The ghosts of the Assad regime continue to haunt Syrian refugees in the Netherlands

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The ghosts of the Assad regime continue to haunt Syrian refugees in the Netherlands

 

One summer evening in a Dutch village in the rural province of Drenthe, Raid Sadek, 37, stares in stunned silence at the screen of his phone. On it, a picture has just appeared of a man carrying a bullet proof vest and an automatic assault rifle.

Bashar wearing a bullet proof vest and carrying an automatic assault rifle (9A-91). This picture was published in late 2014 on the Facebook page of one of Bashar’s close friends. Source: Facebook

The photo must have been taken in Syria, but the man reminds Raid of someone living in this quiet Dutch village. Their wives often dance and cook together, and the man sometimes stops by his home afterwards. As far as Raid knows, he used to be a hairdresser in Damascus and lost his right arm in a traffic accident.

There are more photos. The man appears in a uniform carrying the insignia of Syria’s Military Security. A walkie talkie is placed on the table in front of him. In another picture, he poses with a German Shepherd and two other men, also in uniform. In yet another, he and seven others stand in front of a white minivan parked next to a bare concrete wall with small windows high above the ground.

Raid knows these minivans all too well. Back in Syria, he was arrested four times by the security services because of his opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. On each occasion, he was tortured while his wife and two young daughters were left at home wondering if he was still alive. After the fourth time, in late 2015, Raid decided to escape to Lebanon and from there to the Netherlands. His wife and children followed a few months later.

The family has lived in this Dutch village for four years now. A third daughter and a first son were born here. The children speak better Dutch than Arabic and consider a Dutch couple in the neighbourhood their grandparents. The oldest daughter spends an hour a day cycling to and from her high school in Groningen, the youngest girl is receiving speech therapy. She frolics around the front garden while Raid repairs his bicycle. “The Netherlands is my second homeland”, he says.

Raid Sadek 37, escaped Syria and reported Bashar in his village in Drenthe for potential war crimes. “Syrians want these crimes to be punished as much as you do.”

Photo Kees van de Veen

But Syria won’t let him go. Raid is often restless, his wife tells, especially when he spends hours on end scanning his phone for news from loved ones in Syria who are at risk of arrest. At night, he is haunted by nightmares about his own torture. And even when he wakes up in his new Dutch home, Raid now realises, Assad’s henchmen may be just around the corner.

“These are the people we fled from”, he says. “In Syria they get away with anything. But here in the Netherlands, there are rules and laws. If they aren’t punished there, it should be done here.”

Assad’s henchmen roam freely

This September, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, launched an ambitious plan. The Netherlands may take the Syrian state to court using an unusual legal pathway: an international treaty against torture that was co-signed by Syria in 2004.

Blok didn’t come up with the idea himself. A young, inventive Syrian lawyer from a British barristers’ chambers came up with the proposal early this year. The chambers then presented it to Canada and three European countries. The Netherlands were the first to get on board.

The road to actual court proceedings is a long one, Blok admits, but he feels the Netherlands must take an international lead. “If we don’t take the first step, nothing will ever happen,” he said. „We owe it to the victims and have to show the world that we don’t let such things go unpunished.”

 

While the Netherlands says it wants to prosecute the Syrian regime, Assad’s henchmen continue to roam freely in Dutch towns and villages

 

Closer to home, however, such promises remain unfulfilled. While the Netherlands says it wants to prosecute the Syrian regime, Assad’s henchmen continue to roam freely in Dutch towns and villages. So far, all three war-crimes related cases against Syrian nationals put forward by the Dutch Public Prosecutor concerned members of terrorist or Salafist organisations. Unlike Germany, the Netherlands hasn’t prosecuted a single individual who fought for the Assad regime.

And yet, it is this regime which has caused by far the most civilian casualties. According to a report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights in June 2020, it is responsible for a staggering 98.9 per cent of the 14,388 documented cases of death under torture between March 2011 and June 2020.

Might it be the case that Assad’s henchmen simply don’t live in the Netherlands? The Dutch immigration authority IND, for one, doesn’t seem to have noticed them. The IND has a special department, the so-called ‘1F Unit’, which is tasked with tracing refugees who may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. Recently, the Unit reviewed every single file of all 12,570 Syrian men aged 17-35 who were granted asylum in the Netherlands between January 2011 and January 2016.

In late June, the Dutch Minister for Migration Ankie Broekers-Knol presented the surprising results: in only a single case did the IND find sufficient grounds to revoke a residence permit.

