Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Silencing the witnesses

Among countless horrors in Syria, the first half of December has seen the killing of a freelance Iraqi journalist, the kidnapping of four Syrian human rights defenders working at the Violations Documentation Center, and the announcement that two Spanish journalists have been imprisoned since September 16th by members of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Yasser Faisal al-Jumaili was 38, the father of three children, a daughter and two sons. He had worked as a cameraman for Al-Jazeera TV and Reuters. He was believed to have been killed by gunmen from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – ISIS.

Associated Press report on the killing by Bassem Mroue, from December 4th.

Al Jazeera report from December 9th by Jane Arraf.

The four kidnapped human rights defenders are Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazem Hammadi. Human Rights Watch has a report by Tamara Alrifai. An extract:
Razan Zeitouneh, her husband Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazem Hammadi had been documenting abuses by all sides in Syria, at the VDC, which Razan founded. She also co-founded the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of civilian local groups that organizes and reports on protests, and the Local Development and Small Projects Support Office (LDSPS), which aims to help provide basic needs and support medical centers. Her work attracted the wrath – and threats – from both the government and opposition groups alike.
Read more. Via EA WorldView.

From October read her powerful article, Why the West is Wrong on Syria:, written in the aftermath of the August 21 chemical attack:
I witnessed the massacre myself. I saw the bodies of men, women and children in the streets. I heard the mothers screaming when they found the bodies of their children among the dead
As a human rights activist who has always believed in the humanitarian principles of the United Nations, I can talk for hours about the psychological breakdown and the amount of humiliation I felt after the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2118. This resolution implies that Bashar al-Assad will continue to rule Syria for at least one more year, with the international community’s acquiescence. The resolution also reveals the lie we have all been living regarding the human rights principles that have not been applied, not even in form, in Syria.  If this is how I have been affected, how does the ordinary Syrian citizen, who has never believed our misleading slogans about human unity and equality, feel after suffering such discrimination and injustice?
The world goes further in disrespecting the sufferings of the Syrians by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize this year to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This award shows the West has exchanged its moral ethical obligations for the legal ones.
Meanwhile Assad, the real criminal, is free because no one cares.
Appeals have become useless, as if there is a thick wall preventing all calls from reaching the “civilized” West, a region that continues to chart the future of our revolution as if our citizens and rebels no longer exist, and to turn a deaf ear to the will and aspirations of Syrians who have worked hard to make the revolution happen.
Read more.

Javier Espinosa, reporter for El Mundo, and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, photographer, were captured in Syria by ISIS on September 16th as they were travelling towards the border with Turkey. Here is the El Mundo report, Cronología de un secuestro, and the Google Translate version, Chronology of a Kidnapping. A third Spanish journalist, Marc Marginedas, a correspondent for Catalan daily El Periodico, has been missing since September 4th – AFP report here. The kidnapping of Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova was kept quiet while attempts were made to negotiate their release.

Both journalists had travelled to Syria several times previously. Javier Espinosa was in Baba Amr, Homs, in 2012 during the siege, and was one of the journalists in the media centre when it was hit by regime rockets on that February 22nd, killing Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, and severely wounding Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy. When word spread that the two Spanish journalists were being held by ISIS, an activist from Homs went to try and persuade their captors to release them, according to El Mundo. When they refused, he is said to have shouted “Where were you all during the fall of Baba Amr? I didn’t see you. But Javier was there, helping us to evacuate our wounded.”

Here’s Martin Chulov’s account of the press conference given in Beirut last week by Monica Prieto, Javier Espinosa’s wife.

Here’s a March 2012 BBC interview with Javier Espinosa about escaping the siege of Homs, and here’s his written account. And at the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists, all their posts on Javier Espinosa and all on Ricardo Garcia Vilanova.

For a fuller telling of the fall of Baba Amr I highly recommend Paul Conroy’s book, Under the Wire. In it Paul Conroy makes clear why he and Edith Bouvier refused to leave Baba Amr in the ambulances allowed in by the regime – they were given a tip off that once outside Baba Amr they would be killed by regime forces in a fake ambush, their murders to be blamed on FSA rebels.

When the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were handed over by the Syrian regime, they also released an autopsy report claiming that Marie Colvin had been killed by an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists.

Now comes news of the death of the British medical doctor Abbas Khan in a Syrian jail, claimed by the regime to be suicide, a claim denied by his family. UK Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson said the Syrian regime had “in effect murdered a British national.” From the BBC News report:
Mr Khan, who worked at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, north-west London, was detained 48 hours after entering Syria last November. 
He had been moved by the plight of refugees and worked in refugee camps in Turkey, his family said. He had not planned to go to Syria but travelled there to treat badly injured civilians. 
Earlier this year, his mother – who has spent the last four months in Damascus – found him in a prison in the city weighing just five stone (32kg) and barely able to walk. 
He claimed he had been tortured while being detained without charge, and had been held for much of the time on his own. 
Mr Khan was one of seven brothers and sisters and is survived by his wife Hanna, his seven-year-old son Abdullah and daughter Ruqquaya, aged six.
The Respect MP, Stop The War Coalition vice-president, and serial apologist for tyrannies, George Galloway, also called the death a murder but said he believed it had been done against the wishes of Assad. The Independent’s Robert Fisk, a journalist with a dubious record of imaginative reporting, joined Galloway in speculating that the killing was evidence of a power struggle within the regime, as Assad had apparently ordered Abbas Khan’s release. Such faith in a man’s word would be touching were it not the word of Assad that was in question. It is perfectly conceivable that Assad decided on a double-cross, that he decided once again to silence another witness to his atrocities, and once again to lie as he killed.

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