The families of Syria’s disappeared face blackmail with impunity

The families of Syria's disappeared face blackmail with impunity

Carrying a photo of their loved ones, members of the organisation "Families for Freedom" protest in front of United Nations building in Geneva, on 23 February 2017, to demand that the case of the enforced disappearances be solved.

(The Syria Campaign)

“I was a revolutionary from the beginning, but my husband had nothing to do with that. He told me: I am a farmer. If Assad is in power, I am a farmer. If he goes, I am still a farmer,” says Ghazal (not her real name), from the small Lebanese town of Al-Marj where she has taken refuge with her five children since July 2015.

On 9 September 2012, nearly five years ago to the day, her husband was arrested while picking pears on his small parcel of land in the town of Zabandani, by a Syrian army brigade searching for suspects following an attack.

She has not seen him since, and she does not know where he is being held, or even whether he is still alive. Time has come to a standstill for Ghazal, as it has for thousands of the loved ones of the forcibly disappeared.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimates that 106,000 people have been detained or reported missing since the beginning of the popular uprising in March 2011.

The Syrian regime is responsible for about 90 per cent of these cases, compared to 8.5 per cent for the radical Islamist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the Fatah al-Cham Front.

Thousands of them have died as a result of torture and hardship, as revealed by the unbearable photographs by Caesar, a former military police photographer who defected in 2013.

In February 2017, Amnesty International revealed that up to 13,000 detainees had been executed by hanging at the infamous Saidnaya prison.

The SNHR puts the number of people who have simply fallen off the radar at 65,000, leaving behind families ready to do anything to discover their whereabouts.

Bribes for the counter-terrorism judges

After hoping in vain that her husband would be released after the legal 60 day limit for preventive custody, Ghazal has begun like so many others to move heaven and earth in search for him: “There isn’t a single police station in Damascus where, from the person in charge to the cell warden, my husband’s name hasn’t been mentioned. I was told to go and see people who have lots of blood on their hands, because they alone can release prisoners. I did it. I even paid for a ring for an officer’s wife to get my husband back! But it didn’t work,” she sighs.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime first used mass detention to silence all the pacifist protestors. But as the popular uprising mutated into armed conflict, then a war of attrition, detention became a source of personal enrichment for the regime’s supporters, explains Ansar Jasim, author of the article The Malice of Power: Arrests in Syria as part of a politico-economic rationale.

“People will sell their house or borrow money to get their loved ones out of prison, because everyone knows about the horrors that take place in Syrian jails. For the regime, it is a means of ensuring loyalty in its ranks and of alleviating its economic difficulties,” says the researcher.

The centrepiece of this strategy is the counter-terrorism court. Created by the Counter-Terrorism Law of 2012, this body has created an anomalous justice system detailed in the report Counter-Terrorism Court in Syria: A tool for war crimes, published by the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) in April 2015.

According to the testimony of lawyers gathered by the organisation, the right to a defence is denied, trials are held behind closed doors and the judges base their decisions on confessions obtained under torture in the detention centres run by the intelligence agencies.

The simsar act as the eyes and ears of the families of the detainees in the corridors of the court. They are the intermediaries who know which judge or which prosecutor to buy off, in the hope of securing the release or a reprieve for a detainee. Sometimes the court’s judges themselves demand eye-watering amounts from the families of the detainees, failing which they will impose even longer sentences.

Like certain business people for whom war is a lucrative business, the corruption surrounding the prisoners enables the judges to line their pockets on the backs of the prisoners’ loved ones, already ruined by six years of war.

Everything can be paid for, from information on where they are being held to the possibility of visiting them, as well as attempts to secure their release. This corruption reaches a climax with the general amnesties decided arbitrarily by the regime, which released 672 detainees at the end of Ramadan last June. Families pay dearly to have their loved ones put on the amnesty list.

“As soon as an amnesty is announced, the prison officers begin to promise families they will put their loved ones name on the list,” a lawyer told Jasim.

A list in blood

The only alternative to this institutionalised blackmail is the release of detainees. Alive.

“I was lucky enough to survive,” says Mansour Omari, one of those who was miraculously freed. Arrested with activists from the Syrian Centre for the Media and Freedom of Expression (Mazen Darwish, Hussein Ghrer, Hani Zitani and Abdel-Rahman Hamada), Mansour Omari was released in February 2013, after a year of torture and ill-treatment, in one of the intelligence agencies’ numerous detention centres.

He and his cellmates decided that whoever was released first would wear a piece of cloth which bore the names of all the detainees, written in blood using a chicken bone. The task fell to him.

“I came out with this piece of cloth on which 82 names were written. Some of them got wiped out by sweat when I was transferred to an overcrowded cell. There are 60 left: I have managed to contact most of the families to let them know where their loved one is,” he explains from Sweden, where he has built a new life.

Six years after the conflict began, some families have decided to end their silence.

During the talks on Syria in Geneva in February 2017, five women relatives of men who have disappeared, who founded the organisation Families for Freedom marched carrying a photo of their loved ones to demand that the case of the enforced disappearances be put on the negotiating table ahead of the other issues.

One of the women, Bayan Sharbaji, carried the portraits of Yahya and Maan, her two brothers who disappeared six years ago in Daraya: “We are demanding the release of all prisoners detained without trial and judged in a summary court, the publication of a list of all detainees and their places of detention, the delivery of a death certificate to the families of those that have died, and the opening of detention centres to NGOs to put an end to torture. Whatever the result of our initiative we can no longer remain silent,” she said by Whatsapp from England.

Ghazal, who has joined the initiative, feels torn between hope and realism: “Our campaign is a powerful means of pressure, because it is peaceful. But the regime does not want to tackle the subject of the disappeared, because everyone knows what happens in the prisons. It is the scandal of the Syrian regime. It knows that if it agrees to open the case, it will be its downfall.”

This story has been translated from French.