Friday, 24 July 2020

Mysterious killings of Syrian régime operatives hint at inside jobs



 'On a rainy October in 2013, a Syrian military music band in red berets played a requiem at the funeral of one of the régime's top enforcers.

 Loyalists fired their guns in the air as a wreath-adorned ambulance carrying the coffin of Maj Gen Jameh Jameh, of military intelligence, drove through the Alawite Mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.

 Alawite rites were performed in front of the flag-draped coffin in Jameh’s home district of Jableh.

 The official news agency said he was killed by “terrorists” in the line of duty in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, and régime media broadcast footage of the funeral.



 ISIS, Nusra Front and at least one local rebel group all said they had killed Jameh.

 But a senior western security official said that seven years on, his agency was still unable to confirm whether Jameh was killed at all.

 Last month, six régime military and intelligence operatives were reported dead, but Jameh’s death shows the probable difficulty in discovering what happened.

 None have had as senior a position as Jameh, but the war economy, as well as Iranian and Russian patronage networks, have elevated them to power and wealth beyond what their official role would suggest.

 Their emergence as significant players is owing to changes in social dynamics and power structures in régime areas, driven from within and by outside powers, since the outbreak of the revolt against Assad family rule in 2011.



 The deaths were mostly reported by the opposition and by Arab newspapers.

 Régime sources corroborated reports of the deaths of two of the men: militia commander Nizar Zeidan and Brig Gen Suleiman Khalouf, head of the Military Signal College in the central city of Homs.

 Pro-Assad Facebook groups said Khalouf was “martyred” last month.

 One, named Souriya Habibati, said Khalouf was killed on the Jabal al-Zawiya front in Idlib.

 The same group blamed “dogs” of a militia called the Fifth Corps for Zeidan’s killing two weeks ago.



 The Fifth Corps was set up from former rebels who had surrendered to the régime, mostly in southern Syria, under deals brokered by Moscow.

 A defected Syrian army officer in contact with the Fifth Corps said the militia had nothing to do with Zeidan’s killing and that an inside job was more likely.

 The officer ruled out that Khalouf died in combat, saying that he may have died in a “car accident or of the coronavirus”.

 His importance, the officer said, had grown among the Alawite community in Homs because his officers played a major role in crushing the rebellion.

 Having an independent base among the Alawite community became increasingly frowned upon after the Russian intervention in 2015, which restored large areas of territory to the régime and sharply improved the outlook for survival of the Assads.

 Clues to the deaths of the two men may lie in the paths they took to rise in the régime’s ranks, which may have ultimately made them expendable.



 Zeidan was a commander of a Sunni militia attached to the elite Fourth Mechanised Division, commanded by Bashar Al Assad’s brother Maher, who is also the de facto head of the Alawite-dominated military.

 Like the Fifth Corps but smaller, the militia is comprised of former rebels in the Wadi Barada area, north-west of Damascus, who surrendered to the régime in a deal guaranteed by Russia in 2017.

 Although the régime regarded Zeidan’s group as cannon fodder, attachment to the Fourth Division was materially beneficial, partly because the division oversees many of the area’s once-lucrative roadblocks.

 But such illicit cash flows have been drying up.

 Income from monopolising supplies to besieged populations was lost when siege warfare against rebel regions mostly ended two years ago, after the régime prevailed in Damascus and the south.

 Sunnis, who contribute the core of day-to-day economic activity, were displaced or fled Syria en masse, lessening the potential to extort the civilian population.



 An economic meltdown in Lebanon resulted in November in bans on dollar withdrawals from Beirut’s banks, lessening foreign currency flows to régime areas and contributing to a renewed collapse of the Syrian pound.

 One régime officer wrote on Facebook that his monthly salary of 73,719 Syrian pounds (Dh117) is now worth $32 and can buy no more than one banana a day for his family.

 The same salary would have been worth $1,475 in March 2011, when the Syrian revolt began, and $123 before the Lebanese financial crisis at the end of last year.

 As a Sunni, the wages Zeidan tried to secure for himself and his subordinates were taken from a smaller pool of resources than that available to his Alawite superiors.

 While he owed his status as a local warlord to Russia, the Fourth Division was regarded as falling increasingly into the Iranian orbit, possibly contributing to his position becoming untenable.

 Two diplomats based in the Middle East said Zeidan and others who have been reported killed appear to have been casualties of régime consolidation.

 “The pie is getting smaller and the scene is too crowded,” one of the diplomats said.



 More mysterious was the death of Khalouf, whose reputation among the Alawite minority in Homs was enhanced by the war.

 Syrian political analyst Ayman Abdel Nour said he appeared to have been close to Assad’s maternal cousin, the oligarch Rami Makhlouf.

 Mr Makhlouf gained support among the Alawites of Homs by channelling money to their neighbourhoods.

 But a rift between him and the president emerged in May, with Mr Makhlouf making videos lamenting that some in the security force he had been financing were turning against him.

 Khalouf’s death coincided with reports that at least 15 proteges of Mr Makhlouf in security had been arrested.

 Regional bankers said the financial meltdown in Lebanon last year prompted scrutiny by the inner circle about Mr Makhlouf’s position as the money man of the régime.

 It was a role he inherited from his father, Mohammad, who moved to Moscow between 2012 and 2014.

 The tycoon was barred this year from leaving Syria and the government ordered his assets to be seized.

 But his relations with Russia are said to have been a major factor shielding him from physical retribution.

 Mr Makhlouf became a major player in the war economy. He financed pro-régime militias and paid compensation to families who lost members fighting for the régime.

 Mr Abdel Nour said Khalouf was a conduit for Mr Makhlouf to grease the wheels of the system.

 “Khalouf had a network among the officer corps and he owed allegiance to Makhlouf,” Mr Abdel Nour said. “For the régime, such officers are a time bomb."

 Muhammad Halhal, a cleric, said the brigadier general had “damaged his life for his homeland" in footage that appeared on a Facebook page for his home village, Tel Turmos, north of Homs.

 An unidentified army captain delivered a eulogy, saying Khalouf was “always optimistic about the future of Syria”.

 “He inspired his subordinates with love and high morals,” the captain said.



 Mystery shrouds the reported death of another four régime operatives, including Ali Jumblatt and Maan Idris, two lieutenants of Maher al-Assad.

