Monday, 21 September 2020

German court hears harrowing testimony of Syria torture


  Mansour Omari:

 'On 9 and 10 September, a former cemetery worker testified to gruesome details of the Syrian régime's torture programme in the so-called al-Khatib trial, which is taking place in Koblenz, Germany.

 It was the world's first trial of torture in Syria.

 It falls under Germany's universal jurisdiction law on crimes against humanity and it comes after Germany arrested two Syrian intelligence officers on its territory in February 2019.

 But the Koblenz court is not keeping full and complete transcripts of the proceedings, undermining the initiative in the eyes of some victims.

 The question of what happened to the bodies of their loved ones has haunted many Syrian families for years, and was finally answered, in horrendous detail, by one of those who participated in burying the dead.

 The witness testimony revealed the technical details of what is still, today, an ongoing Syrian torture and extermination machine.

 Since 2011, the Syrian régime has unleashed a systemic campaign of extermination against citizens who demanded their basic rights.

 Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been arrested by the Syrian government, killed under torture, died in detention, or were executed.

 The witness, who was code-named "Z 30/07/19", said in his testimony that at the end of 2011 intelligence officers asked him and several of his colleagues to work with them in transporting and burying the corpses of victims.

 The officers provided the cemetery worker with a minibus without license plates, but plastered with images of president Bashar al-Assad.

 Several times a week from 2011 to 2017, the worker drove his colleagues from military hospitals to the al-Quteifa and Najha cemeteries to unload and bury corpses from large refrigerated trucks, usually accompanied by intelligence officers.

 Up to three trucks were used to carry 300 to 700 corpses each, four times a week.

 He estimated to the court the total number of the corpses as being high as 1.5 million and maybe more.

 The government cemetery worker said the bodies were naked and covered in red and blue marks.

 Some of them had had their fingernails, toenails, or both pulled out and some were missing internal organs.

 When the trucks were opened, the witness recalled, it sounded like a gas bottle being unsealed, sending out horrible smells followed by streams of blood and worms.

 He spoke of corpses marked with numbers and symbols on their foreheads or chests.

 Some of the bodies' hands were still fastened behind their backs with handcuffs or zip ties.

 Some of their faces were unrecognisable from acid burns.

 Once a man who had supposedly been executed was still breathing, until an officer ordered an excavator driver to run over him.

 Another time, the witness discovered the body of a woman who was holding a dead child in her arms. He almost broke down when he saw this.

 The cemetery worker provided detailed information on the Syrian government's systematic process of eradicating the corpses of its victims and concealing the evidence.

 But his information about the locations of the mass graves was not new.

 Several human rights groups have documented mass graves to bury detainees in Syria since 2012, and repeatedly after that, including in the al-Quteifa and Najha mass graves, in which the cemetery worker described his activities.

 In 2013, field activists in the al-Quteifa area reported that they saw, on the morning of 12 June 2013, members of the Military Third Division burying dozens of bodies in a mass grave in al-Quteifa - the same grave the cemetery worker mentioned.

 In 2013, when I was working with the Violation Documentation Centre-VDC, an NGO, the centre also published an investigation together with Human Rights Watch, showing satellite images of mass graves and their locations in Najha and Al Bahdaliyah near Damascus.

 But amid the new revelations in the Koblenz trial, there is one unhelpful aspect: the German court is not keeping a full transcript of testimonies and proceedings.

 The result is to leave no official documentation of the crimes the witness spoke of. The corpses of Syria's state torture victims faded into limbo, and now, to add salt to the wound, their families are being deprived of their right to official records of how it took place.'

Monday, 14 September 2020

Assad turns 54, the throne he sits on has turned thornier

 Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria

 'Bashar al-Assad said on Monday he wanted to expand business ties with Russia to help his country cope with new US sanctions on its already crippled economy that threaten to undermine military gains Damascus achieved with Moscow’s help, Reuters reported.

 Assad met the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Syrian capital Damascus. Lavrov told a news conference Syria needed international help to rebuild its economy.

 Russia is helping Syria to fix its power plants but the oil output cannot resume as the fields were in areas outside government control.

 Syria and Russia, whose military support since 2015 helped Damascus reverse gains by militants in an almost decade-long war, had said the two sides planned to boost trade ties and would review energy, mining and power projects.

