A US civil case gives us, Syrians, a glimmer of hope

A new lawsuit against the Syrian regime filed in the US is an important step towards justice for Syria’s disappeared.

A man sets two of around 300 landline telephones placed by Syrian families at the Bebelplatz as a call to governments to do more to seek information about detained people in Syria, in Berlin, Germany August 28, 2021. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
Landline telephones are placed by Syrian families at the Bebelplatz as a call to governments to do more to seek information about detained people in Syria, in Berlin on August 28, 2021 [File: Reuteres/Hannibal Hanschke]

On April 12, the US-based Centre for Justice and Accountability revealed that it has filed a civil case against the Syrian regime for the widespread torture of Syrian citizens it has carried out over the past 12 years. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Obada Mzaik, a Syrian American who survived torture while in detention and was able to get out of the country.

The news of this court case reached me in my home in one of the camps for displaced people in northwest Syria. Amid the devastation of war, the aftermath of the deadly earthquake that hit us in February, and the personal loss I have suffered, this was much-needed good news.

It was an important moment, for not just me but all of us Syrians, whose loved ones have been forcibly disappeared by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, kept in arbitrary detention without charge, tortured and even killed.

On January 5, 2012, my husband Muhammad, a real estate contractor, was arrested and forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime because he had helped to organise peaceful demonstrations at the start of the Syrian revolution. It has been more than 11 years and still, I know nothing about where he is or how he is doing.

Some survivors of detention, who met him in detention, told me he was killed under torture in 2014, but when his parents, my in-laws, inquired of officials, they said he was not detained by them. We don’t know what to believe.

My daughter Maryam was just two months old when her father was arrested. She only knows his face from pictures I have of him. She loves drawing and since she discovered her love of art, she constantly sketches his face. Maryam’s brother Abdulsalam was six when his father was forcibly disappeared and her sister Zahraa was four and both speak of him often.

We have very little left to remind us of the happy life we had before Muhammad’s detention. Our house where we lived in Maarat al-Nu’man was bombed several times, the last time it was destroyed. I still have a letter that Muhammad gave me when we were engaged in January 2004. I have my engagement ring and one playing card with the words “I love you” written in his handwriting.

The word victim is sad and terrifying, but unfortunately, my children and I are victims of a cruel regime. Living in Syria and with no international tribunal in place to investigate all the crimes that have been committed during the Syrian war, we have no way to seek justice.

That is why the US court case is important to us as well as all others that have been undertaken by foreign courts. For example, in early April, a French court announced that it has charged three Syrian regime officials with complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes. France has even issued an international arrest warrant for them.

Last year, a German court sentenced to life Anwar Raslan, a former officer in the Syrian army, for crimes against humanity. And in 2021, victims of the Assad regime’s chemical attacks filed a case in Sweden against Syrian officials.

These court cases expose the system of detention and torture used to control and suppress the Syrian population.

Although Syria has disappeared from international news headlines, the Assad regime continues its horrific practices of forcibly disappearing and abusing Syrian citizens. Anyone who dares to stand up for freedom or democracy, utter even a word of criticism against Assad or even find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time can be arbitrarily arrested.

This also happens to Syrians who decide to return voluntarily or are deported from countries where they have sought asylum. Syria is not a “safe place” for refugees to return.

Many Syrians would rather live in legal limbo in camps for refugees or displaced people than brave entering regime-controlled areas to obtain travel documents. I myself do not have a valid passport any more and cannot travel with my children to a place where we would feel safer.

These court cases in the US, France, Germany and Sweden give us some hope. They keep us going in our fight to get our loved ones released from Assad’s prisons. As many as 135,000 people are believed to still be in detention.

I and hundreds of survivors of detention, members of the families of detainees, and activists are working hard to build a global movement to get them released. We have launched the campaign Free Syria’s Disappeared to draw attention to their plight and put pressure on the international community to act.

These court cases filed in foreign countries help us fight the normalisation of the Assad regime, remind the world of his heinous crimes and hopefully encourage efforts to establish real peace. For it is only when Syria is at peace that we will be able to attain true justice for the crimes committed against us.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.