How Syria is redefining the concept of brutality

Not content with killing protesters, the regime is also targeting expats

Redefining the concept of Brutality

Hussein Malla/AP

Amjad Baiazy’s brother caught only a few frantic sentences from that cellphone call, which was to be the last thing anyone would hear from his sibling. Baiazy had been stopped at Damascus International Airport by the Syrian security forces; as he spoke, they were dragging him to some detention facility–he didn’t know which one. Over three weeks after his arrest on May 12, family and friends know nothing more of the fate of the 30-year-old who was boarding a plane from the Syrian capital, where he was visiting relatives, back to London, where he had been studying and living for the past four years. He is now officially “disappeared,” one of the thousands of Syrians who have been detained, often incommunicado, by the country’s nefariously famous Mukhabarat, the intelligence service.

Outside Syria, a host of cosmopolitan young people with a past in London is struggling to understand what just happened to their friend. “My first reaction was shock and disbelief,” says Nada Bouari, 30, a Lebanese-American, now living in Jordan, who befriended Baiazy while studying in London. “What on Earth could be the reason for somebody like Amjad to be arrested?” asks Munir Nuseibah, a 29-year-old Palestinian and a Ph.D. candidate at London’s Westminster University. Among his pals, Baiazy, a freelance consultant, is known for his passion for Arab literature, for organizing memorable poetry and movie nights at the prestigious Goodenough College, a residence for postgraduate students that is his current home address, and for his activism on gender and environmental issues, including in his native Syria. But not for his political advocacy. According to Bouari, “He is the last person who could be considered a threat for Syria.”

But to a Syrian regime that has been battling anti-government protests for over 2½ months, it doesn’t seem to matter whether one is apolitical and not even living in the country. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad knows full well that the popular movement that is demanding his exit is a mass uprising spread across the country, says Ammar Abdulhamid, a long-time Syrian activist who now lives in the U.S. Becoming a leader of this revolution takes maybe a bit of charisma and basic knowledge of how to operate a laptop or smartphone to coordinate the protests, he says—expendable skills that can quickly be replaced. And that’s why the regime has given up trying to target the heads of the movement, and opted for terrifying the entire population by jailing anyone who even remotely arouses its suspicions, says Abdulhamid. All over the country, detention facilities are overflowing, and makeshift jails are being set up in schools, playgrounds, hospitals and even animal farms, human rights group Amnesty International told Maclean’s.

The net has been cast wide enough, it seems, to occasionally trap even the well-educated, Europe- or North America-bound Syrian who happens to be in the country visiting family. The regime has always been lukewarm in its attempts to cozy up to this wealthy expat elite–tempted by the opportunity to attract foreign investment, but wary of letting in reformist ideas from abroad, says Adbulhamid. And lately, the government’s suspicions have been heightened, after a slice of the expatriate Syrian community rallied behind the protests, lobbying for international intervention, smuggling satellite phones and manuals on non-violent resistance into the country, and networking with rebel leaders in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt to get useful tips on how to replicate those successful revolutions inside Syria, says Abdulhamid. That must be why, he adds, everyone he knows who recently flew into Syria has been stopped and questioned. And some, whether or not they were involved in the protests, have been arrested—like Baiazy.

Once inside Syria’s jails, the randomness persists. Recounting her experience in detention near Damascus, Canadian-Iranian journalist Dorothy Parvaz, who was arrested in late April while on assignment for Al Jazeera and later released, wrote about a quivering boy tied to a radiator, who didn’t even know to what he was supposed to confess. “Nobody I saw being escorted in handcuffs or beaten seemed older than 20,” she adds in an interview with Maclean’s. She recalls one of her cellmates, a puffy-eyed girl who kept crying and asking to be allowed to call her parents. She had been wearing stilettos when she was taken in–clearly not the type of wear one would choose for street protests. But again, it all makes sense, says Parvaz, when one considers what has become the government’s primary objective: to silence. “If they just round up anybody, if they just detain anybody, if they just beat up anybody, if they kill anybody, that sends a very clear message to the population, that no one is safe.”

That must have been the Mukhabarat’s idea when, a few days ago, it returned the battered body of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb to his family, after he had been arrested during an anti-government rally in the southern village of Jiza on April 29. The child’s jaw and kneecaps had been shattered, his corpse was covered in cigarette burns, with clear signs he had been subjected to electrical shocks and whipping. His penis had been cut off—a torture method that has been reported, though not confirmed, in other cases of detention in Syria, according to Amnesty.

If it’s hard to tell who may be arrested, so it is to predict who will be tortured, says Abdulhamid. Knowing of someone who has been shot is scary, but tales of savage physical pain and signs of torture on people’s bodies are far more terrifying, he adds. And if it seems like anyone can be subjected to that horror, it can paralyze a population. That’s a trick that the Syrian security forces learned from the Iranian regime, which effectively put down anti-government protests after an allegedly rigged election in 2009. The two countries’ co-operation on security matters goes a long way back: “Sharing these tactics is the least that [Iran] can do to support their ally,” says Abdulhamid.

Yet, in Syria at least, the protests go on, and stories continue to be told of those who died, those whose bodies were maimed, and those who are sitting in jail listening to the agony of other prisoners and wondering whether anyone knows they’re there. An Amnesty International letter-writing campaign asking Syrian authorities to release Baiazy is under way. An article about his odyssey, penned by a friend, recently appeared in the Guardian newspaper, and a “Free Amjad Baiazy” Facebook page has gathered over 2,000 members. And for those who are not lucky enough to have Web-savvy friends and influential colleagues pushing for their cause, news stories—now often anonymous—are still being filed from inside Syria. That thought, says Parvaz, is the one thing that gives her hope.

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