The Importance of Justice: Syria’s Disappeared

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Relatives with photographs of Syria's missing detainees, Geneva, February 2017 (Dylan Collins/Al Jazeera)

“Disappearance is only possible in a state that covertly kills and does away with the evidence”


Bente Scheller has been the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Middle East office in Beirut in 2012. From there, she has worked with Syria’s NGOs, activists, and other civilians throughout the country’s conflict.

Earlier this month, she addressed an audience at the Foundation’s event in Berlin:


I was first confronted with the fate of political prisoners in Syria 15 years ago. To this day, I am grateful for the conversations with lawyers such as Anwar al-Bounni, who is in attendance today, and Razan Zeitouneh, who was abducted in 2013.

One day Razan Zeitouneh took me along to meet Fares Mourad who had, after 20 years imprisonment, finally been released. First sentenced to death, his sentence was later reduced to seven years imprisonment, and yet he was detained for another 13 years. Prisoners in Syria were never granted claimable rights.

Fares was sitting across from me. Even though he could no longer raise his head and was only able to look at me with great strain, he smiled. “What irony that the first foreigner I meet happens to be German,” he said and pointed to his overstretched neck: “We call the torture technique with which this was done to me the ‘German chair’.”

Excruciating detention conditions and torture always were defining features of the Syrian state under Assad rule. That did not first begin with the onset of the Syrian revolution.

Thousands were killed in the Hama massacre in 1982, while thousands more disappeared in prisons. To date, no trace of them has been found.

The neighbouring country, Lebanon, saw the Syrian army in their capacity as occupying power deport political prisoners to Syria and to this day 30,000 of those disappeared are not accounted for.

It is not without reason that the Syrian figure of speech for disappearing without a trace goes, “where not even the blue fly will find you”. The bluebottle fly is the very first fly to lay its maggots on a corpse.

Eradicating Lives, Humiliating Those Left Behind

Disappearance is only possible in a state that covertly kills and does away with the evidence. And yet, in Syria, the point is not just to eradicate lives. To the state, it is at least just as important to express contempt and to humiliate the relatives who are reduced to petitioners.

For those who wish to gain an understanding of how prisoners were tortured already in the 1980s in Palmyra’s notorious jail, I recommend the recently released film Tadmor by Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim. In it, former prisoners reconstruct the hell they lived through and play out a typical day in the prison.

The film we are showing today is titled Syria’s Disappeared. As part of the film-making process, director Sara Afshar collected statements from survivors of Syrian imprisonment in recent years. She also met with Syrian men and women who had identified their relatives in photographs of prisoners who had been tortured to death.

With the violent suppression of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the extent of arrests, disappearances and torture assumed an entirely new dimension.

Back when the revolution started gaining momentum, activists were in good spirits and confident that they would succeed in bringing an end to the system. Many who had been detained short-term were determined to continue with their efforts:

“They arrest us, and then we are released, and we continue” – that is how many of our partners described it during the first years.

It was clear to them that they would face detention. And yet they expected there to be boundaries which the regime would not infringe upon at a large scale. They were convinced that they would get away with their lives.

This certainty soon dwindled once it became clear that many would indeed not survive. When the cases in which prisoners of all ages survived imprisonment only by some weeks, at times only a few days, began to amass and it could no longer be ignored that death by torture had become method, the mood hardened. That also promoted the arming of the uprising.

“Killing at an Industrial Level”

The photographs taken on behalf of the regime by the Syrian military member code-named “Caesar” – images of prisoners tortured to death in the regime’s detention centres and prisons – depict at least 6,700 victims of the gruelling state leadership.

Investigator Stephen Rapp describes it as “killing at an industrial level”, and he furthermore postulates that already the available documents on these crimes are the most extensive set of records “since Nuremberg”.

The “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic” report released by the UN Commission of Inquiry in 2015, or the reports published by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International on detention conditions and the systematic execution of thousands in the Sednaya Prison, have put beyond doubt that the killing of those arbitrarily arrested has become method.

Despite the circumstance that this ineffable horror has been precisely documented, there has been no noteworthy political outcry.

Whether the grounds of the Sednaya Prison actually contain a crematorium – as suspected by the State Department – is yet to be determined.

However, the fact that tens of thousands of people have been disappeared and no news as to their whereabouts has been received for years suggests that a majority of them are no longer alive.

Why is there no push for international access to this prison? How is it possible that especially among the ranks of German politicians so many of the bloodcurdling crimes committed by the Syrian regime and its main backers, Russia and Iran, are passed over or even played down?

Ethnic Cleansing by A Regime…and International Complicity

Ethnic cleansing is well underway in Syria – pursued in great part not, as oftentimes presumed, by ISIS or Daesh, but rather by the regime. The infamous “green buses” are used to deport thousands against their will, and ghost towns are created, all on the basis of religious affiliation.