 Assad believes that with Moscow's help, Damascus can hope to break the blockade of US sanctions. He has pinned hopes on Russia while Western diplomats say Russia’s military involvement in Syria has secured Moscow major regional influence.

 “Russia turned the tide for Assad and with the régime now facing its gravest challenges, Moscow is in a better position than any other time to further squeeze Assad,” said one Western diplomat who follows Syria.

 Although Assad has now regained most of the territory he had lost in the war, the economy is in tatters, leaving many Syrians in poverty as the currency has lost 80 per cent of its value.

 Russia has criticized the new US sanctions that took effect in June under the so-called Caesar Act.

 Washington says the sanctions, which penalize foreign firms dealing with Syrian régime entities, aim to cut revenue for Assad’s government and push him back into UN-led talks to end the conflict.

 Last Sunday Assad met with members of the Makhlouf family in al Qardaha, his ancestral village.

 This comes a day after the régime formally transferred the license to operate the country’s duty-free shops from the family’s most notorious tycoon, Rami, to his malleable brother, Ihab. Bashar inherited the reins of Syria from his father, Hafez. Bu times have now changed.

 Nine years of gruelling war have fundamentally transformed Syrian society, and publicly appeasing the country’s richest dynasty is bound to agitate its citizens - over 85 per cent of whom now live in poverty.

 Syria’s Alawite community - which has been appeased with power as a policy by Assad's family - is likely to perceive these moves as yet another betrayal by the Syrian president.

 Syria’s economy has collapsed. Internal conflict, endemic corruption, and now Lebanon’s financial crisis – its currency is now worth a fraction of its pre-war value. Food shortages abound and state-subsidised bakeries, one of the last remaining safety nets, are thronged by crowds of starving people.

 Fuel for the common man is in short supply. Unemployment stands at 50 per cent according to the United Nations' study. Syrian society battles the menace of drug abuse, alcoholism, and psychological trauma. Meat and vegetables are virtually unaffordable. A single egg can be bought at the cost of 200 Syrian Pounds. Many families eat a mean of plain bread and chase it down with tea.

 Syrians, now more than ever, now face a genuine risk of starvation. Meanwhile, severe power outages and water shortages have become the norm.

 In contrast, the Syrian elite retains its lavish lifestyle and ask the common Syrians to "remain steadfast in the face of an "international conspiracy."

 Facebook pages are flooded with indictments of the ruling class, posted by the angry and wronged commoners. References to the “thieves” that run the country – once a critique voiced cautiously at home – represents the new discursive norm.

 High-profile Alawites, including individuals running pro-Assad sites, are often arrested for calling out corruption – especially when their comments go viral.

 Syrian soldiers demand discharge and public decries Assad's moves where while he secures his throne, their sons return in coffins.

 Add to this Syria's widely underreported Covid-19 catastrophe. Doctors are forced to hide the real figures.

 Should conditions persist, the Alawites - who have thrown their weight behind Assad and lost thousands of young men to the fight against rebels - may conclude that the possibility of slaughter by the rebels is as likely as the prospect of starvation and disease at the hands of the régime. This could cause a tectonic shift in their calculus and provoke an eruption.'

Friday, 11 September 2020

They risked their lives to show the horrors of war. Where are Syria’s journalists now?

 Dergham Hammadi visiting a refugee camp in Syria

 'As one of six brothers living in Damascus, Tim Seofi’s family were constantly hassled by the security services, even before the demonstrations broke out.

 When the revolution reached Damascus, Tim was in ninth grade and his father had been arrested four years earlier. He joined the peaceful marches and as the régime opened fire on its own people, he felt the only way to protect himself was to record what was happening.

 “My options were to carry a gun or to carry a camera and document the voices of these people… all we wanted was freedom and not to be harassed and hurt. We just wanted our very basic rights.”

 Tim was 19-years-old when he bought his first camera. As the official journalists turned their lenses on the violence and blood, Tim wanted to capture everyday life. He set up a Facebook page with his friends, an outlet for all of their work. He was contacted by a German publishing company who used his photographs of Idlib and Ghouta in a book, “Salamat from Idlib.”

