Syrian detainees: charter on the path to justice

Wafa Mustafa sits between pictures of victims of the Syrian regime as she holds a picture of her father, outside the Koblenz Court building, west of Germany— 4 June 2020 (AFP/Thomas Lohnes)

Syrian detainees: charter on the path to justice

Wafa Mustafa sits between pictures of victims of the Syrian regime as she holds a picture of her father, outside the Koblenz Court building, west of Germany— 4 June 2020 (AFP/Thomas Lohnes)

Wafa Mustafa sits between pictures of victims of the Syrian regime as she holds a picture of her father, outside the Koblenz Court building, west of Germany— 4 June 2020 (AFP/Thomas Lohnes)

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Ali Darwish | Amal Rantisi| Nour al-Din Ramadan| Saleh Malas

Since his arrest in July 2013, I wake up every morning, hearing my mother, as if for the first time, say: “Wafa, your father is not answering his phone.”

Nearly seven and a half years have passed since activist Wafa Mustafa’s father was arrested by the Syrian security forces, becoming one of the dozen thousands of Syrians who have been missing and forcibly disappeared at the regime’s detention facilities.

Without the slightest idea as to the reason for the arrest or the charges against her father, Ali Mustafa, Wafa and her mother continue to wait for any piece of information on his whereabouts.

Wafa’s father was a political activist. In the summer of 2011, he was harassed by the State Security in the city of Masyaf, the western countryside of Hama.

The father and his friend, Hussam al-Dhafri, were arrested from al-Muhajireen neighborhood in Damascus by armed men in plainclothes, at the onset of anti-regime protests in March 2011. The charges were allegedly providing aid to “terrorists.” Later Hussam’s family learned that he died under torture in one of the regime’s detention facilities.

The said “terrorists” were none but the people displaced from the city of Hama, who left to Masyaf, escaping the regime’s raids into the city in the month of Ramadan that year.

The issue of detainees remains the most complex since the start of the Syrian revolution. The political parties on both sides—the regime and the opposition— are criticized strongly for showing no seriousness in dealing with the matter, with the regime’s refusal to even discuss the issue while using it as a pressure card against all other parties to the Syrian conflict.

On 10 February, five Syrian organizations founded by survivors of detention and the families of victims launched the Truth and Justice Charter, which lays out a common vision on the issue of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention in Syria.

In this extensive article, Enab Baladi sheds light on the objectives of the Truth and Justice Charter; its mechanisms of action; the challenges facing the work of the founder organizations; and the people’s reliance on these organizations’ work, as well as the space allocated to the detainees’ cause by the Syrian affair negotiators.

About the Truth and Justice Charter

With father al-Assad’s arrival to power in the 1970s, the security branches did not hesitate to arrest any opponent of the regime. Dozens of thousands were held captives, including former peers of Hafez al-Assad and adversaries of the Ba’ath party.

The regime has since systematically used arbitrary arrest; enforced disappearance; torture; and extrajudicial executions as a weapon to silence its opponents or any movement against its policies.

The security branches maintained these powers and arbitrary arrest and disappearance continued during the rule of President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.

However, after March 2011, these abuses were aimed at the various segments of the Syrian society, to suppress peaceful protests held across most of the country’s provinces. The perpetrators were never subjected to investigations or brought to account.

The regime carries out all forms of violations against detainees, from enforced disappearance and detention to torture, crimes of sexual violence, extrajudicial executions, and exceptional trials with summary procedures that lack the conditions for a fair trial.

The regime does not only refuse to hand bodies of detainees, who died under torture or who were extrajudicially killed, to families, but it is also abusing the victims’ property rights, in addition to subjecting forcibly disappeared and detainees’ family members and detention survivors to blackmail and denying them freedom of movement.

According to the Truth and Justice Charter (hereinafter the Charter), these violations, coupled with the failure of the international community to stop them and hold the perpetrators to account, have led to the spread of a culture of impunity, and an emulation of these practices by the majority of Syria’s armed factions, radical organizations, and de facto authorities.

