Foreign detainees’ fate still unknown as Dutchman killed in regime’s prisons

Illustration of a Dutchman who was detained by the Syria regime - 18 March 2022 (Dutch NRC newspaper)

Illustration of a Dutchman who was detained by the Syria regime - 18 March 2022 (Dutch NRC newspaper)


Numerous reports raise the issue of foreign detainees held by the Syrian regime, but despite repeated advocacy campaigns, the fate of dozens of them is still unknown.

The Dutch NRC Handelsblad newspaper published an investigation in cooperation with the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) about a Dutchman of Moroccan origin who was killed under torture in the prisons of the Syrian regime.

Diab Sariya, co-founder and coordinator of the ADMSP, told Enab Baladi that the association was able to obtain information about the young man about a year before the date of the investigation’s publication on 18 March, but it was unable to find the man’s family until it turned to the newspaper.

The NRC was able to reach the young man’s family and an officer in the Syrian regime to ascertain the fate of the young man, Sariya added.

Arnhem, (pseudonym chosen by the newspaper for security reasons) was arrested in Lebanon by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia during his visit to Lebanon to buy books for the Islamic Cultural Center, which he opened in the Netherlands before he traveled in May 2013, according to the investigation.

According to the testimonies of two former detainees who met with Arnhem, the lean young man was first seen in a cell inside one of the Syrian regime’s prisons a year after his arrest in Lebanon.

According to the testimonies, Arnhem spent about four years in Syrian prisons, during which he was subjected to severe torture until he lost consciousness as a result of torture in mid-2018 and died in detention, according to a senior Syrian regime officer interviewed by the NRC newspaper.

Arnhem’s family received an email from the Norwegian Red Cross in 2015 due to the absence of any relations between the Netherlands and Syria at the time in which they said that their son was arrested by the Syrian authorities on 26 April 2014.

The regime’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Arnhem’s arrest to the Syrian Red Cross, which in turn informed the Norwegian Red Cross.

Damascus justified his arrest by illegally crossing the border, contacting Dutch “terrorists” residing in Syria, and spying for foreign governments, while his family and the two witnesses who met him in detention confirmed that the purpose of his travel to Lebanon was limited to buying books, the investigation revealed.

According to the testimonies, Arnhem was held in Branch 285 for a month and Branch 279 for a month as well, both of which are affiliated with the State security apparatus.

In 2014 he was transferred to the central Damascus prison (Adra), where the Syrian authorities indicated that they would release him, but he was transferred to Branch 279, then to Branch 285, where he was last seen in the cell in 2018.

The family was exploited by many people who asked for money in exchange for providing information about their son, and despite the family’s doubts about the truth of the allegations, this information was their only hope, according to the investigative report.

Will the case reach International Court?

The Netherlands will file a case at the International Court of Justice in light of the evidence that proves the arrest of Arnhem and his being subjected to torture inside detention centers, and his family and his lawyer are trying to pressure the Dutch government.

According to the coordinator of the ADMSP, in the event that the case is brought to court, it will be the first time that a country files a case against another one over a citizen’s death. 

The witnesses, the general context of the detainees’ issues, and the investigation published by the newspaper are the evidence that can be presented before the court, Sariya added.

He also pointed out that there are dozens of reports condemning the Syrian regime and documenting what is happening inside its prisons and the security chambers.

Pressure card

The security officers inside the detention centers were frustrated due to the lack of action by the Netherlands for the case of Arnhem, according to the testimonies.

Sariya believes that the transfer of the young man to Adra prison, and showing signs of release, then retracting and returning him to another security branch until his death is clear evidence of the regime’s motives to exploit the case.

The regime continues to exploit the cases of foreign detainees, he added.

The Syrian prisons hold many foreign detainees, the identities of some of them are known by the governments, while the identities and the fate of many are still unknown.

The Wall Street Journal reported on 18 October 2020 that the Deputy Assistant to the US former president, Donald Trump, and the prominent official in countering terrorism in the White House, Kash Patel, visited Damascus earlier in the same year and conducted secret talks, in an attempt to secure the release of at least two US citizens believed to be detained by the regime.

This came in conjunction with the arrival of Abbas Ibrahim, the Director of Lebanese General Security, to Washington to discuss with US officials the fate of Austin Tice, the US journalist detained in Syria, according to Bloomberg.

In August 2019, the Syrian regime released a Canadian citizen who had been detained by it, since December 2018, through the mediation of the Lebanese Security director, Abbas Ibrahim.

Ibrahim also contributed, in July 2019, with similar mediation, which led the Syrian regime to release the US tourist Sam Goodwin, 30, following two months of his detention in Syria.

The Syrian regime executed Layla Shweikani, a 26-year-old computer engineer with dual Syrian and American citizenship, on 28 December 2016.

Her family was informed of her death in November 2018, after a “30-second” trial on charges of planning to assassinate figures from the Syrian government.


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