 The other two were Brig Gen Somar Deeb, who oversaw interrogations at the notorious Sednaya Military Prison north of Damascus, and Brig Gen Thaer Kheir Beik of Air Force intelligence.

 Air Force intelligence is a main security organisation that was also believed to have come under strong influence from Iran.

 No corroboration or denial of their deaths was found on the pro-Assad social media.

 But the outlets said a fifth régime operative who was reported by the opposition and Arab media to have been killed, Brig Gen Jihad Zaal of Air force Intelligence, a Sunni, is alive and working.

 The officer with the opposition said it was highly plausible that the four were “liquidated”, given the internal upheaval in the régime.

 But Mr Abdel Nour was inclined to believe that the four are all alive and still active within the régime.

 “The régime wants to distract from the main issue, which is Rami Makhlouf,” he said.

 Mr Abdel Nour said it was usual for the régime to put out false information “to hide its patterns, or create false ones”.

 With the régime considered to be well versed in deception, it might never be ascertained whether the four are dead or alive, especially considering that their family names are Alawite.

 Unity among the Alawites in security has underpinned the régime since Hafez al-Assad took power in a coup in 1970.

 Direct shedding of blood by the régime of Alawites in the military and security organisations has been relatively rare.

 The praetorian military and intelligence units, overseen by layers of enforcers, maintained cohesion over decades.

 But turf warfare among the pro-Assad paramilitary increased in the past few years, and the régime has not hesitated to dispose of non-violent Alawite dissidents.



 The most important Alawite security figure believed by regional intelligence to have been killed by the régime was the president’s brother-in-law, Brig Gen Assef Shawkat.

 Maher al-Assad, in particular, hated Shawkat, and shot him in the stomach in the 1990s.

 Shawkat was transferred to France for treatment, survived, and returned to Syria.

 In 2012, a villa explosion in Damascus killed him and three other senior security figures, who were members of a “crisis cell” directing the crackdown on the uprising.

 Three rebel groups claimed responsibility. But regional intelligence officials said Shawkat's death was an inside job.

 A European diplomat described Shawkat as “everything Bashar al-Assad is not: charismatic, loved by the Alawites and competent militarily”.

 Shawkat and Jameh were among senior Syrian security officers implicated by a UN investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

 Hariri died in a lorry bomb blast in Beirut, along with 21 others.

 His assassination set in motion a series of events that forced the withdrawal of Syrian régime forces from Lebanon that year.

 UN investigators interrogated Jameh in Vienna in December 2005, along with four other Syrian officials.

 He was the de facto commander of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon when Hariri was killed.

 Rustum Ghazaleh, Jameh’s nominal superior in Lebanon, died in Damascus in 2015.

 The Lebanese pro-Assad al-Mayadeen TV said Ghazaleh, a Sunni from Deraa, died in hospital, but official media in Damascus made no mention of him.

 A regional intelligence official said Ghazaleh, who was also interrogated in Vienna, was looking to defect before the régime killed him, but “no one wanted him”.

 His one-time boss, interior minister Ghazi Kanaan, killed himself in 2005 at his office in Damascus, régime media said.

 But few believed the régime’s version at the time.

 Kanaan, an Alawite and the viceroy of the Syrian régime in Lebanon when Hariri was killed, became known as having been “suicided”.

 The régime resisted requests by the investigators to send Shawkat, head of Syrian military intelligence at the time, to Vienna to be questioned.


 A European official who covers Syria said although the details might never emerge, he had been expecting the régime to “embark on internal cleansing", given that it considers it has won the war.

 The régime’s cover-up operations have their roots in training by Russia’s KGB and Germany’s Stasi, and from at least one Nazi operative who fled to Syria after the Second World War.

 It might never be revealed how old and new symbols of the régime disappeared from the scene.

 But there is a saying among the vanquished Sunnis in Syria: “Only an Alawite kills an Alawite.” '

The brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, General Assef Shawkat, siting during condolences at the Damascus People's Palace. AFP

Syrian forces deploy scorched earth policy in newly-recaptured Idlib

Syrian White Helmet civil defence workers try to extinguish a fire in a field of crops in Kfar Ain in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria. AP  

 'Before his land was seized by forces loyal to the Syrian régime, pistachio and olive farmer Abu Jaber said he had a story to tell for every grain of sand.

 His farmland was near the northern town of Kafr Zita, which was among those captured during an aggressive offensive to reclaim territory in the northern provinces of Hama and Idlib last year.

 Almost a year later, much of the agricultural land in the area has either been plundered or burned.

 “Years of work have gone to waste,” said Mr Jaber. “I had to leave and will never be able to return back after the crops were stolen and land burnt.”

 “Every day I receive dozens of photos and videos … They burn our lands so we can’t return to cultivate for even just ourselves to live off the produce.”


 Together with his six brothers, Mr Jaber grew enough food across 450 acres to feed 79 members of the family, as well as providing enough funds to keep them going. They say they have lost crops worth $250,000.

 The family have now fled to Batbo in western Aleppo, where they are looking for jobs. Mr Jaber’s sons risk dropping out of university as he can no longer afford to keep them there, and finding work in a country ravaged by almost a decade of civil war is no easy feat.



 Syrians are also contending with a collapsing economy and sharp fall in the value of their currency, compounded by the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic.

 According to a Facebook statement by the local branch of President Bashar Al Assad's ruling Baath Party in Mahrada, northern Hama, proceeds from this year’s pistachio crop will be put towards a fund to assist the families of the régime forces' dead. Yet there is no system to compensate the farmers for the loss of their land or their income.

 According to Abdulnasser Hoshan, a lawyer from Kafr Zita, the proceeds from seized crops were likely to go to intelligence services officers rather than the “martyrs” fund.

 “The number of civilians affected is more than 50,000,” said Mr Hoshan.



 “It is not currently possible for civilians to claim compensation for their losses because the Assad régime’s judiciary is corrupt, and rights cannot be restored to its people.”

 This year’s fires began appearing at the beginning of June and were started by volunteers for state-funded militias. Mr Hoshan said that between 9,000 and 15,000 acres of land that hosted various crops, including pistachios, olives, wheat and lentils, have so far been burned.

 “These crimes must be documented for justice after the fall of the Syrian régime,” said Mr Hosham.



 Attacking crops in opposition-affiliated areas is a tactic the régime has used before, notably in 2018 and 2019 when huge areas of barley were incinerated. Critics say the attacks are designed to starve civilians, and the loss of food and income makes life very difficult, especially during the hot summer months.