In the past seven months, NRC interviewed over 90 sources – including victims, jurists, activists and government officials – and scoured the social media accounts of Syrian men who may have committed criminal acts in the name of Assad. Their victims refer to them as the ‘shabiha’, a common term in Syria referring to regime loyalists who arrested, raped, tortured and killed political opponents. According to one expert, there are dozens of such shabiha living in the Netherlands and several hundred across Western Europe.

Their presence causes great alarm in the Syrian community in the Netherlands. On numerous websites, Syrians warn each other about what they know – or say they know – about the atrocities perpetrated by their fellow countrymen. Moreover, some of the shabiha are still in touch with the regime and use those connections to threaten and blackmail other Syrians living in the Netherlands. NRC has identified multiple victims of such practices.

“You should go to the police”

The one-armed man is called Bashar. He drives a silver BMW – an automatic – in which he delivers meals for a nearby fast food restaurant in the weekends. After seeing his photos, Raid decides to ask around about Bashar. He soon stumbles on stories from mutual friends who sometimes enjoy a beer – or a joint – with him. They say that on such occasions, Bashar likes to brag about his past in Syria, and has told them that he used to work for a high-ranking officer, was a member of Military Security and joined its ‘Raid Unit’, dragging regime opponents from their homes. A second source who knows Bashar personally, confirms that he indeed tends to brag about all this.

Bashar in a uniform that carries the Arabic for Military Security (الأمن العسكري) on his left sleeve. Bashar himself confirms that he wore this uniform. Source: Facebook

These allegations are extremely serious. The ‘Raid Unit’ of military security in Damascus is the notorious ‘Branch 215’. In its prison complex, civilians have been tortured to death on an industrial scale.

Raid turns to his Dutch neighbour Gerda for advice. As they are sitting in his backyard one afternoon in June, he pulls out the pictures. “He was clearly upset”, Gerda later relates in her living room, a small dog panting on her lap. “Raid often speaks quickly, that’s how I know him. But that time, he was really scared. He showed me a photo of a man with a gun and said: ‘This man has killed people in Syria just like that’.” She mimics Raid running his hand across his throat. “He then asked: ‘Gerda, what should I do? I said: you should go to the police, Raid. ‘Really’, he asked? Really, I said, go to the police.”

Shortly after, Raid walks to the police office close to his home. He addresses an officer, but the office is about to close and they can’t go inside due to corona. His Dutch fails him. Raid leaves thinking that he has filed a criminal complaint, but when he returns to the office a few weeks later to follow it up, police officer Harry Prak says he can’t find any trace of the conversation in the system.

Raid is about to leave again, when Prak calls after him: “You’re here now anyway”, he says kindly. “Is there something you want to tell me?” He takes Raid to a small room inside the office, where he finally tells his story with the help of an interpreter.

Raid: “A photo and the name of a person were published on a Facebook page. That person is living here. Other Syrians are telling me about the crimes he committed in Syria.”

Prak: “And these crimes you’re talking about, are they serious criminal offenses?”

Raid: “Yes.”

Prak: “Against human life?”

Raid: “I have a picture of the man.” He shows the image on his phone.

Prak: “Do you know this individual personally? Have you been in touch with him?”

Raid: “Yes. But not any more.”

Raid isn’t the only one who warned the authorities about Bashar after seeing the alarming pictures. Another man also filed a criminal complaint. The subsequent investigation was terminated within two months due to “lack of evidence”. A third man sent an anonymous e-mail to the Dutch police’s ‘War Crimes Unit’ in late July.

 

 

The tipster, who says he knows Bashar personally, writes of the latter that he speaks “proudly” about his crimes in Syria. “He was a criminal and the cause for the arrest of many people, and responsible for the torture of detainees in Syrian prisons”, the e-mail reads. Nine photographs of Bashar are attached.

The tipster never received a reply.

“A confirmation of receipt would have been appropriate”, a spokesperson for the War Crimes Unit acknowledges when pressed on the matter by NRC.

Syria’s apparatus of violence

No one knows exactly exactly where the shabiha got their name from. The term may refer to a specific type of Mercedes with tinted windows used by security services across the Arab world that is popularly known as the ‘shabah’ – or ‘ghost’. Or perhaps the shabiha are considered ghost-like for their complicity in shadowy crimes, dark torture chambers and death.

