Peaceful Political Activists© Reuters 2013
Journalists & Freedom of Expression Advocates2013 © Reuters
Syria remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for professional and citizen journalists, media technicians, Internet activists, and those who defend freedom of expression. In 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Syria as the most dangerous country for journalists to do their job. In 2013, Syria ranked 176 out of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. The low ranking reflects the 143 journalists and Internet activists killed in Syria in 2012, when Reporters Without Borders identified the country as the world’s deadliest for journalists. Reporters Without Borders estimates that since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, the government has imprisoned at least 150 professional and citizen journalists. The government has also targeted others who have expressed opposition or promoted freedom of expression.
Humanitarian Aid Workers
The Syrian government has arbitrarily arrested, disappeared, tortured, and ill-treated humanitarian aid workers, and subjected them to unfair trials because of the assistance they provide. This violates Syria’s obligations under international humanitarian law, which requires the government to allow relief workers freedom of movement to distribute aid to those in need. The government’s program of targeting aid workers has encumbered the delivery of assistance to Syrians badly in need.
Doctors and Lawyers2013 © Reuters
Ghada and Sawsan Al-Abbar, Lawyer and Medic2013 © Private
Government forces arrested Ghada and Sawsan al-Abbar together on December 21, 2012 in the town of Daraya, just outside of Damascus. Ghada, 31, a lawyer, worked with a group of other lawyers hoping to start an organization to document human rights abuses. Her sister Sawsan, 30, worked as an administrator in Daraya National Hospital. The two women had gone into hiding when they heard that security agents were looking for them because of their involvement in peaceful political activities.
Apparently, the security forces had set a trap for the sisters using a friend’s mother. “She called Ghada and asked me to meet her and Sawsan at the Daraya public garden,” a relative outside of Syria told Human Rights Watch. When the women arrived at the garden, agents arrested them and took them away, he said. Their friend’s mother later told the al-Abbar family that security forces had threatened to torture her own daughter, who had been detained earlier that month, unless she helped them capture the other women.
Former detainees told the family that they had seen the sisters at the al-Khatib branch in Damascus, where Human Rights Watch has documented ill-treatment and torture of detainees. Since the sisters were transferred to Adra Central Prison in Damascus in April 2013, their family has been allowed brief visits. The women appeared before the Counterterrorism Court in June but have not been sentenced.
“Their legal status is confusing,” their relative said. “They are held arbitrarily, despite having spent the 60 days stipulated by law as a maximum for administrative detention. Their family has petitioned the authorities for their release, but has not received any response.”
“We are very worried about their psychological state. We did not expect they would be detained for a very long time. Now we are waiting. Our home is different without the two of them,” the relative said.
Shorbaji Family, Peaceful Activists© 2013 private
Yehia and Mohamed Shorbaji - Peaceful Political Activists
Yehia Shorbaji is known in his hometown of Daraya as “the man with the roses,” because, friends and family said, he came up with the idea of giving flowers to the members of the security forces during the early days of the uprising. Soon Yehia, 34, also offered soldiers bottles of water on hot days.
More than a decade ago, Yehia joined Daraya Youth to study principles of nonviolence and take on projects like street cleanups and antismoking and anticorruption campaigns. As the uprising began in March 2011, Daraya Youth members peacefully protested government tactics. On September 6, 2011, people whom a witness believed to be Air Force Intelligence agents arrested Yehia and his 43-year-old brother Mohamed, a fellow construction worker and member of Daraya Youth, in a safe house they had used for meetings. Security forces also detained three other members of Daraya Youth that day, including a prominent protest leader, Ghiyath Mattar, who was killed in custody and whose body security forces returned to his family four days later.
Mohamed Shorbaji - Peaceful Political Activist
“My husband, Mohamed, is a peaceful activist, always against violence, not for a moment promoting the use of force,” said his wife, Amani. “We have four children, our youngest was 10 months old when the security forces arrested Mohamed. How do you build a father’s image to a baby that has no memory of him? ”
Security agents have held the men incommunicado in unconfirmed locations since their arrest, and their whereabouts and legal status remain unclear. A former inmate at Sednaya Prison told a relative of Mohamed’s and Yehia’s that he had seen the brothers there in 2013, although prison authorities refused to confirm they were there. Another relative told Human Rights Watch that in March, the family applied at the Military Police station in Qaboun to visit the Sednaya Prison, but officials denied the request.