 Extremist group ISIS also chose to burn crops in areas they retreated from or where they had recently been defeated.

 Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in Syria, with around half of the three million population having already been displaced at least once from other parts of Syria. Food and shelter is already scarce, with even the displacement camps are too full to take people.

 Mr Ghassan Aboud, engineer and head of Hama’s opposition agriculture department, said the burning of the fields could also impact the area’s chances of recovery.

 As well as killing the soil’s micro-organisms and exposing it to the damaging effects of the sun, the fires damage the ecosystem by killing the insects needed for pollination.

 “In the short term, pistachio trees are irreparable agricultural wealth because they need 12 to 15 years to enter the fruit phase,” said Mr Aboud, with olive trees needing between four and five years.


 For Mr Jaber, the future of his farm or his family’s whereabouts now seem uncertain.

 "I’m afraid that the Assad régime will transfer ownership of the land to another person, as he did with many displaced civilians from the rest of Syria,” he said.

 “I’m also afraid of being displaced again from Batabo – the news is spreading that Assad and Russia’s are planning to launch a new military campaign in the region." '

Image

Monday, 20 July 2020

The latest updates on Idlib file

The latest updates on Idlib file

 'A violent explosion targeted a joint military patrol of Turkey and Russia on the international "Aleppo - Latakia" road (M4) last Tuesday, and after investigations it was found that the explosion was caused by a car bomb that penetrated the international road and targeted the twenty-first patrol, which was supposed to arrive in the village of "Ain al-Hoor" in the countryside of Jisr al-Shughour west of Idlib, according to the protocol signed between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the 5th of March last year.


 
The explosion was not the first on the road since the patrols began, but it was the most violent ever, and the Russian Defense Ministry admitted the wounding of three of its personnel, and a number of vehicles were damaged, and the Russian army was only able to unleash its planes to fire the lava on the heads of civilians In the Idlib countryside, in revenge for what it suffered.



 
The file of the joint patrols between Turkey and Russia on the "M4" road in Idlib has passed four months, and just as its beginning was difficult it seems that the end of it will be so. With the first patrol that was to be run on the road, a number of groups in Idlib from hard-line factions threatened to take actions against it.

 The car bomb blast brought fierce attacks primarily on civilians, although such a car bomb did not achieve any significant results, Russia and its militias began a campaign of air and ground bombing of the villages and towns of Jabal al-Zawiya in southern Idlib, and reached the city of "Ariha", which lost two of civilians (father and child) as a result of the shelling, others were wounded.


 
After the region's population hoped to live safe in light of the Turkey and Russia agreement that culminated in the joint patrols on the M4 road, they are now afraid of the collapse of the agreement completely, and a return to square one, and of course the return of the battles.

 Russia said after the bombing that the process of patrolling the road had stopped temporarily, while the Turkish Ministry of Defense stressed that it will continue alongside Russia to implement the agreement, and to continue the patrols and address the situation with full determination, which creates a ray of hope that escalation can be halted and calm return, which was relative and basically not permanent.



 
Returning to the car bombing incident, a group calling itself "Khattab Chechen", an unknown group whose only previous action was detonating another explosive device on the M4 road, claimed responsibility for the car bomb which raises many questions about its true affiliation and its goals as well as the purpose of such attacks.

 
Some observers argue that the beneficiaries of causing chaos and obstructing the implementation of the Turkey and Russia agreement are the militant groups represented by the factions of the operating room "Stand Firm" which in turn includes several organizations, most notably "Guardians of Religion" [Hurras al-Din], because it considers that any stability that Idlib could witness, would enable the Turkish army has expanded more and more in the province, and this will mean in one way or another that these groups will end or decline significantly.

 
Others see that Russia, Iran and the Assad régime have an interest in the collapse of the agreement, especially Russia, which wants to evade the upcoming commitments with Turkey, after the success of the joint patrols, which is to ensure the return of the displaced to their homes, and to withdraw the Assad régime to the Sochi borders.

 
Others expect that the Headquarters for Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham would be the mastermind of the bombing, in an attempt later to make it an excuse on the basis of which it would attack the militant factions, and portray itself to the states as the moderate faction committed to international agreements, and the sole controller in Idlib.

 
The Syrian researcher, Abdullah al-Mousa, points out that the video broadcast by the agency "Rus vensa" (which accurately showed the moment when the car exploded) confirmed that the explosion actually took place with a car bomb and not an explosive device, which excludes many possibilities that the régime's agents and allies are who designed this play.



 
The video itself, according to al-Mousa, was highly unlikely that the Headquarters for Tahrir Al-Sham was responsible for the bombing (the fact that some spoke of this scenario in the sense that [HTS leader] al-Golani wanted to create an argument to complete the attack on extremist organizations).

 
Al-Mousa suggested that the organization Guardians of Religion was responsible for this operation, especially that "the organization had a military presence near the area where the bombing occurred before the Moscow agreement on March 5, and members from southern and western countryside of Idlib have joined in, and this process requires local members to plan and implement it."

 
The Syrian researcher reinforces his belief by pointing out that the Guardians of Religion members are the most active - albeit in media - in attacking the "Turkish - Russian" agreement, and they have appeared several times with videos threatening to bomb, slaughter and kill.

 
Others expect that it was Russia itself that conducted the bombing by its cells, and the spokesperson for the National Liberation Front, Captain Naji Mustafa, said that the biggest beneficiary of the bombing is the Russian occupation, the régime forces and the Iranian militias, since Russia has been seeking since the March 5th agreement to break the ceasefire and rteurn to the escalation in Idlib governorate.

 
In turn, the Syrian researcher, Abbas Sharifa, suggests that the party responsible for the car bombing would be one of two, the cells of the Syrian régime and Iran, which are working to push Russia to start military action in Idlib, and the second cells remaining from the organization "Guardians of Religion" and the "operation room", "Stand Firm", to reinforce their position rejecting the international understandings.



