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Syrian-American man sues Assad government for alleged torture in prison

Obada Mzaik alleges he was physically and mentally tortured during his 2012 arrest and detention in Damascus
Activists and relatives of Syrians suspected of being detained or disappeared by the Syrian government pose with portraits of missing Syrians during a demonstration in front of Berlin's Brandenburg gate on 7 May 2022.
Activists and relatives of Syrians suspected of being detained or disappeared by Syrian government pose with portraits of missing Syrians during a demonstration in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, on 7 May 2022 (AFP)

A Syrian-American man has filed a lawsuit against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in a US court over his alleged torture in a Syrian prison.

The lawsuit was filed back in 2022 but was made public on Monday by the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP (Freshfields) on behalf of Obada Mzaik, a Syrian-American citizen who was allegedly detained and tortured at the Mezzeh Military Airport in Damascus, Syria. 

“This landmark lawsuit targets the responsibility of the Syrian regime for the state’s policy of detention, torture, enforced disappearance and execution of those who are seen as a threat to the regime,” CJA senior staff attorney Daniel McLaughlin said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Mzaik is both an American and Syrian citizen who had been studying civil engineering at a university in Damascus. He was born in Columbus, Ohio, but moved with his family back to Syria when he was a child. In 2012, he enrolled in a programme at a US college with hopes of pursuing a master’s degree. When he flew back to Syria to visit his family, he was held for questioning and arrested. 

The lawsuit states Mzaik went through "severe physical and mental pain and suffering” after his arrest and detention. He was released after three weeks. 

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“[He] was brutally and systematically beaten, whipped, and threatened with electrocution. He was held in inhumane detention conditions and forced to witness other detainees being tortured, including one of his own relatives,” the lawsuit states. 

He also “feared for his life and wished for his own death to escape the misery of his detention”. 

Mzaik said he is filing this lawsuit “in the name of all the many Syrians who were tortured in detention centres but who don’t have the opportunity to obtain justice”.

The case was filed citing the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a US law that allows American nationals to sue "designated state-sponsors of terrorism" for torture. Syria is one of four countries that Washington lists as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

'State's policy for detention'

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), more than 154,000 Syrians were arrested by the government between March 2011 and August 2022, while over 135,253 are still either detained or have been forcibly disappeared. 

Syria rights monitor obtains death certificates of hundreds of detainees in Assad prisons
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In December, the SNHR obtained hundreds of death certificates of people who were forcibly disappeared by the Assad government. 

In the report, the UK-based rights group described the Syrian government's method to notify families that their loved ones had died without resorting to official channels. 

Documents obtained by the SNHR from whistleblowers within government departments reveal the death certificates of some 547 people who were held in government detention centres and which have been issued since 2017.

The lawsuit comes as Assad has been working on rapprochement with several Arab states. Syria was suspended from the Arab League 12 years ago, following the government's brutal crackdown on mass protests against Assad's rule, with many Arab states demanding the president's removal.

However, the United Arab Emirates reopened its Syrian embassy in 2018 and welcomed Assad to Abu Dhabi and Dubai last year, during his first trip to an Arab state since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. 

Last month, Saudi Arabia and Syria agreed to re-open their embassies after an 11-year freeze in diplomatic relations. And on Wednesday, Syria’s foreign minister arrived in Saudi Arabia on the first such trip since civil war broke out in Syria.

However, full normalisation appears to remain off the table for many Arab countries, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week that at least five members of the Arab League - including MoroccoKuwaitQatar, and Yemen - have refused to readmit Syria into the group.

On Thursday, Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdurahman Al-Thani, said in a television interview that the original basis for the suspension of Syria's membership in the Arab League still stands.

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