“Knowing that your husband was arrested is bad, but not knowing where he is and not being able to see him is horrible,” Amani said.
Mazen Shorbaji - Peaceful Political Activist
Security agents have detained other family members, also part of Daraya Youth. On August 15, 2011, Air Force Intelligence officers stormed the house of Mazen Shorbaji, arrested him, and threatened to detain his wife as well, a witness said.
A real estate agent and bookstore owner, Mazen made banners calling for peace and advocating peaceful protests in the early months of the Syrian uprising. During confrontations with government forces, Mazen helped wounded protesters find a safe place to receive medical treatment. His relatives believe that security agents detained him as punishment for these peaceful opposition activities.
Working through personal connections, the family finally managed to locate Mazen in Sednaya in July 2012, and visited him there twice, first during Ramadan in the summer and then in September. A close relative who visited him said Mazen looked extremely tired and had lost weight.
During the second visit, Mazen told his family that he had appeared before a military field court on September 3 and had signed a document without knowing what it said. Mazen’s attorney was not allowed to attend the court proceeding. A relative who spoke to Mazen about the proceeding said that no evidence was presented except statements from two detainees that Mazen was an activist. Their wives later told the relative that the two other detainees had confessed under torture. No one informed Mazen of the charges against him. His family does not know what Mazen signed, or whether a judge has issued a ruling in his case.
A close relative said that Mazen’s family had submitted at least five requests to see him to the Justice Ministry and to the Military Police station in the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus, which the relatives believed would have information about him. Officials rejected the requests without providing any justification.
“How can we explain to Mazen’s 4-year-old son why his father doesn’t come home in the evening?” Mazen’s relative said. “That child has no understanding of what it means for an activist to be detained, but he keeps asking for his father and wonders why he can’t see him.”
Nabil Shorbaji - Peaceful Political Activist
Security forces arrested another cousin, Nabil Shorbaji, also a Daraya Youth member, before he could fulfill his dream of marrying his fiancée, a family member said. As a journalist, Nabil wrote about the need to fight corruption and encourage free speech, and he invited people to share ideas through discussion.
A family member said that Nabil, 29, had been protesting the detention of activists in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus when security officials arrested him for the first time on March 16, 2011. They released him 17 days later, but arrested him again on February 26, 2012, at an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint in the neighborhood of Al-Thawra in Daraya as he was driving to a friend’s house. Two of Nabil’s friends who were with him that day informed his family of his arrest.
Former detainees told Nabil’s family that they had seen him in the Air Force Intelligence detention facility in Mezze and that officials moved him on February 2013 to Adra. Members of Nabil’s family who were finally able to visit him once in Adra, where he remains, said that his legal status is unclear. Officials told Nabil that he would face trial before a military field court, but he has not yet seen a judge or been informed of the charges against him.
“We are all waiting for Nabil,” a family member said. “My old mother is sick, but says she is trying to hold herself together until she sees him. His fiancée is blessed with patience and gets her strength from the dream of being united with Nabil. Thank God we were able to visit him in Adra and see with our own eyes that he is still alive. We only have patience and hope to keep us going until we see him among us again.”
Mohamed Atfah, Humanitarian Aid Worker
After months in detention, 20-year-old Mohamed Atfah was a changed person by the time he encountered another detainee from Homs, his hometown. Mohamed had so deteriorated mentally and physically that he was no longer able to recognize people around him, the detainee, who has been released, told Mohamed’s friends. “He told us Mohamed had lost his memory,” one friend said.
On February 3, 2013, officials whom Mohamed’s family members believe were agents of Military Intelligence arrested Mohamed at a checkpoint in his hometown of Homs.
He had been volunteering to help children in a Syrian Arab Red Crescent psychological support program in Homs. The program uses play and storytelling, among other techniques, to help heal children from trauma and psychological distress. A dedicated Red Crescent member, Mohamed is known around the city for his gentle demeanor and his commitment to helping children.
The recently released detainee said Mohamed managed to mutter one question when he saw him. “Is the shop still open?” he asked, referring to his parents’ store, where he used to work too, seeking news that they were still alive and well.
Friends delivered the story to Mohamed’s parents, who were anxious for news that their son was alive. But they were crushed to learn of his deterioration. For them, the news of his condition was “excruciating,” the friend said.