 As he became more serious about his profession, Tim began working for several local and international news agencies; he recorded the sounds of the city, especially the bombs, and his work was picked up across the world.

 When he was injured covering one story, he was given just $100 compensation. “That was a time when a bag of flour or sugar was $300,” he recalls. “So it was basically nothing.” He didn’t have high expectations from them anyway, he says. The most important thing for him was that the world saw what was happening in Syria.

 Some years later Tim found himself in Douma, a city some 10 kilometres northeast of Damascus. It was 2018 and the Syrian and Russian government’s last campaign on the city.

 At the time, Douma was the last of the eastern suburbs to fall, and the most dangerous place in the world to be. By then, Tim was 24. He captured hundreds of hours of footage in the shelters.

 “So many people died,” he recalls, his voice breaking up. “People who I didn’t expect to die, died. I lost all of my neighbours who I filmed. About 23 people, one of them a child. And people that I expected to die, didn’t die.”

 He tried again to focus on what the mainstream news wasn’t seeing – where people were sleeping during the bombings, capturing shots of people gathered around a television set, waiting for a ceasefire announcement.

 Because of the siege he struggled to buy hard drives to save the footage he had. It was difficult to charge his equipment because of the frequent power cuts.

 Tim eventually left Douma on one of the buses that followed negotiations between Russia and the opposition. As they passed through régime held areas, supporters of the Syrian government threw rocks and dirty water at them. At the checkpoints the convoys were searched and he feared they would find the material he filmed.

 What followed was a devastating chain of events. His last $800 was stolen from his bag; his brother was held ransom by militants; his wife had a miscarriage and he was threatened with arrest for being an atheist.

 The final time he tried to escape his country, Tim made it to Turkey. The bathroom in the apartment he was staying in had a window that overlooked the street and he spent a lot of time looking out of it, in disbelief that such a normal life existed – “there were traffic lights and cars and it was just so normal,” he says.

 Tim lives near an airport and every time he hears a plane, he gets scared, because the sound reminds him of the bombing. He thinks a lot about his family and his siblings that are still in Afrin. As for the country he left behind – “I just dream of a free and democratic Syria where everyone lives peacefully.”

 Tim eventually gathered the courage to look through his reels of film from Douma. “For a long time, I just couldn’t go back and look at the footage but then I felt there was nothing else I could do… when I finally had the courage to go through everything, I made a short film out of it.”

 Douma Underground was shown in festivals across the world. “I felt pressured because thousands of people had gone in front of my lens and I felt the responsibility and pressure that they are holding me accountable and I needed to get their stories out.”


 In 2018 Dergham Hammadi was working as a correspondent for Focus Aleppo, an electronic website which published news and features about the city where he was born.

 By then militants were entering the country from all over the world, and the men used kunya – pseudonyms – on their marriage licences to Syrian women. It was a long way from the watercolour landscapes he painted during peacetime.

 Since the start of the Syrian war, thousands of women have been forced to marry Daesh fighters, with devastating consequences. Many committed suicide – the ‘lucky’ ones managed to escape to Turkey. “Some women have told me outright that they were victims of sadism,” says Dergham.

 Without knowing the real name of their husband, the women can’t register their marriage or their children. Dergham wanted to research the 16,000-17,000 unregistered children living in camps, effectively under house arrest, who had no access to aid.

 He approached the Syrian Salvation Government, associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and spoke to the justice minister and other departments to present the idea of helping the women register their marriage.

 He was told about a camp in Kherbet Eljoz, Idlib, where some of these women lived and asked if he could visit. They agreed, so the following Monday a friend gave him a lift.

 “I was surprised when I arrived and asked to go to the legal office, the person at the door asked if I was Dergham and I found seven or eight armed men and they put me in a van. They asked how I came, I said by car, and they also took the man who dropped me off. They held me for four days.”

 Dergham was taken to Harem Prison where he was charged with working with the US, but they misjudged the amount of support he had.

 Focus Aleppo stood by him in his absence, for example helping with his expenses, and drumming up support for him. Outside, whilst his supporters were demanding his release, inside the prison authorities were becoming flustered. Why was he the centre of so many Facebook campaigns? They asked.