 
All possibilities remain open regarding the future of the ceasefire agreement in Idlib. During the past days, Russian hints indicating their unease with the current calm have been repeated, sometimes accusing the factions of preparing chemical weapons attacks with the aim of accusing the régime of it, and at times claiming that these factions are attacking the military Hmeimim base in the countryside of Latakia with drones, but on the other hand it can be said that the signs of the return of the battles have not been completed yet, as no media or military propaganda by the Assad régime was noted towards the return of the battles in Idlib as usual, and the National Front spokesman confirmed they "haven't monitored new military build-up of the régime and its militias in the Idlib area, and he indicated that the factions consider the worst possibilities, including the renewed Russian attacks, and continue to prepare their fighters and develop plans to face any possible attack." '

204,000 Syrian refugees returned to Idlib since March, Turkey ...

Friday, 17 July 2020

Daraa: Weary Syrians Wait for Salvation amid Despair, Destruction



 'Two years after the Syrian régime took control over Syria's south, the city of Daraa, which was named "the cradle of the revolution" in 2011, appears melancholic, as fatigue and despair have overwhelmed its residents.

 Upon entering the city through the international road connecting Damascus and Amman, one sees a single regular army checkpoint covered with pictures of Bashar Al-Assad and signs that salute the army and notices the scarcity of cars moving toward the city center.

 The side road leading to the city appears deserted on both its sides, although the areas are inhabited. The city is divided in two parts: The west, referred to as Daraa the station, and the east, referred to as Daraa the town (the old city). Its residents “sparked the revolution” in mid-March 2011, armed opposition factions took over the city in early 2012, and the régime regained control of the city in July 2018, through the so-called "reconciliation agreement" sponsored by its ally, Russia, after it had carried out dozens of military operations against the factions that controlled the city.

 While the city center had been extremely congested before the war, one is now immediately struck by the emptiness in the western part of the city in the afternoon, the limited number of cars passing through the main roads and the scarcity of pedestrians on the streets that are covered with Assad pictures, in addition to few posters of candidates for the People's Assembly (Parliament) elections.

 Although most of the markets and stores are open, sales are extremely limited and the owners’ faces are cold.

 One of them said: “Most people are penniless. They only buy necessities. Two years ago, the situation was much better. God blessed us in the old days. People covered streets like dust. Daraa would smile at its people and its visitors. ”



 While there appears to be few army checkpoints in the city center, the absence of the regular security forces and Russian police on the main and minor roads and streets is also noticeable.

 A man in his fifties, after having described the situation in the city and the whole province as "uncomfortable", said "People’s souls have died. There is nothing to rejoice about, to say nothing of high costs. Many people and their children are detained, and we know nothing about them. Additionally, in the countryside, there are constant back and forth operations (launched by the militants who have reconciled/made a deal on one hand and the army and militias allied with it on the other). There are also kidnappings and killings by unknown perpetrators. It's bad, people are tired," he added.

 For his part, a man in his thirties said: “The régime has imposed total control over the province, with the situation returning to the way it had been before the revolution erupted, and those who made the deals refuse this. The scene in the city gives the impression of calm and stability, but in truth, it is more akin to a dormant volcano that may erupt at any moment.”



 Before 2011, the scenery along the Damascus-Amman Highway was one of farms, fruit-bearing trees, and vegetable fields, a delight for travelers and the many locals who would stroll there. The province with a population of about one and a half million people provided the country with a diversity of crops. Today, however, most of these fields have become barren; the trees are scarce, while the debris is abundant in the cities, villages and towns whose people protested.'

Image

Thursday, 2 July 2020

After 'reconciliation': Syria régime's silent crackdown

An activist group in Daraa has documented the deaths of 14 army defectors since 2018

 'Syrian army defector Salam had signed a surrender deal with the régime supposed to protect him, but after reporting for military service, he disappeared and months later was declared dead.

 "He went off and never came back," his elder brother said.

 Salam is one of a growing number of former rebel fighters who disappeared, died or suffered abuse at the hands of régime forces, despite signing so-called reconciliation deals in areas the government has recaptured.


 At least 219 people who have signed such agreements have been detained over the past two years, including 32 who likely died because of torture or poor conditions in régime jails.

 Most are residents of the southern province of Daraa, the defeated cradle of Syria's 2011 uprising.

 After the Russian-backed régime retook the area in 2018, most rebels decided to stay after signing reconciliation deal.

 They included Ahmad, a former rebel fighter then in his late thirties, and his brother Salam, an army defector and opposition fighter turning 26 that year.

 While Ahmad chose to join a Russian-backed régime unit, Salam decided to return to military service as requested under the surrender deal, despite objections from his brother, who feared he might be detained, or worse.

 "He called me to tell me he would hand himself in for military service," said Ahmad, now aged 40, using a pseudonym for fear of retribution.

 "I tried to stop him, but he insisted."



 Under the surrender deal, Salam had six months to rejoin his old army regiment.

 Two months before the deadline, he went to a Damascus office to enlist and was never seen again.

 His family was left in the dark until 2019, when the government responded to their enquiries with a handwritten note on which was scrawled his date of death and corpse number.

 Ahmad refuses to believe his brother died, but says if he did, the cause was likely torture or dire conditions in jail.

 "We agreed to the reconciliation agreement because we had no other way to stay safe," Ahmad said.

 "I managed to protect myself, but my brother didn't and now he is gone."

 An activist group in Daraa has documented the deaths of 14 army defectors since 2018.

 Some were stopped at checkpoints, while others died after trying to rejoin the army, the Martyrs' Documentation Centre says.

 But "the régime hasn't handed over any corpses to the families nor has it said where they were buried," according to the centre.

 Diana Semaan, a researcher at Amnesty International, charged the government with breaking the terms of surrender deals in Homs, Daraa and the Damascus countryside.

 "People living in government-controlled areas, especially areas that 'reconciled' with the government, continue to be at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and death in custody," she said.

 Omar al-Hariri of the Martyrs' Documentation Centre said reconciliation agreements did not include amnesty for crimes other than opposing the government.

 So "the régime has fabricated criminal charges against many people" or used minor offences as a pretext to arrest them, he said.



 Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch said ongoing detentions, torture and deaths in custody showed surrender deals were "completely ineffective".

 They "are more of a facade designed to falsely reassure people, when on the ground they make very little difference," she said.

 It also sends "a very bad signal" to individuals who are considering a return to government-held areas, she added.

 In just one case discouraging such returns, three brothers -- two former rebel fighters -- were arrested days after they signed reconciliation deals in 2018, a source at a rights group said. They have not been seen since.

 In another, as early as 2014, opposition fighter Omar, then aged 25, surrendered to regime forces after two years of siege in the central city of Homs.

