Extortion from families of disappeared funded Syria gov’t: Report

Report by Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison reveals families were forced to bribe corrupt officers.

Satellite image of Syria''s Sednaya prison complex near Damascus
A satellite view of the Sednaya prison complex near Damascus seen in this image provided by the US State Department on May 15, 2017 [File: Department of State/Handout via Reuters]

Families of individuals who were forcibly disappeared in Syria have paid more than $100m in bribes to find out information about them, according to a new report which claims to have unearthed a pattern of extortion that funded Bashar al-Assad’s government and its repressive apparatus.

The report by the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) said Syrian guards, judges, members of the military and middlemen received cuts from the payments made by the families as part of a corrupt system that fed significant cash into the government’s treasury.

According to the report, forced disappearance is a major strategy of the Syrian state to control and intimidate society.

It cited the notorious Sednaya prison on the outskirts of capital Damascus as being on top of a list of detention centres responsible for forced disappearance, with more than 80 percent of such cases reported from the facility.

Half of those forcibly disappeared were arrested at checkpoints along the borders as people tried to flee the nearly decade-long war in Syria.

ADMSP said more than 500 families of those forcibly disappeared were interviewed for the report.

More than a quarter of those surveyed – 129 participants – said they together paid $461,500 to obtain information about a forcibly disappeared person. As for the sums paid for a promise to visit the forcibly disappeared, the total amounted to $95,250.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights said nearly 100,000 Syrians have been forcibly disappeared since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. The vast majority of them were disappeared in the first three years, with 2012 being the peak year.

ADMSP also conducted interviews with 709 released prisoners and found that for 44 percent of them (312 participants), the total amount of money they said was paid for information about their fate and promises to visit them reached more than $1,119,000.

As for those who were promised release, the sums paid by their families exceeded $1m.

Based on the data, the report concluded that a total of $2.7m was paid by the families of the released prisoners who were either promised information, a visit, or release.

“If we assume that the total number of forcibly disappeared people is 100,000 … and that a total of 250,000 people have been arrested and released [which is a very conservative estimate, since the real number is probably much larger], then the total amount paid is close to US$900m,” the report said.

The ADMSP report held the Syrian Arab Army primarily responsible for the cases of forced disappearances.

It called for maximum pressure to be exerted on Syria’s allies, particularly Russia – whose military intervention in September 2015 tipped the scales of war in favour of al-Assad – to force the Syrian government to reveal the fate of the forcibly disappeared.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies