In Syria, despite notifications of their death, the fate of hundreds of prisoners is still unknown
Since May 2018, hundreds of Syrian families have started receiving notifications that their relatives who were imprisoned by the Syrian regime have died in jail. Peace activists, rebels, journalists, organizations’ workers or random citizens, there are tens of thousands of Syrian citizens who disappeared in jail, with their families left to wonder without any information.
It began discreetly, but hundreds of families with relatives in prison have started to learn that their loved ones had died while in custody, through their civil registry files being closed and notified as deceased. They would find out during a routine visit to local civil registry departments, or following unexpected phone calls from local reconciliation committees. Soon enough, people started to line up to civil documentation offices in order to have news.
The issue is very sensitive because around 82.000 Syrian citizens have forcibly disappeared or have been officially arrested since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011, according to the international organization Amnesty International. Its 2015 report “Between prison and the grave: Enforced disappearances in Syria” details how the Syrian authorities arrested or made large numbers of peaceful government opponents and individuals who were considered to be “disloyal” “forcibly disappear”. The report also documented the abductions, torture and summary killings carried out by armed opposition groups.
One of the prisoners whose fate had long remained uncertain is Abdulrahman al-Dabaas’ brother, Islam, last seen in Saydnaya prison in 2012, a prison near Damascus infamous for its torture practices. This was a few months after Islam, who was a student engineer at the time, had been arrested by security forces for protesting against the government. This year, after filing for a government registration document, a cousin of the al-Dabaas family discovered Islam’s death date: the 15th of January, 2013. The Syrian government has started to acknowledge the death of its prisoners, but has not provided more explanation to the families. The certificates issued so far have mostly recorded verdicts of heart attacks or strokes, but relatives of the deceased detainees suspect they were probably tortured to death or hanged without trial. None have had the bodies of the victims returned, or been told where they can be found.
“For several years, Amnesty has been calling both armed groups and the government to release the abducted and prisoners or to make the families know about their fate”, Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher, told Fanack Chronicle. “But the way the government disclosed it is not the proper way. They just learn if the person is dead or alive, not all the people received death certificates, and sometimes it’s just a civil record that was updated. There is no explanation on the deceased’s whereabouts, the reason of the death and where the remains are. Other families managed to see a death certificate from the army, but it usually mentions a heart attack or stroke without any reason given.”
No proper data could be gathered about the number of prisoners who have been officially declared dead: some organizations go up to around 13.000 confirmed cases, some 312, and others 836. “What is sure is that only a very small number is disclosed”, Semaan said. Among the cases of disappeared Syrians whose release was advocated by Amnesty International and who are now declared deceased are three prominent peace activists: Yehya Shurbaji, Ma’an Shurbaji, and Islam al-Dabbas. Islam al-Dabbas was an engineering student, and the brothers Yehya and Maen Shurbaji had not been seen since they were detained in the Damascus suburb of Daraya on the 6th of September 2011.
For the other families still waiting to know if their relatives are alive, hope is very thin. In 2017, Amnesty International published a report investigating mass hangings and extermination at Syria’s Saydnaya prison. It says that “many other detainees at Saydnaya Military Prison have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and systematically deprived of food, water, medicine and medical care. The bodies of those who are killed at Saydnaya are buried in mass graves. It is inconceivable that these large-scale and systematic practices have not been authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government.” The Amnesty report estimates that 13,000 prisoners were hanged.
Local and international human rights organizations have documented the inhumane conditions in Syrian detention facilities, and testimonies from the prisoners who managed to be released focused on the torture they faced inside. Prisons are overcrowded and unsanitary. Detainees are given inadequate food and sometimes starved, and suffer from medical neglect. Torture is routinely and systematically implemented, on a very large scale. Women, and men, have suffered rape and sexual abuse. The Caesar report, a UN investigation mission on Syrian prisons and detention centers released in 2014, contained some 55,000 photographs depicting the tortured and abused bodies of around 11,000 people it said had died in Syrian jails during the first two years of the conflict. It is also based on 621 interviews, including with more than 200 former detainees who witnessed one or more deaths while in custody.
Amnesty’s Diana Semaan told Fanack Chronicle that “it’s difficult to tell, but the government might continue to release death certificates”, although she stressed on the fact that not having the remains back or not knowing what happened to one’s relative is another suffering added to the families’ grief. “We know that they already were in a cycle of agony not knowing about their relatives”, Semaan added. “But [once they know their loved one is dead] they enter a new cycle of agony because they have so many questions left unanswered. It is important for them to know more in order to reconcile with the fact that their loved ones are dead and start their grieving process.”
With the government of Bashar al-Assad remaining completely silent on this issue, it is hard to know which reasons pushed the authorities to reveal the death of some of the prisoners. Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told the Sydney Morning Herald that: “This makes sense these days after the regime has secured most of the south. The regime has been preparing for the post-war period through new legitimations and this might be part of it.” Human rights experts and other observers agree that the Syrian government’s disclosures reflect the growing confidence of President Bashar al-Assadt as his forces overrun the final pockets of rebel-held territory. It could also be the result of the pressure put on his government by the international community, including Syria’s allies.
Beyond the reasons of such a disclosure, families are now asking for details about the fate and the location of the remains of their loved ones, hoping to be able, one day, to move on, while keeping on living under the power of the ones who killed them.