For kin of Syria's 'disappeared,' a trap: You can't not pay to find them

The practice of enforced disappearances has become so entrenched in Syria, Amnesty International says, that it has given rise to a black market exchanging bribes for information.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad answers questions during an interview with al-Manar's journalist Amro Nassef, in Damascus, Syria, in August.

Najji Hassan al-Ahmed is a man on a mission: to learn the whereabouts of the second of his two brothers who were forcibly “disappeared” by the Syrian security services.

The first is feared dead.

Mr. Ahmed’s brother Yaseen, an Islamic Law student, was pulled off a bus at regime checkpoint in the Syrian city of Homs last December. The family approached every security branch for information – using the services of multiple “middle men” who profit from their ties to regime officials – to no avail.

“We paid 500,000 Syrian pounds ($2,500) for nothing,” says Ahmed, now a construction worker in Istanbul. “We’d give them the full name and they would reply there is no one by that name. This made us understand he is dead.”

That conclusion adds urgency to the search for his second brother, Alaa, a painter who was taken by security forces while making a hospital visit in July.

A former detainee contacted the family and informed them he was being held in Damascus at the Palestine branch, one of the oldest and most important of the Syrian military intelligence.

The tip-off gave the family a glimmer of hope, but it was laced with fear for his life.

“Even if you go in as an innocent man, you will come out guilty, because under the pressure of torture and beatings you’ll confess to anything – even to being a Mossad agent,” says Ahmed, frowning as he scans a WhatsApp phone message from a middleman. “This guy wants 1 million Syrian pounds to get my brother out. It’s a big business – for the middleman and the officers.”

The disappearance of the Ahmed brothers is part of yet another horrifying, and sinister, facet of Syria’s civil war in which a quarter of a million people have been killed and millions driven from their homes. Neither of his brothers, says Ahmed, were members of the armed opposition.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented at least 67,000 enforced disappearances, the vast majority of them civilians, since the outbreak of anti-regime protests in 2011. The practice has become so entrenched, Amnesty International says in a report published Thursday, that it gave rise to a black market of middlemen who take bribes in exchange for information.

“As well as shattering lives, disappearances are driving a black market economy of bribery which trades in the suffering of families who have lost a loved one,” says Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program director. “They are left with mounting debts and a gaping hole where a loved one used to be.”

“Prison officials and government officials are profiting from these bribes,” adds the report’s author, Nicolette Boehland. “The amounts we are talking about are not a bribe here or there. We are talking about tens of thousands of dollars, so it is very difficult to believe that the government is not aware of this.”

Who is disappeared?

The Syrian state has a long history of enforced disappearances, defined as any deprivation of liberty by state agents or its auxiliaries, coupled with the concealment of the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared person. More than 17,000 Syrians reportedly disappeared under the reign of Hafez al-Assad. The practice abated when his son, Bashar, first came to power, but gained new momentum after protests erupted in 2011.

Amnesty International says those who are targeted for enforced disappearances today fall into three main categories: peaceful opponents of the government, individuals considered disloyal to the regime, and relatives of individuals wanted by the authorities. While opposition groups are also accused of the same crime, the regime is considered the primary perpetrator.

Most people disappear in the detention centers of state security branches, but others are disappeared when being transferred to court or inquiring after a loved one.

International and local rights groups have issued countless reports documenting the systematic torture and killing of individuals held by the regime as well as urging that action to be taken by the International Criminal Court. The first harrowing glimpse into this brutal world came in the form of 55,000 images of meticulously numbered, mutilated corpses smuggled out in July 2014 by a Syrian military photographer, code-named Caesar.

The relatives of the disappeared fear their loved ones may have suffered the same fate as the nearly 11,000 individuals shown in the Caesar photos, but do not have the luxury of closure – hence their vulnerability to “brokers.”

Clinging to hope

Mohammed Ayash, a pseudonym for an Istanbul-based member of the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees, says most middlemen are security officials, retired military officials, individuals related to high ranking officials, and lawyers.

“Everyone knows that every judge has a key – a specific lawyer who can open the door,” he adds. “It is the same for the security branches. With the revolution, the situation became much worse and the sums greater.”

“Most of the brokers focus on the security branches because it is almost impossible for the families to get any information from there,” explains a Syrian defense lawyer who is still working in the country. “I always warn families against this because even if they bring any information there is no way for them to confirm that the information is true. But all they want is to know and cling to the hope that their son is alive.”

In 80 percent of the cases, the lawyer says, such efforts are fruitless.

Everyone is vulnerable to these ploys, even families with a long tradition of civil rights activism and political dissent, like that of Ali Asaad, whose communist father spent years in and out of jail and disappeared in October 2013. Mr. Asaad, formerly a geologist and now a hair transplant salesman in Istanbul, paid $10,000 to various middlemen in the hope of ascertaining the whereabouts of his father.

“You cannot not pay,” he explains. “Your mind tells you they are lying and they are trying to take advantage of you, but your heart says ‘no, it might work,' they might be able to give you information. You live this psychological struggle between your mind and heart. Most of the time the heart wins.”

'Full-blown mafia'

Raneem Maatouq is the daughter of a prominent Syrian human rights defender who disappeared Oct. 2, 2012. The family believes Khalil Maatouq was detained at a regime checkpoint on his way to work. They all feared such a day would come, and Mr. Maatouq had warned them against the use of middlemen who are little better than con-men. 

“We never imagined he would disappear in such obscure circumstances,” says Ms. Maatouq, now living in Germany.

Ms. Maatouq herself was later detained in a neighborhood raid and spent traumatizing months in an overcrowded cell listening to the cries of men being tortured. Her mother bribed the judge at the counterterrorism court in order for her to be included in a 2014 presidential pardon.

“It is a full blown mafia,” she says. “This is increasing the power of the regime, but despite that no one would refuse to pay to free a loved one.”

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