Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Malice of Power: Arrests in Syria as Part of a Politico-Economic Rationale

 I was shocked when I learnt Naser had been arrested. I did not want to believe it at first. To be arrested is the worst thing that could happen to you in Syria. No matter how you die – the main thing is not to die this way – that is what most Syrians will tell you. ‘I need to get hold of one of these pills that kill you instantly,’ Naser had said to me shortly before. He was planning ahead on how to elude an arrest. And then he was arrested in the Foreigners’ Registration Office, as he is Palestinian. The images of tortured dead bodies entered my mind at once,” Samira explains. “My uncle, however, reassured me that Naser would walk free within a few days. He said he knew someone inside. With high hopes, we started to collect the money that was being demanded from us. That was back in October 2014. At first, we were to pay 4,000 dollars, and then it increased to 20,000, in the end the sum had multiplied to 60,000 dollars. We have not been able to trace him since January 2015. Even though they continue to demand more money from us, we do not even know whether Naser is still alive.”

 By now, it is estimated that 90 % of those arrested by the regime or regime militias had nothing to do with the revolution,” says Amer, a former officer in the Syrian military. Free rein when it comes to arrests is one of the ways in which the regime renders it possible for various parts of its security apparatus to enrich themselves. That way, the regime secures support for its actions in times of economic demise. The ones who are left to suffer are the thousands of disappeared Syrians and their families. On the one hand, the issue is actual corruption [Fasad] in which money serves as a means to obtain a service and on the other hand it is sheer fraud [Nasab], in which a service is promised in return but the promise is not kept.

 Every secret service controls a certain district of a city; information on who controls which parts is contained in the store of knowledge of many Syrians or can be inquired about. However, the most frequent and random arrests are made at checkpoints. Checkpoints have been set up at the entrances to every village, and even at the access points to every district in cities. “Most checkpoints at the village entrances of Jaramana are controlled by the jawiya, the secret service unit of the air force. Within the district however, the shabiha are in control,” Lama, a human rights activist, tells us. She herself was imprisoned for a long period of time. “When I was arrested, I was glad it happened at an official regime checkpoint. That way, I was taken and my husband was arrested at home – but at least our house was not ransacked and my daughter was not raped.”

 Shortly after the arrest, the person is taken to the interrogation centres of the various departments (Fira’, pl. Fur’u) of the secret services. “Oftentimes, they (the Fur’u) arrest a person and keep him or her in custody for four or five days. They request the phone numbers of family members, and then the blackmailing begins,” Feras tells us. He also is an attorney from Damascus who now lives in Beirut. Even if you pay, that does not mean that the release of your relative is secured. After exploiting the families financially, the shabiha oftentimes surrender the prisoner to the secret services. The unofficial and official structures of Syrian secret services therefore do not only coexist, they cooperate directly.

 Already before 2011, the regime had the most extensive security apparatus of the region. Since the beginning of the revolution, it has multiplied – through the many checkpoints and the development of diverse militias loyal to the regime. At the same time, the economic situation has become devastating, which means that the regime is not able to support the increased expenses for the security sector with state funds alone. 100 dollars, about 20,000 Syrian pounds, is the current income of a regular officer in the regime’s security apparatus. “A packet of coffee costs about 2,000 SP and diesel for two days is about 5,000 SP,” explains media activist Amjad. “As the regime facilitates arrests and the blackmailing of families, shabiha as well as regular soldiers of the regime can generate a secondary income for themselves. Soldiers no longer have confidence in the regime but now they see their opportunity to profit.”
 By the end of 2012, the country’s economy had already suffered the loss of 1.5 million jobs. “The Syrian economy has been almost entirely destroyed […]. [It] has almost entirely developed into a wartime economy that consists of crime, smuggling, trading in arms and people, as well as the theft of subsidies etc.. A small class of people has emerged who were able to profit in the context of this economy, whereas at the same time, millions of youths are left unemployed, unable to support their families,” says political scientist Sabr Darwish. To enable corruption and extortion is a strategic decision made by the regime – an adjustment of its system in light of changed circumstances.
 Due to the fact that cells are oftentimes hopelessly overcrowded, inmates in many cases memorise 70 or more names and phone numbers, Missing Syria activists have come to learn. Once they are released, they either try to contact families directly or they share their knowledge through human rights organisations. This is where Syrian public figures, such as Yara Sabri, assume an important role. She is perceived as a person of trust and makes contact with the families. On her Facebook page, she adds a new list of names of disappeared people on a daily basis. Many times, a statement issued by Yara Sabri has helped families uncover the identity of their blackmailers. If they were notified that their family member could be released from the Fira’ by means of a certain lump sum and Yara can tell them that their son was, however, last seen elsewhere, they can still freeze the payment.
 The Anti-Terrorism Court is the judiciary of a regime that claims to be leading a war against terrorists since March 2011, and that renders it a strong symbol of a trend in regime ranks: those in key positions have abandoned the motivation of defending an alleged anti- imperialistic, socialist system long ago. In fact, the interest in personal profits predominates political motivation. The regime has created an elaborate structure of profiteers who have a selfish, not an ideological, interest in the regime’s survival.
 The omnipotence of this court reveals that corruption in the business of life and death is not restricted to the lower ranks alone: in this case, judges are the ones who benefit in the chain of beneficiaries. Suspended sentences are their personal commodity, and amnesties offer a basis for wide-ranging corruption. These are general amnesties which bring remission of certain penalties with them, without determining the individuals it is issued for beforehand. Payments are made in order to receive a place on a list of those granted an amnesty.'

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