Kept in the dark – the murky world of enforced disappearances

For more than a year, 67-year-old Abd al-Akram al-Sakka has been missing in what amounts to an enforced disappearance – a crime under international law.

Despite desperate pleas from the elderly imam’s relatives, the Syrian authorities have not revealed any information about his whereabouts or the conditions of his detention.

In fact, they never even acknowledged his arrest – the only thing his loved ones can be sure of is that on 15 July 2011, around 20 members of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence arrived at his house in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and whisked him away.

The imam’s son-in-law Haytham Al Hamwi – who now lives in exile – recently told Amnesty International about his family’s anguish and the lack of information around al-Sakka’s disappearance since the Syrian uprising began in early 2011.

“Disappearance means that you don’t know anything about them, and even if you know anything – you are always worried that this information is not OK,” Al Hamwi said.

Last September, the Syrian authorities also detained his father Muhammad Yassin Al Hamwi, a shopkeeper, and his brother Muhammad Muhammad Al Hamwi in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.

They were held incommunicado for five and six months, respectively, before being released earlier this year. During that time, their family did not know whether they were dead or alive. No charges were brought against them, but it is believed they were arrested for taking part in anti-government protests.

His father was disappeared again in May 2012, his third detention since the uprising began last year.

Although relatives never received official news about the men’s arrests and detention, murky details about their time in captivity emerged whenever a prisoner who had been held with them was released. But because such information was not always accurate or reliable, it only added to the family members’ fears and anguish.  

As Haytham Al Hamwi has also been a prisoner of conscience in a Syrian jail – he was locked up for two and a half years after taking part in a peaceful political protest in 2003 – he is only too familiar with the kind of conditions faced by his disappeared relatives.

Overcrowding and other poor conditions in detention can contribute to existing health problems – Muhammad Yassin Al Hamwi had a heart attack last year, for example, while Abd al-Akram al-Sakka reportedly suffers from a bowel condition.

Torture is rife during interrogations.

“The most difficult time in these circumstances in prison is in the first week, because they torture people usually in the first week when they…interrogate…them,” Haytham Al Hamwi said.

For decades, enforced disappearances have been the hallmark of the Syrian regime, used as a means to target thousands of activists and dissidents while keeping their families in a state of despair and fear.

“Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the authorities’ use of enforced disappearances to silence opposition and sow fear among the friends and relatives of the disappeared,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International.

“But the use of this devastating practice – in Syria and in other countries and regions around the world – goes back decades.”

Enforced disappearances

A person is “disappeared” when they are arrested, detained or abducted, either by state officials or agents acting on their behalf. Since the captors deny that the person is being held or refuse to reveal their whereabouts, the disappeared person remains vulnerable to a range of human rights violations.

Held outside the protection of the law, the disappeared person is often tortured and in constant fear for their life, deprived of all their rights and at the mercy of their captors. It is a continuing violation which persists often for many years after the initial abduction, and has long-term physical and psychological repercussions for the victim.

Very often, people who have been disappeared are never released and their fate remains unknown. Their families and friends may never find out what has happened to them – further compounding their suffering.

The insecurity and fear generated by enforced disappearances affects not just the immediate victims and their relatives, but society as a whole.

A global problem

Enforced disappearances are still carried out in many countries around the world.

Although it is a crime under international law, all too often those suspected of criminal responsibility are never brought to justice.

In an attempt to end this practice, in December 2006 the United Nations adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The Convention aims to prevent disappearances, uncover the truth when they do occur, punish the perpetrators and provide reparations to the victims and their families.

On 30 August 2011, the UN marked the first International Day for the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, which shines a spotlight on the ongoing use of the practice and its many victims worldwide.

Amnesty International has documented cases of disappearances in every continent and has ongoing work on the issue in Algeria, the Americas, the Balkans, Indonesia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Pakistan, Russia Sri Lanka and Syria, among other countries and regions.

“We’re calling on governments across the world to denounce enforced disappearances and to join the global treaty to end their use. Justice must be delivered once and for all to the many thousands of disappeared people and their families,” said Marek Marczyński, Amnesty International’s International Justice Research, Policy and Campaign manager. 

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