Mon 22 Jul 2019

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Behind the Regime’s Recent Waves of Detainee Release

People from Daraa who were released from Syrian regime prisons after years-long imprisonment. May 30, 2019 (Daraa Today)

People from Daraa who were released from Syrian regime prisons after years-long imprisonment. May 30, 2019 (Daraa Today)

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Amid increasingly prevalent stagnation, and festering unease, citizens and activists of Daraa are threatening with disobedience and rejection of the regime’s security grip. They demand the release of detainees, and the implementation of the provisions of the July 2018’s settlement with Russia and the Syrian regime.

In such a landscape, the Syrian regime is attempting to contain popular discontent and appease the locals, by responding to some of their demands. To this end, the regime has shown some flexibility on the issue of detainees, in addition to promoting some services that it had been working on since regaining control over the governorate.

The Syrian regime recently released 66 prisoners and detainees from the governorate of Daraa in four waves  since May 23 until today. According to UN figures, the Syrian regime arrested about 380 individuals between July 2018 and March 2019. The question remains, nonetheless, what are the circumstances behind the release of these detainees? Could this actually be seen as a true breakthrough in this issue?

The Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office published a report on Friday, June 14, in which it said that those recent releases were part of a larger mass release of detainees, in what the Syrian regime dubbed “a special presidential amnesty” which included the release of over 1000 detainees. This figure has yet to be confirmed.

The group added that the release was set to coincide with the cessation of all arrests and forced disappearances in Daraa, which was not the case, as Assad forces continue to carry out arrests on a daily basis.

Circumstances of Release

Speaking to Enad Baladi, Omar al-Hariri, a member of the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, noted that some speculations have circulated over the Syrian regime’s true motives for releasing the detainees at the time that it did. Some claim that it was an attempt to defuse popular discontent, while others considered it was akin to a reward by the Syrian regime to Daraa for the settlement the governorate struck with the Syrian regime. Others believe that these releases would have never come to be had it not been for some pressures from the Russian side.

Al-Hariri believes that the outcome, rather than speculation and rumors, should be the ultimate concern, which was the release of detainees and spelling the end of their suffering, helping to alleviate some of the complexity and intractability of this issue.

He explained that among those who were released were detainees who had been detained for five years, while others released were only detained for a month. Moveover, a number of women and minors were released as part of this amnesty as well.

Meanwhile, Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office member Mohammed al-Sharea confirmed that a number of young men from Daraa have returned to their homes, as the office is still working on documenting the names of the former detainees. 

Al-Sharea revealed that one of the detainees who were released is a young man named Samer al-Sayasneh, who is “one of the ‘children of Daraa’ who wrote on the walls at the beginning of the revolution. Samer was arrested four months ago on his way back from Idlib to Daraa.”

The head of the detainees department at the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Nour al-Khatib, told Enab Baladi that both the Reconciliation Committee and the Security Committee in Daraa submitted a request for the release of a number of detainees. Al-Khatib added that 65 detainees have been released so far in four waves, from various prisons and security branches.

Al-Khatib noted that the release of these detainees in Daraa was part of a “special presidential amnesty” similar to what happened in the Hama Central Prison, when the competent committees in the prison requested that the detainees situation be addressed, and some released, as well as reducing some capital sentences and life sentences. A “special presidential amnesty” was subsequently issued in response to these requests.

Al-Khatib revealed that the Syrian regime does not usually announce such amnesties and pardons, but merely informs the prison administrations who are holding detainees included in the amnesty.

Majority of those released were arrested after the settlement

Asim al-Zubi, a human rights activist, explained to Enab Baladi that three waves of detainee release have been conducted so far, resulting in the release of 61 detainees. The first and second wave included 15 and 21 detainees respectively, and both took place during the month of Ramadan. The third wave was a few days ago and included 25 detainees.

Most of those released,al- Zubi noted, were arrested after the settlement last summer. They include some whose sentences have ended, such as Ahmad Mohammed al-Ayed al-Ammour from the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh.

Al-Zubi believes that the release of detainees was aimed at appeasing the locals, in light of growing tensions since the regime’s attempts to re-establish its security grip on an already volatile governorate. This step also came as a fulfillment promises previously made by Syrian regime officials who had visited the governorate, most notably is the former head of the Military Intelligence Agency – Mohammad Mahalla.

He noted that arrests are still being carried out until today, despite directives by the Russians to the Syrian regime to ease the pressure on the residents of the governorate. 

Detainee Release Remains the Most Prominent Demand for Residents

In February, the head of the Syrian regime’s General Intelligence Agency, Muhammad Mahalla, held a meeting with families and dignitaries from the town of Tafas in the Daraa governorate. The meeting was attended by a number of officers, including the head of the Military Security Branch in Daraa, Luay al-Ali, with dignitaries and residents of the town, according to Enab Baladi’s correspondent.

Residents’ demands revolved around the issue of releasing detainees, and ceasing arbitrary arrests that had targeted young men and women in the governorate. The demands also included reissuing pensions for retirees and discharged employees in the governorate.

At the time, Mahalla said that he comes bearing gifts – a total of 28 detainees from the Military Security branch in Daraa whom he promised “will be released immediately.” He also pledged to the residents that he will do everything in his power to fulfill all of their demands, while the ones that are beyond his control will be referred to the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.

Volcano-Like Volatility

The former head of the Bar Association of Daraa, Suleiman al-Qarfan, said that the release of the detainees in Daraa is an attempt by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies to avert an explosive outcome in South Syria.

Speaking to Enab Baladi earlier, Qarfan stressed that “the Russians and the Syrian regime are now aware that the situation in the south is like a volcano, and they are well aware that should Russia turn its attention away from Daraa even for a day, southern Syria will return to its former state before it fell into the hands of this mafia,” as he put it.

The people of Daraa repeatedly resorted to the Russian forces, who in turn continued to make promises that they are yet to deliver.

A spokesman for the Russian Reconciliation Center, Colonel Igor Fedorov, said on 19 February, as reported by  Rusisan news agency TASS, “The people in Daraa seek the Russians to resolve many of their issues that they cannot resolve on their own, including knowledge of the fate of their relatives, as well as solutions to their housing and real estate issues.”

In July of last year, Assad forces, under a Russian aerial cover, managed to regain control over the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra through settlement agreements. This followed days of consecutive bombing and the arrival of military reinforcements. Russian guarantees were given to the residents and opposition factions at the time.

Subsequently, the Syrian regime arrested a number of Free Syrian Army commanders, while others who joined the ranks of the Syrian regime were assassinated.

In a statement, Lama Fakih, the deputy director of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa division, stressed that “Active combat has ended in much of Syria, but nothing has changed in the way intelligence branches trample rights of perceived opponents of Assad’s rule.

“Lack of due process, arbitrary arrests, and harassment, even in so-called reconciled areas, speak louder than empty government promises of return, reform, and reconciliation,” she added.

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