Raid on Syrian Media Center: One Year On

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Women protest at a gathering of the 'One Billion Rising' campaign in central London 14 February 2013. (Photo: Reuters - Toby Melville)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Friday, February 15, 2013

A year ago, on 16 February 2012, forces of the Air Force Intelligence raided the offices of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in central Damascus.

“It was around 1 pm. It was lightly snowing that day, which is rare for Damascus,” Razan Ghazzawi, coordinator and translator at the Center, recollected. “The center was along the street level, and there was a small office on the second floor that I was moving to with Yara. Suddenly, I heard Maha scream. You see, Maha is a jokester so I thought she was just playing around. When I went downstairs, I saw five or six armed men in security clothing led by another man, who was dressed [in civilian attire] and carrying a walkie-talkie.”

There were 16 individuals at the office that day – nine men and seven women – 14 of whom were staff at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).

Before this fateful event, the SCM had been closed twice for a short period of time by the authorities. “In Syria, there is no centralized decision making process,” Ghazzawi explained. “For example, you have someone working in a certain department who doesn’t like the work [by the Center], so he decides to close it. We can’t say there was a concrete decision, because [the authorities] do not give you a paper outlining a judge or state’s decisions clearly.”

Beginning its work in 2004, the SCM was one of few organizations operating inside Syria that documented and disseminated information about violations of a person’s ability to freely express themselves – whether they are artists, journalists, filmmakers – regardless of their political position. Their work resulted in the UN granting the organization consultative status in 2011, the first NGO from Syria to earn this distinction.

“The raid was seen as a very important event for many people…Mazen Darwish [director and founder of SCM], in particular, was internationally known and well-connected. He had this idea of building up the violations documentations center in view of establishing evidence for accountability at a later point,” Theresa Stienen, regional legal officer for al-Karama Foundation, a Geneva-based NGO that works on highlighting cases of torture and arbitrary detention in Arab states, told Al-Akhbar.

After news got out of the arrests, various UN experts highlighted the case and condemned the Syrian authorities for the act. This was followed by a joint press released composed by a number of regional and international NGOs in March and April, and was noted in a letter of allegation by the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council sent to the Syrian authorities on 8 May. To date, the Syrian government has not responded.

First Moments in Detention

“This is what happened in the raid [on February 16] – they came in, arrested us, and later during questioning, they told us they received word that there were weapons hidden in the center. It was just an excuse to arrest us. [When they were at the office] they told us to come and drink coffee at the air force base…and really this coffee took a long time,” she added with a soft laugh.

According to Ghazzawi, the Air Force Intelligence (AFI) were at the office for around four hours before a bus was brought in to take the SCM staff and the two visitors to the AFI detention center on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Maha Assabalani was not taken with the rest because she had a Yemeni diplomatic passport. Instead, she was forced to stay at the office for another two hours and watch silently as the AFI bundled up all the computers, documents, and even the tables and chairs.

In the bus, the men were blindfolded and had their arms bound, while the women were only blindfolded. None were harmed, yet.

Once they arrived at the detention center, the men and women were separated.

The women were placed in a small room that was spacious enough for them to sleep side-by-side. “This was considered good,” Ghazzawi noted, “because we heard later from the men that they had to take turns to sleep on the floor.”

“For me and Hanadi, it was our second arrest so we knew the regulations, how it works, what you should say or not say. The rest of the women were really afraid [and] we were really scared for the guys. And the fact that we were in the AFI was frightening. We had no idea what to expect. Every department had its own way of treatment and investigations [and] we knew that a lot of detainees were killed under torture,” she said.

On the first day of the arrest, the women were physically searched. They were taken, two at a time, to a room in which security men patted all over their bodies aggressively.

“It was a bit like sexual harassment. It was weird. For them, it was a way to humiliate the detainee. You don’t have space; you don’t have control of your body,” Ghazzawi said of that moment.

The women who received the worst treatment among the group were Alawis. These women, according to Ghazzawi, were slurred, insulted, and shamed, and spoke to in ways that attempted to guilt them for being “traitors.”

Ghazzawi and the rest of the women would learn much later from the men that were released that they faced a much more harrowing experience, which included continuous beating and other forms of torture. Additionally, while the rest of the male SCM staff were placed in the same cell, Darwish was sent to solitary confinement.

A Window into Syrian Prison

The women were then taken to two different investigators for questioning. For the first investigator, they were all brought in together, blindfolded, and he spoke to them kindly. He asked about their views on the new Syrian constitution, solutions to the conflict, and other issues regarding the political situation.