Work of partner organizations:
Mohamed Nour al-Shemali, Peaceful Activist© 2013 private
Security forces arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Nour al-Shemali on December 1, 2012, as he walked through the gates of Aleppo University, a friend told Human Rights Watch. Mohamed and a second friend were on their way to interview internally displaced Syrians who were taking shelter in the university dormitories. Through such interviews, Mohamed documented abuses by the Syrian government, and he regularly discussed his findings with international media. The security forces, including members of Military Intelligence, had deployed to the university after a wave of student protests in 2012, and they detained both of the young men.
At the time of his arrest, Mohamed was carrying his laptop and a camera in his bag. His friend worries that videos of his media interviews stored on his computer could have endangered Mohamed during interrogation. Mohamed’s family fears that under torture, he may have confessed to participating in protests, and that security forces could punish Mohamed and the family.
A relative of Mohamed’s told Human Rights Watch that the family found out about his arrest from other students who witnessed it. More than eight months after Mohamed’s arrest, his family still has no idea where security agents are holding him or why. Mohamed’s 49-year-old father is extremely worried about him: he looks for and visits others released from detention in the hope that they might know something about his son.
A detainee who was recently released told relatives that he had seen Mohamed in a detention facility run by Military Intelligence in Damascus, though someone else had previously told the relatives he had seen him in the Military Intelligence branch in Aleppo. “The person who saw him in Aleppo told us he had been tortured, and the one who saw him in Damascus told us he had lost a lot of weight,” a relative said. That is all the family knows.
Hussein Essou, Peaceful Activist© 2013 Private
Before the current Syrian uprising, Hussein Essou, 65, worked to protect local farmers in the northeastern province of al-Hassaka from a sale of agricultural lands to the government. He had sought a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad to discuss the land sale. The president refused. A retired communications engineer and a Kurd, Hussein led a protest in late August 2011 in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in al-Hassaka, requesting the release of peaceful activists, Kurds and Arabs alike. Security agents arrested Hussein during the protest, but soon released him. On the evening of September 2, 2011, a person who said he was a member of Air Force Intelligence telephoned Hussein and told him he was waiting for Hussein at his home. Hussein delayed his return home to 2 a.m., but when he arrived security agents arrested him. He has been detained ever since.
A man who had been detained with Hussein and was released told the family that officials transferred Hussein to the Air Force Intelligence branch in the Mezze neighborhood of Damascus in December 2012. The man also said that when he saw Hussein, his lower body was paralyzed. The detainee told the family that a doctor who examined Hussein in detention diagnosed him with spinal neurological damage, which he did not previously have. The family is extremely worried about his health. He has had heart surgery, and before his detention suffered from a split disk in his back, his brother said. “We don’t know anything about him,” he said.
One of Hussein’s relatives has been shuttling among various authorities—the public prosecutor of al-Hassaka, the al-Hassaka governor, and Air Force Intelligence—requesting permission for visits, only to be repeatedly rebuffed.
Members of the security forces in Qamishli in eastern Syria told another of Hussein’s relatives that Hussein has not been released because he refused to sign a document expressing regret for his political activism. “Hussein is a free thinker,” said his brother Bashar. “He’s an advocate for equality among Syrians. He doesn’t differentiate between Kurds and Arabs, he only opposes religious extremism.”
In January 2013, Hussein’s family organized a protest in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in al-Hassaka to seek Hussein’s release. It was the very place where agents first arrested Hussein while he bravely demonstrated for the release of other peaceful activists.
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Khairo and Islam al-Dabbas, Peaceful Activists2013 © Private
Islam al-Dabbas had participated in peaceful protests in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus where in the early months of the uprising, people offered water and flowers to the army and security forces trying to end demonstrations. Now his brother Mohamed considers himself lucky, because Islam and their father, Khairo, are “just detained, not dead.”
“We wanted to send a message: these protests are peaceful,” said Mohamed. “My father and brother did nothing more than peacefully ask for justice and freedom.”
Khairo was arrested at a friend’s home in Daraya in early July 2011 by people a witness believed were Air Force Intelligence agents who were supervising arrests in the area. The agents told Khairo they would release him if he pledged not to participate in demonstrations, and if Islam, his 23-year-old son, surrendered to the authorities, conditions the father refused. After he spent three months of incommunicado detention in an Air Force Intelligence branch and three months in Sednaya Military Prison in Damascus, authorities transferred him to Adra Central Prison in Damascus, as he told his family members when they were finally able to visit.
