By Mohamad Joja, member of Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD)
The Syrian conflict has recently witnessed political moves led by some regional countries attempting to restore legitimacy of the Syrian regime and eventually pave the way for its full normalization. These moves coincided with a speech by UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pederson about the ‘step for step’ approach which followed the realization that the Constitutional Committee has reached a dead-end, as many Syrians have expected and predicted.
As these political moves proliferated other events mushroomed around them: the Syrian regime issued a farcical law criminalizing torture on March 30; the Tadamon neighborhood massacre story broke at international level fully revealing the brutal, criminal nature of the Syrian regime; and, ultimately, the head of the Syrian regime issued Amnesty Law No. 7 of 2022.
The timing and circumstances of issuing this amnesty law clearly indicate that it is politically motivated. The Syrian regime wants to give the impression that it is taking steps that help create conditions encouraging the process of normalization, which would help it bypass the sanctions imposed on it, or at least reduce them. The Syrian regime is using these public stunts to falsely claim that the situation in Syria is suitable for the return of the displaced Syrians, and that there is a true change that should be met with a different approach from the international community towards the regime. Reality is far different from what the regime is trying to portray.
In this context, almost all Syrians, including SACD that I am a member of, insist that the detainees’ file is one of the most important and complex issues, as it is an urgent humanitarian file that is not negotiable, and its resolution cannot wait until a full comprehensive solution or political agreement is reached. Nevertheless, the detainees’ issue is at the same time it is one of the most important pillars of any potential political solution and a cornerstone of the safe environment as defined by the Syrians themselves. No solution can ever do justice to the detainees and their families, except through a sustainable political agreement based on establishing a safe environment that fulfills the aspirations of the Syrians.
There is no doubt that the release of any detainee is a positive development since we should always look from the perspective of the detainees themselves and their families, and understand the enormous injustice that their imprisonment meant, yet the world must not be deceived by the regime’s ruse to use the release of detainees as a tool to polish its tarnished image. The Syrian regime continues to hold, arbitrarily detain and randomly release Syrians without any legal basis to its actions. In fact, the regime uses the detainees file as a political blackmail at the expense of the suffering of these detainees and their families. And this has been evident through the following:
- The alleged amnesty only included the crimes stipulated in the Terrorism Law of 2012. Consequently, a large number of arrested detainees were excluded based on other Syrian laws, including the General Penal Code.
- According to the text of the amnesty decree, crimes that led to the death of a person were excluded. Most of the detainees in the regime prisons were arrested on the grounds of their participation in the uprising against the regime and their demand for their rights. Accordingly, criminal charges were brought against them such as incitement to murder, which means that a large number of detainees were not covered by the latest amnesty.
- The number of released detainees is negligible compared to the actual number of detainees still held by the regime. This was evident in the large number of families, who were filmed by official media channels, waiting for the release of their loved ones, or at least for their fate to be revealed. According to the SNHR’s report released on May 27, the regime released 527 detainees while there are nearly 132,000 still detained.
- The misleading attempts by the Syrian regime are not just limited to the amnesty decree and its exclusion of the crimes stipulated in the Penal Code. The regime sent a letter to the Security Council informing it that it will cancel all warrants against Syrian citizens inside and outside Syria. This in itself is misleading, as these files in the security branches are files that cannot be accessed by legal means, and this makes it easier for the regime to manipulate the records and criminalization of the acts attributed to the people against those who are wanted.
The fate of detainees is also pivotal for the displaced Syrians themselves and key to their understanding of the reality in Syria and a major factor in shaping their decision whether to return. Dealing seriously with the detainees file requires imposing unconditional international monitoring and access for UN, ICRC and other relevant international organizations to prisons in Syria, and the formation of a specialized international committee that has sufficient tools and mandate to achieve the following:
- Uncover the number of detainees, their names, and their places of detention.
- Uncover the official and unofficial prisons in which arrest and detention take place.
- Gain access to visiting prisons and unofficial places of detention.
- Gain access to the judicial files of the detainees, especially the records of the field court.
- Reveal the burial places of detainees who were killed under torture in the regime’s prisons, and handing over their bodies to their families.
- Re-investigate the cases of all detainees under the supervision of the formed committee and in the presence of lawyers for the detainees.
- Release all detainees who have been detained for their participation in the Syrian uprising.
Achieving a true and sustainable solution to the detainees file does not end by addressing its humanitarian dimension in an urgent and comprehensive way, nor by its inclusion in the political solution as one of its most important pillars, but there has to be some complementary measures to compensate the victims and prevent such crimes from happening in the future, and amongst these measures:
- Rehabilitate all detainees so they can resume their professional lives.
- Compensation and reparation for material and moral damages.
- Rehabilitate them and integrate them into society.
- Abolition of laws, courts, and exceptional prisons.
- Adoption of a binding international mechanism to prosecute perpetrators of violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
For more than a decade, the Syrian regime has been deploying its media machine to manipulate the public opinion and cover for its crimes and practices. The pardon decrees issued by the regime, despite the relief they bring to the very limited number of families of those released, are merely a tactical move that the regime uses when it feels threatened, in this case after the Tadamon neighborhood massacre has shown the world, again, the real face of the regime, who claims is fighting terrorism, yet it is the one committing the terror acts. The international community must not succumb to the Syrian regime’s propaganda, nor ever believe that any peace and stability will prevail in Syria as long as this regime is in power. The comprehensive political solution, which addresses the issue of detainees and prepares ground for the establishment of a safe environment, is the only way to achieve sustainable peace and stability in Syria.