“The enforced culture of impunity has been accompanied by an increasing and deliberate denial and marginalization of the rights of victims and their relatives, and of their pivotal role.”

“This denial and marginalization constitute a fundamental component of the crimes against victims and their relatives,” the Charter said.

Defining their objectives, the Charter contributors, said that the document seeks “to present a comprehensive vision of the position of victims of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture regarding Syrian issues connected with their cause, their future vision, and their demands.”

The Charter is drafted to represent survivors and relatives of victims of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killing, torture, sexual abuse, and other violations that accompany or result from these crimes.

The Charter’s partner organizations defined themselves as persons who “have rights, as well as sorrows, hopes, and legitimacy. We are united by our insistence on sustained efforts to resolve these issues on the basis of our common vision and set of demands.”

As for the victims with whom the Charter is concerned, these include the victims of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and their families; victims of arbitrary detention and their families; victims of extrajudicial killing and their families; victims of enforced disappearance and all violations associated with these crimes, and their families.

Dozens protesting in front of the European Parliament, demanding the release of persons detained at Syrian regime prisons (Families for Freedom)

Dozens protesting in front of the European Parliament, demanding the release of persons detained at Syrian regime prisons (Families for Freedom)

The Charter’s values and principles

As reported in the document, the Charter adopts legal principles and international humanitarian standards based on various branches of international law relevant to the situation in Syria.

The Charter’s values and principles are thus defined by the following:

International human rights law and relevant conventions.

  • International humanitarian law, specifically Article 3, which is common to all four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the articles related to Additional Protocol II of 1977 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which are considered a reflection of customary international humanitarian law.
  • Customary international law and customary international humanitarian law.
  • Relevant provisions of international criminal law, for the Charter seeks guidance in the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court (ICC), even though Syria is not a member State of the Statue.

The Charter’s short- and long-term goals

“We believe that reaching a comprehensive justice satisfying the needs and aspirations of victims, survivors, and their family members is a long-term process that will encompass cumulative stages. All of these stages are essential, but we as victims see some elements as critically urgent, while others may take longer to attain,” the Charter’s partner organizations said.

The organizations have differentiated between short-term justice and long-term justice. In the short term, “there are immediate measures that must be taken to put a halt to ongoing violations and alleviate the suffering of survivors, victims, and their families.”

In the medium- to longer-term, the organizations said that there are additional demands to ensure comprehensive justice and non-repetition of the crimes they have suffered and continue to suffer from. These were prioritized as follows:

  • The immediate release of detainees, and revealing the fate of the forcibly disappeared;
  • An immediate halt to torture, inhuman treatment, and sexual crimes;
  • Returning the remains of those killed under conditions of enforced disappearance and detention;
  • The abolition of field and exceptional courts;
  • Fair and independent civil courts adhering to international standards, through the immediate release of persons arbitrarily detained and referring other detainees to courts that meet international standards of fairness and independence;
  • Compensation and reparations;
  • Recognition of the truth and memorialization to develop an accurate historical narrative and a formal acknowledgment of the violations by a future Syrian government responsible for transitional justice;
  • Reform of the security and judicial institutions and their practices.

Challenges to partner organizations’ work

“I was not ready to provide my detained brother’s name to organizations or see his photo published. I was afraid that if he lived the regime might harm or kill him. On the one hand, we want to be part of seeking accountability; on the other, we are not sure how far the regime’s brutality might go,” a sister of a detainee, arrested since 2013, told Enab Baladi, requesting that her name be withheld for security reasons.

The sister even wondered, how would registering her brother’s name with and providing his photo to the organizations demanding the release of the detainees help her brother? What benefits could be made of attacking the regime, “criminal by nature”?

Many obstacles hamper the work of detention victims’ organizations. Some of these obstacles are tenacious; others change over time and based on geography, activist Wafa Mustafa said.

However, the mental strain is the challenge that all affected persons suffer from. The issue of arrest and enforced disappearance in Syria remains the most draining and difficult, both on the psychological and emotional levels, Wafa added.

