(New York) – The prominent human rights lawyer Khalil Maatouk was abducted while driving to his office on the morning of October 2, 2012, and has not been seen since. Maatouk’s family and his lawyer suspect that government forces are holding him incommunicado. The Syrian government should immediately release him if he is in its custody, Human Rights Watch said.
According to a close relative of Maatouk, he disappeared on October 2 while driving to work with a family friend, Mohamed Zaza, who is also missing. Zaza was driving him to work because Maatouk, 53, has health problems that make it difficult for him to drive. The men never arrived at their destination and their families have not been able to locate their car.
“Khalil Maatouk’s disappearance is a stark reminder of the grave risks that brave human rights activists are taking in Syria just to document the daily horrors,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “These disappearances will only end when the government finally lifts the veil from its detention facilities and lets monitors in.”
Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer and friend of Maatouk who is following up on the disappearance, told Human Rights Watch that there are numerous government checkpoints on the road taken by Maatouk and Zaza as well as a heavy security and military presence near Maatouk’s office, making it unlikely that non-state actors kidnapped him. Bunni said that security forces had summoned Maatouk for interrogation multiple times in past months because of his work representing detained activists and to question him about his frequent travels, which were for medical treatment.
Maatouk 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 was working on the case of Mazen Darwish, the detained head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), before he disappeared. Maatouk has defended numerous activists before and during the uprising in front of military, state security, and civil courts.
Maatouk’s apparent arbitrary and incommunicado detention would violate basic principles of international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. The Syrian government should immediately release him if he is in its custody. The Syrian government should also provide immediate and unhindered access for recognized international detention monitors to all detention facilities.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including enforced disappearances, use of torture, and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions of, among others, peaceful protesters, activists, humanitarian assistance providers, and doctors