Syria’s execution of US citizen shows need for accountability

In September 2015, Syrian-American engineer Layla Shweikani traveled from her home in the Chicago area to Damascus, Syria. Intent on helping internally-displaced persons, she began pouring her energies into humanitarian aid and relief work. A few months later, she was arrested by Bashar al-Assad’s government and thrown into a detention center. Despite the involvement of the Czech ambassador in her case (the Czech Republic serves as the “protecting power” for U.S. interests in Syria), she was referred to a military judge and then executed on Dec. 28, 2016. Nearly two years later — just this week — her family finally was informed of her death.

Her story, though immensely horrifying, is no aberration.

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In November 2011, Dr. Faten Rajab Fawaz, an accomplished Syrian scientist, was arrested by the regime for her peaceful activism. During her detention, she was transferred to numerous military and security branch facilities, even though she reportedly suffered from continuous internal bleeding believed to have resulted from an injection of an unknown substance. Also this week, news finally surfaced that she had been killed by the regime.

The brutality of the Assad regime’s detention practices is not new. Forced disappearances, torture in detention, and extrajudicial killings were integral to Hafez al-Assad’s control over the country and his son has adopted a similar modus operandi. Since Syrians peacefully took to the streets to demand freedom in March 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians have been arrested and tortured; thousands reportedly have died in custody. Most of those arrested are “forcibly disappeared” — cut off from their families and loved ones, their locations and fate unknown. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that 95,056 individuals remain forcibly disappeared today.

Detainees are subject to systematic torture, threats and sometimes sexual violence; the repeated denial of medical care and basic necessities; and confinement to overcrowded cells. Some are kept in indefinite pretrial detention; others are referred to procedurally problematic military and security-run trials and handed down egregious sentences. Still others are killed extrajudicially. In early 2017, Amnesty International reported that as many as 13,000 Syrians were secretly hanged in one of Syria’s most infamous prisons between 2011 and 2015. Later that year, the U.S. government accused the Syrian regime of building a crematorium to hide evidence of its mass atrocities.

With the international community deadlocked on Syria because of incoherent country policies, regularly-vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions, and inconsistent commitment to doctrines such as the responsibility to protect, the Assad regime has enjoyed impunity and apparently believes it can be even more repressive — unapologetic in its brutality. This reality is driven home by the fact that Syria executed an American citizen, despite the indirect involvement of the U.S. government, and callously opted to inform her loved ones two years later.

The stories of Layla Shweikani and Faten Rajab Fawaz — two passionate, driven women who could have lived comfortable lives as science and engineering professionals and instead dedicated themselves to building a freer and more just Syria — are no departure from the norm. They represent tens of thousands of Syrians — men, women and children — who dared to dream and who were threatened, arrested and brutally murdered for those dreams. As the international community dedicates its resources and energy to the United Nations-led political process, it would do well to remember that it was the arrest and torture of 15 young boys who spray-painted anti-government graffiti in the streets that a key factor in mobilizing the Syrian people in March 2011.

Families across Syria, and outside the country, have lost loved ones as a result of the brutal detention apparatus. Unless the Assad government is held to account for its egregious practices, it has demonstrated that it will continue arresting, disappearing and killing Syrians with impunity. Accountability for the detentions and forced disappearances in Syria is not a marginal issue, but rather, an issue that is at the heart of the original demands of the Syrian people. It must remain at the center of any political negotiations, aid determinations and international policymaking.

The United States and the international community cannot bring Layla Shweikani and Faten Rajab Fawaz back to their loved ones. But as creative applications of universal jurisdiction to hold Syrian officials to account for torture surface across Europe, as the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism builds its case files, and as Syrian civil society continues to document the stories of those disappeared and detained, we must advocate to support these efforts. We must keep telling the stories and remembering the names of Syrians who gave everything for their country.

Mai El-Sadany is a human rights lawyer and the legal and judicial director at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP). She previously worked at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other organizations. Follow her on Twitter @maitelsadany.