Syrian women holding photos of detained relatives in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva—2017 (Families for Freedom)

Syrian women holding photos of detained relatives in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva—2017 (Families for Freedom)

Fear hampers documentation:

Alternative solutions

The families’ fear of listing their detained relatives’ names with the campaigns advocating for accountability and others working on documentation is a major hurdle to the work of victim organizations concerned with detainees’ affairs, activist and member of Families for Freedom,  Lamis al-Khateeb, told Enab Baladi.

Most of the families actually fear even reporting that their relatives are detained. Consequently, the numbers of detainees are larger than those documented; the numbers might even be twice the recorded figures, al-Khateeb added.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), there are 129,989  detainees in the Syrian regime prisons in 2020, 85% of these are documented as forcibly disappeared.

When documenting the numbers of victims and their testimonies, “the concerned organizations would be working for the victims’ and their own sake,” the Coordinator at the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison, Munir al-Faqeer, told Eanb Baladi.

The detainees’ relatives who consent to provide testimony, communicate with the association through Facebook and WhatsApp, directly and privately with one of the association’s staffers who they trust, al-Faqeer added.

When based in regime-held areas, detainees’ relatives then communicate with the association through a mediator living abroad.

The detainees’ profiles are created after the information is verified by released detainees and families and crosschecked. Next, the obtained information is collected and put together by the association, he added.

Deaf international ears

Despite the action and efforts made by the organizations concerned with detainees’ affairs, there has not been any response on the international level, Lamis al-Khateeb said.  “There are false promises about the detainees all the time. Sometimes, even promises are not made. That is, no one is actually listening to the suffering and the voice of the people, movements, and organizations.”

Before the Charter, the detainees’ organizations and action groups did not have a unitary voice. Today, with the Charter, there is greater hope that demands will reach the international community, she added.

One barrier that the Charter’s partner organizations should overcome has to do with publicity. The Charter should be promoted by advocacy groups in a manner that convinces states that a political settlement in Syria; the return of refugees; and reconstruction are difficult before justice is ensured for the detainees and the disappeared and before their destinies are revealed, al-Faqeer told Eanb Baladi.

One additional barrier, al-Faqeer said, is that the Charter has not been adopted by political opposition, for relevant opposition bodies have not claimed the Charter as a vision and a document to face international pressure, given that bringing justice to detainees must be an indispensable minimum condition.

Contacted online, the Alliance of Families of Abductees by ISIS (Massar) told Enab Baladi that the chief obstacle to the Charter’s work, its provisions, and demands, is that an unfair political settlement might be reached and presented to Syrians as the best of the available options.

Such a settlement would not only render the Charter meaningless, but it will also rob significance of the struggle and suffering of millions of Syrians, Massar said.

Should this settlement be actually reached, “the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of martyrs, wounded, displaced persons, and refugees will be wasted. Such settlement will ignore as nonexistent thousands of male and female victims, whom the jailors wanted to destroy in detention facilities,” Massar added.

Political prisoners detained at a police station operated by the Syrian regime in Damascus —11 July 2012 (Reuters/Khalid al-Hariri)

Political prisoners detained at a police station operated by the Syrian regime in Damascus —11 July 2012 (Reuters/Khalid al-Hariri)

UN bypassing provisions on detainees’ release

On 18 December 2015, the UN Security Council endorsed a road map for a peace process in Syria, numbered Resolution 2254, which stipulated the release of Syrians held in detention facilities.

Several reports by the SNHR have documented that the Syrian regime’s security services continue to arrest citizens in areas subjected to settlement agreements with Russia. These arrests are a violation of the detainees-related terms provided by Resolution No. 2254.

The UN, represented by its former Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, did not seek to create a clear path that would lead to a political transition, involving the two parties to the Syrian conflict, through a transitional governing body.

Moreover, de Mistura did not treat the detainees’ affair as a priority file.

Commenting on the issue of prisoners and detainees, during a 22 January press conference, the present UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Geir O. Pedersen, said “I am afraid that so far it has been disappointing.”

