The Syria Trials/
S1E7: Family


The suffering inflicted by the Assad regime reaches beyond the detainees held inside their intelligence branches and prisons. In withholding information about their fate, families are left in limbo - with no knowledge if their loved ones are dead or alive. This episode is about those families.

The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff and produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with editorial support from Mais Katt. Translation was by Alaa Hassan. This episode was mixed by Tobias Withers.

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA’s Zivik Funding Programme.

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Episode Transcript

Obeida Dabbagh VO: He was such a kind person. He smiled all the time. To find himself in the hands of such regime. It's awful. I can't let it go. People ask me all the time, why are you doing this? You're attacking a regime that can hurt you. They can even come to France and get you. But if my brother is dead and if nobody did anything, what a horrible end. If I was in his place, I'd want someone to do something for me. My aim is to one day find the truth. The truth needs to be known so that at least in his tomb, my brother will be happy, and will know that someone was thinking about him.

Mariam Hallak VO: I feel that those mothers who couldn't tell their stories have entrusted me to help them spread their message. And I wanted to talk about their pain and suffering. By telling my son's story, I'm telling their stories too. What happened to Ayham happened to many other young men who wanted to do something for their country and ended up dead or tortured.

Fritz Streiff: This is The Syria Trials. Episode Seven. Family.

Mariam VO: My name is Mariam Hallak. I'm from the Damascus countryside. I am just over 70 years old and I had three sons. Now I have two. The third is a martyr. His name is Ayham.

Obeida: My name is Obeida Dabbagh. I am 70 years old. I'm retired, recently retired, and I live in France from about 40 years. I came here to study. I grew up in Syria. My mother is a French citizen. My father came to France to study and he came back with my mother. So I live in Syria till I 18. So, it's a long time ago.

Fritz: How was Syria then, how was the life?

Obeida: Syria, it was a very beautiful country. We were happy. And when I came here, after the study, I want to return home.

Fritz: In a way, you were lucky to come to France.

Obeida: My wife said, God likes us because you came here. For us it was chance, for Mazen, my brother and my nephew, they don't have the same chance.

Fritz: When she lived in Syria, Mariam worked as a teacher just outside of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Mariam VO: When I became the principal of the school, the security services became part of the job. They'd ask me questions about the other teachers. Which one is praying? Which ones are talking? My mother passed away and we held the funeral at my brother's house. My brother was a well-known media figure, and so the security forces came and surrounded the house and the garden where people were giving their condolences. We asked what was going on. They said, you don't have a licence. A licence for what? My mother has just died! You see, whatever we did, security had to control it.

Fritz: Like Mariam Obeida's brother, Mazen Dabbagh also worked at a school in Damascus. He was an educational advisor at a French international school.

Obeida: He like Syria, Mazen like very much Syria. He had the opportunity to come to France. He came two or three times. He said, no, I don't like this. I prefer to go back to Syria. And you see what happens to him because he likes Syria. You know, the people who like Syria are killed in that country.

Fritz: What kind of person was your brother, Mazen?

Obeida: Mazen? He like life. He always smile. He was always smiling. He always made joke. Patrick, my nephew, he was in second year, in psychology. So, he was also a very kind boy.

Fritz: And when was the last time that you saw them?

Obeida: In December 2011, so three or four months before the uprising. Because we go to Syria, we see the family. It was the last time I've seen my brother and my nephew.

Mariam VO: Since he was a kid, Ayham was interested in volunteering. He was a very gifted student and would bring his friends over to tutor them. Then in 2006, when there was a big wave of asylum seekers from Lebanon, he was one of the volunteers at the refugee camps. At the beginning of the Revolution, he had just finished his degree and was studying for his Master’s. He immediately volunteered and began working at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, documenting cases of murder and detention that happened at the protests. When he went to protests, he would come back with red cheeks, his eyes bright with the joy that we, the parents of these youth, never got to experience, because it was forbidden. It was forbidden to speak. It was forbidden to chant. It was forbidden to have any ambition. I was happy for him that they were able to achieve something. That they were able to dream of something. But the joy was never complete.

Fritz: Mariam's son, Ayham, was first arrested when agents from the Air Force Intelligence raided the offices of SCM, the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, in February 2012. The employees present in the offices at the time were imprisoned. Ayham, along with some others, mainly women according to Mariam, was released after three months. Others, like Mazen Darwish, stayed in detention for years.