 He had defected from the army before joining the rebels, his brother said.

 Under the surrender deal, Omar -- also a pseudonym -- was told he would be interrogated for two days, then would have to rejoin the army within six months.

 But instead, he was locked up for months in a school with other former fighters then transferred to Sednaya, a Damascus prison infamous for torture.

 "For four years, we paid just to make sure he stayed alive inside," his brother said.

 Omar was finally released, but then forced straight back into the army with no prospect of a way out, he said.

 Though "he's hoping to escape again, he feels his hands are tied." '

After 'reconciliation': Syria regime's silent crackdown | SYRIA ...

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

'Wished I were dead,' says survivor of Assad prison

'Wished I were dead,' says survivor of Assad prison


 'Sawsan Um Muhammad, 31, can never forget the torture she suffered in prison after she was detained by the Bashar al-Assad régime forces seven years ago.

 "We were not seen as human beings, all prisoners were treated as sheer numbers," she said.

 At least 500,000 people including women are currently languishing in Assad régime prisons and detention centers, according to opposition sources.

 Very few victims are able to muster the courage to speak about their ordeal.

 "They said I texted someone they were looking for [...] I spent time in different detention centers for nearly four months. I experienced some of the worst tortures," she said, as her eyes filled with tears.



 She spent time in prisons in Homs and Damascus.

 All these prisons seemed just like slaughterhouses, she said.

 However, the worst was the Military Security branch in Homs.

 Adding that her brother was also detained and killed by torture in 2012, she recalled her own experiences.

 "We wished we were dead a thousand times a day. I stayed with 40 women in a small room. It was boiling hot, we could not breathe.

 "We were not allowed to sleep more than 1-2 hours a day. We were exhausted, psychological violence was much worse than physical. They did all of this knowingly, we saw people die in front of us," she said.

 They were interrogated and beaten up making them confess to crimes they had never committed.

 "They used to burn us with cigarette butts. They hung us to the ceiling by our arms and just left us there for hours. They electrocuted some of my best friends in those prisons," she recalled.

 "Whenever they took me for interrogation, they told me if I listened to them I would not be tortured. But I resisted and experienced many tortures. I was a strong woman, but the torture made my whole body shake to the core," she said.

 "There was no humanity in the régime's prisons. It was a cemetery for the living. They would torture young people in front of our cells," she said.

 Bashar al-Assad has not been punished for his horrific crimes, and the international community remains ineffective and silent, she added.



 Um Muhammad was released during a prison exchange between the opposition and régime forces in September 2013.

 She said she will always support the Syrian revolution, and the tortures that she experienced will not turn her from her cause.

 She also regards everyone in Bashar al-Assad's prisons as her brothers and sisters, and she will always defend their rights.

 Since March 2011, when the people's revolution started in Syria, 14,253 people were killed by torture by Assad régime forces, according to a report by the Syria Network of Human Rights (SNHR).

 Of those, at least 173 were children, 46 were women.'

Leila Al-Shami (@LeilaShami) | Twitter

Saturday, 27 June 2020

'Ayouni', the documentary film that puts a face to Syria's forcibly disappeared

The bus of the NGO 'Families for freedom', which calls for the release of prisoners forcibly disappeared in Syria at the hands of the regime or various armed groups.

 'Award-winning Palestinian director Yasmin Fedda's latest documentary, "Ayouni", sheds light on Syria's forced disappearances through the intimate stories of Noura, widow of cyber-activist Bassel Safadi, and Machi, sister of Italian priest Paolo Dall'Oglio, who was abducted in Raqqa in 2013 and whose whereabouts are unknown.



 "I don't know if he's alive. I can't be sure he's dead. Until I see his body, I can't mourn him," said Noura Ghazi, who learned in August 2017 that her husband, Bassel Khartabil Safadi, had been executed, five years after he was detained in Damascus and two years after he disappeared. But she knows nothing else. Not where, nor when, nor how: "With a gun? Day or night?” she demanded. For years, the 38-year-old Syrian lawyer and human rights activist has been travelling around the world in search of answers and the "most basic right to say goodbye to my husband".

 Ghazi shares the questions that haunt her in "Ayouni", Fedda's latest documentary, which will be available for streaming on July 1. The Palestinian filmmaker, nominated for a Bafta and the maker of several films about Syria, where she spent her childhood, filmed Ghazi in her quest to find answers about her absent husband. Fedda also followed Immacolata – known as "Machi", the sister of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio. The latter is the Italian priest who in the 1980s founded the Syrian Catholic monastery of Mar Mûsa, north of Damascus, and was later kidnapped in Raqqa by the Islamic State group on July 27, 2013. He has not been heard from since.

 Like Safadi and Dall’Oglio, approximately 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared after being arrested by Bashar al-Assad's régime or abducted by various armed militias, including the Islamic State group, since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, according to Amnesty International.



 For six years, Fedda filmed these two women, who did not know each other but were brought together by a common tragedy. "I had started a project on Father Dall'Oglio, a friend of mine, when we learned of his kidnapping. My film then took a different turn," the director told FRANCE 24. From Iraq to Italy through Lebanon and the United Kingdom, she recorded their secrets, their tears and their questions, and filmed their struggle for truth and justice.

 "I tried to capture the complexity of their emotions. In six years, there have been different stages, ranging from anger to hope, but the search for truth has always kept them going," Fedda said. As Machi told her brother's kidnappers in a video posted in 2014, "we hope to hug Paolo, but we are ready to mourn his death."

 Neither a journalistic investigation – although the facts are verified – nor a human rights campaign film - though the film’s release partners include Amnesty International and pro-democracy NGO The Syria Campaign, “Ayouni” is the film of an auteur. It is a thought-provoking documentary about war crimes seen through the lens of intimate stories.

 "It's not just a film about Syria and forced disappearances, it's a film that touches on universal themes," said Fedda.



 " 'Ayouni' means eyes in Arabic," Fedda explained. "But it's also a term of affection for the people you love. It can therefore be read in two ways: either what people see or as a testimony of love.”

 It’s this second meaning that unites Noura and Bassel, "the bride and groom of the revolution". The couple met in 2011 during an anti-Assad demonstration in Douma. Through video archives, Fedda introduces us to Bassel, a Palestinian-Syrian activist and open-source developer who played a leading role in the free Internet movement, notably by creating Arabic versions of Wikipedia and the Firefox web browser. "I wanted to make him a presence before filming his absence," she said.

