January 26, 2014
Earlier this month, the United Nations revealed that it would no longer update its death toll for the nearly three-year-old conflict, citing its inability to adequately verify information sources. The UN’s announcement underscored the difficulty of documenting human casualties and war crimes in the country’s increasingly brutal civil war, particularly as regime and opposition fighters have taken to targeting the civilian activists seeking to quantify the carnage. Perhaps the highest profile example of the growing risks faced by documenters came in December, when prominent human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh was kidnapped along with three fellow activists from their office at the Violation Documentation Center in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Mohammad al-Abdallah is a former political prisoner who currently serves as Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC). SJAC was established in 2012 by the Friends of Syria Group with the goal of collecting, processing, and securely storing information pertaining to violations of human rights law in Syria, and of working with Syrian civil society actors to lay the groundwork for transitional justice in Syria.
Efforts to collect war crimes evidence are beginning to falter, al-Abdullah says. Syrians worry the government will track the metadata showing they passed along evidence – not an idle fear, as “there is a generation of documenters who are really well trained…and they’ve mostly been killed, forced to leave the country or imprisoned.”
Q: Was SJAC working with Razan Zaitouneh before she was kidnapped?
Yes, the Violation Documentation Center’s data is part of our database. It’s one of the leading initiatives in documentation in Syria. On a personal level, Razan was my lawyer when I was in prison in Syria, and she was my father’s lawyer and my brother’s lawyer when they were imprisoned. We wish the best for her and her colleagues, and I’m hopeful that they will be released soon and that this will mark an end for the kidnapping practices.
Q: What other groups does SJAC work with in its documentation efforts?
We have two ways to do this. One, we take documentation from groups involved in human rights documentation or in civil society. Some of these groups are nationwide documentation initiatives, some of them are locally focused and document everything about their village or their town.
Second, and surprisingly, the most accurate information is with individuals, not with groups; the conflict is on such a wide scale after two-and-a-half years that lots of people happen to be in the right place at the right time, and they take a video or take a picture. But they’re not sharing this data because they’re scared that their metadata will be released and the government will go after them. So we take these data under confidentiality agreements; our database is not shared with anyone, it’s not online.
Q: Have incidents like Ms. Zaitouneh’s kidnapping impacted SJAC’s documentation work?
Of course, lots of the groups start counting to ten before publishing their documentation. If they’re in rebel-controlled areas, they document rebel violations but don’t share them. Meanwhile, there’s a generation of documenters who are really well trained and who were doing this work before the uprising, and they’ve mostly been either killed, forced to leave the country, or imprisoned. So you get the second and third row of activists who are not really equipped in the same way, so that really impacted our work.
Q: How else has the environment for documentation shifted over the last year or two?
Lots of people have lost their hope in documentation efforts. At the beginning they were enthusiastic, they wanted to bring Assad to the ICC, so they were more active in providing information. But after, say, chemical attacks weren’t met with real accountability, people no longer really believe in documentation, victims are no longer really interested. So in general the amount of data has deteriorated, the interest of the victims themselves is going down.
International and regional politics are also impacting Syria. People are watching Hosni Mubarak being released in Egypt, and they say, “we don’t want a court, we’re going to kill Assad on the spot like Qaddafi.” And of course there’s mixed feelings about things like the death penalty, because in the ICC there’s no death penalty, so people feel like Assad will end up with five to ten years in a five-star prison in The Hague, which is not really a punishment for what he’s done to the country.
Q: Broadly speaking, how has the human rights landscape transformed in Syria since the start of the conflict?
Militias are more vocal about abuses, they’re proud—“we executed this number of perpetrators from the regime army”—and you see more people defending them. The impunity on the regime side is encouraging violations from the rebel side.
People feel it’s unfair to compare the rebels to the regime, because one side has chemical weapons and tanks and planes, but this is a violation and this is a violation. For a victim who’s under daily bombing and who lost their loved ones, they cannot recognize this, they feel it’s unfair, and that’s created a hostile environment toward the Syrian groups who are working to document abuses based on international standards.
Q: What’s your view on the courts that have been set up in rebel-held territory—do they have a role to play in transitional justice?
I think they’re playing a destructive role. Most of these courts don’t have real judges, they’re more based on religious views, they’re sharia courts. They don’t have legitimacy, they don’t have records, they don’t write their visitors. I think it’s kind of a de facto authority because they have guns now, but when things improve you’ll go back to the real courts that were set up before.
The justice sector in Syria was widely corrupted, but was not bad in terms of the laws in place, because these were translated from the French penal code. So it has some good elements and could be a good place to start, bearing in mind that the Syrian penal code was developed in 1949, 1952 and 1953, way before the Assad family came to power.
What rebel groups are trying to do is convince people that this is Assad’s law, so we’re done with this. But really Assad made some amendments to the laws, and we can repeal those and go back to the original version, do some amending and updating to reach international standards, but not necessarily to abolish the entire thing.
Q: How important is social media in laying the groundwork for transitional justice in Syria?
Social media can facilitate transitional justice, but it can also be destructive. Releasing, for instance, videos of massacres happening now has a really bad impact by enraging people, turning them against any reconciliation and against accountability—people say, “you’re talking about trials for those people? We’re going to kill them on the spot when we catch them.” Because these are horrifying images, torturing children, cutting children to pieces, so the impact of social media could be destructive.
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