Mariam VO: The suffering and the torture he was put through made him even more determined that we need the Revolution and that we need to destroy this regime. Ayham had just a few months left of his Master’s degree. He continued his studies, his work and his activism, and he even attended workshops on justice and citizenship in Beirut. He came back from one of these workshops on the 4th November 2012. The next day in the morning, he went to university and never came back. He worked at a dental office on Baghdad Street. He was supposed to be there at 3 o’clock. The doctor's secretary called me and told me that Ayham was not answering our calls. I told her that he would still be at university. It's normal that he'd put his phone on silent. I never thought that something bad happened to him.

Fritz: Mariam’s sister visited her that evening. She had found out that Ayham had been arrested at the university. Mariam spent the next months trying to find out more information and more.

Mariam VO: I left nowhere unchecked. I went back and forth to different security branches, sending messages and asking and so on. But nothing.

Fritz: And could you tell us from what you know, what happened to them?

Obeida: So his wife, after three or four days, she phoned to me. She said, Mazen has disappeared. They, some officers from the intelligence service of Air Force Army came to the house. It was in the period of the holy days of All Saints in Syria, so they came 3 November…

Fritz: Which year?

Obeida: Which year? 2013. They came and they said, okay, we are mandated from the intelligence service of Air Force Army to take Patrick for investigation only. And we will come to you after we finish with him. They came the next day at midnight. Only they work at midnight, I don't know why! But with a lot of officers, of soldiers, and they said, okay Mazen, you have not good educated your son, so we'll take you to educate you because… so you see. And they said, okay Mazen you can go and change your clothes and put shoes. He liked to joke and he said, no, where I am going, I know that I don't need clothes and I don't need shoes.

Clémence Bectarte: My name is Clémence Bectarte, I'm a lawyer. I've been a French practising lawyer for 15 years now, specialised in international humanitarian law and international criminal law.

Fritz: Can you talk us maybe through how, for example, the Dabbagh family case, how that started and what kind of experience that has been?

Clémence: I would say that this case started in the way a lot of cases start. It's the meeting between the individual story of the Dabbagh family and the bigger story of the fight against impunity for Syria. So, you know, Obeida Dabbagh had learned very soon in November 2013 that his brother and nephew had been arrested by the Syrian Air Force intelligence and brought to Mezzeh, a very well-known detention centre, well reported on for being the detention centre in Syria with the highest level of mortality, at the hands of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence. They had made all attempts to alert the French authorities because Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh were also French citizens. They were dual national citizens. And nothing was done. I mean, he had no response from whomever, the French Presidency, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He tried to knock at every door and basically there was absolutely no response.

Fritz: One of the Dabbaghs’ neighbours was apprehended at the same time as Mazen, but was released a couple of days later. He was able to tell the rest of the family about those first 24 hours in custody.

Obeida: They arrived at the intelligence service and they said to them, okay, you stand by the wall and you wait. So they wait like this for 14 hours.

Fritz: After these 14 hours, Mazen’s son Patrick Abdelkader was brought into the same room as the neighbour and his father, Mazen. But the three men were quickly separated.

Obeida: They took Mazen to a cell. And the last thing that this man said, I heard Mazen: please, I don't want to go there. Please, I cannot breathe. Please. Because, you know, in these kinds of cells, they are 60 persons. So this was the last sentences that my brother and this person…

Fritz: The neighbour.

Obeida: …the neighbour. And from that time we didn't have any information of what happened to them.

Fritz: At the time. Did you know why they took them?

Obeida: They said to us that from the university Patrick has in his phone, cell phone, some people who are activists. And so they want to know what is the relation between these people. And maybe it's because Mazen, he has a what we said in French “franc-parler”, he like, he said always what you think. So maybe this play against him. I don't know.

Fritz: Three months after Ayham disappeared, Mariam received information that he had passed away. Five days into his detention.

Mariam VO: We organised a funeral and many students and professors came. They were very and I mean very disturbed by what had happened. Because Ayham was one of the first students who was martyred in this way. The students and the teachers decided to protest his death at the university, but I rejected the idea completely. I told them, no, my son is gone. But you are all my children. Be careful with your lives because your lives are more important than anything.