During his trial before the Damascus-based Counterterrorism Court, the judge did not examine the evidence presented, no witnesses were called, and his lawyer was not allowed to present a defense. The court convicted him of “participating in and inciting protests” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, which he started serving in the Adra prison in January 2013.
Islam, Khairo’s oldest son among five children, was an engineering student in his second year of college when security forces arrested him on July 22, 2011 shortly after his father was detained. Before his arrest, Islam had organized peaceful protests as part of the Daraya Youth group, many of whose nonviolent activists have been detained. Numerous photos taken during protests show him handing out water bottles to members of the army and protesters alike. The family was able to visit him once in Sednaya, a year ago, but since then, the government has not given his family any information about his whereabouts or well-being and has denied relatives’ requests to visit.
“Our lives have completely changed since my father and brother got arrested,” Mohamed said. “We have been waiting for them for two years now. The house is so quiet and sad without them. It feels like a cloud of sadness has engulfed my family, and we keep praying for their release.”
Campaign to free Islam al-Dabbas:
Work of partner organizations:
Abdul Akram al-Sakka, Peaceful Activist© 2013 Private
As a preacher for years at the Anas Ben Malek Mosque in Daraya, Abdul-Akram Al-Sakka promoted freedom and peace without openly criticizing the Syrian government. Security forces arrested him on July 15, 2011, and his family still doesn’t know why.
“The security forces took my father from our house,” said Asma, Adbul-Akram’s daughter. “We don’t know who took him; all security forces look alike to me. Those who took my father did not have an arrest warrant and did not explain why they were arresting him. We have no idea what happened to my father since the day he was arrested.”
Someone told the family he might be in Sednaya, but officials did not confirm the information. Another daughter visited almost every security branch in the area, but officials refused to answer her questions.
This is not Abdul-Akram’s first time in detention. When he failed to display the requisite sign of mourning, a Quran, at the mosque on the day then-President Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, security agents detained him for two months. Then, in 2003, Abdul-Akram served a nine-month sentence in Sednaya after a military field court convicted him of peacefully protesting corruption.
Abdul-Akram’s wife had a stroke a few weeks after he disappeared. “She is slightly better now,” Asma said, “but refuses to leave Syria before my father is released.” Abdul-Akram’s ten children are trying to keep their mother busy and healthy while they wait to hear news of their father.
Work of partner organizations:
Mohamed Meqdad, Lawyer and Humanitarian
On the night of September 20, 2012, Syrian security forces stormed Mohamed Meqdad’s house in Damascus and searched every room, looking for medicine they believed he was distributing to protesters wounded by government fire, said a close relative present during the raid. The security agents found nothing, but arrested Mohamed anyway, the relative said, leaving his family so terrified that his parents did not even dare at first to approach the authorities to ask what had happened to their son.
Born in 1985, Mohamed is a lawyer who volunteered with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent during relief operations related to the war in neighboring Lebanon in 2006. When the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, he helped distribute food, blankets, and other necessities around Damascus. When he was not working with the Red Crescent, Mohamed collected money, food and blankets from his friends and family and traveled around the city helping people he had identified as needy.
The family heard from a source close to the government that Mohamed might now be in Adra Prison and that he had also spent time at Military Intelligence Branch 215. Although they got no official confirmation or sign of life from their son, these few words about his whereabouts gave them hope that he might still be alive.
Mohamed’s mother is desperate for any news of her son. She says she can still hear the ring of his laughter, which she described as hearty and generous. She can still hear the notes from his guitar. Mohamed’s siblings have set up a schedule so one of them is always by her side, so that she can never get bad news while she is alone. Every day, they retell old stories about their brother, and make family plans for when Mohamed is released.
Khalil Maatouk, Lawyer2013 © Private
On the morning of October 2, 2012, a friend of Khalil Maatouk was driving him to work, as health problems prevented the 53-year-old lawyer from getting around on his own. At 9:45 a.m. Khalil’s friend, Mohamed Zaza, answered a phone call from his wife. That was the last time anyone was able to reach the two men. They just disappeared.