Lamis al-Khateeb, an activist with Families for Freedom, expressed her disappointment about what is taking place over the course of the political settlement negotiations, whereby the detainees’ affair is being used as a pressure card. “This is a purely humanitarian issue, and the release of detainees, held by all parties must be a basic condition regardless of any political agreement; settlement; reconciliation; or whatever it is called.”

In October 2020, The Day After conducted a study titled “Syrians and the Constitution”. The study probed Syrians’ opinion on the Constitutional Committee’s work, based on a survey of a systematic sample of 2,966 Syrian adult males and females, residing both inside and outside the country.

The data collected during this study shows that the prioritization of the constitutional track is still declining among Syrians, as only 7.1% of respondents placed constitutional efforts at the top of things that Syria needs today.

Only 23.8% of the respondents indicated that their priority is the release of detainees.

About 43% indicated their priority is to establish an official ceasefire until a comprehensive political solution is reached.

Do detainees’ families count on rights organization?

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its official website, asking respondents the following: Is the work of Syrian human rights organizations effective?

Of the total respondents, 55% answered no; the remaining 45% answered yes.

The victims and their families have been reluctant to embrace the work of rights organizations and adopt the Charter, or even have some belief in it because they are strained and disappointed, al-Fakeer said.

Space dedicated to detainees’ issue by negotiators?

For her part, activist Wafa Mustafa does not place her confidence in the work of political negotiators when it comes to the issue of detainees. “I would be lacking foresight should I depend on [these negotiators]. The matter is partially related to trust, which comes through trials.”

There has not been an occasion when opposition political entities managed to prove their interest in the detainees’ affair or that they are working to prioritize the detainees’ cause. The issue of the detainees and forcibly disappeared has always been the most difficult in Syria because the regime refuses to talk the matter through, knowing that it already has the strongest card. The two parties—the regime’s political representative and those of the opposition—have always manipulated the detainees’ issue, Wafa said.

The only meaningful efforts made in this regard are those done by the detainees’ families, male and female survivors, and the Charter lately. These people have a cause, and they are suffering from its implications. They have laid down a comprehensive and integrated vision on how to forward their demands and what these demands are. Their vision is neither superficial nor sentimental, for it draws on studies, consultations, demands, and true aspirations, she added.

Political talks and conferences on Syria rarely pass without discussing the issue of the detainees, always brought to the negotiations table, however, without any clarifications on the outcomes of such talks, which are limited to almost identical closing statements.

The Syrian people have grown familiar with these outcomes, or lacking outcomes, for they can still see people being arrested, wondering every time about what these talks are actually discussing when the detainees’ issue is brought into focus.

The Official in Charge of the Detainees File within the Syrian Negotiation Committee, Alice Mufarrej, told Enab Baladi that the committee has been adopting two strategies.

The short-term strategy is about applying pressure to release all the detainees and reveal the fate of those forcibly disappeared.

The long-term strategy connects the political settlement in Syria with accountability, linking also all Syrian currents operating within this field with the local and the civil legal spheres, which thus constitute a pressure group within the political process.

The committee’s strategies are in line with the valuable achievement the Charter represents. “We bow down to the efforts made by the [Charter’s] contributors towards the detainees’ cause, and its sensitivity that is deeply rooted in our consciousnesses, given that this humanitarian issue also has a political dimension to it,” Mufarrej added.

The detainees’ issue is well established in the international resolutions which regulate the political process that is beyond negotiation. That is the detainees’ issue will be present should an actual political process start in Syria, she added.

The committee’s officials in charge of the detainees’ file recognize the difficult reality which resulted from fruitless negotiations in Geneva and redirecting the file to Astana talks, as a file subject to “political exchanges,” she added.

Mufarrej held armed opposition groups responsible for this political trading, associating this file with security settlements on the ground, and twisting the issue of the arrests as the armed conflict entailed, as well as committing similar abuses of arbitrary arrests in the areas where they predominate.

However, the entire political process is frozen. It has not been witnessing any activity because it requires an international will with the intention to press the parties involved in it to return to the Geneva Talks as to start the road map outlined by the Charter, she said.