 “They fear the media,” Dergham explains. “The Aleppo Revolutionary Council organised the campaign, since I am from Aleppo, and they had a legal team and whenever they asked about me, the prison would say I wasn’t there and I was beaten.”

 As media coverage grew, so did Dergham’s indifference: “I said if you kill me, my wife and children would be okay. Any organisation helping orphans would help them. They would get more money than what I can provide.”

 Dergham slept on the dirty prison floor for 28 days. “This was all fine,” he says. “I only cared about the issue of Syrian women. In prison, I was at peace because I knew I was trying to fix a problem and find a solution.”

 Around the same time he was inside, Judge Mohammad Nour Hamidi, his friend, was also kidnapped. “They pulled out seven of his fingernails and asked for a ransom of 35 million Syrian lira and released him after it was paid. But I was released without paying because they saw I had nothing. What were they going to take? My phone? My legs that I use to walk?”

 The prison administration finally buckled under the media pressure, released him and then, in a bizarre turn of events, invited him to a restaurant.

 “I refused to go, I had just been with prisoners who were starving, fed as much as a young child would eat. I just asked to be dropped off at the nearest [café] for coffee and smokes.”


 As a teenager, Yarub al-Dali undertook a number of highly dangerous assignments a seasoned reporter may never embark on throughout their whole career.

 When he was just 19-years-old he says he went undercover to watch an oil-money exchange between Daesh and the régime. In 2015 he wrote a report criticising a battle waged against a Christian village by al-Nusra Front: “This offended the revolution,” he says.

 He has lived with the consequences ever since – when they read the piece, the militant group captured and punished him. “During the torture I was tied up and this caused my sciatic nerve to become blocked. I am receiving treatment now. I took many doses of cortisone to be able to move due to the absence of a doctor while I was in the besieged Homs,” he recalls.

 Yarub didn’t receive any compensation and until now suffers from this back injury.

 One of the stories he covered, about people who had become handicapped by war in the city of Rastan in Homs, was picked up by several newspapers across the Middle East. The Goodwill Ambassador in Qatar, Princess Aisha Abdul Ghani, was among the readers and she sent aid for the handicapped people.

 “Among the cases was a handicapped [person] who might lose his life but thanks to the aid he survived. My pen was saving a person’s life.”

 Yarub hadn’t always dreamed of working in the media. When he was a student he wanted to benefit from the close relations between Syria and Iran and work in an embassy so he studied Farsi. Then came the revolution and everything changed: Yarub wanted to draw attention to the régime’s crimes, so he became a print journalist.

 “I was focusing on humanitarian stories and success stories during the war, of people who challenged the conditions of war,” he explains.

 He started to post his work on his personal Facebook page to train and develop his writing skills. Before long an editor from the Syrian Net website contacted him and asked him to work for them as a correspondent.

 However, working as a freelancer amid war was not always easy Yarub admits: “I was without rights. If I don’t send [good reports] easily, they will contact other people.”

 With help from local activists and Reporters Without Borders, Yarub eventually left Syria and went to France, where he now lives. But he has regular nightmares about his life in Syria. “When I remember Syria, I feel that I have been uprooted and that it is a long road to freedom, and I must return there.” '

Tim Seofi, DamascusDergham Hammadi, journalistYarub Al-Dali in the neighbourhood he grew up in just before he left. It was completely destroyed by bombing

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Idlib, Syrian capital of despair


 'At the foot of the concrete gray wall that rises along the Turkish border, Ahlam Rashid walks around the tents in the camp for displaced people of Atmeh. Every day, this Syrian humanitarian walks the aisles and tries to bring some comfort to the families she has been working with for several years. “I don't even have words to describe the difficulty in which these millions of people survive. There is no hospital, no school, no solid house. In fact, there is no future for all these families, for all these children. ” The young woman sketches a forced smile, but her lips curl, her anger mingles with the pain of helplessness.

 According to the UN, the situation in Syria constitutes "the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today". The number of people living in the Idlib region, which the Syrian reégime wants to regain control of, is estimated at more than 4 million people, including one million children. The majority of these people are displaced, living in tents among the rocks or sheltered under a rickety olive tree. Each month, the humanitarian situation worsens a little more, food aid is not sufficient to cover the needs of all the displaced people.

