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What About the Detainees? Q&A with Wissam Tarif

With opposition groups threatening to boycott the rescheduled Geneva talks, and human rights groups hoping the cessation of hostilities will put pressure on the Syrian government to release prisoners early, the notorious detention centers remain inaccessible for inspection.

Written by Zuhour Mahmoud Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

As the fragile truce in Syria holds and the U.N. sets a date for a new round of peace talks in Geneva, human rights groups are calling on diplomats to address the issue of the hundreds of thousands of people in government detention.

Rights organizations, which have repeatedly called for an end to the mass incarcerations, torture and killings in government facilities, are hoping the commitment to an “early release of detainees” included in the U.S.–Russian brokered cease-fire agreement will bring home at least some of the 200,000 prisoners who remain in government custody.

In a report released late last year analyzing the infamous Caesar photos, Human Rights Watch confirmed the death of 6,786 people in state custody. And more than 65,000 people have been forcibly disappeared by the government since 2011.

However, with more truce violations being reported on both sides, things are not looking hopeful for the detainees.

Syria Deeply interviewed Wissam Tarif, advocacy director of Avaaz and founder of Lebanese NGO INSAN, about the mass detentions and forced disappearances.

Syria Deeply: The joint statement of the United States and the Russian Federation on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria states that “all parties shall further commit to work for the early release of detainees, particularly women and children.” What are the odds of this agreement materializing on the ground?

Wissam Tarif: Since Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, it has become clear and proven that whatever international powers agree on actually happens, the current cease-fire and the delivery of aid into besieged areas being strong examples. Russia has shown great power when it comes to putting pressure on the regime, so we will have to wait and see. It is now up to the ISGS (International Support Group of Syria) to walk the walk.

Syria Deeply: Could you tell us about the practice of forced disappearances in Syria?

Wissam Tarif: Illegal detention and forced disappearances have been regular practice since the 1980s, when the Syrian government clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood. The statistics on detainees from that period are still not accurate. However, groups such as the Syrian Human Rights Network and Damascus Center for Studies have recorded around 17,000 cases of forced disappearances between 1982 and 1988.

The reason I mention this now is that it’s important to understand the mechanism of a security state – a system built around a secret police apparatus.

In 2011, from Daraa to Kafr Sousa, we’ve seen a drastic growth in the number of detentions. In the early days of the uprising, the regime raided homes in order to detain young Syrians who organized demonstrations.

Syria Deeply: The current estimated number of detainees in Syria is set at around 200,000. Does this sound accurate?

Wissam Tarif: Unfortunately, the current number being passed around media outlets is too low. I always like to give a specific example: In Zabadani, a group of mothers directly affected by the detention practice began providing documentation about the issue. In the small town of 38,000 residents, 1,417 cases of forced disappearances and detentions were documented since the uprising.

Out of these, 200 detainees were confirmed dead after some families bribed the officials to inform them about the state of their relatives.

What this example tells us is that if out of the 38,000 people, 18,000 were male, and half of them were adults, this means that 1,417 out of 9,000 men have vanished. Similar examples can be found in Baniyas, Baba Amr and a number of areas that are still under government control.

In late 2014, when INSAN began interviewing IDPs [internally displaced persons] who came from Syria to Beirut, Turkey and Jordan, it was astonishing that around 70 percent of the people had at least one male family member who had vanished in the system, or who had been detained and acknowledged by the government.

Syria Deeply: Legally speaking, how do these practices fall under Syrian law?

Wissam Tarif: Legally speaking, all of this is against the law. Given that the state of emergency in Syria was lifted years ago, not only should these detentions not take place, but the security branches should not even exist.

It’s very important to differentiate legally between detentions, which are carried out arbitrarily and illegally, and forced disappearances. The latter is an institutionalized practice by the state, in which they make people vanish in the system when they replace the identity of the person with a number. The person is completely removed from the outside world and, needless to say, they don’t get any legal representation.

Syria Deeply: We have seen the pictures and reports of mass death in these detention facilities, but what happens to those who survive?

Wissam Tarif: If we want to talk about the medical conditions found in security branches, we see chronic diseases, we’re talking about crowded cells outnumbering their capacity by 10 times. Many prisoners sleep standing up because the cells are so overcrowded. Both individuals and groups undergo unimaginable torture, resulting in hallucinations and psychosis.

Due to the poor hygiene conditions, many get scabies and other skin conditions. Sometimes detainees are forced to sleep next to cadavers.

This systematic torture and dehumanization means that the individual is no longer able to lead a normal social life in their environment, and the Syrian government knows this, and this is why this method is used on such a large scale.

Syria Deeply: Your organization, INSAN, has been working on the issue since early 2011. Is it more difficult now to get accurate statistics?

Wissam Tarif: It is extremely difficult now as many families have fled, and others live in besieged areas and fear for their lives. We used to be able to interview IDPs in Beirut before the visa requirement was imposed. In July of 2011 alone, INSAN documented 8,000 cases of detentions and forced disappearances, and 70 percent of those we interviewed said they had at least one male family member detained.

Syria Deeply: Has any organization ever been allowed to inspect these facilities?

Wissam Tarif: The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) was allowed into the big central prisons, but not the detention centers. The prisoners who stay in central jails have already been processed by either the security forces, the secret police (mukhabarat) or the political security branches. These prisons are considered to be relatively better than detention centers.

When detainees enter one of the central jails, they are entering into the corrupt judiciary system, which, in some cases, means they will be released at some point. This happens either by paying bribes, or to make room to new prisoners.

Syria Deeply: After the Caesar Report was released, it was believed that Syrian officials involved in the systematic torture and killing of prisoners could face war crimes trials. Two years have passed since these photographs surfaced and no one has been brought to justice. What does this say about the effectiveness of the documentation and the reliance on the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

Wissam Tarif: To answer in practical terms, the Russians and the Chinese did not allow a referral for the International Criminal Court to have a jurisdiction in Syria, and no one in the West was serious enough to overrule this. World powers believed that the solution to the Syrian crisis should be a political one, and in a political solution you don’t send leaders to court.

As for documentation, the importance lies in the fact that one day this will all be over, and the families of those who died or disappeared will deserve to finally get an answer. If we look back at Argentina, Lebanon, Sudan and all the other case studies of war, after the war is over and people start rebuilding their countries, you see thousands of mothers, fathers, husbands and wives asking about what happened to their loved ones.

Syria Deeply: You recently mentioned that there’s a window of opportunity now for civil society groups to gain momentum. What makes you believe that?

Wissam Tarif: The Syrian civil society has finally been given a role to play in the negotiations. That alone is considered an achievement when compared to Geneva I and II. They are in Geneva, they are in [U.N. Syrian envoy Staffan] de Mistura’s team of advisers, and they have a voice.

However, the reality remains that the end result will be decided by the strongest side, and the strongest side now remains the Syrian government and its allies. That being said, these individuals who work day and night on the issue of detainees have a chance to keep rolling the snowball until some real changes happen. It started with the cease-fire, and will eventually lead to the issue of prisoners.

Top image: A woman holds a banner showing portraits of Syrian citizens held prisoner in Syrian jails, during a sit-in at the U.N. headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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