‘The true worth of our presence’ – Syrian lawyers risk detention and death in the name of justice

By a Damascus-based human rights lawyer *

Being a human rights lawyer in Syria has never been easy. We have always been vulnerable to prosecution or at risk of arrest by the authorities. Over the past few years, however, the situation has become increasingly unbearable.

Human rights lawyers have become a continuous target. The authorities have waged a campaign to intimidate them and have expelled several from the lawyers’ union. Many have been arrested or died as a result of torture in prison.Lawyers are also routinely threatened by armed groups in areas outside state control. In some cases, such as that of Razan Zaitouneh, a prominent human rights lawyer who disappeared in Duma in December, they have been abducted by such groups.

Syrian Khalil Ma’touq has been in detention for more than a year and a half © Amnesty International.
Syrian Khalil Ma’touq has been in detention for more than a year and a half © Amnesty International.

I have lost a number of lawyer colleagues who never made it out of detention alive. Among them is Burhan al-Siqal, who died in detention late last year leaving behind four young children. Another is Ma’en Ghoneimi whose family was told of his death in custody three weeks ago. Both men were the best of lawyers; their dedication to justice was coupled with an unwavering belief that Syrians deserve a better future.

After Syrians took to the streets in mass protests to demand freedom in March 2011, they were among the first lawyers who showed firm solidarity with the protesters.

The news of Burhan al-Siqal’s and Ma’en Ghoneimi’s deaths hit me hard. I knew them both personally and was in touch with them daily in court. In Syria, countless victims lose their lives every day in the vaults of the security branches and jails.

News of a detainee’s death is almost expected as a daily occurrence. We had hoped that lawyers might receive better treatment, or at least be spared their lives. But all our hopes that the Syrian regime is able to respect anything at all have long been destroyed.

The news had a far more devastating impact on Ma’en’s family who refused to believe it for several days, desperately hoping it was a case of mistaken identity.

Throughout his detention, his family were forbidden from visiting him and were given no official information of his whereabouts. The only news they received came from other detainees who had been held with him and later released.

Burhan was arrested during a raid on an area in central Damascus. He was detained because of his work offering relief and assistance to displaced citizens from embattled areas, and because he was vocal about supporting the people’s right to freedom and dignity.

Ma’en was arrested by chance as he was getting into a car in the district of al-Rabwa to return home. Security forces found out he had participated in sit-ins at the justice palace calling for detainees to be released and for an end to the bloodshed.

In areas under siege, lawyers have helped people by providing food supplies or financial donations. They have also offered assistance to displaced communities, which can expose them to greater risk of arrest. This is in addition to their primary work of defending prisoners of conscience in courts and offering legal assistance to detainees in prisons.

One example is my colleague Jihan Amin. She was arrested two months ago and no news has emerged about her since. She had helped many families in the area where she lives set up an organization to offer support and help displaced people.

Three others were arrested along with her including Ranim Ma’touq, the daughter of prominent lawyer Khalil Ma’touq, who has himself been detained for more than a year and a half. Also arrested with them was Marwan Hasbani, another lawyer, whose family were informed of his death nearly a month after his arrest, and Nasser Bunduq, a poet.

I would be lying if I said we do not fear for our physical and mental wellbeing. Physically, we fear arrest and death in custody. Psychologically, we suffer from the horror stories we witness of the dire conditions in prison and the torture and ill-treatment of detainees.

We are afraid. But we continue working because we feel what we can offer is worth the struggle, and because by doing so we are affirming our humanity.

I cannot begin to describe the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when you have helped get a detainee released or take testimonies from family members or somehow manage to lighten the burden of other people’s suffering. It is in those moments that we know the true worth of our presence.

*Name withheld for security reasons.

Please take action for some of the detained lawyers mentioned in this blog here:Urgent Action: Two women arrested in Syria (21 February 2014)

Urgent Action: Prosecutor denies holding Syrian lawyer (20 February 2013)

For further information, please see:Syria: One year one, fears abound over health of disappeared human rights lawyer (2 October 2013)

Syria: Abducted human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and her three colleagues must be released unharmed (11 December 2013):

Amnesty International’s joint website to highlight the situation of Syrian detainees