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EXCLUSIVE: Bilal Abdul Kareem breaks silence over HTS detention in Syria

US journalist, who was jailed in Idlib for six months, says torture is rife in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham prisons and HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani is 'unfit to rule'

US journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem has broken his silence to speak for the first time about his arrest and months-long detention by militant group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria's Idlib province.

Speaking exclusively to Middle East Eye, Abdul Kareem accused Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the HTS leader, of being “unfit to rule” and of lying about conditions in the organisation's prisons.

Jolani denied in an interview broadcast this week on the US PBS network that detainees held by the group were being tortured.

Abdul Kareem is currently banned by HTS from reporting, or appearing on social media, as a condition of his release from prison in February. He admitted he was putting himself in jeopardy by speaking out against the group, though he said he had left the territory under HTS control.

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Abu Mohammed al-Jolani addresses the camera from an unknown location in Idlib in 2018 (screengrab)

HTS is an alliance of Islamist militant factions which has controlled most of Idlib since 2017 and has been one of the most effective opposition fighting forces during Syria's decade-long civil war. But it is considered a terrorist organisation by the UN, the US and many other Western countries and has been accused of atrocities, executions and war crimes by human rights monitors.

'Almost every day of every week, I had to listen to the screams of torture just a few metres away from me'

- Bilal Abdul Kareem, journalist

Jolani, its leader, formerly commanded the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), which was al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria until 2016 when it changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

Abdul Kareem told MEE he had been threatened with physical abuse himself and kept mostly in solitary confinement for more than six months after his arrest last August. He said he had frequently heard the sound of other prisoners being tortured in nearby cells.

“Almost every day of every week, I had to listen to the screams of torture just a few metres away from me. Everyone in the prisons can always hear the torture,” he told MEE.

“Just to sum up the whole thing: Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, point blank, he lied.”

Abdul Kareem has been reporting from opposition-held areas of Syria since 2012, mostly for his own On the Ground News platform, and has been based in the country since 2014. He has contributed to MEE, and has also worked with CNN, the BBC and Sky News.

He is best known for his reporting from the final days of the battle of eastern Aleppo in December 2016, when he was evacuated alongside opposition fighters as part of a deal in which rebel-held areas of the city were handed over to Syrian government control.

Threatened with beatings

Abdul Kareem told MEE he had been arrested after raising concerns about torture in HTS prisons in his own reporting. One prominent case he covered was that of Tauqir Sharif, a British aid worker who said he had been restrained in a tyre and beaten while in HTS custody.

After his arrest, Abdul Kareem said he had been handcuffed and blindfolded and subjected to daily questioning in which he was threatened with beatings by his interrogator.

“He said: 'We need to ask you some questions. If your answers are not forthcoming, then we do have the authority to physically do things to you so that you will tell us what we need to know'. They lined me up against the wall as if they were about to start beating on me.”

Abdul Kareem said he was eventually sent back to his cell and was not subjected to any kind of physical torture. “I had no lawyer, I had no access to anybody on the outside. I was just gone. That was my situation.”

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Four-and-a-half months later, guards came to Abdul Kareem's cell. “They put a blindfold on me and shackles on my hands. Then they put me in a van and they took me to another location, removed the shackles, removed the blindfold and said: 'Your trial is about to start.'"

He was subsequently sentenced to 12 months in prison on charges including “working with groups that harm public security", "incitement" against the authorities, and "publishing and promoting lies that affect institutions without evidence or proof".

Abdul Kareem said he could not help himself laughing when he was found guilty on all charges a few weeks later. “I thought it was the funniest thing. They didn't like that so much. They said: 'Why are you laughing?' I said: 'I'm laughing because I used to do stand-up comedy, but I can't write jokes like you guys'. “I said: 'There is no justice in this. There is no Islamic justice, no secular justice. There's no justice in this at all.'”

Following his sentencing, Abdul Kareem says he was offered the prospect of an early release if he agreed to apologise as part of a plea for clemency. He says he refused to do so and was prepared to serve the full 12-month sentence.

Abdul Kareem was eventually released on 17 February following what HTS described as a petition submitted by the elders of Idlib's Atmeh region.

Amicable relationship

Abdul Kareem told MEE that he had once enjoyed an amicable relationship with HTS, as well as with other opposition groups fighting against Syrian government forces and their allies, whom he had often accompanied to battlefronts to report on the conflict.

He said he had sought to give HTS and its previous iterations an opportunity to speak when they were being accused of terrorism – access that has led some to describe him as a “jihadist propagandist”.

