With the Christmas and New Year holiday season just a week away, it is a time for families to be united. Not so, however, for the thousands of prisoners of conscience who have been languishing in Syria’s jails.
The latest are four Syrian activists abducted in the Damascus suburbs for their human rights and humanitarian work.
They must be released immediately and unconditionally, said a statement released last week by no less than 16 human rights organizations. The statement was carried by Reporters Without Borders.
Award-winning Syrian human rights defender and writer Razan Zaitouneh, her husband, Wa’el Hamada, and two colleagues, Nazem Hamadi and Samira Khalil, were abducted by unknown individuals on 9 December 2013.
They were snatched from a joint office for the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) and the Local Development and Small Projects Support (LDSPS) in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Douma is part of Eastern Ghouta -- an area under the control of a number of armed opposition groups that is being besieged by Syrian government forces.
In a joint statement issued on 10 December 2013, the VDC and the LDSPS attributed Razan Zaitouneh’s abduction to her activities as a founding member of these organizations.
The VDC is an independent non-governmental organization that has been mainly documenting human rights abuses committed by the Syrian government in the context of the conflict.
The LDSPS provides humanitarian assistance, particularly to medical centers in areas like Eastern Ghouta.
Like many other human rights activists perceived by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to be involved in pro-reform protests, Ms Zaitouneh was forced into hiding in 2011 after receiving threats from the Syrian authorities. In the last few months, she received threats from at least one armed opposition group in the Eastern Ghouta area.
The statement said civil society activists, writers, journalists and lawyers have borne a heavy price during the ongoing war in Syria, falling victim to unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of government security forces and, more recently, becoming targets for armed opposition groups that disapprove of their endeavors.
Journalists as a Syria war casualty – 10 December 2013
All parties to the conflict should adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law, which prohibits the abduction of civilians, hostage taking and torture, it concluded.
The co-signing organizations in alphabetical order are:
1. Alkarama Foundation
2. Amnesty International
3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
4. Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network
5. Gulf Center for Human Rights
6. Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos)
7. Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
8. International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
9. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) -- in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
10. International Media Support (IMS)
11. Lawyers for Lawyers
12. PEN International
13. Reporters Without Borders
14. SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom
15. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
16. World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) - in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Human rights defender
Ms Zaitouneh was last November awarded the 2012 Ibn Rushd Award for Freedom of Thought by the Ibn Rushd Fund for Freedom of Thought.
The Ibn Rushd Fund has since 1998 been recognizing people who have sought to stimulate change with their thoughts and who have suffered the consequences of imprisonment and torture. It recognizes those who broke new ground for many others and who are fighting for freedom.
Ms Zaitouneh committed to the struggle for the rights of political prisoners in 2001 and co-founded a society for human rights in Syria.
She has been reporting on the violation of human rights since 2005 on Syrian Human Rights Information Link, a database for human right violations committed by the Syrian regime.
The 36-year-old activist supports families of political prisoners.
In April 2011, she also co-founded the local coordinating committee of the revolution in Syria.
Since the outbreak of the war in Syria in March 2011, Ms Zaitouneh was forced to go into hiding.
In May 2011, Air Force Intelligence broke into her house in Damascus. Many of her documents and personal belongings were seized.
Additionally, her brother-in-law, Aburrahman Hamada, who was just visiting, was taken hostage in exchange for the fugitive couple. Air Force Intelligence then arrested Razan’s husband, Wa’el Hamada. The brothers spent three months in solitary confinement before they were released.
Since 2004, Ms Zaitouneh has published dozens of articles and reports in the press and on the Internet about the human rights situation and the freedom of speech in Syria.
Ms Zaitouneh was recently the recipient of the 2013 International Women of Courage Award.
She received the European Parliament’s Anna Politkovskaya Prize for the defense of human rights and the 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- together with renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat.
Ali Ferzat: Cartoonist for Freedom – 11 December 2011
Two Syrian roaming roses honored – 11 October 2012
The Ibn Rushd Fund says Razan’s commitment to human rights and her non-violent opposition make her a true representative of a young generation that is prepared to risk personal freedom, security and even life for social change.
She is also representative of women in the Arab Spring, who -- especially in Syria -- are often at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and democracy but ignored by most Western media.
Will Ms Zaitouneh, her husband and colleagues be reunited with their families for the holiday season? My thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and the thousands of others who are still behind bars.