The New “Cash Cow” for Assad in Syria: Human Rights Abuses

November 9, 2015

The Syrian economy is collapsing, and the Syrian people are suffering. But the Assad regime has found a new “cash cow” that is reaping great profit for the government: enforced disappearances.

We’ve known for decades that the Syrian regime has made widespread use of disappearances to enforce obedience and to spread terror among the Syrian people.  Since 2011, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has estimated that 65,000 Syrians have disappeared.

Most of the victims are either peaceful opponents of the government, people considered to be disloyal to the government, and family members of wanted individuals. All are held in hellish conditions, subject to torture and moved from prison to prison without the outer world knowing where they are and without access to legal and medical assistance and family.

Their families are desperate for information.  Desperate for cash during the current economic collapse, the regime offers them a solution. A black market has arisen extorting money out of families through middle men offering information on where their relative is and whether he or she is still alive.  The bribes range hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.

A new report, Between prison and the grave: Enforced disappearances in Syria, tells the stories of the families trapped by a government willing to turn human rights abuses into cash. It also makes recommendations for what needs to be done. (Sign our petition here.)

The middle men work in an opaque way, not always having any official connection to the government. They are just known as “people friendly to the government,” activists say.  A Syrian human rights lawyer said, “In each neighborhood, there are several middle men. It is the newest profession for Syrians.”

Tarek Hokan, a Syrian human rights activist, described the system: “The bribes that are paid by family members are a kind of business for the government. They are now a big part of the Syrian economy.”

Khaled Durgham, from Palmyra, told Amnesty International that he owed the equivalent of $150,000 that he paid to various “middle men” to try to find his three brothers, who were disappeared in 2011. He is now working in Turkey to pay off his debts, and his brothers are still missing.

In a similar case, part of Amnesty International’s current Write4Rights campaign, dentist Rania Alabbasi was arrested in 2013 along with her six children aged between two and 14 years old, days after her husband was seized during a raid on their home. The entire family has not been heard of since. It is believed they may have been targeted for providing humanitarian assistance to local families.

Syria knows what needs to be done to end this travesty. Impunity for military and security forces behind the disappearances must end, international monitors need free access to all detainees, and family members should be informed about the whereabouts of those in custody.

Syria is not alone in their responsibility. Supporting governments such as Iran and Russia must press the Assad government to carry out these measures.

The United Nations Security Council has already condemned enforced disappearance in Syria and called for an immediate end to the practice. But then it failed to take any action to enforce its own resolution.

It’s beyond time for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. This also means providing full and unfettered access by the UN Commission of Inquiry in Syria and, if necessary, invoking universal jurisdiction to bring suspected perpetrators to justice.

This can happen, if the UN listens to a young Syrian woman named Raneem Matouq. Last month, Raneem was at the UN to tell anyone who would listen her story. Her father, noted human rights lawyer Khalil Matouq, was disappeared in 2011 and has not been heard of since.  Syrian authorities deny holding him. Raneem herself was disappeared for two months in 2012 and wrote about her horrific detention.

Raneem described the feelings that leave families desperate for information and vulnerable to extortion. “He left a huge hole in our life [when her father disappeared],” she said. “It is like hell living without him. He always defended my freedoms and raised me to be a strong, independent woman, but suddenly, without his protection, I was facing a hostile community.

Take action now by signing up to write a short letter to the President of Syria demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Rania Alabbasi’s children.