Syrian detainees 'held hostage' by Assad as UN effort stalls

Less than 0.1 per cent of those in prison, kidnapped or forced to disappear have been freed

epa07570019 A handout photo made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar Assad chairing a cabinet meeting in Damascus, Syria, 14 May 2019.  EPA/SANA HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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The UN came under fire on Wednesday for failing to secure the release of Syrians detained by President Bashar Al Assad's regime and for not discovering the fate of missing people and those abducted.

More than 100,000 civilians are estimated to have been jailed or forced to disappear in the past eight years, mostly at the hands of the regime, UN officials say.

The numbers cannot be verified because the UN has no access to prisons. The Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in Geneva, says that at least 14,000 people have been tortured.

An agreement to release prisoners was promoted in January as a confidence-building measure in international efforts to reach a political settlement in Syria, but with only 109 people freed so far, UN officials say the plan is stalling.

A new, peaceful Syria cannot be built while people are still being tortured and executed

“The release of detainees so far, while welcomed, are insufficient in scale – nowhere near commensurate with the magnitude of the problem,” Rosemary DiCarlo, UN undersecretary general, told the Security Council.

Four prisoner release operations have been co-ordinated between the UN, Turkey and the Syrian government’s allies in the war, Russia and Iran, with the International Committee of the Red Cross as an observer.

However, tens of thousands of Syrian families are still in the dark about the fate of their relatives.

With the war in its ninth year, the regime’s effort to retake the north-western province of Idlib is central to Mr Al Assad’s bid to control all territory.

But with military action rather than diplomacy driving his regime’s action, activists told the council that the UN was losing the initiative on detainees.

Abuse is not limited to the regime, with Hayat Tahrir Al Sham rebels and ISIS also guilty.

“A new, peaceful Syria cannot be built while people are still being tortured and executed,” said Dr Hala Al Ghawi, founder of Syria’s Bright Future, which provides health and psychological support to refugees.

Her brother was abducted by the Syrian regime and her husband held for 70 days before being released.

“I cannot help but feel a deep frustration at the people in this room for their failure to end the suffering,” Dr Al Ghawi said.

Amina Khoulani, a civil activist from the Damascus suburb of Darayya, fled the city after her release from prison in 2014.

In 2012, three of Ms Khoulani's brothers were detained by the government and five years later she was told that one of them died in custody.

Last year, she was informed the other two had also died in detention, in 2013.

“You have let vetoes and excuses get in the way of what is right and just,” Ms Khoulani said in New York. “I ask the members of this council to make the issue of detainees and secret detention in Syria a priority.”

Yesterday’s hearing came amid deadlock in the council on Syria, largely because the regime does not see diplomacy as necessary while it and Russia bomb Idlib, the last major rebel-held area.

"Assad does not see any need to negotiate right now because he doesn't care about those in detention or whether refugees will ever come home," a high-ranking diplomat from a member of the council told The National.

"He may in the future want to use them as a bargaining chip but he’s not at the moment. They’ve become hostages.”

Foreign aid for reconstruction has also been put forward as a way to persuade the Syrian government to find a political end to the war.

EU member states have said that there will be no such aid without a political transition in Syria, but the diplomat said the UN-led strategy was not working.

“It’s a fig leaf,” he said. “The issuing of death notices shows that Mr Al Assad believes he has won and releasing the notices is part of his long-running intimidation of the population.”

The notices routinely fail to detail how the person died and have added to the anguish of Syrian families.