 Since July, the situation has been even more alarming after the closure of one of these sites, that of Bab al-Salamah, north of the city of Aleppo, following the Russian and Chinese veto at the United Nations Security Council. Today, the only trucks that can still access this rebel enclave must pass through Bab al-Hawa, north of Idlib. Since the start of 2020, their number has been divided by four. According to UN figures, last May 9.3 million people were food insecure in Syria, some 56% of the population.

 For now, the ceasefire signed between the Turks and the Russians, staunch allies of the Damascus régime, has withstood a few strikes and violations. Ahlam Rashid remains on the alert. “If the bombardments were to resume, we wouldn't have enough to help the population. Landlocked, the Syrians lack everything, medical facilities are too rare and in any case, they have nothing left. "

 For three years, the Idlib region has had a so-called “salvation” government. Officially, this local administration is separated from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), heir to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. This group, which dominates the region, is included in the list of terrorist groups by the UN, a blacklist which limits the support of international organizations to the Syrian population.

 In his office, Ali Keda, the prime minister of the local government, appealed to the West: “The European Union must recognize the reality of the situation in Syria. The Syrian people want peace, but the régime at the head of the country is terrorist. We need to establish international relations with other countries in order to fight against it. We need everything, water, electricity, food, jobs for the Syrians who have nothing left… For that, the international organizations must coordinate with our government.”

 Like him, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman Atoun, head of the Sharia Council at HTS, underlines the need for the local population to obtain more support. “We are currently trying to present our true image. The point is not to make a darker or more beautiful portrait, just to show reality. The people here are not like those in Raqqa during the days of the IS caliphate. ” And to add: “Our group is not a threat to the West. The region needs international help to rebuild itself. We are the last to fight against the régime and its allies, but we will not be able to eliminate it without help.”

 At the end of August, the first inhabitant of Idlib died of the coronavirus. Currently, around sixty residents are believed to be infected. If ever the pandemic were to spread in the region, the situation could very quickly become catastrophic. As Ahlam Rashid underlines again, in the middle of the tents of displaced people: “How do you want to set up a containment? The population already struggles to survive.” '


Sunday, 30 August 2020

"Assad has ruined everything'" Inside the buffer zone keeping a tenuous hold on stability in northern Syria

 Commander Saif Abu Baker of Al Hamza Divison

 'If there are symbols of just how indebted the Syrian opposition forces are to Turkey, then the new army base in Aleppo Province for its elite al-Hamza division is evidence of this.

 The Turkish red crescent flag is given as much prominence as the Syrian opposition one.

 In the grand greeting rooms where commanders and visiting dignitaries will meet to discuss tactics, it is the Turkish flag which is placed side-by-side with that of the opposition's.

 The commander is a defector from the start of the civil war in 2011, who used to work in Bashar al-Assad's intelligence unit.

 He is anxious to press home time and again the same twin messages.

 "We are not extremists," Commander Saif Abu Baker of al-Hamza Divison says repeatedly.

 "ISIS has not gone. There are 3,000 ISIS fighters in the desert of east Syria being supported by Assad's régime and the separatist PKK (Kurds). They will only go if we, the opposition, are supported and the régime is finished."

 The Syrian National Army, as it is now called, was born out of the Free Syrian Army and is largely backed by Turkish funds and Turkish weaponry.

 Without Turkish support, it's unlikely the opposition would be able to hold the so-called buffer zone.

 It's an area where Turkish troops have moved 30km inside Syria and stretch nearly 100km along the border - pushing out ISIS fighters but also the Kurdish-dominated SDF and keeping Assad's régime troops at bay.

 "We have no choice," Commander Moatasm Abbas of the Al Moatasm Division said. "We either fight with what weapons we've got or we die. Withdrawing is not an option. It does not exist in our dictionary. Our dictionary is revolution. We are continuing with what weapons we have, whatever happens, and Turkey is the only one who is with us on the ground, with its weapons and military equipment."

 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always insisted he does not want to remain inside Syria indefinitely and his troops respect the sovereignty of their neighbour.

 But withdrawal is unlikely to come anytime in the near future - and those we spoke to in the buffer zone know only too well that the tenuous hold on the stability that they have in the area, is dependant right now on the Turkish military presence.

