Despite Arab normalization with al-Assad, margins to move in detainees file
Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi
The Arab moves towards the Syrian regime have opened up talk again about detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in the prisons of the Syrian regime and their fate, especially with the absence of any talk about them in the Arab statements, which focused in their entirety on the two points of stopping the smuggling of Amphetamine drugs, known as Captagon from the areas of the Syrian regime, and the return of Syrian refugees to their cities.
The visit of the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, to the Saudi city of Jeddah, on April 12, at the official invitation of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, constituted a shift in the path of Arab relations with the Syrian regime.
Bashar al-Assad arrived in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Thursday to attend the Arab League summit the following day, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV and Syrian State TV reported.
“Saudi Arabia invited al-Assad to attend the summit after Arab states agreed to reinstate Syria’s full membership of the league, following 12 years of suspension over his crackdown on protests against him,” according to Reuters.
This path began effectively when the UAE opened up to the regime and opened its embassy again in 2018, then the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, visited Damascus and met with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in a visit he first described as “humanitarian” after the earthquake that struck northwestern Syrian on February 6, leading up to the meetings of the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan with Mekdad in Amman on May 1.
All of these moves led to the issuance of a decision to return Syria to the Arab League, which is the last step in Arab normalization with al-Assad, amid European and American rejection and efforts to issue a law by Washington to criminalize normalization with al-Assad.
“We fight for the lives of our people”
“We are fighting for the lives of our people,” a phrase said by the Syrian activist, Wafa Mustafa, in an interview with Enab Baladi on the sidelines of a symposium held online by Free Syria’s Disappeared coalition on May 11 to talk about the impact of the normalization of Arab countries with the Syrian regime on the file of Syrian detainees, in the presence of Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), and Obada Mzaik, the Syrian-American citizen who filed a lawsuit against the Syrian regime in the United States.
During the symposium, which was attended by Enab Baladi, Mzaik considered that his move represents millions of Syrians who have been harmed by arresting their children, family members, and friends, considering it a new document against the Syrian regime.
On April 12, the Center for Justice and Accountability announced that Mzaik was tortured in the Air Force Intelligence branch at Mezzeh Military Airport after his arrest in January 2012.
On the same day, a group of Syrian organizations and individuals announced Free Syria’s Disappeared coalition, including the Families for Freedom movement, the Caesar Families Association, the Ta’afi Initiative, and the Action for Sama campaign, in addition to Wafa Mustafa.
Mustafa said, on the sidelines of the symposium, that her timing came to take advantage of the increasing talk in the Arab and international media about the normalization of Arab countries with the Syrian regime, to remind of the file of detainees and the continuation of the crime of arrest and enforced disappearance in the prisons of the Syrian regime.
In her interview with Enab Baladi, Mustafa considered that the Arab normalization with the Syrian regime “directly affects the detainees’ file and kills any opportunity and all efforts to find a solution to this issue.”
However, the “choice of doing nothing” is not an option, according to Mustafa’s belief, and communication must continue with the European and US governments to put pressure on them and use every possible opportunity to prove that the Syrian regime used detention in a systematic and widespread manner, and thus confirm that there is no possibility of normalization with the Syrian regime.
Mustafa, the co-founder of Free Syria’s Disappeared coalition, was known for her continuous movement to talk about the arrest of her father, Ali Mustafa, at the hands of the Syrian regime for more than three thousand and 620 days of detention till the publication of this report.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), there are 135,235 detainees in the prisons of the Syrian regime out of 154,817 detainees held by the various parties to the conflict.
The total number of enforced disappearances in Syria is 111,907 people, of whom 95,696 are in the custody of the Syrian regime, which represents 85.51% of the number of enforced disappearances, according to the SNHR.
Political process must be linked to detainees file
Arab foreign ministers held two separate meetings this May to discuss the return of the Syrian regime to the Arab League, the first in Jeddah and the second in Amman.
Two separate statements were issued by the two meetings, neither of which contained an explicit discussion of the detainees, which reflects the absence of this file in front of the files of drugs and the return of refugees, and then the “comprehensive national reconciliation,” which directly leads to fears related to closing this file without holding the perpetrators of its crime accountable or having a real solution to it.
Lawyer specializing in criminal law, Al-Mutassim al-Kilani, told Enab Baladi that any normalization with the Syrian regime is morally unacceptable under international law at least and that any political process must comply with Resolution 2254, which insists on releasing detainees and revealing the fate of missing persons, which is an essential item in the resolution.
Al-Kilani considered that any political process that does not refer to this issue “will not play a positive role for the solution in Syria.”
He explained that the existence of tens of thousands of missing and arbitrary detainees and tens of thousands of victims requires prosecution and accountability; otherwise, these crimes will continue and may reach other countries as well.
The US Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice, Beth Van Schaack, previously considered, in an interview with the Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab) newspaper in April, that normalization with the Syrian regime should not be a free gift but rather an opportunity to extract some humanitarian and other concessions, such as the release of detainees and the forcibly disappeared.
Moves according to available margins
Following the recent Arab steps, the US and EU states affirmed that “normalization with al-Assad is unacceptable,” and Washington passed a bill through Congress criminalizing normalization with al-Assad.
On May 11, Reuters reported that a bipartisan group of US lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday intended to bar the American government from recognizing Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s president and to enhance Washington’s ability to impose sanctions – a warning to other countries normalizing relations with al-Assad.
The bill would prohibit the government from recognizing or normalizing relations with any Syrian government led by al-Assad, who is under US sanctions and expands on the Caesar Act, which imposed a tough round of sanctions on Syria in 2020.
“Countries choosing to normalize with (the) unrepentant mass murderer and drug trafficker, Bashar al-Assad, are headed down the wrong path,” US Representative Joe Wilson, the chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, said in a statement.
Although the bill does not refer directly to the file of detainees, it targets the normalization process, which raises concerns about its negative impact on this file, which means that there are still margins available for movement by Syrian organizations and activists.
Wafa Mustafa told Enab Baladi that the moves come through direct meetings with politicians and international bodies, such as the Security Council and the Human Rights Council.
The Germany-based activist added, “It is true that these parties did not succeed in doing anything real in this file, but we are forced to follow all paths, and we are working at the level of society itself through public discussions and demonstrations and trying to create links with other communities, and reach the German public and provide real information about what is happening in Syria.”
Mustafa considered that there is much that can be done for this issue, which is essentially a humanitarian and political issue as well.
While Al-Mutassim al-Kilani considered that the move comes through continuing advocacy and pressure to reach the decision-makers and convey the true picture.
Al-Kilani pointed out the importance of the Syrians’ efforts in this regard because “the international community will not move without the Syrians themselves taking action in this issue.”
The prosecution and sanctions against the Syrian regime are one of the pressure methods, and this is the margin currently available for action, according to al-Kilani, who considered that these steps are capable of pressuring for the release of detainees.
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