Friday 28 October 2016

Syrian regime has 'disappeared' more than 65,000 people during war - Amnesty

Louisa Loveluck

Published 06/11/2015 | 02:30

A woman from Kobani in Syria, 87, looks on as migrants queue to cross the border into Spielfeld in Austria from the village of Sentilj, Slovenia.
A woman from Kobani in Syria, 87, looks on as migrants queue to cross the border into Spielfeld in Austria from the village of Sentilj, Slovenia.

The Syrian regime has forcibly disappeared more than 65,000 people under cover of war, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

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The group said the abductions were carried out as "part of an organised attack against the civilian population" amounting to a crime against humanity.

Pulled from offices in the daytime or homes in the night, the disappeared are cut off from the outside world, and packed into prisons where torture is routine and death is commonplace. Families can spend years without news of a relative's whereabouts.

For Naila Alabbasi, the wait has lasted for two and a half years. Her sister, Rania, was taken from her house on March 9, 2013, soon after her husband had been arrested.

"It was days before we found out," said Mrs Alabbasi. "Now I barely sleep at night. We don't know where they are or how they are, we don't even know if they are alive."

A dentist by trade, Rania had also been Syria's national chess champion several times over. When military intelligence officers arrested her, they stole her awards, along with money, jewellery and the family cars, according to her sister. They also took her six children.

"What chance is there for a child when adults barely survive those prisons? Her youngest is just two years old," said Ms Alabbasi. "We think of them every day."

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a monitoring group, has collected the names of 65,116 individuals - including 58,148 civilians - who are believed to have been forcibly disappeared since March 2011, the first month of Syria's revolution, and who remain missing.

Although most of the country has slipped from the control of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, many people who remain in regime-held territory live under threat of joining that list. The missing range from political activists and human rights lawyers to anyone who may fall foul of an official. According to SNHR, 3,879 of them are children.

Disappearances are carried out by all four branches of the security forces, as well as the military and militias associated with the Syrian government.

The captives are held in detention centres and unofficial holding facilities across the country.

For the families left behind, there are few options to find their missing and those who go directly to the local police station risk arrest. Many people turn to a network of middle-men who claim to be able to bring news for a fee, an option that can cost tens of thousands but brings no guarantees of reliable information.

In other cases, news trickles out through prisoners who have been released. Unofficial information sought by the Alabbasi family has suggested that Rania may have been held at Military Intelligence Branches 215 and 284 in Damascus, and that she is in poor health.

Photographs taken by a Syrian military defector known as Caesar, a code-name, have documented torture and murder on an industrial scale inside the jails of Damascus. Those who are released often leave with terrible injuries.

Raneem Ma'touq, a 24-year-old fine arts student from Homs, was forcibly disappeared for two months in 2014. Taken from her house at gunpoint in the night, she spent months inside a 3m cell shared with 10 other women.

During one brutal interrogation, she said she became hysterical, singing at the top of her lungs. "I was punished for that," she said. "The director ... hung me almost by the throat and kept hitting me. But others had it worse."

Now free and in Germany, Ms Ma'touq's ordeal is not over. Her father Khalil, a renowned human rights lawyer who defended hundreds of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, is also missing, arrested from his car in Damascus during October 2013.

"He was, quite simply, the greatest man I've ever known. When he smiled, it filled his whole face," she said. "Sometimes when I think of him, I can't stop my imagination because I know what happens to people in there. Sometimes I try to speak to him in my dreams, and sometimes I really believe he heard me."

Amnesty International said that it believed the regime's disappearances had been carried out as part of "an organised attack against the civilian population that has been widespread, as well as systematic, and therefore amount to crimes against humanity".

Waiting for news of Rania, Ms Alabbasi said she had given up asking why the family's ordeal had begun.

"In Syria you cannot ask the regime why it does this," she said.

"They do not need an excuse to do what they want." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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