 When we visit Al Bab, in the centre of the town square, once an ISIS stronghold where they planned attacks on Aleppo, there's now a huge red Turkish crescent.

 The shops and stalls are bustling with business and packed with people.

 But whilst we are there, there's a vehicle explosion.

 A car parked outside a mosque has been rigged with a small amount of explosives.

 Not enough to kill, although four people were injured, but enough to scare and frustrate the people of Al Bab who are weary of constant instability and desperate for change.

 One man standing over the mangled wreckage of the car tells us: "We have terrorists here... they're ISIS terrorists and the are the separatist parties, the Kurds. They are doing this... causing all these attacks... it's the PKK and ISIS and we have suffered from this for a long time. Since we were liberated until now, we're suffering from this. We are sending a message to the world to please find a solution."

 In the new 200-bed hospital built by the Turkish authorities in Al Bab, we find the battered and mutilated war wounded.

 Abdul Rahman, 9, has not known anything but war his entire life.

 His leg was blown off by a régime bomb, but for the first time he's been fitted with a prosthetic limb courtesy of the Turkish-run health facility which has seven operating rooms.

 Prosthetics which would cost between $5,000 to $10,000 are being provided free by the hospital.

 Turkey seems to be the country which is metaphorically and physically holding out its hand to help the battered people opposed to Bashar al Assad and who've been running from his régime - many since 2011.

 "I don't want war," says nine-year-old Abdul Rahman.

 "I can't take it. Assad has ruined everything." '

Abdul Rahman, nine, has a prosthetic leg

Monday, 17 August 2020

Fears of new bloodbath in Idlib as Assad troops go on the offensive


 'Bashar al-Assad has re-mobilized his forces in northwest Syria, raising fears of a new bloodbath in militant-controlled Idlib province.

 The move follows Russia’s suspension of joint military patrols with Turkish armed forces along the M4 highway in what is supposed to be a de-escalation zone.

 The patrols began in March, along the Aleppo-Latakia road. The last one took place on Aug. 12 and Moscow suspended them two days later.

 Since then, Assad régime forces have launched rocket attacks against Al-Fterah, Sfuhen and Kansafra in Jabal Al-Zawiyah in the southern countryside of Idlib.

 The stage may be set for a new “battle of Idlib”. 

 Navar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said the combatants were treading a thin line.

 “Hezbollah moved some of its forces in a bid to launch an attack to the area in the south of the M4 highway. This zone where the joint patrols are suspended is elevated, and whoever controls this region can control the whole of Idlib. So, it is a very strategic area where sooner or later some skirmish will happen. There is a high percentage chance of an operation by the régime. It will be a narrow-scale battle. The Turks are not ready to withdraw from this strategic area or allow the opposition to withdraw either. Sooner or later, the Russians will control this area. Moscow initially planned to monitor the area with no opposition forces present, but that did not happen because Turkey, unwilling to concede to Russia, mobilized some of its forces and opposition forces there, triggering another source of tension between Moscow and Ankara.”

 Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, said Russia’s suspension of joint patrols in Idlib may be a temporary security matter as they consider their options.

 “The patrols have been coming under attack, from peaceful protesters at first, but increasingly militarily, especially since last month. Moscow’s intentions are obviously always suspect in Syria and there have been signs of a renewed régime coalition offensive against Idlib in recent days, so Russia’s suspension of the patrols could be a tactical issue related to that. Turkey, likewise, continues to have the same policy of preserving at least northern Idlib as a buffer zone to avoid a destabilizing wave of refugees laced with terrorists being pushed into Turkish territory.”

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Don't shoot the messenger

 Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem [Bilal Abdul Kareem/Facebook]

 Yvonne Ridley:

 'The controversial American journalist who sued the US government for putting him on a “kill list” in war-torn Syria, was arrested yesterday by a Sunni Islamist militant group in rebel-held Syria, sparking outrage both in the Middle East and across the West.

 Yesterday’s arrest came hours after Bilal spoke to me about his growing concern over the use of torture and indefinite detentions by Idlib’s ruling force Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). He showed me some of the evidence, including a graphic video exhibiting the torture methods he says are being used by HTS.

 Having seen the images I can say these are all too familiar and are similar to the methods used by the Assad regime, and includes foot whipping known as “the bastinado” which involves blows delivered to the soles of the feet and executed with great brutality.

