Although 25-year-old Amer was excited to participate in peaceful protests against the Syrian government at the outset of the ongoing uprising, in June 2014 he decided to take President Bashar al-Assad up on his promise to provide amnesty to opposition members and army deserters. Less than a week after he applied for amnesty at the central police station in Homs, however, Amer, who is from the town of Bayyada, was arrested by security forces at a checkpoint.
In 2014, President Assad declared a “general amnesty” for all prisoners who were not in lockup for “acts of terrorism.” Last month, he announced amnesty for the thousands of army deserters as long as they turned themselves in.
Syrians were also given the option of “adjusting their security status.” This involves going to a local police station and confessing to opposition-related activism in exchange for a document from security services clearing them of any wrongdoing and thus preventing them from being arrested for activism-related reasons.
Yet, like Amer, many people who apply for amnesty end up disappearing or being arrested, activists and relatives told Syria Deeply.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights published a report in August 2014 stating that the Assad government arrested 1,100 people who had turned themselves in. They were held in al-Andalus school in the Dablan neighborhood, and after three months of detention, only those who had no connection with the revolution were released. The Syrian Network added that the government then transferred 730 detainees to an unknown destination. Those now considered missing include journalists, soldiers who defected from the army and civilians.
In Amer’s case, his mother was repeatedly told by security and intelligence officers that he is not in their possession. “They keep saying they don’t have him, but a released detainee told us that he was being held by the air force intelligence division,” she told Syria Deeply. “That was the last thing I’ve heard about him.”
Hussam, who fought with the Free Syrian Army, went into hiding after his hometown of Yabroud was retaken by Syrian government forces and Hezbollah fighters in April 2014. When they began to harass his family because he was a fighter, Hussam decided to turn himself in and receive amnesty.
An agreement was arranged via Lebanese mediators, who negotiated between government authorities and opposition fighters, including Hussam, who had fled to Arsal, a Lebanese border town. In exchange for amnesty, Hussam was supposed to visit the External Security Division in Damascus for an interview. Two weeks later, in July 2014, his wife Hanaa says Hussam left for the interview and never made it home.
“I had begged him to turn himself in so that we could have a normal life again – and he eventually did,” she told Syria Deeply. “When he didn’t return, I went to the mediators. They kept saying that it was taking longer than usual. Then, they started avoiding me and stopped taking my calls.”
Eventually, she went to a local military police office, where she was informed that he was dead and was given a death certificate that listed his cause of death as heart failure – an explanation that she doesn’t trust.
There are some, however, who applied for amnesty and had their security status adjusted without arrest. Muhammad, 22, a third-year medical student at Damascus University, found his name on a wanted list in November 2012 after he volunteered at a field clinic to treat injured civilians in his neighborhood of al-Qaboun.
“Although I was not done with my studies and didn’t have any experience, I volunteered there because there weren’t enough doctors,” he told Syria Deeply. After a truce was put in place between the government and the Free Syrian Army in February 2014, Muhammad decided to apply for security status adjustment so that he could return to his studies.
A reconciliation committee was subsequently established to communicate between the government and al-Qaboun’s residents. Muhammad eventually visited the local security office two months later and admitted to providing medical treatment to bombing victims. “An interrogator sat me down and asked for more detailed information about what I did, who funded it, where the medicine came from and who I worked with,” he recalled, explaining that he was dismissed after he answered all the questions. “The next day I received the document stating that my status had been adjusted.”
Muhammad says he is lucky – he has heard about dozens of men who were arrested after applying for amnesty. “If the security forces arrested everyone who turned themselves in, no one would do it anymore,” he explained. “For that reason, they let people like me out.”
Nonetheless, he still lives in fear of being arrested now that he volunteers at the Syrian Red Crescent. “Some of the people who work with me had their statuses adjusted and then were later arrested anyway. Others were forced to join the military,” he said.
One of his friends, he recalled, was arrested after being granted amnesty. “He later died while being tortured.”
Photo: A Syrian woman reads a newspaper in front of posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. (Associated Press/Ola al-Rifai)