Bashar al-Assad’s government has made huge profits by kidnapping people and extorting their relatives for information about their fate, Amnesty International has charged in a new report calling the practice a new war crime.
Amnesty alleged in a report released Thursday that the Syrian state is “profiting from widespread and systematic enforced disappearances amounting to crimes against humanity.”
The international human rights group said it had evidence the government uses “an insidious black market in which family members desperate to find out the fates of their disappeared relatives are ruthlessly exploited for cash.”
According to Between Prison and the Grave: Enforced Disappearances in Syria, more than 65,000 people – 58,000 of them civilians – have been forcibly disappeared in Syria since 2011.
Those detained by the members of the Syrian state or its conduits are usually held in appalling conditions in overcrowded detention cells, completely cut off from the outside world. Many detainees, Amnesty said, die as a result of torture, rampant disease and extrajudicial execution.
Amnesty’s report says that enforced disappearances in Syria have become so systematically entrenched that they’ve given rise to a black market network in which “middlemen” are paid bribes – sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars – by families attempting to determine where their loved one is, or simply to verify if he or she is still alive.
According to a Damascus-based lawyer who spoke with Amnesty, these bribes have become “a cash cow for the regime … a source of funding they have come to rely on.”
The report sheds light on a regular state practice that threatens anyone and everyone in poor standing with the Assad government.
Syria Deeply spoke with Nicolette Boehland, the report’s author, to learn more about her research and the dangers of enforced disappearances in Syria.
Syria Deeply: Disappearances have been going on in Syria for quite some time now. How long has Amnesty been working on this report?
Nicolette Boehland: We started research for this specific report in June 2014. We did four months of research and finished up in September. We conducted interviews with 71 family members of people who had been forcibly disappeared and eight survivors of disappearance, in addition to several experts and analysts on enforced disappearance. We were able to do most of our interviews in person, in Turkey and in Lebanon, with people who had fled Syria, as well as in the U.K. and Germany. And then we also conducted interviews remotely with people still inside of Syria.
The report is also based on interviews and documentation that we’ve been doing on enforced disappearances since 2011. Those are hundreds of interviews, which helped us make some of our broader findings on the patterns and the types of people who have been forcibly disappeared since 2011.
Syria Deeply: So what are those broader patterns and who are the types of people most at risk of being subjected to enforced disappearance?
Nicolette Boehland: We found that the Syrian government has carried out a deliberate and orchestrated campaign to target three primary categories of people. The first is peaceful opponents of the government. So these are people like peaceful demonstrators, human rights defenders, journalists, doctors and humanitarian aid workers.
The second category is people the government considers to be disloyal in some way. These are people like defectors or deserters from the Syrian military, people considering defection or desertion and particularly in recent years people who cross from opposition areas back into government areas.
The final category of people who’ve been forcibly disappeared is family members of wanted individuals. These people are targeted in an effort to stop the wanted individuals from carrying out their political or military activities – or to force them to turn themselves in.
Our notable finding is that, particularly within the last two years, the system of disappearances has expanded and become so entrenched that opportunistic actors are now taking advantage of the system and using it for their own personal gain. We found the two primary motivators for these actors are the pursuit of personal profit and the settling of personal grievances. With these new disappearances, an even greater number of individuals have been forcibly disappeared in Syria.
Syria Deeply: Have you seen this state-sponsored campaign of enforced disappearances change in shape or form since the uprising began back in 2011?
Nicolette Boehland: This connects in part to what I was just speaking about. The system of disappearances has become so developed that now people take advantage of it for their own gain. Now, enforced disappearance is spreading through even wider sectors of Syrian society. We also see perhaps fewer disappearances of peaceful opponents to the government, partly because these people have already been disappeared or killed – or they have fled Syria by now.
Syria Deeply: The financing behind these disappearances is one of the larger issues your report touches on. How is the Syrian government profiting from what Amnesty deems to be a “widespread and systematic” campaign of enforced disappearances? And who are these individual profiteers?
Nicolette Boehland: The family members of disappeared relatives – who have often been disappeared themselves or arrested when they inquire with the authorities about their loved ones – are forced to enter this black market that has developed around enforced disappearances. This is a market where intermediaries, or “middlemen” or “brokers” as Syrians call them, are basically buying and selling information on the fate or whereabouts of disappeared detainees.
We found that these bribes that families are forced to pay are sometimes in the hundreds of dollars, and sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars. Family members have sold property, homes … just to come up with the money to find out whether their loved one is dead or alive.
Families told me that these profiteers can be anyone with good connections to the Syrian authorities – so they could be lawyers, prison guards or community leaders. These intermediaries then pay a portion of the money they are given to prison officials to negotiate outcomes or information.
Syria Deeply: Does Amnesty have any estimate as to the number of people that have been disappeared in Syria since the beginning of the crisis?
Nicolette Boehland: Tens of thousands of people have been forcibly disappeared since 2011. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 65,000 have been forcibly disappeared since 2011 and remain so – 58,000 of those are civilians. People are so fearful to come forward and discuss disappearance publicly because they might face some kind of punitive measures from the government that we and other monitors believe the actual number is likely to be much higher.
When I began researching this report, the word spread among Syrians that I was covering disappearance and we started to receive more and more calls. By the end of the research, I was documenting cases of disappearance from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. I still receive new cases every day. And even with all the cases we’ve documented, we’ve barely made a dent in the actual number of disappearances. The scope is mind-blowing.
Syria Deeply: What does Amnesty know about the conditions in which the thousands of people who’ve been disappeared are being held?
Nicolette Boehland: The disappeared are held in a nightmarish network of detention centers and secret prisons. They’re subjected to appalling conditions, where disease is rampant and they are routinely tortured. Some of the common modes of torture include electric shock, suspension by the wrists, rape and other sexual abuse, burning and sleep deprivation. As a result of these conditions and this brutal torture, many die in detention.
Syria Deeply: I know you detailed it in your report, but could you quickly define for us what enforced disappearance means?
Nicolette Boehland: Enforced disappearance occurs when a person is arrested, abducted or detained by a state or state agents, who then deny that person is being held, or conceal his or her whereabouts, which places that person outside the protection of the law – which is flimsy in Syria to begin with.
Syria Deeply: So could you give us one final comment regarding the ironic timing of this report, which comes at the exact moment global powers are debating the future of Syria and whether or not Assad is essential to the future of Syria?
Nicolette Boehland: Though we don’t take a stance on Assad, we believe the responsibility for these disappearances goes to the very top levels of the government, and we are calling for an investigation into precisely who is committing these crimes. This is why in the report we call on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the international criminal court as a matter of urgency. It’s essential that we know which officials are responsible for these crimes and that they are brought to justice. The tens of thousands of people who have been forcibly disappeared in Syria and their families deserve this, at the very least.
For more information on Amnesty International’s campaign calling for an end to enforced disappearances click here.
Top image: Samar, wife of Fa’eq al-Mir, holds a family photograph at her home in Istanbul, Turkey. Fa’eq al-Mir (also known as Fa’eq Ali Asa’d) is a long-term political activist and leading member of the Syrian Democratic People’s Party. Fa’eq, 61, has been detained by the government for his political activities several times since 1979. He went missing on October 7, 2013, after leaving his house in the government-controlled neighborhood of al-Khoussour in Damascus. (Amnesty International)