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Women west of Idlib demonstrate against HTS on 16 September 2020, demanding the release of their husbands who are being held in its prisons (Supplied)

But he said HTS had become increasingly hostile to him since 2018, as his reporting grew more critical of the group's shortcomings after it had established itself as the de facto authority in Idlib.

“Now, what was the change that happened?" he told MEE. " The change is simple. They came to power... and then they start doing things other than that which they said. They promised to bring Islamic rule. They didn't do it. They promised to bring justice. They didn't do it. I was obligated to report those shortcomings. And that's when they turned hostile to me.”

Allegations of HTS's and its predecessors' involvement in arbitrary detention and torture predate its rise to power in Idlib. A United Nations Human Rights Council report published in March by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic cited allegations of detention-related violations linked to HTS and related groups dating back to 2011.

It said HTS had been “arbitrarily detaining civilians in a systematic effort to stifle dissent” and had established “punishment prisons” in which “torture and ill-treatment were widespread”.

Abdul Kareem said he had sought to report on earlier complaints of torture against HTS, but that most of those making allegations were not prepared to go on camera or identify themselves.     

He cited a report by On the Ground News in April 2019 in which a mother said that her son, Marwan al-Umqi, had been tortured to death in an HTS prison as a “turning point” in his relationship with the group.

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“Their politics towards me changed," Abdul Kareem said. "And some of their members said to me: 'Bilal we thought you were cool'.

And I said: 'Well, you know what? If covering up your torture means that I'm cool, then go back and tell them that I'm not cool and I'm not going to be cool because that's not what I came here for.'”

HTS has repeatedly denied allegations that it mistreats and tortures prisoners.

In an interview with PBS's Frontline, filmed in February but broadcast only on Tuesday, Jolani said there was “no torture” in Idlib and suggested that the region's prisons were under the control of the Salvation Government, the HTS-backed civilian government, rather than the group itself.

“There is no torture. This is completely rejected,” said Jolani.

“And we are not responsible for it, arresting, torturing and the whole process at the courts. The judicial corps is completely independent in the liberated zones. It is not ours. There is an entire government here.”

'Unfit to rule'

But Abdul Kareem said Jolani and those in HTS who defended him were guilty of condoning the same abuses they had once condemned when carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's security forces.

Abdul Kareem said that one HTS official he had spoken to had tried to defend Jolani's remarks by arguing that the physical abuse meted out to prisoners did not amount to torture and was permitted as a form of punishment to make them admit their wrongdoings.

“I said to him, well, issue number one, you're starting to sound like the Americans: 'We're not calling it torture. We're calling it enhanced interrogation techniques.' Torture by any other name is still torture.

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“The second thing is beating people, hanging them for long periods of time, whippings on the soles of their feet and the backs of their legs. These are the things that your leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani condemned the Assad regime for doing. How is it that he's now doing the exact same thing?”

Abdul Kareem said that he did not consider Jolani to be a terrorist because HTS had not sought to carry out attacks outside of Syria. But he said he would not remain silent about Jolani's shortcomings as a leader, and suggested he was courting Western legitimacy by speaking to PBS.

“I don't think he's a terrorist. I think he's unfit to rule if he's going to continue on the path that he's continuing on now. So if he wants Western legitimacy and he wants to go after that, that's fine. That's his business. But if he thinks that I'm going to stay silent while he tortures and indefinitely detains his way to power, as we say in America, I didn't come to Vegas to lose.”

Abdul Kareem also dismissed the Salvation Government as a sham. “Nobody here gives any great credence to the Salvation Government,” he said. “I doubt that there's one in a hundred people who could even tell you who the president of the Salvation Government is, because everyone knows that he wields no power.” In fact the Salvation Government is headed by a prime minister, currently Ali Keda who has been in office since 2019.

Abdul Kareem told MEE he had now left HTS-controlled territory because of concerns for his own safety after being told by HTS officials that he was considered a security threat.

“They told me that they considered me to be more of a threat in these territories than an ISIS suicide bomber. And the reason he said that was 'because people listen to you'. So I was forced to leave their territories. I could either just be quiet and open up a hot dog [stall] or a pizzeria. Or I could say I'm going to change my location and I'm going to continue to report.”

But he said he remained committed to reporting on events in Syria, despite the risks. “I think the Syrian people have tremendous resiliency, ingenuity, and I think that they're going to come out on top in the end. It's going to cost. It's important for everybody to understand that if you want real change it doesn't happen overnight.

“So my fight continues. And as long as I'm effective, then I'll continue to be here. When I'm not effective any more, I'll pick up my marbles and go.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.