Fritz: A few months later, the uncle of Mariam's daughter in law was released from prison. He said that he'd seen Ayham, and that he might be alive.

Mariam VO: Just like any family of the detained, we hang on to any glimmer of hope that reports of his death are possibly not true. Here, a very difficult stage started for our family and it lasted for a year and five months. Every day except the holidays, I moved between military courts, putting in applications to try and find out more about Ayham, and what had really happened to him. I'd go to the military police and they tell me they have no news. I went to all possible places, any place that might give me news about him. I just wanted to know if he was dead or alive.

Fritz: Mariam spent close to two and a half years searching for more information about what had happened to Ayham. Then, during one of her visits to a military court, Mariam met a judge. She told him about her son. He told her to come back in ten days.

Mariam VO: So I went back to see him after ten days. He handed me a document saying that I have lodged a complaint against the Syrian Intelligence Service. I remember that their report stated that “the so-called Ayham Moustafa Ghazzoul has passed away in one of the security branches”. After receiving this document, evidence that my son was killed at one of the regime's security branches, the judge banned me from re-entering the military court. 
One month after getting the paper that stated that my son had died in one of the security branches, a political security force came to my brother's house in Damascus, where we lived. And they ordered us all to leave within 24 hours and leave all our belongings behind us. They threatened us with guns and weapons. One of the security personnel was pointing a rifle to my eldest son's chest, and another guard pointed the gun towards us. My son's wife was five months pregnant when that incident took place, and we knew that she was going to have a baby boy. They were going to call him Ayham, after my son. But when she saw her husband humiliated like that, with a gun pointed to his chest, the foetus died immediately in her womb.

Fritz: Mariam and her family left Syria for Beirut, Lebanon. Their asylum applications there were not all accepted by one country. And so, the family was broken up. One of Mariam’s sons now lives in New Zealand. The other is in a town in Germany. Mariam now also lives in Germany, in the capital Berlin.

Mariam VO: When I was in Beirut, I heard that a young man had filed a complaint in Berlin and that in Germany you can file a suit, even if those involved in it don't reside in Germany, or even if the incident in question didn't take place on German soil. So, I contacted those responsible for filing cases and told them that I have evidence and want to start a case.

Obeida: Back in France in early 2016, Obeida Dabbagh met Clémence Bectarte for the first time. They began putting together a formal complaint, with the aim being to trigger a judicial investigation and the appointment of investigative judges. These judges conduct the pre-trial investigation. This means they lead the investigation, usually working with the police to gather evidence and take witness testimonies. They then decide whether to charge a suspect and take the case to trial or not. Once this process is underway, victims also have extended rights. For example, they have access to the case file and they can request specific acts of investigation from the judges.

Clémence: Because Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh were French citizens, we knew that we would be able to target top officials of the Syrian regime and not be bound by one of the restrictive criteria of the universal jurisdiction law, which is the residency of a suspect in France. And Obeida knew it. I mean, Obeida has always been very conscious that he was the lucky one. He was lucky because he was safe in France with his family and that he could do what a lot, hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens could not do. So, he always was very conscious, again, that it was about the story of his brother and his nephew. But beyond that, it was also the story of a case that we could bring much further. And so, he was really willing to open a judicial investigation for this reason, and also very basically because he wanted a way to find out what had happened to Patrick and Mazen. You know, we had no news at all. And this is exactly how it happened with enforced disappearance. They disappeared. They were arrested in very brutal conditions, brought to Mezzeh. And then we knew nothing.

Fritz: Enforced disappearances are a tragic crime. And in terms of the law, they're extremely difficult to prove. In fact, this crime has never been successfully prosecuted as an international crime. For families to file an enforced disappearance case, either in the courts of their new home countries or with international legal bodies, they need to demonstrate that they took legal steps to ask the authorities in the country where the crime occurred, about their disappeared loved one. Generally, if they cannot show that they took those steps, they cannot file a case for enforced disappearance. But in Syria, asking the authorities for information about a disappeared loved one can be highly dangerous. You could even be putting yourself at risk of being arrested. The lawyers of the victims at the Koblenz trial did try to add the crime of enforced disappearance to the indictment, but the prosecutor refused. Perhaps because the crime is just so hard to prove and he didn't want to fail at proving it. The crime of enforced disappearance is one of the allegations in the complaint that Clémence and Obeida filed about what happened to Mazen and Patrick Abdelkader Dabbagh.

