Where Is My Cousin? As ISIS Retreats, Syrians Await News On Prisoners

The so-called Islamic State has been driven from most of its territory in Syria, but the fate of the thousands of civilians captured by extremists remains largely unknown, writes Chatham House fellow Haid Haid, whose cousin was kidnapped by ISIS.

Anti-ISIS fighters in Raqqa in August.
Anti-ISIS fighters in Raqqa in August.
Haid Haid

Back in August 2013, the so-called Islamic State group kidnapped my 29-year-old cousin Samar Saleh. Since then, I have been waiting for the day that ISIS prisons are liberated. Despite the recent seizure of the group's last strongholds in the eastern provinces in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, the fate of my cousin, and thousands of other detainees, remains unclear. The long anticipated feeling of joy and relief for the crushing of the group was simply overpowered with mixed emotions of emptiness and anxiety.

Where is she? What happened to her? Is there still hope to see her? No answers have been given to put my mind at ease.

My cousin was first kidnapped with her friend Mohammed al-Omar in my hometown, Atarib, in the countryside outside of Aleppo. We searched for her for months but were eventually told that she was transferred to Raqqa following the defeat of ISIS in northern Syria in January 2014.

Samar, like many other grassroots activists reporting on media and human rights violations, was targeted due to her presence in areas where ISIS operated. The group is known to use different violent and coercive measures – including kidnappings, forced disappearances, assassinations and public executions – to intimidate those who opposed or questioned its actions.

ISIS treats its prisoners differently depending on the charges they are accused of. The people who were officially arrested for violating the group's draconian rules and regulations – such as smoking, drinking alcohol, mingling with women, etc. – are usually detained in formal facilities to be presented in front of the group's self-styled "sharia" court.

All the prisons found were empty.

As for the group's opponents, ISIS usually denies their capture and has kept them in secret detention facilities. Some prisoners were presented in front of its self-styled courts at a later stage, while the fate of the rest remains unclear.

Consequently, the exact number of people detained by the group remains unclear. But according to a local Syrian human rights organization, ISIS detained around 6,318 until September 2014. The number expanded later following the announcement of the proclaimed caliphate that was widely rejected by locals.

The recapture of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor – where ISIS reportedly established 46 detention centers – did not result in finding any prisoners. Talal Silo, the former spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in charge of Raqqa, confirmed in an Oct. 18 interview with a local news website that all the prisons they found were empty.

But how can thousands of prisoners just vanish without a trace? The evacuation deal that led to the capture of Raqqa, however, could shed light on the fate of some of the detainees. After four months of fighting in Raqqa, local tribal leaders brokered a deal between the Kurdish-led SDF and ISIS. The aim was to save the civilians trapped inside the city by ISIS where they were used as human shields and spare the city further destruction.

Towards that end, the deal allowed ISIS fighters to escape from Raqqa in exchange for withdrawing from the city. The details of this deal remained largely secret until the BBC recently revealed them: some 4,000 people, including women and children, were relocated to ISIS-held territories in Deir Ezzor.

In light of the BBC investigation, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS admitted that some 250 of the group's fighters were allowed to leave Raqqa with 3,500 of their family members.

A well-informed Kurdish source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to discuss the topic, contradicted this statement. "Some of the detainees were transported with ISIS fighters to Deir Ezzor to use them as human shields." But the exact figures remain unclear.

The number of evacuees suggests, however, that not all detainees are still alive. The same source hinted that there is a high probability that many of the detainees may have faced field execution. "When ISIS withdraws from a certain area, it usually gets rid of the hostages that are not considered valuable. Foreigners, prominent activists, women – who might be taken as slaves – are usually considered useful. But rival foot soldiers or average male detainees become a liability."

ISIS is known for keeping meticulous documentation.

But the high level of destruction in the city makes mass graves difficult to spot. Lending credibility to this assumption, a relevant report published in March 2014 by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria listed several examples of mass executions of detainees by ISIS.

The summary killings were committed days – and sometimes hours – before ISIS bases in northern and northeastern provinces of Syria were captured by local rebel forces in early 2014.

Despite obvious challenges, the SDF can still take some action to reveal the fate of some detainees in order to give their families closure. ISIS is known for keeping meticulous documentation on all its operations, especially the prisoners who were processed by its courts.

Such documents were found in one of the detention centers in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which clearly stated the names and details of some prisoners. But the SDF has made no mention of whether local authorities were able to find any documents regarding the fate of the detainees.

The interrogation of captured ISIS members, especially those who were in charge of prisons, also provides a crucial source of information. Likewise, going through the graffiti on the walls of ISIS cells could also be used to verify the fate of some prisoners.

But if the SDF, for various reasons, does not have the will or the resources to reveal the fate of thousands of detainees, then independent human rights organizations should be at least allowed to investigate what happened to our missing loved ones.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply. This article was originally published by Middle East Eye

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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

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

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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