 The couple got engaged in 2011, before the revolution turned into war. Although Assad has already ordered his armies to fire on demonstrators, Noura and Bassel still believed in change. "We have come such a long way..." they said in archive footage. But in March 2012, Bassel was arrested by the régime. Nevertheless, the couple got married in Adra prison on January 7, 2013, hiding from the guards. Then Bassel disappeared from the radar in 2015, the year in which he was allegedly executed. Allegedly. Noura has learned to learn to live with the uncertainty but has been relentless in her attempts to find out what happened.



 Ghazi, a lawyer and founder of the NGO Nophotozone, which provides legal assistance to the families of the disappeared, has become the voice of tens of thousands of Syrian families who have seen their loved ones vanish into the jails of the Damascus régime. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, an estimated 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared. On June 16, Ghazi pleaded their case again before the UN Security Council, at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron.

 "I'm here to tell you about the suffering of the families of the forcibly disappeared, mostly men, leaving us women to raise children without fathers," she said in a video conference. "I am here to talk to you about the violations of Bashar al-Assad who flouts our laws and our Constitution. (...) I am here to talk to you about the lack of political will to put an end to it. I demand justice and I am ready to pay the high price for it."

 Fedda relayed the plea in her generous and empathetic documentary. "I would be happy if my film could make a modest contribution to making their struggle known," the director concluded.'

""Machi" Dall'Oglio holds a photo of his brother, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, kidnapped in Syria in 2013 by the Islamic State group and missing ever since.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Syrians tell why they are rising against the régime ‘no matter what’

An anti-Assad regime demonstration under way in Suweida, southern Syria, in early June 2020. AFP

Zouhir al-Shimale:

 'On June 7, just outside the Syrian intelligence offices in Suweida, about 100 people gathered in the streets on the first day of a growing movement to denounce President Bashar Al Assad.

 Their numbers grew as the protests gathered pace in the Druze-majority province in south-west Syria, an area traditionally seen as loyal to the régime.

 Many were youth – students and teenagers – wielding banners and calling for change as the country plunges deeper into economic uncertainty.

 Their peaceful demands echoed the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2011 before the régime unleashed violent crackdowns on the uprising, plunging the country into a brutal war.


 Many of the hundreds massing in Suweida’s central squares grew up knowing little else, their childhoods framed by violence that has laid waste to the country over almost a decade of conflict.

 But that has not stopped them from rising against the régime and voicing their discontent, even after security forces attacked and arrested demonstrators this week.

 "Despite the overwhelming perils, such as abduction and gunning by masked militants, people are persisting with carrying on their peaceful movement," said Rayan Marouf, a reporter for Al Sweida News 24.



 Echoing tactics it deployed in the early days of the 2011 uprising, the régime attempted to counter the demonstrations with a pro-Assad rally on June 10. A voice note shared on social media and circulated among students threatened expulsion if they failed to attend.

 At an anti-Assad sit-in on the same day, protesters held up images of political prisoners held in régime jails.

 On June 15, the protesters gathered in Suweida’s central squares to call for democratic change, the overthrow of Mr Al Assad and the removal of foreign militias from the country were joined by pro-régime protesters who started to attack them.

 Security forces then began to disperse the demonstrations using violence. “After the protest was attacked, the police and Mukhabarat started brutally beating up the participants and arrested many,” Mr Marouf said.



 State and regional media outlets are describing the demonstrations as “economically driven” and a response to the currency collapse after the Syrian pound plummeted to about 2,700 to the US dollar last week on the black market.

 But protesters are demanding a wider change, calling for the removal of Assad with chants of “Bashar, leave” and signs advocating an “inclusive civilian secular state”.

 “People in Suweida demand a holistic, transformative change in the country ... [they] would not risk their lives and protest out of economic hardship [alone]. People want freedom, equality and the end of oppression,” said a protester called Jamal.

 Another protester, who gave his name as Khaled, said that “hegemonic powers are inflicting more poverty, destruction and chaos in the country; their departure from Syria is a key element of the movement”.

 People in Syria are tired, he continued. “They are waiting for real change that relieves their suffering.” However, fear of retaliation by the régime makes them “negative” about the prospects for a positive outcome, he said.

 There is little cause for hope in Syria as the country sinks into a deepening economic crisis, with some experts warning that famine could be on the horizon.



 Two-thirds of the population already lives in severe poverty, according the UN, and fears over the impact of new Caesar Act sanctions has sent prices skyrocketing, leaving many Syrians unable to afford basic necessities like bread.

 However, there are critical dynamics in the current movement that could yield a different outcome to previous protests.

 In the past, the Suweida’s support for the Alawite-dominated régime – as a fellow minority area – has seen some Druze residents back security forces against protest movements.

 The Sheikh Alakil Druze administration, a local body headed by Druze religious figures, has always been supportive of the state and was the first to renew its vow of loyalty to Mr Assad during protests in 2011 and 2015, but its silence now is telling, Mr Marouf said.

 “Their support and loyalty to Assad seemingly is relinquishing; otherwise we would have seen them by now racing to renew their ultimate support.”

 The population fears the régime will take advantage of high unemployment in the city to enlist local armed groups to squash dissent.

 In 2015, small demonstrations were followed a few days later by car bombings that killed 46 civilians including Sheikh Al Balous, a well-known local Druze leader.

 “It is nerve-wrenching thinking of those days. This is a criminal régime which is ready to orchestrate [similar attacks] once again,” Mr Marouf said.

 “Nonetheless people so far remain, albeit with some division, united for their case, and to using peaceful means until they achieve their aims.”



 Nawras Zain Al Deen, who has been participating in the protests, sees the movement as a continuation of the 2011 revolt – and the violent response it was met with.

 At the demonstration on June 16, he saw between 600 and 700 intelligence and police forces gathered at the planned protest site. “I went to warn people as the protest was postponed because there were ongoing negotiations being held to free the detainees,” he said.

 “The policemen spotted us and starting running behind us. I made it, but my friend, who tried to distract them to help me escape, got arrested.”

 Mr Al Deen said the régime wants protesters to reduce their demands and stop calling for the overthrow of Mr Al Assad.

 “The uprising is going to continue no matter what. People have had enough from this régime and will no longer be silent in spite of their fake rallies. We will continue our protest until this régime changes and Syrians have their freedom.”



