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US citizen sues Syria over torture amid regional embrace of Assad

Obada Mzaik filed a federal lawsuit against the Syrian government over torture he says he endured during his three-week detention in 2012.

WASHINGTON — As Syria’s neighbors slowly mend fences with a government they’ve long shunned for its brutality, a Syrian-American man detained and allegedly tortured more than a decade ago by the regime’s security apparatus is suing to hold it accountable. 

At the time of his arrest in January 2012, Obada Mzaik was a 22-year-old college student who had just arrived from Michigan to visit with his Syrian relatives and finish his studies. Mzaik, who was born in Ohio and raised in Syria, fled the country seven months earlier as the government escalated its crackdown on the peaceful revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. 

Mzaik was immediately detained upon landing in the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to the lawsuit filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Much of his detention was spent at the Air Force Intelligence Directorate’s notorious central branch at the Mezzeh Military Airport, which houses Assad’s presidential plane. 

The federal lawsuit alleges prison officials beat, whipped and threatened Mzaik with electrocution in order to obtain a false confession and punish him for his perceived anti-regime activities. The 24-page complaint says Mzaik was forced to watch the torture of other detainees, including one of his relatives.

Mzaik's family paid bribes through an intermediary to secure his release. After his three-week detention, he spent a month being treated by doctors in Syria before he fled to Jordan, and eventually the United States. 

In a phone interview, Mzaik told Al-Monitor he feels a responsibility to hold the regime accountable.

“It’s essential to remember that there are 100,000 Syrians less fortunate than me who remain detained,” he said. “I feel like I can file this lawsuit on [their] behalf.” 

Mzaik sued the Syrian government under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law allowing lawsuits against designated state sponsors of terrorism, including Syria, for the torture of US nationals. The Syrian government was served the complaint in February and is not expected to respond, which could result in a default judgment for Mzaik. 

Much of the lawsuit focuses on the role the Air Force Intelligence Directorate played in Mzaik’s detention and torture. Like Syria’s other main intelligence agencies, it was used to “surveil, arrest, abduct, interrogate, and detain protestors and political opponents” as part of the regime's coordinated response to protests, the suit alleges. 

“The Air Force Intelligence Directorate was, and continues to be, integral to the government’s repressive policies,” said Daniel McLaughlin, an attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability, the San Francisco-based rights organization representing Mzaik. 

There is precedent for Mzaik’s case. A federal court in 2019 held the Syrian government liable for the death of American war correspondent Marie Colvin, whose family accused the regime of deliberately targeting her with artillery in the besieged city of Homs in 2012.

Kevin Dawes, an American freelance photographer who was held in a Syrian prison for more than three years, sued the Syrian government in federal court for torture last year. 

More than 12 years into Syria’s civil war, more than 130,000 Syrians remain missing or arbitrarily detained. The vast majority are believed to have been held by the regime, and many are feared dead. UN investigators have said the facility in Mezzah where Mzaik held has one of the highest mortality rates across all of Syria’s detention centers. 

Psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz and freelance journalist Austin Tice are among the roughly half dozen Americans thought to have been taken by the Syrian government or affiliated forces during the conflict and whose whereabouts are unknown. Layla Shweikani, dual citizen aid worker from Chicago, is believed to have died in the Saydnaya military prison.

For victims of the Assad regime, avenues for justice are limited. The Syrian government is not a member state of the International Criminal Court, meaning the ICC has no jurisdiction. The court could obtain jurisdiction through the United Nations Security Council, but Assad-backers Russia and China have vetoed such attempts. 

Unable to achieve justice at the ICC or within Syria’s domestic courts, some victims have turned to third countries like Germany and France where sweeping universal jurisdiction laws allow for the prosecution of grave crimes committed in another country. Earlier this month, France issued arrest warrants for three senior Syrian officials accused of complicity in crimes against humanity.  

The international push for accountability comes as some of Syria’s neighbors are taking steps to re-engage the isolated government, especially in the wake of the Feb. 6 earthquakes that killed some 6,000 people in Syria. 

On Friday, officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt met in Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria’s possible readmission into the Arab League, which suspended its membership in 2011. Saudi Arabia on Wednesday became the latest regional country to host Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad as the two countries move toward reopening their respective embassies. 

Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit in DC that opposes Assad’s normalization, called Mzaik’s lawsuit a “powerful way to remind the world” that the Syrian dictator must be held accountable. 

“At a time when the Biden administration is green lighting, or at best complacent with, the normalization of the Assad regime by Arab and other countries, it is now more important than ever to highlight the importance of accountability,” Moustafa said.  

The US State Department has said the United States has no intention of resuming ties with Syria, nor does it encourage other countries to do so.

A spokesperson told Al-Monitor last week that "real steps to improve the situation for the people in Syria should be front and center” in any country's engagement with the regime. The spokesperson cited expanded humanitarian access, accountability for human rights violations and detainee releases as possible steps. 

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