 The discussion with Abdul Kareem was prompted by the re-arrest of another popular figure, British aid worker Tauqir ‘Tox’ Sharif by HTS, following a bruising encounter outside a courtroom with a member of the group accused of torturing Sharif during his 24 days in custody.

 Abdul Kareem, a convert to Islam who co-founded the independent media outlet OGN, On The Ground News, has become a familiar figure since he began covering the Syrian revolution since 2011. However, the veteran war correspondent’s fearless style of journalism and brash delivery of speaking truth to power has made him unpopular and a target by many groups and governments, including his own in America.

 Abdul Kareem first began to suspect he was being targeted by the US government after narrowly surviving five separate drone strikes in 2016. He was also told by a source working at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey – where US drones often take off for missions in Syria – that his name was on a list of targets.

 Hiring lawyers, he sued the US federal government in 2017 asking them to clarify whether or not he is on the kill list and, if so, to give him his day in court rather than execute him in Syria. In one of his most recent interviews he joked: “Most of my drama revolves around having a big mouth; I got it from my mother.” He was referencing his alleged placement on the notorious American drone “kill list” programme.

 However, his outspoken manner has obviously upset others in Syria where he has become a target. His insightful coverage of the war and ability to interview without fear or favour Islamist groups such as al-Qaida and HTS appeared to have made him a US, Russian, Iranian and Assad regime target. However, it now seems that same ability to annoy governments has also jarred with some of the people fighting to bring down the Assad regime.

 In recent days he has been working on a human rights charter with a group of Muslim scholars to protect prisoners following the number of unaccountable and forced disappearances and rumours of torture by HTS. It was this work which it is believed first led to the arrest of British aid worker Sharif, another popular figure in Idlib.

 His investigation into practices of torture has cast doubt on the revolutionary and Islamic credentials of the group and appears to have precipitated yesterday’s violent arrest near the Turkish border town of Atmeh. According to one eyewitness account the journalist was “battered to the ground and there was a lot of blood”.

 HTS media relations office issued a statement to me confirming “an arrest warrant was issued” and it adds: “There are a number of allegations surrounding the accused which are currently being investigated.” At the time of writing HTS failed to respond to or address any of the allegations over the use of torture in custody. Their media spokesman also urged me not to post any incriminating videos.

 The Sunni group was formed in January 2017 by a merger between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, the Ansar Al-Din Front, Jaysh Al-Sunna, Liwa Al-Haqq and the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement. There are concerns that it has become lawless and authoritarian as Idlib slides into further chaos under attack from Assad regime forces, the Russian military and Iranian-backed militias.

 Idlib is regarded as the last major stronghold for anti-Assad rebels and jihadist groups in Syria. While pro-Assad forces and their allies have captured parts of the border province, rebels and Islamist fighters still control strategic areas. HTS is the main Islamist group operating there.

 Ancient Greek writer Sophocloes of Kolōnos coined the original phrase: “Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t blame the person who brings bad news.” That was as far back as 442 B.C. but it seems even today delivering the truth can be a costly business, but for what it’s worth maybe HTS should reflect on the way it conducts its business in terms of justice.

 The good people of Syria did not rise up against the Assad regime to simply replace it with another that also relies on torture and brutality to oppress. Bilal Abdul Kareem might be an annoying presence but both he and OGN were proof that at least in rebel-held Syria, transparency and truth were in evidence. As long as the journalists remains locked up, that can no longer be said.'

Bilal Abdul Kareem - Home | Facebook

Friday, 7 August 2020

'They killed us twice': finding loved ones at last among Syria's tortured dead

 Fida Al Waer, a Syrian artist and teacher living in Beirut, poses as she holds a mobile phone that displays pictures of her brother she says

 'Some families say it is better to know and mourn. Others say finally learning what happened is worse than dying themselves.

Hundreds of victims of Syria’s torture chambers are only now being discovered, thanks to a new effort to identify bodies from tens of thousands of photos smuggled out of Damascus seven years ago. For their families, an image of a broken body with a number tag is all that lies at the end of the quest.

