Geopolitics

Caging Their Kids: How Syrian War Reached A Ghastly New Low

The strongest armed group in Douma, Syria, paraded caged detainees, including Syrian army officers and women and children, for several hours to try to deter future government attacks. Syria Deeply spoke with residents to get their reactions.

Caged women paraded in Douma
Caged women paraded in Douma
Youmna al-Dimashqi and Dylan Collins

DOUMA â€" This past week the civil war in Syria took a grim new turn. An armed group in Syrian city of Douma, just outside Damascus, placed detained Syrian soldiers and civilians in metal cages and paraded them throughout the city for several hours Sunday as part of a stunt to deter future government airstrikes on the besieged area.

A video posted by the Shaam News Network, a well-known rebel media outlet, shows a series of trucks with cages in the back carrying four to eight men and women each and driving through the rebel stronghold in eastern Ghouta.

"Rebels in Ghouta have so far distributed 100 cages, with each cage being able to contain approximated seven people and the plan is to produce 1,000 cages to parade in different parts of Douma city, particularly in public places and markets that have been attacked in the past by the regime and the Russian air force," the accompanying text reads.

Most of the detainees were reportedly from President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite minority â€" officers and soldiers in the Syrian army but also women and children.

Jaish al-Islam, the strongest armed group in the area, said it deployed the cages in the hopes of deterring future indiscriminate attacks, but residents says the cages were removed from public places after about two hours.

The city of Douma was rocked by deadly airstrikes last weekend, all of which targeted open market places, killing upwards of 70 people and injuring more than 550.

"This massive bombing on a crowded market and the repeated destruction of the few available medical facilities breaches everything that the rules of war stand for," Brice de le Vingne, director of Syria operations for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), says in a statement.

"In two of the besieged neighborhoods in east Ghouta, there are makeshift hospitals that have been particularly frequently bombed â€" we are now, for the fourth time this year, financing and providing logistical support to reinstate both facilities," he says. "With sniper-fire preventing people escaping from the besieged areas, we can only imagine with dread what would happen if the slow-death approach of putting people under siege turns into a fast-aerial-massacre approach."

The city of Douma, and the area of eastern Ghouta as a whole, have been targeted by government forces for almost three years. In a single August day, government airstrikes killed 112 people and injured at least 200 others, and witnesses say the victims were overwhelmingly civilian.

"Nothing can justify caging people and intentionally putting them in harm's way, even if the purpose is to stop indiscriminate government attacks," says deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch Nadim Houry.

All for nothing

In the end, the plan to deter future airstrikes failed, as government forces reportedly fired at least six missiles into the area on Tuesday alone.

"The move was disastrous for the city," says 27-year-old Osama, an engineer and civilian activist in Douma. "The bombing didn't stop. It only became worse. The regime doesn't care about the lives of its supporters. They'll just continue shelling us."

Human Rights Watch fears that the civilians seen in the cages are some of the same citizens abducted by Jaish al-Islam and the al-Nusra Front â€" the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda â€" during a period of particularly heavy fighting in the same area back in December 2013.

The Syrian crisis, which began as a peaceful uprising against the government in 2011, has led to more than 250,000 deaths, according to the United Nations. At least half of Syria's pre-war population of 22.4 million has either been internally displaced or fled the country.

Opinions in eastern Ghouta vary drastically in regards to Jaish al-Islam's new tactic. But all of those with whom Syria Deeply spoke agreed that the women and children should be immediately released "because Jaish al-Islam shouldn't act like the regime."

Samar, a university student in Damascus, says he would never support treating people that way. "First of all because it contradicts the principles of our revolution," he says. "Second, because our kind prophet ordered us to treat captives well, especially women, and it is unacceptable for the Islam army to represent the opinions of people of Douma with such behavior."

Majed, a doctor who lives in Douma, says that "everyone in Douma is against" caging captives. While he says the people of Douma have endured untold suffering since Syria's peaceful revolution turned violent, this approach is unacceptable. He says that Jaish al-Islam unfortunately "hold a monopoly on authority."

Jaish al-Islam fighters near Damascus â€" Photo: Thepigthatisawsome/YouTube screeshot

"If decision-making was shared with the other brigades and civilian authorities, it would not have come to this," he says.

Sixty-year-old Abu Yassin is of a different opinion. "It's acceptable for Syrian army officers to experience the fear that the people of Douma do," he says, nevertheless adding that he refused to join the crowds around the cages, as the women and children reminded him too much of his own wife and kids.

Abu Mohammad, an activist from Douma, has a similar sentiment. "At least let them have a taste of what we're going through every day," he says.

Eyad, a photographer in the city, agrees. "I've been out picking up body parts of women and kids after regime air strikes," he says. "They the Syrian government and its supporters must feel the pain we in Douma feel on a daily basis."

Syria Deeply"s sources say the cages were paraded around the city for two hours before residents of the city convinced Jaish al-Islam militants to return the captives to their standard holdings.

"These are not our morals," says one young activist, who asked to remain anonymous.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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