Wed 13 Nov 2019

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Will The Constitutional Committee Open The Way For The Thorny “Detainees File”?

Syrian citizens organizing a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin to demand the release of their detained relatives - August 31, 2019 (Caesar Families Association)

Syrian citizens organizing a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin to demand the release of their detained relatives - August 31, 2019 (Caesar Families Association)

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With the announcement of the launch of the Constitutional Committee, the file of detainees and forcibly disappeared people has returned to be one of the most addressed issues in statements by political and UN officials. These statements have called on Syrian parties to start the trust-building measures, which would pave the way for the members of the Constitutional Committee to start their tasks, represented in drafting of the new constitution as a first step towards the relied-on political solution to end a war that has overwhelmed Syrians for eight years.

The most prominent of these statements were those of UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen a few days ago, calling for a large-scale exchange of “prisoners” in Syria to build trust, ahead of the first round of talks between the government of the regime and the opposition at the end of this month.

Pederson considered that the most important trust-building measure is the release of the abductees and detainees. “If coincided with the work of the Constitutional Committee and other manifestations of change on the ground, this step would convey an important message that there could be a new beginning for Syria,” as he put it.

Pederson stressed that the fate of tens of thousands of detainees and forcibly disappeared people is still unknown and their families are greatly suffering and facing daily challenges.

Pederson’s statements have coincided with the US insistence on revealing the fate of the Syrian detainees and forcibly disappeared. In fact, US ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, called on the Syrian regime to release the detainees in its prisons and allow international observers to enter the Syrian prisons.

“About 128,000 Syrians are still in arbitrary detention. This practice is unacceptable and al-Assad’s regime must release them,” Craft said during a meeting of the Security Council held on Monday, September 30, which addressed the developments in the Syrian situation.

Could the launch of the Constitutional Committee, combined with a UN and international call, be a glimmer of hope for resolving some of the obstacles in the file of detainees and missing persons? What are the most prominent current moves about this thorny file?

 

“Cautious” optimism

Alice al-Mufrej, a member of the Constitutional Committee and the head of the detainees’ file at the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC), confirmed that the international community is currently working towards pushing forward a trust-building measure between the Syrian parties, represented in the release of detainees. She pointed out that this would precisely be carried out by the United Nations and under US pressure.

Speaking to Enab Baladi, al-Mufrej asserted that, as she has been dealing with the international community, she has noted the insistence on pushing forward the release of detainees, especially children, women, sick people and persons with disabilities because of the torture they have suffered in detention. This action will contribute to bringing honesty and reliability to the work of the Constitutional Committee, which will serve as the main entry point or legal bridging of any political transition.

Al-Mufrej added that the achievement of the standards of a safe and neutral environment before the transitional governance body must precede any subsequent measures, such as the referendum on the constitution, which will be placed by the Committee within the popular legal means, or the holding of any elections. Among these standards are the full release of detainees, the disclosure of the fate of the forcibly disappeared people and the delivery of the corpses of those who died. Al-Mufrej noted that it is a long-term process.

She also pointed out that what is currently being carried out, in conjunction with talks about the release of detainees, is the exercise of pressure to stop the ongoing arbitrary arrests in Syria to date and stop violations in the areas of settlements committed by the regime, which uses the file of detainees as a “barter and extortion card,” as she put it.

Al-Mufrej further explained that the Constitutional Committee is neither the solution nor the goal, considering it just a constitutional course as part of the political process. “Therefore, we are willing to engage and continue to exercise pressure to achieve progress regarding the issue of detainees, which is the goal of full release,” she insisted.

 

The need for “international will”

Al-Mufrej clarified that the political interest of the international community by passing the Constitutional Committee requires them to conduct the trust-building process and pressure the regime and Russians after it until this is achieved, as the file of detainees is subject to political understandings and needs an international and political will.

Regarding the US pressure in this file, al-Mufrej said that the Committee is in constant contact and coordination with the United States regarding the issue of detainees. However, she pointed to the lack of full trust towards the US side, describing the pressure the latter is exercising in this regard as cautious and hesitant, in addition to the “US compatibility with the Russian course on Syrian territories at the military and political levels.”

The head of the HNC, Nasr al-Hariri, stressed in previous statements to Enab Baladi on the need to start trust-building measures or humanitarian items, especially in the file of detainees.

Al-Hariri pointed out that there are still ongoing efforts to politicize this tragic and very painful file for all Syrians, with the regime’s attempt to achieve political gains in return.

He pointed out that the previous exchanges of detainees in the framework of the Astana talks, through the simultaneous release of some detainees, is not enough, especially with the presence of a party detaining hundreds of thousands of people with the accusations against them along with their torture and killing under torture.

Al-Hariri argued that there are no detainees at the HNC or in secret or public detention centers, stressing on the need to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions that called on all Syrian parties to immediately release all detainees.

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