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Silence continues over abduction of Syrian human rights lawyer

A strange silence has followed the abduction of Syrian human rights activists in Eastern Ghouta.

On Dec. 9, the Syrian human rights lawyer and founder of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), Razan Zaitouneh, was kidnapped in the city of Duma (Eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus) with three other activists from the VDC: Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada and Nazim al-Hamadi. Their case threatens to be the umpteenth forgotten abduction of Syrian activists.

In Eastern Ghouta, what emerges from the reaction of activists and citizen journalists is their reluctance to explicitly accuse the chief suspect and the main local armed faction, the Army of Islam (Jaiysh al-Islam) led by Zahran Alloush. There is a shared belief that the minor brigades present in the area might be responsible for the episode and a common understanding — supported by the Army of Islam — that the importance of Zaitouneh's work has to be belittled.

All sides agree that the Syrian regime is unlikely to be accused of the abduction, even though it clearly reaps the benefits of such events. "The regime is the first to benefit from this incident: The [rebel] brigades lost their reputation," VDC spokesman Bassam al-Ahmad told Al-Monitor over Skype. 

Until now, the reputation of the local militias has indeed been featured by better relationships with the civil resistance in comparison with such relationships in other Syrian provinces. "Before this abduction, Eastern Ghouta was an example of positive relations between activists and armed factions, whose fighters are locals," said veteran political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh in a phone interview. He is also the husband of Samira al-Khalil and spent three months in Duma in 2013. The sway of al-Qaeda factions such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) featuring the presence of foreign fighters is particularly limited here.

Those who believe the Army of Islam is more or less directly responsible for the abduction back their thesis on the ideological rift between the secular VDC and the Islamists. "Razan and Samira were part of a national inclusive secular movement and this led them to collide with the Islamist factions, who are inclined to despotism," Samira's husband, Yassin al-Hajj Saleh, told Al-Monitor. On his Facebook page, Saleh has accused the Army of Islam of being involved in the kidnapping.

It is also suggested that the work of the VDC might have created tensions with local brigades when it prompted the rebel groups to uphold human rights. "Before the abduction, Razan submitted to the local judicial and security bodies a study aimed at regulating the judicial and penitentiary apparatus in the liberated areas: There is no doubt that the Army of Islam saw the report," Saleh said. This report was published in June 2013, but the singular violations were made known exclusively to the local de facto authorities.

In general, the local activists tend to absolve the Army of Islam and accuse some weaker factions.

"What is known is that the car where Razan and her friends were seen for the last time, a KIA 4000 pickup, looks like the vehicle used by the Brigade of the Lions of Ghouta (Liwa' Usud al-Ghouta), a gang of thieves affiliated to Salim Idris' Free Syrian Army (FSA) and known by all Duma for having assaulted Razan in public three months ago," said Imad Ismail, an activist from the Local Coordination Committees of Duma, in a Skype interview with Al-Monitor. Ismail has been entrusted by the local authorities — the so-called Shura Council — with the investigation into the whereabouts of the VDC activists.

Ismail's allegations are vehemently denied by sources close to the VDC, who wish to remain anonymous. "We never heard of the Lions of Ghouta before the abduction, and Razan never had any sort of interaction with them: Why don't the investigators break into the headquarters of the Lions of Ghouta then? The reality is that [in Duma] they all agreed on one false version of the events," the source told Al-Monitor in a written interview. 

Those pursuing the truth about the fate of the VDC activists are actually struggling to break the wall of a new "feardom" in Duma, but they are also eager to preserve the good relationship built between armed and civil resistance. "Immediately after the abduction, no one in Duma seemed to know anything, then a witness admitted having heard Samira al-Khalil shouting," Razan Zaitouneh's sister Rim, now based in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor in a Skype interview. "It's not about fearing a particular brigade: People rather fear for the loss of the main goal of the revolution, the struggle against the regime, in case the rebels start fighting each other," Rim said.  

Once asked the reasons behind the lack of mobilization in support of the kidnapped VDC activists, the activists of Eastern Ghouta seemed to align with the Army of Islam in undercutting the importance of the work of Razan and her colleagues.

"Who's Razan Zaitouneh and what did she give to the Syrian people? She's just an activist like all other activists! People didn't take to the streets in support of the mujahedeen, who paid for the struggle against the regime with their souls, and they should do it for Razan Zaitouneh? Personally, I never heard of her until she was kidnapped and the media made a fuss about it," the military spokesman of the Army of Islam, Capt. Islam Allush, told Al-Monitor in a Skype interview.

"The residents of Duma are rather concerned with finding water and food every day. The popular classes didn't even know who Razan was," said Dr. Humam Abu Usam, who works for the Unified Medical Center in Saqba (Eastern Ghouta), speaking to Al-Monitor over Skype.

"On the day of Razan's kidnapping, I covered the regime's penetration into Nabak [north of Damascus], which resulted in the martyrdom of 250 people. Even though her abduction hurt me too, I consider it a normal event due to the lack of security," recalled the correspondent Hassan Taqieddin, who covers the countryside of Damascus for Sham News Network (SNN). Hassan's brother was killed while fighting for the Army of Islam.

The ongoing offensive against any form of civil resistance goes hardly unheeded in Syria: Before her disappearance, Zaitouneh denounced the kidnapping of more than 50 activists in the second half of 2013. In the case of Duma, owing to the humanitarian emergency ensued by the regime's siege, the lack of popular protests has been surprising, unlike those witnessed in Raqqa against the arrests of activists carried out by ISIS. Whoever ordered the kidnapping of the VDC activists is enjoying enough legitimacy to be able to silence their legacy.

* Names of those interviewed are pseudonyms used for security reasons, apart from Yassin al-Hajj Saleh, Islam Allush and Bassam al-Ahmad. 

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