“It usually takes about 15 minutes for Khalil to reach his office,” said a close friend, also a lawyer. “But there are at least 15 checkpoints on that road, operating on behalf of different state security branches.”
Khalil is the executive director of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, and the head of the Syrian Center for the Defense of Detainees. He defended numerous activists before and during the Syrian uprising, and has co-authored many texts on justice and respect for fundamental freedoms. One lawyer working on his case said Khalil had previously been summoned to various security branches because of his work and frequent travels. “Khalil traveled a lot for his health, too,” the lawyer said. “We are extremely worried about the lack of news, and very worried about his health condition. Khalil is on a strict medication regimen, including injections he regularly gets at the hospital.”
A released detainee told Khalil’s lawyer that he had seen Khalil at the State Security detention facility in the Kafar Souseh section of Damascus, but the Syrian general prosecutor denied that he was there and provided no further information on his whereabouts.
Khalil’s lawyer and his family believe that security forces abducted him, but they have no information about who specifically was responsible. The family deeply regrets that his friend Mohamed, who was not politically active, was abducted with him.
Work of partner organizations:
http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/006/2013/es/acc31f3c-95d0-4426-906d-fe6dd65413c5/mde240062013en.pdf Or http://ua.amnesty.ch/urgent-actions/2012/10/298-12/298-12-2?ua_language=en Or http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/006/2013/es/acc31f3c-95d0-4426-906d-fe6dd65413c5/mde240062013en.pdf
Anas al-Shoghary, Peaceful Activist© 2013 Private
On May 14, 2011, for unknown reasons, some of Anas al-Shoghary’s friends and one of his relatives betrayed him, reporting his activism to the security forces. Military Intelligence agents arrested the 24-year-old Anas in the city of al-Marah in Tartous governorate, along Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The relative later admitted his involvement in the arrest.
Since the arrest, the government has not given Anas’ family any information on his whereabouts, said Anas’ brother Ibrahim. “My parents asked them too many times.”
Anas, an economics student at Teshreen University in Latakia, had been organizing peaceful protests in his hometown, Baniyas, and he gave numerous interviews to the international media using his real name.
Former detainees have offered the family patchy information on his whereabouts: Anas was initially held at the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous, one former detainee said; then he was seen at the Military Intelligence Palestine Branch in Damascus, another reported.
In 2012, a family friend recently released from detention told Anas’ parents that he had seen him in Sednaya.
On August 4, 2012, agents of the Political Security branch in Baniyas detained Anas’ 19-year-old brother, Salah, a high school student. The family assumes security agents arrested Salah to pressure Anas.
Security forces stopped Salah at a checkpoint and asked him to go to their branch for questioning, said Ibrahim. “He never came back.”
Former detainees have told the family they had seen Salah, but officials have never confirmed his whereabouts. One former detainee said he saw him in the Military Intelligence Branch in the city of Tartous. Another said he saw him at the Military Intelligence Palestine Branch in Damascus, and described him as being in disturbingly poor health. “They told us he had been severely tortured,” said Ibrahim. “They told us he was to be transferred to the military hospital, but we have no way of reaching him or knowing where he is.”
The disappearance of the young brothers has shattered the al-Shoghary family, threatening the mother’s health. “She is in the hospital in the intensive care unit, and we don’t know how long her heart can keep beating,” Ibrahim said. “We feel we are losing a part of her every day that she spends in uncertainty about her sons’ fate. I fear that the absence of my brothers might kill my mother.”
Work of partner organizations:
Bassel Khartabil, Freedom of Expression Advocate
"The people who are in real danger never leave their countries," Bassel Khartabil tweeted weeks before his arrest, Foreign Policy magazine reported. "They are in danger for a reason and for that they don't leave."
So Bassel stayed, only to be arrested on March 15, 2012 in the Mezze neighborhood of Damascus. “My life did not just change after Bassel’s arrest,” a relative said. “It literally froze in time.”
A Syrian of Palestinian parents, Bassel is a computer engineer who worked to build a career in software and web development. Before his arrest, Bassel used his technical expertise to help advance freedom of speech and access to information via the Internet. Among other projects, he founded Creative Commons Syria, a nonprofit organization that enables people to share artistic and other work using free legal tools. In March, the international organization Index on Censorship awarded Bassel the 2013 Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award for his work using technology to promote an open and free Internet.
