'Beaten into confession': Missing Syrian rescuer filmed denouncing White Helmets
BEIRUT - Fears are growing for the fate of a Syrian rescue worker, who appeared in a video from a news agency supporting President Bashar al-Assad after being shot and arrested in Aleppo.
Colleagues of Abdulhadi Kamel – who was last seen two weeks ago - believe he was forced into a “confession” filmed in one of the Syrian government’s prisons notorious for brutal abuse. He is a member of the Syria Civil Defence (SCD) volunteer service, better known as the White Helmets.
The apparently coerced confession appears in “The White Helmets: The Mask of Terror”, a film by Anna News, the Abkhazian Network News Agency, that says it is based in the Republic of Abkhazia.
Russia, an ally of Assad, enjoys powerful influence in the breakaway region of Georgia.
In the clip, Kamel, 26, looks pale and sleep-deprived as he stands against a beige tiled wall. He admits to appearing in staged rescues of civilians after Russian and Syrian government air strikes in Aleppo.
“At first I thought that we were going to help civilians,” he says. “Then, I’ve learnt that in order to get money, I have to work as an actor.
“We asked why we have to do this. We were told that Europe and Turkey would not pay otherwise. The Gulf monarchs would not pay also.”
Kamel’s location is not clear from the video: Anna does not state when the interview was filmed, but at certain moments he appears to be reading from a script.
Shot and taken off bus
Kamel, who has served with the White Helmets in Aleppo since 2013, has a wife and children. He went missing after he was detained by pro-Syrian government forces as they retook the eastern neighbourhoods in late December.
MEE understands that Kamel tried to prevent Hezbollah troops, who back Assad, from entering a bus carrying a heavily pregnant woman as it took a group of civilians out of the city.
Witnesses say a member of the Lebanese group shot him in the shoulder and arrested him, in an incident which left four people dead and nine others injured.
'One glance at his face is enough to realise that this man is not speaking his mind, he is speaking out of fear for his life'
- Syria Civil Defence
Local sources traced Kamel to the Air Force Intelligence security branch in Aleppo, where former prisoners frequently recount abuse by officers. The Anna video was the first time friends and relatives had seen Kamel since his arrest.
In a statement, the Syria Civil Defence said they had “no doubt” that Kamel had been forced into making a "false confession" for propaganda reasons, and that they were “deeply upset to see our friend and colleague in such obvious distress”.
Calling for his immediate release, the group said: “One glance at his face is enough to realise that this man is not speaking his mind, he is speaking out of fear for his life.”
Thaer Mohammed, a photographer from Aleppo who worked with the White Helmets, said Kamel was “a decent human” who loved to help people.
“I feel sad and really angry when I see this video,” he told MEE. He too believes his friend had been forced to speak under torture.
'Atempts to build distrust about the Syria Civil Defence'
The 3,000 volunteers in the White Helmets have saved nearly 83,000 lives since the group’s foundation in March 2013.
But the group, which was nominated for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has frequently been criticised by supporters of the Assad government for receiving funding and assistance from Western governments and alleged ties to rebel groups.
In the “Mask of Terror”, Anna’s reporter – dressed in military fatigues and appearing to wear a soldier’s flak jacket - visits five former civil defence headquarters in Aleppo. It claims to find documents linking the humanitarian workers to terrorists.
Anna News, which describes itself as a “mass media agency” established in 2011, has frequently sent reporters into Syria to cover the conflict. In 2013 Russian judge Sergey Aleksandrovich Berezhnoy was shot in the face as he accompanied Anna journalists as a volunteer reporter on annual leave.
The outlet did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.
The White Helmets said that claims about fake rescues had “no base in reality” and were part of attempts to build distrust about the Syria Civil Defence and other humanitarian organisations by the Assad government and its Russian ally.
A source who has worked alongside the group said they had become targets for abuse. “This is indicative of the revolution in post-truth, propaganda style news. This is the latest example of humanitarian organisations becoming targets because of their effectiveness and impact of their work.”
The Anna film also claims to prove links between the civil defence workers and proscribed groups in Syria.
'This is the latest example of humanitarian organisations becoming targets because of their effectiveness and impact of their work'
- Source close to Syria Civil Defence
The presence of armed groups among some of the opposition has given rise to accusations that the White Helmets sympathise with armed organisations such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
But a source with knowledge of the White Helmets’ work said: “Just because you have to dance with the devil to be able to operate, doesn’t mean you fancy him.
“Operating in areas where these groups are also present means you have to have a dialogue with them to get what you want, in the White Helmets’ case, saving thousands of lives. It doesn’t mean you agree with them.”
The source also defended the White Helmets’ record as a non-armed group, after images circulated online of a man in an SCD uniform carrying a rifle.
“There are 3,000 people in the White Helmets and in all organisations you get idiots making bad decisions, like a Syria Civil Defence worker who is seen carrying a gun. That one bad choice loses you a lot of goodwill.”
The Assad government has a long history of broadcasting false confessions from opponents, including from women formerly detained in its prisons.
A report released in 2015 by the EuroMediterranean Human Rights Network interviewed several women who said they had been forced into “confessing” to having sex with rebel fighters. They later found out that their statements had been aired on Syrian state television.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.