Obeida: For me I said, okay, it will take time. Maybe because time of justice is not like time of real life. Maybe it will take many, many years. But after that, you know, you document the case of your brother. So this documentation, one day maybe will give something.

Clémence: So, we managed to file this more formal complaint in October 2016. It was followed days after by the opening of a judicial investigation. So here we had entered this level where we had investigative judges being appointed and a lot of very again, courageous activists and witnesses, Syrian victims who came to us and who proposed to testify, to bring in the result of their documentation, what they knew about Mezzeh, the conditions of detentions there, who was responsible of the detention centre, how we could document the chain of command, etc… This lasted basically two years. And so, in October 2018, we managed to get the issuance of three international arrest warrants. One against Ali Mamlouk. We were very happy, I would say, about this one because we know that, you know, he was acting as number two of the regime. Of course, Bashar al Assad could not be targeted by the French investigative judges, because he enjoys full immunity as a sitting head of state. Then Jamil Hassan, of course, the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, who was at the time the head of the investigative branch of the Air Force Intelligence and in this capacity was head of the Mezzeh detention centre.

Fritz: The investigative judges and the prosecutor, along with the advice of the prosecutor's office in that moment, can issue those arrest warrants because they're convinced that if this case went to trial, that a conviction would be likely. Is that fair to say?

Clémence: Yes, of course it is. I mean, the international arrest warrant is the equivalent of what we call a mise en examen in French, and that is often translated by indictment, you know, that they could not be indicted, brought as defendants into the case because they are still in Syria. But otherwise, this would have been the judicial decision. And because they were not accessible to the French justice system, then these warrants, arrest warrants were issued. But it was, of course, a very strong signal. And yes, if the prosecutor and the investigative judges took this decision, is because they knew that they would then be in a capacity to send those three top officials to trial.

Fritz: Mariam also had success with the criminal complaint she was part of in Germany.

Mariam VO: My case was accepted because of the documents I had in my possession. In addition to the fact that my son died in detention. As a result of the complaint, an arrest warrant against Jamil Hazzan, the head at the time of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate was issued by the Federal Court of Justice.  

Fritz: This is the arrest warrant that Germany issued for Jamil Hassan in 2018, which came as a result of multiple complaints filed by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin on behalf of Syrian victims and survivors. So now both Germany and France have issued international arrest warrants for Hassan, but only the French warrant, as far as we know, also names Ali Mamlouk and Abdul Salam Mahmoud publicly.

As well as trying to hold the most guilty accountable, the building of these cases, especially when they concern an enforced disappearance, is also very much about families finding out what really happened to their loved ones and in doing so, obtaining an official record of the truth.

Clémence: One of the turning points of the investigation in 2018 that I forgot to mention before the issuance of the international arrest warrants, was that Obeida was able to access the death certificates of Patrick and Mazen, at a time in 2018 where under the pressure of the Russian regime, the Russians and the Iranians, the Syrian regime started to issue death certificates for 20,000 approximately, so nothing compared to the number of still disappeared and people in detention in Syria. But they started to issue these death certificates, and this is how Obeida was able to learn about the death of his brother and nephew. We just have a date, but we don't know what were their conditions of detention. Of course, we can only imagine how it went and that they died under torture. But we don't know where. We don't know how. And of course, Obeida didn't get also the bodies back and was never able and the family to bury Mazen and Patrick.

Obeida: This document said that Patrick was dead in 21 of January 2014. So one month and a half after his arrestation. And Mazen, three years after the 25th November 2017. Without any other explication, what was the cause of death, what happened to them. I think that Patrick, he was sentenced to death and maybe he was executed. Mazen, no. Maybe he died after because he was a problem of blood pressure. So he, they don't give him some I think the good the medicine. But we don't know how they dead. We don't know where they are buried. All this information we don't have. So for me, it's like they are in disappearance. They are not died. There are disappeared like many others. And maybe some days will come back. I hope.

Fritz: Between 2011 and 2013, tens of thousands of photographs were taken of corpses who had died in detention, by a Syrian military photographer. The photos were smuggled out of Syria by the man who is known only as Caesar. They were made available to investigating authorities like the FBI and its German counterpart, the BKA, which in turn verified their authenticity.