Syrian security forces arrested Bassel as he was leaving a business meeting in Damascus and held him in the Military Intelligence detention facility in the Kafar Souseh neighborhood of Damascus for eight months, he later told his family. Before his arrest, he had kept a low profile, as the security forces seemed to be targeting journalists and technology-savvy activists for arrest. Security forces learned of his whereabouts from another detainee who was subsequently released, the relative told Human Rights Watch. Agents sent Bassel to Sednaya, where prison personnel tortured him for three weeks, he later told his family. Officials provided Bassel’s family with no information about where or why he was in custody until December 24, 2012, when they moved him to Adra.
During a military field court proceeding on December 9, 2012, a military judge interrogated Bassel for a few minutes. Now Bassel awaits the court’s verdict in Adra. A relative living outside of Syria told Human Rights Watch that Syrian officials did not inform Bassel of the charges against him, allow his attorney to attend his December court proceeding or show him the evidence against Bassel, and did not allow Bassel to present a defense.
Foreign Policy magazine named Bassel one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012, “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.” As someone who believes in peaceful democratic transition, he was disturbed when he heard from his relatives that the opposition had taken up arms, said a relative who can regularly visit him in the Adra prison. “Even though he was detained and severely tortured, he has not forgotten his principles, his peaceful principles,” the relative said.
“I am really worried about Bassel,” the relative said. “He’s lost a lot of weight and looks physically and psychologically exhausted. I’m also exhausted. This state of uncertainty is draining for both of us.”
Bassel talking about Creative Commons and its role and the different Creative Commons permits given to online content:
Mazen Darwish, Hussein Gharir, and Hani Zaitani, Freedom of Expression Advocates© 2013 Private
Mazen Darwish is the president of the Damascus-based Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), which he founded in 2004 to promote freedom of opinion and expression. In recent years, international organizations have showered awards on him for his advocacy: He received the 2011 Roland Berger Human Dignity Award; the 2012 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Prize; and the 2013 Bruno Kreisky Prize.
As crisis engulfed Syria in 2011, SCM and its staff worked to document serious and widespread human rights abuses with a view to contributing to a process leading to truth, justice, and reconciliation.
Plain-clothes Air Force Intelligence agents raided SCM’s office in Damascus on February 16, 2012 and arrested two visitors and all 14 staff members present. Officials released the visitors, and soon afterward, several staff members. The government tried seven staff members for “possession of illegal documents published with the aim of overthrowing the regime,” sentenced them to time served, and released them in mid-May 2012. Security agents then re-arrested one of this group, 26-year-old Ayham Ghazzoul, in November 2012. Shortly afterward,another detainee reported that he saw Ayham die from wounds that appeared to be from a beating in Military Intelligence Branch 215 in the Kafar Souseh section of Damascus.
The Air Force Intelligence held Mazen Darwish and four other staff members, Hussein Gharir, Hani Zaitani, Mansour Omari,and Abdul Rahman Hamada, incommunicado for several months. With total official silence on the fate of these men during that time, their families feared they had been killed. Instead, Air Force Intelligence agents tortured and mistreated them, others who were detained with them and then released told their families. Finally, officials moved them to Adra and allowed their families to visit.
On February 27, the five men were indicted for “publicizing terrorist acts” under article 8 of the Counterterrorism Law President Bashar al-Assad enacted in 2012.
The indictment, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, states that the government brought these charges because of the men’s activities as staff members of the organization. The illegal activities included monitoring online news by the Syrian opposition, publishing studies on human rights and media in Syria, documenting names of the detained, disappeared, wanted, and killed during the Syrian conflict, and receiving funding from Western organizations. The indictment states that an investigative judge in Damascus considered these actions to be part of an attempt to “stir the internal situation in Syria and so provoke international organizations to condemn Syria in international forums.”
If convicted, the men face prison terms of up to 15 years. Officials conditionally released two of the five, Mansour and Abdul Rahman,on February 6, 2013 pending trial, while Mazen remains in detention, along with Hussein and Hani.
“Mazen and I got married five months before he was arrested,” said Yara, Mazen’s wife. “I still cannot process everything that has happened: his arrest, his detention, our dreams shattered. How long will this nightmare last?” When officials finally allowed Yara to visit her husband in the Adra prison in Damascus in November 2012, she was alarmed to see how much weight he had lost. “I was so glad he was still alive. I had been haunted by the thought that the security forces might kill him in detention, while torturing him,” she said.