“They died starved and naked,” said Um Munzer Yaseen, 58, who, after sifting through countless photos of emaciated corpses, finally found her son, Jamil, last month.

 A computer engineer, Jamil had been missing since one night in June, 2011, when he was taken by secret police from the family flat in Damascus. In the picture his mother found of his body, his eyes had been gouged out and his legs were broken.

 “If they had shot my son it would have been better to die with a bullet than go through this hell,” she said in Amman, where she and her husband have found sanctuary since fleeing Syria in 2013.

 Her husband, a doctor, said: “They killed us twice: when they arrested him and took him, and the second time when we saw the pictures.” He asked: “Are we not human?”

 Jamil’s image was among 53,275 photos smuggled on discs and thumb drives out of Syria by a former Syrian army photographer, codenamed Caesar, who fled in August 2013. It was his job to record the deaths in military prisons.

 Caesar in hiding in an undisclosed country out of fear of reprisals against him and his family, some friends said.
 Now, years after Caesar’s photos first came to public attention, they are back in the spotlight. The toughest U.S. sanctions yet came into force in June for alleged war crimes against the civilian population, under a law named after Caesar.

 President Bashar al-Assad has not commented directly on the Caesar photographs since a 2015 interview, when he dismissed them as “allegations without evidence”.

 The Syrian information ministry and the Syrian U.N. mission did not respond to Reuters emailed requests for comment about the Caesar photographs and evidence of systematic torture.

 Human rights groups believe Caesar’s photos contain images of 6,785 detainees, most tortured to death by the Syrian authorities in the early months of the uprising that evolved into Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year.

 The state of the tortured, mutilated and starved bodies makes it hard to identify them, said Fadel Abdel Ghani, the Doha-based chairman of a group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which says it has identified 900 victims so far.

 With the renewed attention, campaigners have launched a new push to identify the dead.

 The images first came to light in 2014, the year after Caesar defected, but after the sanctions were imposed they have been re-released on activists’ social media platforms, giving families a fresh chance to find missing loved ones.

 For Syrian artist and teacher Fida Al Waer, whose 19-year-old brother Mohammad Mukhtar was taken at a checkpoint in Homs in 2012, finding his photo ended hope the family had of seeing him alive.

 “I would see him in my dreams alive and that he would return,” said the young artist, who now lives in a flat in the Lebanese capital. “We mourned him again when the photo was found. We always had hope he would be released.”

 She recalls how the family had implored the young man not to go to an area of the city where demonstrators were protesting against Assad’s rule, in the early days of the uprising when security forces were arresting youths at random at checkpoints.

 “For them, he is just a number. A number is on his forehead. He was just a number.”

 Sara Kayyali, a lawyer and Syria expert at U.S-based Human Rights Watch who has researched the photos, says they make it impossible to deny the systematic use of torture in the Syrian security prison system.

 “They have shown us irrefutable proof the Syrian government had truly detained and tortured thousands who disappeared — and denied they exist — and that it has tortured them to death,” Kayyali said in Amman.

 For Mariam Alhallak, identifying the photo of her son, Ayham, 25, a postgraduate dentistry student abducted on the campus of Damascus University in November 2012, ended years of doubt. She had spent more than 17 months knocking at the doors of every government bureau looking for a certificate of death.

 “Thank God he died early and did not get ... starved until he became a skeleton,” said Mariam from her flat in Berlin.

 A faculty colleague detained with her son and later released told her Ayham was tortured for at least two hours before losing consciousness after being hit on the head with a metal bar, after which the torture stopped.

 He died five days after his arrest, in his colleague’s arms. In Caesar’s photograph of his corpse there was a sticker on his forehead that read: “corpse 320 belonging to detention facility 215”.

 In a camp for displaced people in opposition-held Idlib, 74-year-old Jouriya Ali finally found an image of her son Jumaa, who was taken off a public bus near Qutaifa on the edge of Damascus on his way to work in the capital.

 “I wish I had died and not seen this picture. There is no one who was more caring than him,” the mother said. Every day since he disappeared eight years ago she would glance at the door in fleeting hope he would one day show up.

 “God deprive them of their youth, as they have deprived my son of his youth.” '

They killed us twice': finding loved ones at last among Syria's ...They killed us twice': finding loved ones at last among Syria's ...
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