 Syrian writer and human rights activist Rima Flihan pointed to the clear distinction between peaceful calls for change that marked the early days of the 2011 uprising, and the war that followed.

 “What is happening now is a twin revolution of 2011, one with the same desire for change,” she said.

 “People in Syria need to breathe; that will never happen until we enter a transitional phase led by honourable people, preparing for a constitution, elections, reconstruction, and revival of the Syrian economy. Syrians have the right to this, and it is not difficult if the will exists; people want democracy, dignity, and freedom.” '

.

The reluctant refugee: Majeda's story

Majeda Khouri pictured for Migrateful during UK Refugee Week 2020 | Source: Twitter Migrateful

 'Majeda Khouri was detained in Syria for peacefully protesting the Assad régime. After her release, raids on her house prompted her to leave -- first for Lebanon and eventually the UK, where she was granted refugee status. In London, she has founded her own catering business and helps other Syrian refugee women from poorer backgrounds use their own cooking skills to earn a living in London.

 Majeda Khouri bridles slightly when she is introduced as a refugee. "I like to introduce myself as a feminist and human rights activist," she says firmly, "because that is what I am." Being a refugee in the UK is something she has been "forced" to become. "It is not a choice."

 "When I came here [to the UK] I was so depressed," says Khouri. "I wanted to be with my family. I had left my children for two years." At the time, her two sons were just 13 and 15. Khouri said she had done everything not to leave Syria, even after being detained for four months.



 Eventually though Khouri was forced to leave for Lebanon where she continued her activism. She worked in refugee and migrant camps, trying to support the activists she had left behind in Syria. But in Lebanon she had no right to remain, and so when she was invited to speak at an academic forum in Edinburgh in 2017, it became impossible for her to return. "I had no choice but to seek asylum in the UK," says Khouri sadly.

 Since arriving in the UK, she has built up her English by listening to the radio "24 hours a day," Khouri explains. She says she even kept it on while she slept, "to perfect my accent. I wanted to speak, so that gave me the power." Soon she was using those skills to speak at seminars, events and cooking classes, become a chef, give cooking classes via the organization Migrateful, and set up her own catering business "Syrian Sunflower."

 The sunflower represents her in more ways than one, Khouri explains. She used the image of a sunflower on her Facebook page when working as an activist in Syria. "I love the sun," she enthuses, her voice warming up, "I have a special relationship with it," then she adds wryly, "perhaps that is why I find the UK so difficult to live in." When her friends were campaigning for her release from detention, they all grew sunflowers and wrote her messages on her Facebook page saying "we are waiting for you, Syrian sunflower." So, says Khouri, "it means a lot to me."

 For Khouri, food is a way to tell her story and that of her country. "When you sit down to eat, you exchange something; you share something emotional, when you talk, people listen and they hear what you say," she says. That was how the idea for cooking Syrian food in London came about. Through the dishes, Khouri explains to people what is happening in Syria. "I needed to communicate to them that the war in Syria was not about Assad versus Isis, that it was more complicated than that."



 At one of the first events she catered, she didn't serve up the middle eastern delights that people might have been expecting, but a thin watery gruel. It was the only dish that people could eat when their city (Ghouta) was under siege, she told the BBC at the time. The trick worked, Khouri says, remembering the evening. "We were campaigning to break this siege," says Khouri. "I thought that if people shared this food, [this experience] they would listen more."

 While they were tentatively sipping their soup, Khouri passed around a letter she had written to British parliamentarians, trying to get attention focused on what the Assad régime was doing in Syria. Coming into contact with a small taste of the realities that people were facing, many who attended the event duly wrote a letter to their MP too. "A few months later, I met one of the MPs involved in the Syrian case and he told me had received over 40 of my emails and letters from people who attended the event. I was very pleased," concludes Khouri.



 Khouri had long been dissatisfied with the régime, but she could not do much about it because her family was constantly monitored.

 "My uncle had been tortured to death about 40 years ago and the security services would come to my house all these years, they came and turned our house upside down. Not just my family, most families, that was how it was. It was a security régime," says Khouri.

 In 2011, when the peaceful revolution began in Syria, Khouri saw her chance to work for change. She began to use her status as a Christian Syrian -- generally seen as being favorable to the régime -- to smuggle bread to people, who were already experiencing food shortages, across checkpoints.

 For a while, the ruse worked, says Khouri. But the régime cottoned on and in 2013, she was detained for four months. "We were only allowed out to the toilet once every 24 hours, at 3 am in the morning." This was because, explains Khouri, they were torturing people the rest of the time "between our space and the bathroom." Sometimes, when the women got to the bathroom, there would be dead bodies lying there. "They didn’t care," says Khouri about the régime. "They wanted us to see what they were doing."



 Sometimes, Khouri knew the people or recognized the voices of those being tortured. Once, in her cell, she heard the voice of a child. "He was just 13," she remembers. "I knew his mother and when he said he was 13 years old, immediately my son came to my mind." The boy, she says, was being forced to stand on a chair with a rope around his neck. They were threatening him that if he didn't admit to killing someone, they would first hang his mother and then him. "The boy was pleading with them not to kill his mother," Khouri remembers sadly. "He said, kill me, but please don't kill my mother."

 On hearing this, Khouri begged the guards to let her talk to the boy, telling them she would get the information they wanted. "It was very hard for me to hear that," she said. "I wanted to do this just to hug him and tell him 'don’t worry about your mother.' This is a small part of the horrible things the régime did," says Khouri.

 She was eventually allowed a few minutes with him, and she tried to tell him that she would get a message to his mother and that she would be safe. But the attempt doesn't have a particularly happy ending. "Since then the boy has not been found," says Khouri baldly, without speculating about what might have happened. The subject is quietly closed.

 Despite her experiences, on being released, Khouri was determined to stay in Syria and keep fighting for the country she wanted it to become. "Assad must go," she says determinedly. "It is time." But after frequent raids on their home, and periods in hiding, in 2016 Khouri was forced to use a smuggler and begin an 18 hour "dangerous" journey to get her over the border to Lebanon.