Hani and Sana, too, had married only five months before Hani’s detention. Agents of the security forces arrested Sana on the same day as her new husband, and officials did not tell her that they had also captured Hani. Officials released Sana two days later, when she learned the harsh news that her husband was missing. “His absence is excruciatingly painful,” she said.
When security agents detained Hussein, Mays, his wife of seven years, was left caring for their two sons, so young that now at ages 5 and 2 they barely remember their father when they visit him in detention. “When I took my child to see his father, he thought that was his uncle,” Mays said. “It was even harder on our older child, who had faint memories of his father but did not recognize him in prison.” After two visits, the older boy refused to go back to the prison. “He said he no longer wished to speak to his father through the window. He wanted to sit on his father’s lap, he wanted to take his father home, and he wanted his father to read books to him,” she said. “This is getting increasingly difficult for me, although I was soothed by the knowledge that he is alive.”
Nidal Nahlawi, Humanitarian Aid Worker2013 © Private
On March 13, 2013, security forces broke into the downtown Damascus office where Nidal Nahlawi and his friends were planning relief operations and arrested them. A few weeks later, agents took Nidal to watch them arrest his wife, then returned him to detention. “I will never forget how Nidal looked,” said his wife, Hala, who has since been released. “He was obviously beaten and harshly treated. His face was swollen, he had bruises around his eyes, he looked totally disheveled.”
Born in 1962, Nidal owns a car dealership in partnership with his brothers, and he and Hala have five children, ranging in age from a 23-year-old daughter to an 8-year-old son. As the conflict escalated, Nidal and a group of friends raised funds to buy food, blankets, and other household items to distribute to Damascus families in distress.
When Nidal was first detained, security forces took him to the Mezze Airport Air Force Intelligence Branch, notorious for its ill-treatment of detainees during interrogation, and accused him of supporting terrorism under the July 2012 Counterterrorism Law.
Hala expected security agents to come after her, too, to question her about Nidal’s humanitarian aid work, so she moved out of the family home and stayed with relatives. There security forces found her. After arresting her, agents interrogated Hala about her husband’s activities for 12 hours, overnight, and forced her to hand over the money Nidal had collected to buy food and blankets for the needy. When Hala was released, she hurried home, packed her bags, and fled the country with four of their five children.
The family has had no news of Nidal since he appeared during Hala’s arrest at the end of March. Hala is extremely worried, but knows she must remain strong for her children. The children have not attended school since they fled Damascus, and none of them have any idea what the future holds. Hala, who feels lucky that her family is supporting her, has not registered with the UN agency for refugees. “I hope the children can at least go back to school. They have already missed one year because no school accepted them when we arrived here in the middle of a school year,” said Hala. “Going back to studying and making new friends, would help keep their minds busy, while we all wait for Nidal’s return.”
Ali al-Shehabi, Peaceful Activist
Ali al-Shehabi is a Syrian writer of Palestinian parents who lived in Yarmouk Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. A liberal thinker, he spent 10 years in prison after the security forces arrested him in 1982 on the false accusation of being a member of the Communist Party. Upon his release in 1992, Ali started publicly advocating secular democratic principles, and managed to obtain a permit from the Syrian authorities to establish a new political party, which he called “Syria For All.” Despite his permit, in 2006, government forces arrested him for establishing the party and detained him for six months.
“Ali was a peaceful activist and a free thinker,” a relative told Human Rights Watch. “He resented the way that the Syrian uprising had turned into an armed conflict.” Before his arrest, the relative said, “Ali spent so much time and energy inside Yarmouk Camp advocating for dialogue and against the use of arms.”
After the uprising began, Ali lobbied field hospitals in Yarmouk Camp to admit the wounded without hindrance. He acted as a mediator between the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose General Command was in Yarmouk, and Yarmouk-based members of the opposition Free Syrian Army. The Syrian security forces arrested Ali for the third time on December 19, 2012, before he was able to negotiate an agreement.
Ali’s family used government connections to locate him at the Military Intelligence Palestine Branch in Qazzaz, Damascus. “The security forces at the Palestine branch told us they would release him in two days, but we never saw him,” the relative said. “They later told us they had released him, but we still haven’t seen him. All we want now is to know whether he is still alive.”
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