An untold number Syrians have died in regime prisons since the beginning of the conflict four years ago, while hundreds of thousands more remain in detention.
Citizens can disappear at any time, for any reason, often with their families never hearing from them again.
“The detainee issue is the biggest tragedy of the Syrian people,” Suzanne Ahmed, the alias of an activist from outer Damascus and spokesperson for the grassroots campaign Save the Rest tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou.
Ahmed and other Syrian activists launched the Save the Rest campaign this past January to advocate for the rights of detainees and their families. Activists distributed flyers printed on the backs of false Syrian pound notes in a number of Damascus neighborhoods, providing guidance to detainees’ families on how to track down and legally fight for the release of their loved ones.
“Hundreds of thousands are detained and are facing torture or have died under torture,” says Ahmed.
“Our job is to save the detainees who are still alive, and to achieve justice for the ones who get killed.”
Q: What is the latest from the Save the Rest campaign?
The team is now following up on the legal affairs they began pursuing earlier, through communicating with politicians and human rights organizations.
We continue to distribute flyers to the detainees’ families. The flyers give guidance on how to document and follow up legally in case there is a detainee in the family. The team is working on the second level of the campaign.
Q: Why did you choose to work on the issue of detainees, among the different issues in Syria?
The issue of detainees is the biggest tragedy of the Syrian people. The arbitrary detentions, disappearances and human rights breaches will cause a revolution in any country. So how could the detainees’ case not be our focus?
We have hundreds of thousands detained, facing torture and those who have died under torture. Our job is to save the detainees who are still alive and achieve justice for those who were killed.
Q: Has any member of your team been detained or subject to oppression by the Syrian regime? Especially considering that some of your activities take place inside Damascus?
Some of the members are former detainees, and some of them still live in Damascus. Some activities have been conducted in regime-controlled areas, which makes it more dangerous and puts activists in more danger. Because of good, careful planning and security precautions, the team members are still safe. They are planning for more activities to challenge the regime's injustice.
Q: One of the videos published by the campaign shows the dropping of “Save the Rest Campaign” paper clippings in heavily pro-regime areas of Damascus such as Rawda and Muhajariin. What message do you want to send?
The start of the campaign in Damascus was to remind the regime that we are still here and that we won’t leave the prisoners behind, nor will we stay silent for their right to a free and dignified life. At the same time, it’s an address to the families to reassure them that they aren’t alone in their pain and that we stand working to be the voice of the imprisoned.
Q: What are the goals the campaign seeks to achieve?
The campaign has ambitious goals, which are the release of political prisoners, uncovering of the fates of persons forcibly disappeared, the cessation of all military and terrorism trials, and the punishment of all those who have violated human rights. To achieve this, the campaign demands the sending of inspection committees to regime prisons and security branches, and the provision of required medical care to all detainees under the supervision of the Syrian Red Cross.
Q: Is the campaign having an impact?
The campaign has been able to achieve a widespread presence on social media platforms among Western media outlets and in re-opening the issue of detainees in regime prisons. For the campaign to achieve the desired impact, it has been in contact with a number of Syrian, international, and independent institutions and individuals to raise the profile of the issue of detainees and those forcibly disappeared.
There has been a push in the direction of making the detainee issue among the priorities for assistance from global rights organizations.
Q: Are there fears about a Syrian regime reaction to the campaign against the detainees who remain in regime prisons?
Honestly, the fear is ever-present. But in principle, the regime doesn’t hesitate and hasn’t hesitated in torturing and killing thousands of detainees [through torture]. The leaking of the pictures of thousands of victims by the dissident “Caesar” and his testimony in front of the world is (still fresh in people’s minds. On the other hand, the regime hasn’t hesitated\held back to do anything previously). Even though we’ve leaked several letters from inside the prisons, we haven’t published names or places to protect the safety of the detainees.
Q: The campaign scattered what looks like Syrian currency in the streets of Damascus. On one side of the bill is a picture of currency and on the other is a message from the Save the Rest campaign. This strategy indicates the significant danger of carrying out this work inside the Syrian regime’s stronghold of Damascus. What is the result you’re hoping for as a result?
In Damascus any action, big or small, is extremely dangerous. Previously, many activists were arrested and tortured to death as a result of spreading the “bank notes” demanding freedom at the beginning of the revolution.
The idea behind it is to draw attention while distributing them, as well as being a clear message to the regime that we remain nearby and we will stay until we achieve our legitimate demands.
Q: The torture in Syrian prisons isn’t a result of the Syrian revolution, but rather a tool employed by the regime for decades to consolidate its control. In your personal opinion, can this campaign put a stop to the torture and human rights abuse inside Syria prisons? And how?
It’s true that the detainee issue is an “old new problem” which has been exacerbated by the increased oppression and intransigence of the regime.
Throughout the campaign, we have spared no effort in mobilizing and pushing for every possible action to limit the suffering of the detainees. We might not see a direct effect, but we are contributing to the accumulated effect of all work in pursuit of this goal.