The Caesar photographs and the film on the disappeared were shown in Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In Germany, however, most politicians conduct themselves guardedly. Most notably in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien speaks of the greatest humanitarian crisis of the century in relation to Syria.

Insofar, states and international organisations pose the question of how one can help, how especially the people in Syria can be helped.

The majority of UN humanitarian aid distribution is not aligned with neediness and the relevant criteria – independence, impartiality and neutrality – but aid is instead distributed plain and simply via Damascus in an area controlled by the regime. In light of what is known of the detention conditions in Syria, the question arises, in my view, to what extent humanitarian aid is used not to alleviate suffering, but to contribute to the horror. Medical facilities in regime-controlled areas are an integral part of the torture apparatus. Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria wrote in the Washington in April: “Medicine has been used as a weapon of war since the earliest days of the uprising, when pro-government doctors performed amputations on protesters for minor injuries.”

Survivor Mohsen al-Masri explains, “Prisoners learned to stay silent when guards asked who needed to go to the hospital. It didn’t matter what they did to us; we had to pretend we were fine. People rarely came back from those trips.”[2]

In a state which uses doctors and hospitals as part of its brutal obliteration of the opposition, the assessment of what one delivers to this system becomes a political and a moral issue.

The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has broached the matter of releasing political prisoners in advance of each round of Geneva peace talks. The release of political prisoners would be a confidence-building measure and would signal that the regime takes an interest in a negotiated settlement.

The fact that the Assad regime, after all these years, is unwilling to make such a gesture speaks volumes for the prospects of the talks. For the time being, they seem merely like a means to let time pass.

Time in which the regime continues to wage its relentless war against insurgents, whom it bluntly subsumes under the category of “terrorists”. Time during which the international community gives the impression of being active without however being capable of producing any tangible progress, particularly in relation to the improvement of the living conditions of civilians in Syria. Every day more people are arrested, and every day more people die in captivity.

Detention, Coercion, and Corruption

The regime’s continuation of large-scale arrests and disappearances on the one hand is due to the circumstance that political prisoners are used as leverage to pressurize relatives. At times the objective is to coerce another member of the detainee’s family to turn themselves in. Oftentimes the motives are of a material nature. The families of political prisoners are forced to hand over money, even just to obtain information on the whereabouts of the person concerned. Ever-present corruption in Syria renders imprisonment an individual source of income for civil servants at every level. Since 2011, this has downright blossomed into a grim branch of the war economy, a self-sufficient system. Many of those who have become indebted or who have sold their possessions in an attempt to scrape together money for the more and more exorbitant demands of the security forces have later come to realise that their relatives were already deceased at the time of payment.

On the other hand, the reason for which arrests and abuse resulting in death are pursued is that the regime needs not fear any consequences. The meticulous documentation by Caesar and others, but also the fact that henchmen of the regime still continue to publish videos online of them torturing detainees bears witness to that.

Legal reviews such as the one initiated by Anwar al-Bounni and Mazen Darwish, in cooperation with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, are therefore of grave importance. A clear message must be sent to the effect that despite the present state of connivance due to political unwillingness, the crimes committed will not remain unpunished in the long term.

If we switch from the international to the local perspective to examine in detail the so-called “local ceasefires”, it becomes apparent that here also the issue of prisoners assumes great importance.

Close to one million Syrian men and women live under siege according to the estimate released by Siege Watch – almost all of them are being besieged by the regime. By starving the population and withholding medical care, the regime and its allies attempt to forcefully elicit surrenders. In the last months alone, numerous locations in the environs of Damascus have been depopulated in the full sense of the word. “Current population: zero. No longer monitored,” Siege Watch states on its interactive map.

In the course of negotiations of the conditions for the surrender of a locality, the opposition’s demand for the release of prisoners proves to be an especially tenuous issue.

That is typically the point at which the negotiations are abandoned and the issue fails to find its place in the final settlement – and even if it does, based on the experiences to date, the regime only rarely complies with its commitments. This raises the question: Why?

Only because the regime, even at a small scale, is not prepared to commit to confidence-building measures? Or because it aims to prevent witness statements? Or because the individuals in question have perhaps already lost their lives and their corpses have long been buried in mass graves?

That takes us back to the question of why not more is done at an international level to grind to a halt the mass killings in Syria.

Syrian activists are left to battle a set of problems at international level. Democratic forces in Syria are continually worn down by all of the armed parties who have no interest in freedom or rule of law – ISIS and other Islamic extremists, the authoritarian tendencies also present amongst Kurdish groups, and the regime. Abroad they are often told that there are “no good guys” left in Syria – ignorance as justification for inaction.

Challenging the Acceptance of the Regime

Time and time again, those driven by nostalgia reminisce about an illusory stability, security and peaceful togetherness in Syria prior to 2011. While this may have been the impression a traveler and outside observer could have obtained, it fails to do justice to the real-life experiences of many Syrian citizens.