Mariam VO: Many families were able to recognise their beloved children, siblings, husbands, brothers, fathers or friends amongst the Caesar photographs. I visited Mazen Darwish and we talked about these issues. We had the idea of founding the Caesar Families Association, which started with five families, and it now includes around 55 families. The association brings together the families that recognise their loved ones in the Caesar photographs.

Fritz: It was through this kind of access that Mariam was able to find out more about the circumstances surrounding Ayham’s death.

Mariam VO: A survivor of detention who had been with Ayham during his first detention, saw the photos and recognised Ayham in one of them. He was able to recognise him because his face didn't change much like other people who were detained for a long time and whose pictures were terrifying.

Most of the hospitals in Syria are named after Bassel al Assad, Bashar's older brother, who died. When Ayham died, the Free Syrian Army named a hospital in Dayr Atiyah city after my son. Since he was a doctor, I want him to be remembered by naming a hospital or another medical facility after him.

Fritz: You know, everybody always uses this word justice, but it means many different things, I think, to individual situations. For you and for your family, what does this word mean, justice?

Obeida: I think that justice for him is to say to all the people that the regime was a criminal regime, not respecting human rights, not respecting human dignity, people dignity. For me, if a sentence against these 3 people came one day, I'll be happy. It will not bring back my brother or my nephew. But for them I would say, okay, you have, your dignity are giving back again to you. You are recognised as people who suffer from the regime. I would be happy, surely, to see these 3 people condemned.

Clémence: The Dabbagh case, the investigation has been closed a couple of months ago and now the prosecutors and judges are working to issue their final orders to send the case to trial. Because this is a possibility in France. You have this possibility of holding in absentia trials, which give also procedural guarantees that were inspired by rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, where the defendants, although being absent, can be represented in court and if they're arrested one day, can be retried. You know, not only make appeal, but have a new trial.

Fritz: Which of course, is a huge difference to other jurisdictions, to other countries where this is impossible. And I can imagine that this opens doors in France, that can be a pretty exciting opportunity.

Clémence: It is an exciting opportunity. It will be also a controversial opportunity, we know that, because of the nature of what will be in absentia trial, you know, without the defendants being able to exert their right to the defence. Of course, these trials will be more, you know, shortened because of that. But nonetheless, this will be a public trial which will enable a lot of victims to appear in court. And so, I think it's always important to remember that we're fighting a very long-term battle and that this is only a first step. But let's not deny also that it is a step in itself.

Mariam VO: The international community didn't decide to support us yet. And that's what is stopping us. I think that when it decides to end the role of Bashar al Assad, peace will prevail. But we still have a lot of work to do. Removing weapons from people's hands will take a long time. But one day this will end. I'm sure of it.

Obeida: If God give me life, I hope really really, that a t rial took place to condemn Bashar al-Assad, especially Bashar al-Assad. I hope I will see this one day, this trial against Bashar al-Assad. I hope God give me life to see this. It will be my happiest day, I think.

Mariam VO: I still can’t determine who should be held accountable for Ayham’s death. A long chain of people was involved in his murder. But can we hold them all accountable?

Fritz: Mariam raises an interesting question. Because of the sheer scale of crimes, not every single person who committed a crime in Syria will be tried in a criminal court. There are simply too many people to prosecute. Which is one of the main reasons why so many of the case building efforts by Syrian civil society organisations, lawyers, activists and so on are concentrated on targeting the highest-ranking officials - even if they are still in Syria and won't be caught anytime soon. Nevertheless, holding accountable those who actually carry out the crimes rather than give the orders remains important, as part of the complex justice and accountability for Syria puzzle. This is already happening in European courts, but there remains one group who is often overlooked. These men, violent thugs responsible for carrying out much of the regime's dirty work, are called the Shabiha. The Shabiha only unofficially work for the regime and so are hard to tie directly to them, which also makes it difficult for the law and investigators to pin them down. 

Next time, in Episode Eight of The Syria Trials, we look at this phenomenon of the Shabiha. I'm Fritz Streiff. Thank you for listening. And if you've enjoyed listening to The Syria Trials so far, please do rate and review the series in your podcast app. It really helps us reach new listeners.