Mark Taylor

Taylor is working at FAFO, a political research institute based in Oslo.

SYRIA: Syria’s Dissappeared should be mandatory viewing for all of those concerned about human rights or the Middle East.

It was unexpected, and yet so predictable. The 2011 Arab revolutions seemed to come out of the blue, and yet they made perfect sense. The repressive regimes of the Arab world had long been living on borrowed time.

Although different in each country, internal security forces were a key element of regime power most Arab countries. The “mukhabarat” (intelligence) was a term that instilled fear – and sometime derision – throughout the Arab world. Some were more effective and more brutal than others, but all spied on their own citizens rather than on foreign governments. In every country the word “mukhabarat” meant not torture and often disappearance.

As the 2011 revolutions spread from country to country it became clear that “mukhabarat” had lost their power. People were fed up and in their demonstrations for
democracy and human rights, they had defeated fear. They had tasted freedom.

If there was one country in which the citizen might be forgiven for not following the pattern of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, that country was Syria. As brutal as the mukhabarat was in all these regimes, the Syrian mukhabarat were qualitatively more so. And the regime had shown itself willing to go to great lengths in putting down oppositions, shelling and destroying large parts of the city of Hama in 1982 to squash opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the Syrian people demonstrated in massive numbers in support for democracy and an end to the regime. In response, the Assad regime unleashed unprecedented violence, including an expanded and intensified system of torture and disappearance through their prison system. This was not war against Islamist or terrorists, as the regime often claims, but it was a war against political, domestic opposition. And it continues. Thousands remain in Syrian prisons.

Evidence. The documentary film Syria’s Disappeared documents this war against the pro-democracy activists that has continued throughout the civil war. Director Sarah Afshar, formerly of the BBC’s Newsnight and Panorama news programmes, has drawn on the mountain of evidence being collected about the treatment of detainees in Syrian prisons to produce a devastating indictment of the Assad regime.

Despite the mountain of evidence, there is, in the words of one of the legal experts interviewed for the film, “no court to take it to.” Syria is not a state party to the treaty of the International Criminal Court and the Security Council has not been able to agree to refer a case against the Assad regime to the ICC (Russia and China vetoed the attempt to do so).

Still, there are possibilities to pursue cases against regime officials in national courts. The film documents the beginnings of what is almost certain to be an expanding attempt to prosecute regime officials for the widespread and systemic torture and murder which they have overseen. It is in telling the legal story (never easy in a documentary) that the film may have its biggest practical impact. The Case Against Assad is an important contribution to building the momentum towards those cases going forward in countries such as Spain, Germany, Sweden and wherever perpetrators or victims can be found. It is also a film which documents an attempt at trans-national criminal litigation of a sort that new to many prosecutors but which is necessary for countries to avoid becoming safe havens for war criminals.

Syria’s dissappeared should be mandatory viewing for all of those concerned about human rights or the Middle East. As a documentary, the film is excellent. Oslo Dokumentarkino must again take credit for beating NRK and other channels by showing this important film at Filmens hus in Oslo in October. But this is a film made for TV and it should be show to a wider public on Norwegian television.

Despite the mountain of evidence, there is “no court to take it to.”

As a historical record the film is almost hard to believe. It is impossible to put into words the suffering this film attempts to document. The scale of criminality is mind-boggling and horrific. But for those with any familiarity with the pre-revolution human rights record of the Syrian regime, the patterns of abuse described in Afshar’s film are all too familiar. In fact, the patterns of repression were there long before the revolution of 2011 sought to put an
end to them. Instead of responding to popular protest by moderating its repression, the Assad regime pushed it to industrial levels of cruelty. Syria’s Disappeared is a description of what happens when a vicious system of repression is mobilized as part of what amounts to a war against a large part of a regime’s own population.

The systemic horrors of crimes against humanity are clearly visible in bodies of the victims. It is there, too, in documentation that such systems tend to produce – photos, memos, emails – that have been collected, collated and are now available for prosecutors willing to pursue regime officials.

Testimony. It is there also in the testimony of survivors and the families of victims who campaign today for world attention to the fact that thousands of detainees remain imprisoned in these factories of torture. The film is well paced and weaves the first hand testimony with the legal analysis of the experts attempting to bring cases to court. It is to her credit that Afshar allows as much time as she does
for the voices of the victims to both account for what has happened and to put forward their own definitions of what might amount to justice.

«The scale of criminality is mind-boggling and horrific.»

For the rest of us, it is hard to ignore the visual parallels depicted in this film which are all too reminiscent of images which emerged from Nazi Germany, or the camps which arose during wars of the former Yugoslavia. In both cases, post-war tribunals sought to prosecute the perpetrators once the camps had been shut down. In the case of Syria, we face the dual challenge of freeing the thousands of prisoners still inside Assad prisons and at the same time preparing the cases against those most responsible for the crimes committed. The Case Against Assad is an important contribution to both efforts.


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