 You can hear Khouri smiling slightly down the telephone when asked if she thinks she defies people's expectations of what a refugee 'should' be. "Yes, yes," she says, eagerly recounting a story about being on a panel discussion with the mayor of London soon after she arrived in the UK. Khouri had also catered the event at which she was giving a speech. When the food arrived and it was made clear that she was the cook behind it, the mayor of London turned to her surprised and asked: "Did you make this food too?" Khouri laughed and answered him simply: "Yes, I can talk AND I can cook!"

 Khouri's capable strength and leadership skills shine through. "I am a leader," she agrees. "I am good at communicating and I can lead a team of people."

 Despite hoping to return to Syria one day, Khouri has filled her life in London. She has been busy helping other Syrian refugee women, who come from poorer backgrounds, use their own cooking skills to earn a living in London. As well as her catering business, she works as an online researcher for the Open University, contacting people in the camps in Lebanon and Jordan.



 Once she had refugee status, Khouri's sons were able to join her in the UK through the family reunification program. They are about to start studying at university but do not want to hear about her activism. "When I am talking to you here on the phone, they go in another room," she says. "It was difficult for them. When I was detained they didn't know where I was. They knew that the reégime killed people. I can understand, it was very hard for them, they don't want to hear about politics. They refuse to talk about it or get involved," she says quietly.

 Nevertheless, Khouri remains undeterred. "I believe I have a responsibility as a human rights activist. It is on the same level of importance as my family," she says. "That's why I have to do as much as I can. […] That's why I have this passion and this power inside to clarify things for people."

 "In 2011 when we started our revolution we said, yes, we have a dream and it will come true. Until now, we haven't achieved it but we will, I hope we can. 60% of Syrians were living in poverty. I had a good life, my children went to a good school but I could see things were not fair. People didn't have opportunities and the régime was taking everything into their own pockets."

 The régime wants us to leave, says Khouri. "Now there are 10 million people living outside Syria. ... But I will keep fighting until we have the country we dreamed of. What we need is the first step of change. If Assad goes, people will see there is the possibility of change." '

The destroyed hospital of Kafr Nabl, Idlib's countryside, in Syria | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/YAHYA NEMAH

Friday, 19 June 2020

Can Syrian sexual violence survivors get justice in Germany?

Women in Hatay, Turkey, take part in a protest to draw attention to women languishing in Syrian prisons in 2018

 'For most women, the horror starts at the moment of arrest. First, the male soldiers touch them inappropriately. On arrival at the prison, they are forced to strip naked. The invasion of their bodies often begins with an aggressive, intimate search by a male guard.

 For thousands of female detainees in régime prisons this marks the start of a journey to hell — one that very often ends with them being broken and then ostracized from their families and communities.

 Sexual, gender-based violence is one of the most widespread crimes in Syria's government detention facilities, according to international law expert, Alexandra Lily Kather. Yet, it is also one of the most underreported.

 "We know about air strikes, we know about weapons, we know about torture, we know about [the Islamic State]," says Kather who works for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin.

 "But what is not being covered sufficiently either in the media, or in terms of calling perpetrators to account, is sexual violence [in régime prisons], despite the devastation it causes both for the victim and for society as whole."

 On Tuesday Kather and her colleagues at the ECCHR took a step they hope will change this state-of-affairs in a radical way.

 Together with Syrian rights activist, Joumana Seif, Kather filed a criminal complaint with Germany's federal prosecutor calling for sexual and gender-based violence in Syria to be prosecuted as a crime against humanity.



 Germany has already achieved a world first by putting two former Syrian intelligence officers on trial in the town of Koblenz for war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to try foreign nationals for crimes committed abroad.

 However, while applauding this effort, ECCHR says Germany has failed to include sexual violence as a crime against humanity on any indictments or arrest warrants, which in their view is a grave oversight and a blow to the victims.

 "From the evidence we have," says Kather, "we can clearly see that sexual violence was part of a systematic and widespread attack on the civilian population and therefore should be categorized as a crime against humanity."

 The UN Human Rights Council shares this opinion. In a harrowing report published in 2018, the body detailed abuses based on the testimony of nearly 500 survivors and witnesses. Of all the warring parties, pro-government forces and militias were the most prolific offenders when it came to sexual attacks and rapes. The UN concluded they used sexual violence as a weapon to instill fear and inflict humiliation.

 The report's section on detention centers outlines acts of astonishing cruelty with a girl as young as nine being raped by a Syrian guard. Others were also sexually tortured and threatened with rape or raped in front of other guards and detainees. One brigadier general told a low-ranking officer who showed an interest in a female inmate: "Take her. Do anything you want with her."

 Men and boys were also raped and sexually violated in detention, but according to the report women and girls were disproportionately targeted.



 The need to seek redress for such atrocities is at the heart of the case being pursued by the ECCHR. They are acting on behalf of seven survivors, including four Syrian women and three men now based in Europe. All were civilians incarcerated in prisons operated by Syria's Air Force Intelligence Service in Aleppo, Hama and Damascus. ECCHR say they have identified nine perpetrators based on the testimony of these victims and other sources of evidence.

 As part of their criminal complaint, the international lawyers at ECCHR have issued a demand to Germany's Federal Prosecutor for an existing arrest warrant for the former head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service, Jamil Hassan, to be amended to include sexual violence as a crime against humanity. Additionally, they have called for investigations, also focusing on crimes of a sexual nature to be opened into the other eight alleged perpetrators and arrest warrants to be issued.

 Rights activist and legal expert Joumana Seif underlined the importance of characterizing crimes as "sexual" as opposed to other forms of brutality, especially in Syria.

 "Most of the survivors are women and when they are released, despite having such dreadful experiences in prison they are discriminated against. They pay twice," says Seif.

 "What they need are special health services and psychological help and the right to be protected. They need recognition."

 Men subjected to sexual violence in prison often feel their masculinity has been compromised and fear losing the respect of their peers, according to fellow legal expert Kather. Yet for women the consequences can be doubly devastating.

 "If a woman has been sexually violated, she is judged to have brought shame on the honor of the family and will be excluded," says Kather. "This destabilizes the family and if you destabilize family after family, you end up destabilizing the core of society."

 Justice for victims of sexual and gender-based crimes is also seen as key to any future reconciliation efforts, especially given what the UN report called a "near-total absence of accountability for such violations."

 For now, though, lawyer Kather, is focusing on the present.

 "This is a régime, a state that uses people's bodies for their political aim to oppress and terrorize, she says. "And we demand accountability from the German prosecutor." '

Lily Kather and Joumana Seif of the ECCHR