Syrian regime acknowledges custodial deaths

Hundreds of Syrian families have suddenly learned their missing relatives have been registered as dead

Beirut: Seven years ago, Islam Dabbas, an engineering student, was thrown in prison for protesting against the Syrian regime. His mother visited him twice, paying bribes to do so, but then the permissions stopped. She heard nothing of her son’s fate ever since.

Until last week, when a relative filed for a regime registration document and was shocked to see that it gave Dabbas’ date of death: January 15, 2013.

“The news of his death devastated us, and we wish we had known then,” said his sister, Heba, who lives in exile in Egypt. “Since his arrest, we have lived days of hope and days of despair as uncertainty consumed our minds.”

In recent weeks, hundreds of Syrian families have suddenly learned that their missing relatives have been registered as dead by the regime. Regime officials have not commented publicly on the new information, said how many people it applied to, or explained how they died.

But the documents appear to be the first public acknowledgment by the regime that hundreds if not thousands of prisoners died in state custody. Analysts believe the quiet changes in status show that President Bashar Al Assad is confident enough of winning the war and remaining in power that he can make that admission without fear of repercussion, prodding the families of the missing to confirm their worst fears and begin to piece their lives back together.

“The regime is closing one chapter and starting a new one,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It is telling the rebels and the activists that this chapter is gone, that whatever hope in some surviving revolutionary spirit has been crushed.”

In some towns, the regime has posted names of the deceased so their relatives can get death certificates. In other cases, families have obtained documents that attest to their relatives’ deaths. In some cases, security officers have informed families personally.

Many of the documents show that the deaths occurred years ago, in the early part of the uprising against Al Assad that evolved into a brutal civil war.

Since the conflict began seven years ago, tens of thousands of people have disappeared into regime jails where torture and mistreatment, sometimes causing death, are rife, human rights groups say. The prisoners included rebels as well as political protesters, and their families were often left struggling to get information.

Rights groups see the new death notices as a tacit admission that many detainees died or were killed in regime jails.

Al Assad has largely routed the rebels who sought to oust him and restored his control over much of the country. His regime and its Russian and Iranian backers have tried to portray the war as nearing its end, and letting families know that their missing relatives are dead may also be a way of trying to get the country to move on.

A missing head of household leaves a Syrian family in bureaucratic limbo. Without his death certificate, for example, his widow cannot remarry and his offspring cannot sell property or handle inheritance issues.

But while acknowledging deaths may facilitate such transactions, many doubt that families will accept the news so easily if they hold the regime responsible for their loved ones’ deaths.

“It is difficult to move on when the people who are responsible for these mass disappearances are still there,” said Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch. “You are looking the perpetrator in the face, and it is not something you can ignore for a very long time.”

The documents offer no details about the deaths except a date. Many families still want to know how their loved ones died and where their bodies are.

Two brothers, Yahya and Mohammad Shurbaji, were arrested within a day of each other in September 2011, according to Mohammad’s son, Obaida. But as the uprising evolved into war and their relatives fled elsewhere in Syria or abroad, they lost track of where the brothers were being held.

This month, relatives in Damascus, hearing that dates of death were starting to appear on registration papers for the missing, requested the documents for the brothers. They found that Yahya had died in January 2013 and Mohammad in December of the same year. No cause of death was given, and the family has no idea where their bodies are.

“The shock is indescribable,” said Bayan, the men’s sister, who lives in Leeds, England. “How cruel is it to kill people and deprive their families of seeing them for one last time, to deny the victims from saying goodbye to their families?”

It remains unclear how many detainees have been recently registered as dead. Many families in Syria are reluctant to discuss their cases for fear of retribution by the regime.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an exile monitoring group that opposes the regime, has confirmed 312 recent cases, said its director, Fadel Abdul Ghany.

That is a fraction of the more than 80,000 regime detainees his group says it has confirmed, so he expects more names will come out over time.

He surmised that the information is coming out now because the regime feels secure enough to let those who stood against it know that their relatives are dead, he said.

“The regime wants to say that you have to accept me as I am,” Abdul Ghany said. “’I have won, and you can’t do anything about it.’”


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