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Torture, selective pardons: truth of Assad's prisoner 'amnesty'

The Syrian president's pardons, issued as proof that the authorities are seeking a political solution, don't appear to have helped even peaceful anti-regime activists get out of prison alive. Phil Sands reports

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // When the president, Bashar Al Assad, announced his latest amnesty for prisoners, Suleman was hopeful – his brother and father had been arrested months earlier and there was now a chance they would be freed.

Soon after the amnesty was made public, the anticipated phone call from the authorities did come. Suleman's brother was to be returned to his family. But he was no longer alive. Under the amnesty, his corpse was to be released.

"We got a call from security to go to Mujtahid hospital and receive the body," he said. "I went in and identified my brother in the morgue's cold storage.

"He was packed in a sealed coffin and we were given his death certificate," Suleman said after returning from the hospital in central Damascus.

Since the start of the uprising, Mr Al Assad has issued numerous amnesties, which are presented by government officials as proof that the authorities are seeking conciliation and a political solution.

Regime critics say the pardons are designed to clear space in the overcrowded jails and security centres where tens of thousands of Syrians have been taken for participating in the anti-regime movement.

Torture is routine, according to former prisoners and rights groups, and many, like Suleman's brother, do not come out alive.

He was arrested while driving his taxi along the Mezzeh motorway in Damascus in early February. His car had been tailed by an unmarked security vehicle and was pulled over, according to information pieced together by his family after his disappearance.

At the roadside, he was ordered to call his father, tell him his car had broken down and that he needed help. When his father arrived, he too was arrested. Both men were in good health when they were taken into custody. They had not been involved in the uprising, but regularly drove between Beirut and Damascus on business.

The family had learnt of the death shortly before the amnesty was announced, they said. The security forces told them they would be given a death certificate and the number of a grave in Nejeh cemetery, in rural Damascus. There would be no funeral, no wake. The body would be buried by the government, not returned to his family.

Following the April 16 amnesty, however, the security forces said the body would be returned for a family burial. When Suleman picked up the corpse, he was required to sign a pledge that the traditional three-day Islamic wake, in which well-wishers come to pay their respects, would not take place.

They were also instructed that only immediate family members would be allowed to attend the funeral, and that the sealed coffin would have to remain closed. Another Islamic ritual, washing the body, was carried out by hospital staff before the coffin was sealed.

Suleman's father remains in prison. Through contacts with the authorities, his relatives have established he is still alive. He, like thousands of others, according to Syrian lawyers, rights groups and activists, did not qualify for the amnesty.

"We have no information about whether my father is going to be released, or what he has been charged with or accused of," said Suleman. "I suppose we are lucky that at least we got to bury my brother, many people don't get that much, they just get a death certificate."

The certificate makes little mention of how Suleman's brother died in custody, saying only it was of "natural causes".

The Syrian government has not allowed the Red Crescent to visit political prisoners in jail or to see the network of detention centres across the country.

Moaz Al Khatib, the former head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, has said there are as many as 160,000 people in prison for taking part in the uprising. He welcomed the amnesty on condition that all political prisoners were freed.

According to activists, one of Mr Al Khatib's cousins, Bisher, was among those detained in the weeks before the amnesty - shortly after Mr Al Khatib's family home in the Muhajareen neighbourhood of Damascus was burnt down by a pro-regime militia group.

Like Suleman's brother, Bisher died while in detention, and his corpse was returned to his family.

When the presidential pardon was announced, Nizar Al Skeif, the head of the pro-regime Bar Association in Damascus was quoted by the state media as saying the decree was "the most comprehensive among the amnesty decrees previously issued in Syria".

Independent Syrian lawyers said the pardons were just a way to make space by freeing common criminals and people jailed for traffic offences, while keeping dissidents inside.

Leading political figures and activists, such as Dr Abdul Aziz Al Kheir and Marzen Darwish, have been held through a series of amnesties, as have peaceful activists involved in organising protests and unofficial humanitarian relief efforts.

"A dozen of my friends or people I know are in prison and none has been released under the amnesty," said one resident of Damascus. "It's an amnesty that doesn't seem to have helped anyone get out of prison alive."

Strict antiterrorism laws were put in place by the regime in 2011, covering anyone suspected of having a connection with opposition activist groups. The amnesty specifically excludes anyone being held in connection with terrorism, espionage and treason charges.

"As soon as you are detained by security, you are made to sign a confession that you were involved with armed rebel groups, or that you were supplying them with weapons," said one activist, himself a former prisoner who was forced to sign a confession stating that he had received money from Saudi Arabia. He was freed after a bribe was paid to security officers.

Other families related similar cases - sons and brothers who had been detained but were not freed under the presidential amnesty.

Mohammad was arrested three months ago in Sheikh Saad in Damascus, an area on a tense sectarian fault line dividing a Sunni majority neighbourhood from a district dominated by Alawites, the minority that makes up the core of the ruling elite.

Security agents in battered 1980s jeeps patrol the area and frequently set up roadblocks.

It was at one of those checkpoints that Mohammad was taken.

Although not involved in the uprising, his family think his name must have matched someone on a wanted list, or that the security forces had just decided that day to harass young Syrian Palestinians, a group that has become increasingly involved in the conflict on the side of anti-regime rebels

When the amnesty was announced they, together with scores of other families, queued up outside the central police station in Damascus. So many families gathered that Khalid Ibn Waleed Street, a major thoroughfare, was blocked.

After three days of waiting for news of their loved ones, the army banned the crowd from returning, saying they were causing traffic problems.

"We were happy to hear about the amnesty but until today, nothing has happened to free Mohammad," his father said. "We found out he was taken by the Palestine branch of the security forces, and has been moved to Adra prison. We've been able to visit him once. They couldn't tell us if he will be released."

psands@thenational.ae

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