24th Mar 2018


Europe can stop Syria's suffering

  • Assad: Only accountability can make the killing stop (Photo: oliverlaumann)

I consider myself lucky to have survived one of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s detention centres.

Since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been arrested and unlawfully detained for: seeking freedom, democracy and a government accountable to its people, the same crimes I was charged with.

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  • Former chief prosecutor of the special court of Sierra Leone, Desmond Lorenz de Silva, has likened the torture inside Assad’s jails to "industrial-scale killing" (Photo: FreedomHouse2)

The vast majority of those arrested cannot tell the accounts of the horror they saw and experienced. They are dead. For every person killed inside a regime prison cell, thousands more starve and are tortured, too often with sexual violence, in captivity. 

Former chief prosecutor of the special court of Sierra Leone, Desmond Lorenz de Silva, likens torture inside Assad’s jails to “industrial-scale killing.”

While the world’s attention was on the outcome of the US elections, on 16 November I travelled to Brussels with a delegation of Syrian human rights lawyers and former detainees to meet with senior EU diplomats.

Our message is clear: Europe must be a moral partner for the Syrian people and pave the way for a new comprehensive approach on Syria.

This is now even more important given the outcome of the US elections.

Justice and peace in Syria are good for Europe

Our delegation in Brussels bore the onus of speaking for all those who perished in detention.

They all are a constant reminder of why, we Syrians, first came to the streets, and why our revolution endures. 

Efforts to secure the release of detainees will save lives and help unlock efforts to reach a political solution.

The Syrian people have repeatedly called on the regime to release detainees as a confidence-building measure.

Making progress on the detainee's file remains one way to restart meaningful negotiations for a political transition. 

Justice and peace in Syria will also translate to more security in Europe.

The refugee crisis and the rise of terrorist attacks show Europe is not isolated from Syria's crisis. Yet, neither terrorism nor the refugee crisis will be addressed without genuine accountability in Syria.

Without tangible steps to address the culture of impunity in Syria, there is a serious risk that the Syrian people will lose faith in the principles of international human rights and humanitarian law.

This can only further fuel the conflict.

It is in Europe’s interest to ensure consequences for human rights violations and to lead new efforts to release all Syrians illegally detained.

There are concrete steps the EU can take to guarantee justice and accountability for the Syrian people.

For example; the EU and its member states should lead an effort both within Europe and the UN General Assembly to demand that international monitors, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, gain immediate access to all Syrian detention facilities, including secret facilities controlled by foreign militias.

Assad's Justice: Torture, rape, murder

As the Caesar photos show, some of Assad’s harshest forms of ‘justice’ are meted out with daunting regularity in these facilities, where detainees are raped, tortured, starved, suffocated, shot, and murdered.

As the EU's foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini steps up her regional engagement, we call on her to press the regime - and its backers in Moscow and Tehran - into suspending all execution orders in the detention centres. 

Those responsible for kidnapping, torturing, and executing innocent people must be held responsible. 

Accountability will not only help victims for justice, but it will stop these things from happening again in the future.

Europe has a long and venerable history of supporting efforts to achieve transitional justice for victims of war crimes. 

It serves as host to the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and of other tribunals established to secure justice for victims of war crimes.

It’s time for Europe to show similar leadership on seeking action to protect and bring justice for all Syrians.

This needs to be the unequivocal message from Europe’s leaders to US president-elect Donald Trump.

Syrians deserve a future where they can live safe, free of tyranny and fear of indiscriminate bombs.

As long as hundreds of thousands of Syrians are detained unlawfully, no Syrian is free.

That’s why we need Europe to stand up and ensure those responsible for abuses and tortures inside Syrian’s prisons will be brought to justice. Accountability and transitional justice are critical for a future free Syria for all Syrians.

Shiyar Khaleal is a journalist and a human rights activist from Afrin-Aleppo who was imprisoned for 30 months in a detention centre in Damascus for his work in the field on human rights and freedom of expression in Syria.

Before his arrest Shiyar worked with Lakhdar Brahimi - former UN Special Envoy for Syria - on the documentation of the Syrian regime’s abuses against civilians.

Currently, Shiyar is responsible for relations and communications with detainees within the Working Group for Syrian Detainees, a Syrian civil society organisation involved with transitional justice.

This text was originally written in Arabic.

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