Mazen Darwish: an ordinary Syrian story

Opinion piece by Saïd Benarbia, Middle East & North Africa Senior Legal Adviser at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)

Mazen Darwish

Mazen Darwish is one of the most prominent human rights lawyers and defenders in Syria and the Arab world. On 16 February 2012, officers from Air Force Intelligence (AIF), assisted by a group of plain-clothed armed men, carried out a raid on the Damascus offices of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) arresting Mazen Darwish, the President of SCM, and 16 of his co-workers. Mazen is believed to be being held in incommunicado detention.  His right to have access to a lawyer, family members and medical personnel continue to be denied.

Savagely tortured

Some of his co-workers were released while others were charged by a military prosecutor on 22 April 2012 for “possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them,” a criminal offence under the Syrian Criminal Code. Nothing has emerged about Mazen’s fate, except testimonies from detainees who were held with him in early March in the AIF detention centre in El Mezza, Damascus. They reported that he was savagely tortured. Methods of torture in AIF detention facilities include whippings, severe beatings, electric shocks, threats of rape, rape, and genital and other forms of bodily mutilation. The last report of the independent international Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic documented some such cases, including the case of a child who was raped in front of his father.

Systematic harassment

Before his arrest, Mazen had been subjected to persistent and systematic harassment by Syrian security services. He was disbarred and prohibited from practicing law for life due to his human rights activities. He was subjected to a travel ban for more than four years, which prevented him from visiting his two children who reside abroad. When he established the SCM, he was ordered to report to the security services on an almost daily basis. Irrespective of the persistent harassment he and others faced, Mazen always refused to leave Syria. He believed that the work of human rights defenders was crucial to bring about real change and reform in Syria and that, in spite of all of the brutalities and abuses, Syrians would join the cause of human rights and stand up for their right to live and die in dignity.

In prison or hiding

This hope for a new Syria appeared to materialize through the largely peaceful protests that erupted in Syria in March 2011. Syrians took to the streets of villages and cities after security officers in Dar’a tortured numerous children, subjecting them to severe beatings and whippings, and even pulling out their fingernails. To date, the uprising continues. Syrian authorities have consequently intensified their attacks on human rights defenders. Some of them are in prison while others had to go into hiding.

Those of us who cared so much about his safety knew he would not listen to us and leave. He felt that someone had to remain. Someone had to witness and report on the ongoing human rights abuses.

Crimes against humanity

Most of the abuses that have been committed in Syria over the last 14 months by the security services, the army and the shabiha pro-regime militia are crimes under international law, including summary executions, torture and other ill-treatment, prolonged incommunicado and other arbitrary detentions, and enforced disappearances. Because these crimes have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner against the civilian population, they amount, prima facie, to crimes against humanity.

While the international community established the International Criminal Court (ICC) to address these crimes, victims or their relatives do not have direct access to this Court. Rather, only States, through being party to the ICC Statute, recognition of the jurisdiction of the ICC or referral via the UN Security Council without a veto by any of the five permanent members, can pave the way for the ICC Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute these crimes. Even before the establishment of the ICC, the international community had entrusted the Security Council, under chapter VII of the UN charter, to take effective measures to protect peace and security in the world against state and non-state actors who threaten them. However, the UN charter requires that none of the five permanent members veto such measures.

UN system paralyzed

Regrettably, the UN system is often paralyzed to act under its Chapter VII powers, as a small number of states, or even a single state, ultimately get to decide what constitutes a threat to the peace and security of the world and what does not.  Decisions such as whether a situation is grave enough to be referred to the ICC or whether gross human rights violations are prevalent in a country are then typically based on rank political expediency, rather than on legal standards and empirical evidence.  This reality perversely allows for the Syrian regime, which is clearly responsible for widespread criminal acts, to close the border of the country and to conduct mass killings in total impunity.

Mazen and other Syrian lawyers realized from the beginning of the uprising that the international community would betray the “sacrifices” of the Syrian population in their fight for human rights and dignity. Mazen and his colleagues were right. The Security Council has failed so far to take any effective measure at its disposal to bring an end to the massacres. The international community as a whole has failed to support the aspirations of the Syrian people to freedom and dignity or to hold those responsible for human rights violations accountable, including by ensuring the rights of victims to an effective remedy and to reparation.

Civil war

The Syrian population has been under the despotic rule of Al Ba’ath party for almost 50 years. No one expected the Syrian people to stand up against Al Ba’ath and the security services. Disgracefully, no one answered their cry for freedom when they did. Some argue that any kind of strong, robust action by the Security Council would bring about a civil war. As though letting a pro-regime militia, founded in part on religious grounds, subjecting the civilian population, including people from other religious groups, to systematic human rights violations, would not. In fact, most of the reports coming from different Syrian cities and villages confirm that most of the elements of civil war are already present.

Failure of the international community

Others argue that this kind of action would destabilize neighboring countries. As though the international community is more concerned with containing the bloodshed within the borders of Syria than ending it. Others also argue that the opposition is too weak and marginalized to lead a steady transition to democracy in Syria. As though 50 years of savage oppression and tyranny will strengthen the opposition. As though, ironically, the failure of the international community to end the massacres is a reward to the Syrian regime for its cynical enterprise to reduce any and all dissident voices to silence.

Photo by Alessio Romenzi TIME

In a sense, Mazen’s story has become an ordinary Syrian story. Everyday we receive consistent and reliable reports about similar and no less tragic stories. A mother who had to bury her murdered son in a public garden because heavy machine-gun fire from the army prevented her from holding a proper funeral and burial. An activist whose songs and slogans electrified the rallies of protesters that was found dumped in a river after having his throat slashed by security forces. A woman raped in front of her children and husband. A man buried alive. A pregnant woman tortured with electric shocks. A 13-year old boy tortured to death, his skin scrawled with cuts, gashes, and bullet wounds, his feet, elbows, face, and knees deeply burned, his jaw and kneecaps shattered, his neck broken and his penis cut off.

On a regular basis

These stories are ordinary but not because of the crimes and human rights violations they involve. They are ordinary because these crimes are being committed on a regular and daily basis to the point that both Syrians and the rest of the international community are now used to them. How many victims should die before these crimes end? What is the threshold? No one seems to know. The stronger an outrage after a massacre is, the quicker it fades, until a new massacre occurs.

I’ve known Mazen for four years. We have had many endless discussions about Syria’s fate, both before and after the start of the uprising. He has always been calm, composed, brave and gracious, in particular under pressure. His sense of humor, dark and unique, has been his strongest defense to fight against whatever the security services and life throw at him.

The last time I saw Mazen was in early October 2010. He gave me a ride to the airport after spending two days monitoring the trial of another Syrian human rights lawyer before the Damascus Military Court. He shared with me his bad feeling that we wouldn’t meet for a while, if ever. He survived serious illness, years of persecution, and a prison term. I hope he will survive El Mezza detention centre.