In the face of the openly and wilfully flaunted reign of terror by the so-called “Islamic State”, the leap to designate Assad the “lesser evil” is quickly made in an international context, regardless of the well-documented fact that his regime is responsible for the majority of human rights offences and war crimes.

The Assad regime is culpable for more than 90% of deaths in Syria. Amongst those tortured to death, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the figure rises to 99%. And yet, the myth that this regime is worth preserving cannot be eradicated.

Whoever describes the regime as a “lesser evil” in the same breath tends to make reference to the minorities living in Syria and suggests Assad is their guardian. That is equally only tenable when one turns a blind eye to what is actually taking place. Neither are those rising up against Assad exclusively members of the Sunni majority, nor does the affiliation with a minority entail automatic protection. Some of the attendees today can give their own painful accounts of that.

Those representing the “Assad is the guardian of minorities” dictum lose sight entirely of the fact that the protection of minorities is a question of guaranteed rights. Whoever, for better or for worse, tethers the matter of minority rights to a person – especially a person who tramples all over human rights – denies minorities their rights and renders their fate a question of mercy.

Just like all others, members of minority groups in Syria also cannot count on legal rights and legislation. They have been taken hostage by the regime and have thereby become pawns; the decision of whether to grant them protection or not has been a bargaining chip at Assad’s disposal throughout the entire conflict.

Just as important as it is to demand guarantees for the rights of minorities from opposition forces, it is necessary to speak about rights for members of a majority and, when they are being killed and prosecuted, it is crucial not to remain idle. The desire for simple explanations should not entice anyone to indulge in the regime’s rhetoric of “us” and “them” or to contemplate the conflict exclusively through a denominational prism.

Like in every other conflict, the majority of people in Syria is made up by unarmed civilians whose rights and lives we carry the responsibility to support, notwithstanding their denomination.

All parties who commit crimes in the course of this conflict need to be held accountable. Suffering cannot be measured in numbers. And yet, failing to act for the reason of supposed balance when evaluating the difference in the extent of crimes committed by each party in the conflict falls short.

While the Assad regime is responsible for an overwhelming proportion of deaths and violence in Syria, it remains unfazed and continues to lay claim to international legitimacy. This legitimacy however does not find representation in form of a seat in the UN, but rather through actions. Legitimate rule brings with it not only rights, but also duties.

Assad has claimed the right to destroy the Syrian population whilst he should actually commit himself to its protection.

Syria has been part of the international Convention against Torture since 2004.

Syria is, as documented by a UN resolution from 2015, the only state that is part of the Chemical Weapons Convention in which chemical weapons continue to be deployed. By the very regime which joined the convention.

The achievements made in the realm of international law during the past decades, in the areas of unconventional weapons and the responsibility to protect, are being systematically dismantled in Syria. That constitutes an encouraging signal to dictators worldwide – devastating for civilians and problematic for the vision for a world which aims to abandon the rule of the most powerful.

The reticence in Germany, the silence of other countries when faced with the overwhelming body of evidence leaves survivors aghast.

Garance Le Caisne, in her book “Operation Caesar”, quotes one of those who assisted Caesar in smuggling photographs abroad, Sami:

The war has already been ongoing for four years. And yet diplomats speak of reconciliation and transitions. Does that mean the intelligence officials will retain their positions? After all that has happened? And Caesar and I will continue to be pursued by the regime?

The release of prisoners is the main concern of various Syrian activists, amongst others, the “families of the disappeared” and the ”Save the Rest” campaign. In reference to the typical procedure whereby most prisoners are first taken to the mostly underground detention centres of the Syrian intelligence services, “Save the Rest” reminds us: “Not everyone underground is dead, there are thousands of lives waiting to be saved.”

To all intents and purposes, international efforts should be aligned in order to put an end to the murders in Syria. However, as long as there are no genuine efforts discernible, it is essential to offer activists and civilians at least some form of outlook. For this reason, the legal review of unjust ongoings is crucial.

I extend my deep gratitude and great respect to those who with their reports and witness statements disclose the happenings in Syria and to those who have seized the courage to take legal action. Courage not only because they speak of the unspeakable, but also because it carries danger for themselves and their relatives. The long arm of the Syrian regime reaches farther than just the states bordering Syria in which the witnesses of inconvenient proceedings against the regime frequently fall victim to attacks and arrests.

Likewise in Germany, we can find examples of how perpetrators sent by the Syrian regime have intimidated regime opponents, at times not shying away from physical violence.

It therefore becomes all the more important – now and in future – to enable survivors of tyrannical regimes to seek justice.

Translated from the German by Christine F. G. Kollmar

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1 COMMENT

  1. Evacuating people from recently recaptured areas does not meet the definition of “ethnic cleansing” by any means. Syria’s demographics have changed since 2011. There are far fewer Christians and Yazidis – that is thanks to ISIS and Nusra.

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