Syria's haunting prison of cruelty knows no limits

In the 13 years since the Syrian uprising, not a single political prisoner has been released—even children. Tens of thousands have simply disappeared.

Syria's haunting prison of cruelty knows no limits

A few days ago, Syrian lawyer Muhammad Sabra took to X/Twitter to commemorate ten years since his brother Mahmoud was detained by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 19 February 2014.

Sabra's detention was punishment for participating in the opposition delegation at the Geneva talks, despite assurances and guarantees provided by the United Nations and sponsor states.

Each February, Mahmoud’s arrest is remembered. In March, people remember the arrest of Syrian dentist and chess champion Dr Rania Al-Abbasi, taken along with her six children. The youngest, Layan, was less than two years old.

Rania’s husband, Abdul Rahman Yassin, and her friend, Majdoline Al-Kadi, were also detained. They have all now vanished, including the children. No information on their fate or whereabouts has been released.

Detained and disappeared

The cases of Mahmoud and Rania represent just two of the countless people removed from their families and homes by al-Assad’s regime, never to be heard from again.

The spectre of forced disappearances has haunted those engaged in peaceful protest, aid work, and negotiations with al-Assad’s government. If his goons cannot get you, they get your family and friends. It is a strategy of intimidation and reprisal.

Those who survive al-Assad’s prisons share harrowing tales of prisoners, including women and children, being subjected to torture in the presence of their loved ones.

Often, the brutality they face serves no purpose. It is simply cruel revenge against those who dare to dream differently.

Often, the brutality they face serves no purpose. The perpetrators do not care if people confess. This is simply cruel revenge against those who dare to dream differently. And since so many remain captive or missing, their stories remain untold.

Thirteen years have now passed since the Syrian uprising. International negotiations, from Geneva to Astana, have sought to free Syria's political prisoners, but not one has been released, not even children. Tens of thousands are still unaccounted for.

Failure to secure their freedom certainly calls into question the ability of the international community and the United Nations to safeguard the families of those who seek peaceful solutions to Syria's problems.

If they cannot ensure the safety of negotiators' families, how can they ensure al-Assad's adherence to a solution he agrees to? The idea that Syria can be rebuilt when its people are held hostage shows the fantasy for what it is.

A nation held hostage

The International Convention against the Taking of Hostages, adopted by the UN in 1979, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 both define and address the issue.

But no Convention envisages an entire nation held hostage under systemic oppression. Syrians are restricted from travel and subject to arbitrary arrest. In prison, they frequently vanish, and their assets are seized.

This pattern of violations and egregious breaches of human rights has been ongoing for half a century of al-Assad rule.

Adnan Qassar's story epitomises the regime's brutality. He spent 21 years in Syrian prisons, enduring relentless torture, all for the "crime" of surpassing Basil Hafez al-Assad in a horse race. Finally, he was "pardoned" by Bashar al-Assad.

In the 13 years since the Syrian uprising, not a single political prisoner has been releasedeven children. Tens of thousands have simply disappeared.

While the regime's appetite for domestic atrocities continues unabated, its response to external aggression against Syria, such as the 20+ Israeli air strikes on Syrian territory, is marked by indifference.

Paying the price

The regime's proclaimed right to respond to Israeli actions is an empty threat. It is much more interested in persecuting Syrians, pandering to Iran, and selling the nation's sovereignty to the highest bidding foreign power.

In this game of chess, the Syrian people are pawns, their lives and aspirations sacrificed for strategic gains. The regime, waiting to align itself with the eventual victors, will no doubt seek rewards for its loyalty.

Syrians have paid the ultimate price in their fight for freedom. For al-Assad, there is no price high enough to secure their freedom. He would rather they rot in what is left of his kingdom, now no more than an expansive prison.

Syria today is a vast detention centre, its citizens hostages to a regime whose cruelty knows no limits. Remembering the anniversaries of victims' detention sometimes seems like their families' only course of action.

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