Syrians abroad put under systematic surveillance by regime diplomatic missions: documents
An investigation by the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) revealed documents proving that overseas surveillance was conducted systematically across the Syrian regime’s network of diplomatic missions.
According to documents published as part of an investigation on Thursday, May 4, entitled “The Mechanics of Foreign Surveillance: Syria’s Network of Embassies Overseas,” the Syrian regime used embassies as a starting point to monitor and intimidate Syrian political opponents.
Between 2013 and 2015, SJAC gained access to approximately 483,000 pages of classified documents from abandoned Syrian state facilities. SJAC subsequently narrowed these documents down to approximately 19,000 high-priority pages based on the date of issuance and content.
The documents illustrate that overseas surveillance was conducted systematically across the Syrian government’s network of diplomatic missions. Rather than focusing exclusively on countries with high volumes of Syrian expatriates or refugees, the Syrian regime surveilled its citizens systematically across the globe, according to the SJAC.
The investigation focused on documents issued after 2011 and related to Syrians residing in Belarus, Belgium, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Russia, as well as Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Yemen.
SJAC executive director, Mohammad al-Abdallah, told Enab Baladi that the investigation analyzed the documents that bore seals showing the importance of the documents, such as “top secret,” in order to reach more important results.
Documents issued prior to 2000 were deemed low priority, while those issued between 2000 and 2010 were deemed low priority unless they included information regarding the surveillance or targeting of political dissidents and/or ethnoreligious groups, the SJAC report showed.
Documents issued after 2011 were deemed high priority unless they were already publicly available or issued by state officials outside of the security services.
Surveillance of Syrians abroad
Surveillance operations were not limited to countries with large numbers of Syrian expatriates or refugees, as the monitoring included all parts of the world, and the regime worked to mobilize all state resources to facilitate monitoring in countries where there is a more established Syrian diplomatic representation, such as Turkey and Lebanon.
Among the documents included in the investigation, is a document bearing the request of the head of the Political Security Division to the heads of the political security branches in the governorates to obtain information about opposition “agitators” throughout France, Belgium, Turkey, Russia, and Lebanon.
One of the documents received included a request from the head of the Political Security Division to collect information about a Syrian citizen residing in the Turkish state of Gaziantep for repeating “negative” phrases against the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in front of the Syrian consulate.
The documents showed the extent of security coordination and exchange of information between embassies and internal security services, which the Syrian regime worked to strengthen after 2011.
Regarding the role of states in surveillance operations, the executive director of the CJAC, al-Abdallah, said that there is a possibility that states have played a role in monitoring operations, especially in countries that do not have a positive human rights record, pointing out that this possibility is limited to Arab countries.
Surveillance still ongoing
Despite the closure of many Syrian embassies after the start of the protests in Syria in 2011, al-Abdallah believed, based on the documents and indicators analyzed by the investigation, that the Syrian regime would continue its surveillance operations.
While the Syrian embassy in Berlin turned into a consulate, the Syrian center noted while observing the trial of Doctor Alaa Mousa, who is accused of torturing and killing civilians, in Germany, that the media attaché at the consulate tried to smuggle the doctor by plane to evacuate students during the Covid-19 pandemic, but Mousa missed the flight for family reasons.
The media attaché also advised Mousa to appoint a specific lawyer, his name was Osama al-Ajji, which the doctor did so that al-Ajji would become the defense attorney at the present time.
During the court sessions, it was repeated that the witnesses and their families were subjected to security threats that required them to withdraw from participating in the court, which al-Abdallah considered as evidence of the continued activity of the Syrian regime in Germany by monitoring the Syrians despite the closure of the embassy.
“Suppression” after surveillance
The executive director of the CJAC said that it is difficult to verify that the monitoring operations resulted in repressive measures such as the arrest of families of dissidents and the enforced disappearance of some of their relatives.
Al-Abdallah pointed out that the scope of information within the documents and the volume of details provided confirm the regime’s ability to take advantage of them to blackmail Syrians abroad.
Among the measures resulting from monitoring Syrians abroad, which appeared to the public, is the assault on the parents of the Syrian-American composer and pianist Malek Jandali, according to al-Abdallah, who considered that verifying the procedures resulting from documents collected from 17 embassies is not possible.
Monitoring operations impose an additional burden on the authorities and human rights organizations based on trials in Europe, as witnesses are intimidated and blackmailed with their families.
Mohammad al-Abdallah believes that the problem is related to the fact that the witness protection system is limited to their whereabouts in Europe.
The real danger for the Syrians’ families lies within the areas controlled by the regime, which prompted many witnesses to refuse to submit their testimonies, he added, as sharing the names of the witnesses with the accused is obligatory as part of fair litigation so that the accused is aware of the details of the trial.
What is the impact?
The SJAC investigation came in light of the continued moves to normalize relations with the Syrian regime and some countries showing their willingness to reopen embassies after years of closing them.
The executive director said that the importance of the investigation lies in providing clear evidence to those countries that the regime used Syrian embassies abroad to suppress citizens.
While countries tend to talk about Syria being “safe” for the return of refugees, the investigation shows the extent of the danger that still haunts the Syrians, according to al-Abdallah.
The basic criterion for Syria being “safe” is not the end of the military action but rather the safety of the refugee, the human rights activist emphasized.
The documents show that the embassies have collected detailed and accurate information about the Syrians, including details that allow them to identify the returnees and their activities abroad, which makes them a tool to end the decisions and programs to deport Syrians from Europe.
Many previous investigations and reports showed that Syrian refugees returning to their country were subjected to arrest and enforced disappearance.
In 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed in a report entitled “Our Lives Are Like Death” that Syrian refugees who voluntarily returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias, including torture, extra-judicial killings, and kidnappings.
The majority of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch also struggled to survive and meet their basic needs in a country decimated by conflict and widespread destruction.
A previous report prepared by Enab Baladi entitled “Families of wanted people abroad fear Syrian intelligence stalking” concluded that the regime knows the whereabouts of the wanted persons outside the borders of Syria, but the security apparatus continues to practice extortion and isolate the families of the wanted persons from society, similar to the isolation of former political detainees in Syria.
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