The Syrian regime will not seek to achieve any progress on any political track and will not respond to the causes. This is why action was and still is focused on procedural steps with international decision-makers as to hold an international conference to press the UN Security Council into making a decision, which has been ineffective under Chapter VII. This also demands international will, itself taking no action towards an integral political settlement.

Koblenz: landmark trail

Koblenz, an ancient German town, witnessed the first trial of its kind, with two former Syrian regime intelligence officers brought before the court on charges of perpetrating crimes against humanity.

The first is Anwar Raslan, a former Colonel in the Syrian Army. He is accused of involvement in the torture of 4,000 persons between 2011 and 2011, as he headed the al-Khatib security branch of the State Security Administration in Damascus.

Raslan’s trial might continue till next summer or next year. This depends on the prosecution file and approach to be adopted by the judges overseeing the case, lawyer Patrick Crocker, representing the seven plaintiffs, told Enab Baladi earlier.

Raslan is also facing charges of murder, rape, and grave sexual assault against 58 persons.

Eyad al-Gharib, former junior regime officer at the State Security Administration, was sentenced to four-and-a-half-years in prison for aiding crimes against humanity. According to prosecutors, al-Gharib has arrested persons in 2011 and handed them over to the al-Khatib security branch, where they were subjected to torture.

Officers who run the investigations built their reports particularly on testimonies provided by the victims detained under “inhuman and humiliating” conditions and who managed to arrive in Europe, according to the judges.

Victim organizations participating in the Charter

Families for Freedom: Female activists working to free their loved ones

The Families for Freedom defines itself as a movement led by female peaceful activists, “determined to achieve their goals, represented by the release of their loved ones.” The movement is apolitical and does not seek political gains.

The movement was established in 2017 during a round of negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition, to demand the release of all detainees in Syria. The women relatives of the detainees and forcibly disappeared Syrians denounced the 7th round of the Astana talks’ failure to come up with a solution to the detainees’ file.

On 27 November, the movement issued a statement demanding that the detainees’ file be brought back to the negotiating table in Geneva and that it be approached as a humanitarian file above negotiation, instead of politicizing and using it as a pressure card.

One of the Movement’s founders is the Syrian civil activist Amina Khoulani, who won the International Women of Courage Award in March 2020, for her activism in advocating for human rights and peace in Syria.

Other female founders are the lawyer and human rights activist, Noura Ghazi al-Safadi, and Bayan Sharbaji—the sister of the activists Ma’an and Yahya Sharbaji from the city of Daraya, Damascus countryside.

The fourth founder is activist Fadwa Mahmoud, the mother of the detainee Maher al-Khair, and the wife of the detained prominent dissident Abdul Aziz al-Khair.

Families for Freedom movement is chiefly supported by Dawlaty, Women Now, and the Syria Campaign.

The movement is available on Facebook, and can also be contacted through the following email address: [email protected]

Ta’afi: An idea inspired by a shared experience

Ta’afi initiative is a victim-aimed program, launched by the Kesh Malek organization in 2017. The initiative works with opinion prisoners and survivors of political detention to reintegrate them into society when they are released and have settled down in a safe place.

One of the initiative’s recurrent demands is changing human rights in Syria while pursuing justice for the detainees and forcibly disappeared. The initiative also seeks to create an advocacy network of the victims themselves to strengthen their voices in order to achieve justice.

Ta’afi initiative stems from a common experience, as all its members are detention survivors.

“We went through the same experience; we had the same feelings. We can understand the emotions, experiences, or disappointments that detention survivors may have experienced after their release,” the Ta’afi Initiative Coordinator, detention survivor Mona Abboud, told Enab Baladi earlier, explaining how the shared experience of the initiative’s founders shapes their work.

Ahmed Helmy, director and one of the initiative’s founders, made a speech at the 4th Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, held in June 2020. He recounted his experience in detention and commented on the role of detainees’ and survivors’ families in claiming justice, accountability, and active participation.

Male and female detention survivors can reach out to the initiative through Kesh Malek Organization’s Facebook account or official website, or through the initiative’s contact number 00905050039395 via WhatsApp.

