deal, opposition members surrendered their arms and allowed the entry of the Syrian government in the south, who then assumed responsibility for services in the area.
However, the security services’ continuous violations of the agreement have “forced civilians to remain in their homes,” according to al-Amr, who has not left his village in northern Daraa countryside since the deal was made one year ago.
To avoid security risks, he resorted to paying “money to a broker at the Civil Registry in the city of Daraa, who in return brought me the civil registry entry.”
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Connecting Communities through Professional Engagement Project in partnership with the Australian Embassy to Jordan's Direct Aid Program.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Lauren Remaley