A short while later they were taken individually to the second investigator, one who Ghazzawi described as “monstrous.” The scene she illustrates is Kafkaesque.

“Once you come in, they ask you to take off the blindfold. [The investigator] was really harsh in the way he talked. I remember he played Chopin. Behind him was a window, and through the window, you could see a man being tortured. At the same time, the investigator was talking to you about how peaceful the future of Syria will be, and how the AFI supported legitimate protesters and hated foreign intervention, Americans, Europeans, terrorists,” she said.

Throughout the whole time at the AFI detention center, the members of the SCM were asked only a few questions regarding the center: What did they do, when did they start working, what was their salary, is the SCM licensed, and who funded the organization?

On the third day of detention the five women were all released, with the condition that they return to the AFI detention center for further inquiries every day, for hours at a time. This process lasted for about three more months.

Once it was over, they were taken to a military court with three of the male detainees: Ayham Ghazoul, Bassam al-Ahmed, and Joan Fersso. It was the first time since the arrest that the women were able to see any of their male counterparts.

“We were excited to see them, but we couldn’t express this because we were surrounded by security forces. They were abusing and taunting the men in front of us, it was very hard to watch,” she remarked.

The military court sentenced the five women and three men to Adra prison under Article 148 of the Syrian Criminal Code for "possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them." Their time there would exceed 20 days.

“For the first 15, we [the women] were placed in a cell with prostitutes, drug addicts, [and the] mentally ill. There was not enough beds, blankets or food,” Ghazzawi stated.

“Then we were transferred to an isolated section of the prison that was underground. There we met with old friends like Dina Yousef [a PKK member serving two years in prison], and one woman whose name was Manal and who had been in prison since at least the time Bashar came to power – she had even given birth there, and her son stayed with her for two years before [the authorities] took him away to her daughter [outside of prison]. She had not seen him since,” she added.
The women and the three men were eventually released on the evening of day 22.

But the case against SCM’s staff didn’t end there. What followed were four to five sessions in court, where they were charged for passing along unlicensed and false information and given the time they already served. No evidence was presented to the defendants or their lawyers, and one of the issues repeatedly brought up during the trial was the matter of why the SCM provided content in English.

“They didn’t care about the Arabic content; they were [only] worried about the English. I told them honestly that English was a universal language and we wanted the information to be worldwide – it was simply a translation of the Arabic in front of him,” she said.

Furthermore, Ghazzawi noted, one of the reasons it was multiple sessions was because the judge had requested that Mazen Darwish be brought in as a witness, but was repeatedly rebuffed by the AFI. Darwish, his lawyers claim, was transferred to a secret court in which he had no access to lawyers. During his trial, no information was recorded.

Death or Release

Various reports circulated on 31 January that Ayham Ghazoul had been killed. According to Reporters Without Borders, citing the SCM’s Facebook page, Ghazoul was reportedly detained again by pro-government student unionists at the University of Damascus on 5 November 2012 and taken to a room where he was allegedly beaten unconscious.

The report states that he was then transferred to the security forces and left unattended with no access to doctors, only to die four days later on 9 November. No one – including his family – knew of this death until three months later.

“We still do not know why he was taken,” Ghazzawi said. “His body is still with them and we want it. We want to say good bye. We, and his family, asked many times to get it but the government has not responded.”

Presently, three of the male SCM workers remain imprisoned: Hani Zitani, Hussein Ghreir, and Darwish. The others were released silently over the last few months. According to Ghazzawi, the three detainees are allowed family visitations and appear to be in relatively good health. However, the recent news about Ghazoul has affected their morale.
Ghazzawi stressed that despite the hardships faced by the SCM staff, they are luckier than most of those detained within Syrian prisons because of their high-profile. Those who do not enjoy the luxury of the media spotlight often face more dire conditions.

Repeated attempts by Al-Akhbar to seek comment from the Syrian government on the SCM case were not answered by the time of publishing.

Comments

Is this supposed to make me feel sorry for the Center for Prostration to the West? What does it mean that some of your members are now "prominent" "opposition" members in the "SNC"? La6izi intu willi kan ma3kon.

Murad, could you clarify your point. Who from the SCM staff are 'prominent' members of the SNC? And secondly, even if what you say is true, does that justify beatings and solitary confinement and a military (rather than civil) court?

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