Caesar Families Association: unifying voices to demand truth and justice

The Caesar Families Association (CFA) is a group of families who identified their relatives in the Caesar photos, leaked from the Syrian regime detention centers by the dissident officer, code-named Caesar. These families met and found the association in the German capital Berlin in February 2018, backed by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCMFE).

The CFA aims to support the families of detainees and help them find photos of their relatives. It aspires to unify voices demanding truth, accountability and justice, and restitution for the victims of torture and forced disappearance in Syria, according to the association’s website.

People can file a photo search request to the CFA through its official website. Families upload the latest photo of the missing person with his/her personal information, including if the detained person had any chronic diseases before the arrest. The association members then search the photo base. Should an image of the detainee be found, it would be sent to relatives, to spare them the suffering of seeing thousands of detainees’ photos.

To join the association, also through its official website, applicants must have a first or second-degree relative who appears in the Caesar photos. Once the affiliation to any of the filmed detainees is proven, the association approves the application.

The association’s Communication and Internal Coordination Officer, Yasmine Mashaan, had previously told Enab Baladi that the association advises families of the missing person against looking for their relatives in the photos themselves so that the pictures do not cause them long-term psychological suffering.

Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison

The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) defines itself as a non-governmental, non-profit organization registered in Turkey.

The association seeks to reveal the truth and achieve justice for the detainees, held captives for their political opinion or activity. It also works to identify the fate of the missing and forcibly disappeared persons across Syria.

The association focuses on the Sednaya  Military Prison and is concerned with the affairs of the detainees and disappeared there. It documents their numbers, places of origin, the date of and the party responsible for their arrest.

The Association cooperates with international committees and bodies probing into “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” that occurred in Syria, to conduct investigations and collect evidence of crimes of torture and genocide in Sednaya prison.

The Association communicates with the families of the missing, provides them with emotional support, and channels their voice and suffering in all possible ways, according to its official website.

The association also presents the detainees and missing persons cause in front of local and international communities and cooperates with local and international human rights organizations to conduct investigations regarding detainees and missing persons in Sednaya prison.

On 28 July 2020, the association published a book titled Sednaya Prison during the Syrian Revolution: Testimonies. The book includes accounts narrated by former detainees of the notorious prison, held captive there in the early years of the Syrian revolution. It also includes the testimony of a sister of one of the prison’s detainees who died under torture.

The association maintains contact with the United Nations’ International Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Office of the Special Envoy to Syria, in addition to many other international organizations to update them on the latest developments related to the Sednaya prison, Diab Sariya, co-founder and coordinator of the ADMSP, told Enab Baladi earlier.

The association can be contacted through its official website by filling out a form that includes the name, e-mail, and the message to the association, or through Facebook, phone number 00905379365974 or e-mail: [email protected]

Massar: A path towards truth and justice

Massar— Alliance of Families of Abductees by ISIS-Da’esh—is a media platform established by a group of families of people kidnapped by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The platform was launched during a press conference held in the French capital, Paris, on 15 May 2019.

The platform defines itself as consisting of “the mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers of those kidnapped by ISIS. We are families waiting for news.”

A number of the kidnapped persons’ families, the Director of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, and the Director of the Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch, attended the press conference.

At the time, Houry said: “Now that the territorial battle against ISIS is over, the anti-ISIS coalition should address the terrible ISIS legacy. A critical issue for thousands of families is uncovering what happened to those ISIS abducted.”

Massar calls on the International Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to provide the information they have regarding the organization’s prisons, and the prisoners and the persons it kidnapped.

It also demands truth and justice for the kidnapped by “ISIS” and their families, by establishing a link channel that the families of the abducted persons know the available information on the loved disappeared and captured ones.

The platform also calls for the inclusion of this file on the list of the concerns of the intervening countries in the affairs of Syria.

People can submit a missing person’s application by filling out a form on the platform’s website. Accordingly, the documentation team will communicate with the applicants to give them all the information necessary for documentation, and answer all their inquiries.

Massar has accounts on Facebook and Twitter and can be contacted by sending a message containing the full name, phone number, and e-mail of the sender via the following link: https://massarfamilies.com/contact-us/

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