Syrians gather near the President’s Bridge in central Damascus on Tuesday night, waiting to receive new batches of detainees released from regime prisons, 3/5/2022 (Web)
PARIS — From his residence in the United Kingdom, Ahmad Hussein al-Zoubani is looking for any information about the fate of his older brother Louay, detained in the Syrian regime’s prisons. In Syria’s southern Daraa province, his parents are doing the same, reaching out to relatives of detainees recently released under an amnesty issued on April 30 by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, trying to learn if “they have seen or heard anything about him.”
On Saturday, April 30, Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 7 of 2022 granting a general amnesty for “terrorist crimes committed by Syrians” prior to the date of the decree. It is the first amnesty to include terrorism charges—often levied against Syrians accused of opposition to the Damascus government—since the revolution broke out in March 2011.
In October 2013, Ahmad’s older brother Louay Hussein al-Zoubani, then 32 years old, was arrested at a mobile checkpoint belonging to the Military Intelligence Directorate while on his way to work on the road between the southern town of al-Yadouda and Daraa city. After his arrest, the family received occasional news about him that “we weren’t sure was accurate” from detainees who were released, Ahmad told Syria Direct. Some said “they spent days with him at the Military Intelligence branch in Damascus, while others met him at the Air Force Intelligence branch there,” he added. But for the past two years, the family has heard nothing about him.
Louay, a father of two, taught English at a public school in al-Yadouda. He also worked part-time as an accountant at Daraa’s Yarmouk Hospital.
After news of Louay was cut off, his family expected that he was dead. But his civil status record shows that “he is still alive,” Ahmad said. With the current releases of detainees, “we hope that he’s alive, and that he will be released,” he added. “We’re living on our nerves.” The brothers’ parents in Daraa would like to go to Damascus to greet those released and learn their son’s fate, like thousands of other Syrians, “but my mother and father are elderly and unable to do so.”
Following the amnesty decree, between May 1 to May 4 the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented the release of 193 detainees, including 24 women and 7 people who were children at the time they were detained, according to Nour al-Khatib, the head of SNHR’s Detention and Enforced Disappearance Department. Al-Khatib herself was previously detained in regime prisons.
On Wednesday, additional detainees were released directly from facilities such as Sednaya Military Prison near Damascus bringing the total number released to more than 200 people, according to al-Khatib.
As of March 2022, 132,667 people have been detained or forcibly disappeared by Syrian regime forces, out of a total of 151,462 people held or disappeared by the various parties to the conflict, according to SNHR.
“The regime releases small numbers in consecutive batches over a long period,” in an attempt “to show it is carrying out large releases and implementing the amnesty decree,” al-Khatib. The numbers of people released so far “happens in normal circumstances,” without a decree.
Damascus has not released any official information to clarify how many detainees have been released or are set to be released. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Justice warned against hundreds of people gathering in public places for long hours in Damascus, Homs and Hama, writing in a post on its official Facebook page on Wednesday about “fatigue, exhaustion and suffering, especially among the elderly and mothers.”
The Ministry added that “this gathering and waiting by the families is unnecessary, especially since those covered by the amnesty are immediately released individually and consecutively after legal procedures are completed. They are not taken to the places of these gatherings.” It reassured those waiting that “all prisoners and detainees covered by the amnesty will be released in succession in the coming days,” adding that “a large part of this work has been accomplished over the past days.”
The Ministry’s statement came after thousands of Syrians gathered in the public squares of several Syrian cities, and especially in Damascus. In the capital, crowds gathered at the President’s Bridge since the first batches of detainees were released there.
The number of people waiting at the President’s Bridge has since declined, as releases take place directly from detention centers and prisons.
Al-Khatib expects releases to continue until next month. In her view, the regime seeks to portray itself as releasing a large number of people by spreading out small releases over a long period of time.
While dozens of people have been overwhelmed with happiness after the release of their loved ones, the amnesty has also reignited Syrians’ pain and reopened wounds, bringing them back once more to the journey of searching for their detained or forcibly disappeared loved ones—or for any information about them. “We’ve only slept a few hours over the past three days because of the large number of messages we’re receiving from hundreds of people,” al-Khatib said, adding that the messages received in the course of a few days will take months to respond to.
While the regime seeks to benefit from the amnesty, the sight of thousands of Syrians gathering in various cities has uncovered the scale of suffering from “the crime of detention and disappearance at the hands of the Syrian regime,” al-Khatib said. The amnesty has also revealed thousands of detainees who are not documented by human rights organizations, she added. The amnesty and people’s reaction to it “encouraged people to document the cases of their detained children, and gave us an opportunity to reach the family and document their detained relatives.”
Louay’s family’s reaction to the amnesty is part of that response. In recent days, they circulated his photo and all his personal information for the first time on social media and in online groups related to the issue of detainees. They are clinging to a single thread, hoping to learn the fate of their son and brother more than eight years after his arrest.
Relatives await the arrival of detainees under the President’s Bridge in central Damascus, 4/5/2022 (Marm Muhammad – North Press Agency)
Syrians congregate around the President’s Bridge in Damascus. Mohammad Suleiman, a correspondent for pro-Damascus Souryana FM who took the photo and posted it to Facebook, wrote, “Describing the waiting, it is like a slow death,” 3/5/2022 (Mohammad Suleiman)
Syrians wait for detainees to be released in a park near the President’s Bridge in Damascus. North Press Agency reported that dozens of families spent the night in the park, 4/5/2022 (Yasmin Ali – North Press Agency)
Hundreds of Syrians gather near the President’s Bridge in Damascus, 3/5/2022 (Web)
Syrians surround a man released from regime prisons in Damascus on Monday, showing him images of other detainees, 2/5/2022 (Web)
Syrians run after a military bus carrying detainees released from regime prisons in the President’s Bridge area of Damascus. The person filming repeats the phrase, “oh Lord,” hoping that his detained loved one is among those released, 4/5/2022 (Web)
A video clip published by pro-opposition Syria TV of the President’s Bridge area in Damascus shows large numbers of relatives of detainees late on Tuesday evening. Some sit on the sidewalks, while others climb the bridge. Others wander in the street as they wait in the hopes of their relatives being released, 3/5/2022 (Syria TV)
Syrians near the President’s Bridge tell pro-Damascus Sham FM the stories of their loved ones and their suffering while waiting to receive those released. At 3:59, one woman waiting says, with emotion in her voice: “Please, if we submit a request, tell us if they are there or not, if they’re alive or dead. My father and brother have [been gone for] nine years. Until now, we don’t know anything about them. Just tell us where they are.” The station deleted the clip after it was published, 3/5/2022 (Sham FM)
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.