The cousin of Syria’s Bashar Al Assad has ridiculed Denmark’s labelling of Damascus as ‘safe’ after Copenhagen rejected the asylum applications of three Syrian women.
In the landmark case earlier this week, a Danish refugee appeals court said the women did not face any specific threats in the Syrian capital, where they are from, because the government had retaken the region from rebels.
Despite this rights group say serious violations are routinely committed against civilians accused of being dissidents, even if they are not. Humanitarian organisations warned it risked setting a dangerous precedent as Syria’s government reasserts its grip across the country.
Ribal Al Assad, who has criticised all sides of the Syrian conflict, said localised fighting may have gone but the notorious intelligence services still operate with impunity.
"I think it is absurd, of course, because it is true that the security situation is much safer overall in Damascus but that doesn't mean that the regime has stopped its old methods of harassment and arbitrary arrests," Mr Al Assad told The National.
Born in Syria, the president’s cousin grew to Europe at a young age when his father Rifaat Al Assad launched a failed coup d’etat against his older brother, the late President Hafez Al Assad.
Millions of displaced Syrians are spread out across the Middle East and further afield. Even those with no apparent links to protesters or rebels are viewed with deep suspicion by Syria’s all-powerful and shadowy security agencies.
“The security services continue on arresting people arbitrarily, and many people are subject to visiting the different security agencies for many days and spending hours each day between waiting and being interrogated,” he said.
“If someone is unlucky enough to have his name resembling another wanted person by one of these security agencies then it becomes a whole different procedure where one could be subjected to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment,” Mr Al Assad added.
Exactly what happens next to the women is not clear. Denmark does not have a repatriation deal with Syria but Eva Singer, director of asylum at the Danish Refugee Council, said there was no avenue to overturn the decision in Denmark.
She said the only possibility for the three women now is to take the case to the European Union Court of Human Rights or to the UN but Ms Singer added this would be “an extraordinary” path to reversing the decision.
In February, Denmark’s immigration authorities ruled that the security situation in Damascus, as the regime expelled rebels from the region, meant refugees from the capital were not automatically granted temporary asylum.
But Ms Singer said that in previous rulings the asylum appeals court had “very clearly” considered the high risk of arbitrary human rights violations for returnees in Syria. As a result, they had overturned asylum rejections by immigration services.
"But somehow in these decisions they don't seem to apply the same standard of giving benefit of the doubt to the asylum seekers," she told The National.
There are now fears that Denmark’s decision, believed to be the first of its kind in the European Union, could set off a disturbing trend.
“It is very worrying because we see this all the time that the countries, they look at each other and it would be a risk obviously that other countries, the authorities in other countries, they go down the same road at this stage,” Ms Singer said.
Roughly 35,000 Syrians have been granted asylum in Denmark since the civil war started in 2011.