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Syria: Families wait desperately for loved ones' release after prison amnesty

Hundreds reportedly released from Syria's notorious prisons, but many thousands remain locked away
Syrian families have camped out, awaiting news of their loved ones since the amnesty on Saturday (Twitter)

Dozens of Syrians gathered on the streets of Damascus last night, hoping that their relatives would be among a batch of detainees released under a new amnesty.

Families assembled in the "President's Bridge" area, awaiting the arrival of buses carrying people who have been held for years in Syria’s infamous prisons, many for participating in the 2011 protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Other families have gathered since Monday in Sednaya, north of Damascus, which is home to Sednaya, Syria's largest and most notorious military prison.  

On Saturday, Assad issued a decree giving a general amnesty to people convicted on terrorism charges before 30 April 2022. The amnesty excludes acts that have led to killings or kidnappings, and those against whom there are civil personal claims.

Thousands of Syrians have been jailed on terror charges for peaceful opposition to Assad’s government since the 2011 Arab Spring protests and subsequent civil war.

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Nizar Sedkni, deputy justice minister, said the amnesty included those convicted of various crimes, including being involved in or financing a “terror group”, a term often used for rebel forces and opposition civil society groups.

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In an interview with the official Sana news agency, he said the amnesty would automatically include everyone elegible, including Syrians abroad.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Ahmed el-Sayed described the amnesty as a comprehensive national reconciliation, telling the state-operated al-Watan newspaper that it was contributing to the return of thousands of refugees.

The amnesty comes with some four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, who face rising anti-refugee sentiment and promises by the Turkish opposition to repatriate them if they triumph in the June 2023 elections.

A source familiar with the releases told Middle East Eye about 70 detainees were freed on Tuesday.

Thousands of Syrians are believed to be languishing in Syria’s prisons. One source said around 500 have been released overall, and more are to be released in the coming days. However, Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of the UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), said: "So far, only about 150 detainees have been released, while security services arrest an average of 100 people every month."

Opposition activists said many of those freed have spent nearly a decade in prison.

So far, however, prominent political detainees have not been released. Most have disappeared, believed to be executed or killed under torture.

Little news of detainees ever makes it out of Syria’s prisons, with families often paying huge sums of money for a scrap of information about their relatives.

Families gathered in Damascus and Sednaya have waved images of their relatives at detainees being freed, desperate to know if they encountered them alive in prison.   

“My brother has been detained for nine years, and my mother died in grief for him,” one relative of a detainee told state-operated Radio Sham FM. “I serve in the Syrian Army. I'm waiting here for the morning, I don't know what to do.”

Another woman told the station: “My father and brother have been detained for nine years and we don't know anything about them, we just want to know where they are. We just want to know if they're alive or dead. Please tell us how we can make a formal request to find out where they are.” The interview was deleted hours after it was published.

One relative of detainees told MEE that there was some confusion as to whether political prisoners convicted on non-terror charges could benefit from the amnesty.

“I'm just trying to find intermediaries to find out where my father and my cousin were arrested, to try to turn their charge into terrorism, in the hope of releasing them,” they said.

'Syrians are waiting'

The Syrian security services have a brutal reputation. Detainees are often questioned blindfolded so they cannot recognise their interrogators, subjected to torture and forced to confess to serious crimes they did not commit.

Those released are also prohibited from speaking about details of their detention or the detainees they saw in prison. Re-arrests are common.

Terror charges are brought against anyone who has protested against the government or sympathised with its opponents.

'My father and brother have been detained for nine years and we don't know anything about them, we just want to know where they are'

- Syrian woman speaking to Radio Sham FM

They are tried in a special court run by the military in the Mezzeh area, using a terrorism law implemented in 2012. 

The releases come after the Guardian revealed last week that in 2013 military security agents executed about 42 people by pushing them into a hole, shooting them and then burning them.

Thousands of Syrians were discovered killed under torture when a defector leaked nearly 50,000 photographs in 2014, showing the bodies of some 7,000 detainees mutilated by torture.

About half a million Syrians have been arrested, according to the SNHR. The activist group now estimates that some 130,000 Syrians remain detained, most of them forcibly disappeared, and its database shows that 11,000 people have been killed under torture.

"Most detainees spend years without charge or even trial," said Ghany. "There are a lot of charges that are attached to detainees other than terrorism."

The Syrian war has killed around half a million Syrians and displaced more than half of the population inside and outside the country, according to the United Nations.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned that refugees returning to Syria are being seriously abused, facing arrest and murder.

"Syrians are waiting for a real, comprehensive and unconditional amnesty that covers all detainees in all security branches and ends their suffering and their sons' suffering," Ghany said.

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