Be that as it may, any Syrian could tell you who the shabiha are, says Ugur Üngör, a professor in genocide studies at the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), who is writing a book on the topic. According to Üngör, the shabiha are inextricably linked to the apparatus of violence of the Syrian state. They are often young, uneducated men from poor backgrounds who are recruited by the regime to carry out the dirtiest of jobs. “Consider them the flex workers of the violence industry”, Üngör says. “They can be called upon at any time and place as a type of vigilante, an armed civilian force for the repression of dissent.”

That came in particularly handy when in the spring of 2011 hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets to demand a revolution. Assad quickly mobilised the shabiha to beat up, torture and kill demonstrators. “They committed crimes against humanity on an industrial scale”, Üngör says. “It’s precisely their violence that has radicalised the conflict.”

The shabiha were swiftly integrated into Assad’s security services and the so-called NDF (National Defence Forces), a militia founded in 2012 to back up the floundering Syrian Army. When the war intensified, many left for Europe. “Fighting on the front line is a different story than beating up local guys from the opposition”, Üngör says. “Many shabiha thought: this isn’t what we signed up for.”

They travelled alongside the millions of Syrian civilians whom they had caused to flee. According to Üngör, many entered Europe unnoticed because few were paying any attention to them. “All political debates at the time revolved around jihadists disguised as refugees”, the academic says. “I remember following these debates with a sense of restrained anger, because the regime’s share in the destruction of Syrian society is far higher.”

Syrians themselves, on the other hand, immediately raised the alarm. From the very start of the refugee crisis, they set up websites and Facebook pages to identify shabiha making their way to Europe. Üngör kept an eye on these platforms and throughout the years has counted dozens in the Netherlands and several hundred in Western Europe. “This information was hardly picked up by European law enforcement”, he says. “There simply was very little interest in the crimes of the Assad regime.”

That is changing now that Germany has taken a leading role in the prosecution of Assad’s henchmen on its own soil. This spring, the city of Koblenz witnessed the first criminal trial worldwide against two suspected henchmen of the regime. Prime suspect Anwar R., 57, is charged with the torture of 4,000 people and murder in 58 cases; his accomplice Eyad A., 43, is on trial for complicity in 30 cases of torture. Shortly after the start of the trial, German police also arrested a Syrian doctor suspected of having tortured his patients following investigative reports by Der Spiegel and Al Jazeera Arabic. All suspects were identified by Syrian refugees.

These German initiatives have boosted the search for Syrian war criminals elsewhere in Europe, and have given rise to a new stream of information about the shabiha on social media. “Finally, we are seeing that our efforts may lead to something”, says Mazen Darwish, the founder of the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). The prominent Syrian human rights lawyer travelled to Koblenz to testify about his own torture at the hands of the regime. At the same time, he and his colleagues are assisting prosecutors in Canada, the United States and seven European countries to collect evidence about potential new suspects. “To us, Koblenz is only the beginning”, Darwish says. “Now it is up to the rest of Europe to take action.”

Child soldiers

In a town somewhere in the Dutch province of Noord-Holland, a Palestinian man from Syria is known to local authorities as a troublemaker. He and his son intimidate other refugees. The father often complains that he wants more social benefits, two former employees at the Dutch refugee organisation ‘Vluchtelingenwerk’ say. His application at a local food bank was rejected when his bank statements revealed that he owes thousands of Euros. “That raised some questions about his background”, a source says.

The man is called Yassin. He was born in 1966 in the Syrian city of Homs, studied civil mechanical engineering and spent a few years working in Russia. At the end of the nineties, he returned to Homs, where he started a construction company that would eventually employ 400 workers and take on assignments across the country.

Yassin was a local notable in the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Aideen in Homs. He was involved with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), an EU-listed terrorist organisation that closely collaborates with the Syrian regime. Later on, Yassin also joined another pro-regime militia: Liwa al-Quds (the ‘Jerusalem Brigade’).

On his own Facebook page, he regularly shares news about this latter militia and appears in pictures alongside its most senior commanders, Mohammed al-Sa’eed and Adnan al-Sayyed. On Liwa al-Quds’ page, he again features in several pictures wearing a military uniform. In one of them, the name of Liwa al-Quds is clearly visible on his right sleeve.

According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), a Syrian NGO that documents human rights violations by all parties in the Syrian conflict, Liwa al-Quds is responsible for war crimes.The militia did not just fight against ISIS, but also participated in various regime-led military campaigns in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Idlib that claimed thousands of civilian lives. On top of that, the NGO says, the militia has carried out summary executions, kidnappings, torture and countless arrests.

Yassin was a man with many functions, seven sources close to him say. As a local notable, he used to mediate between the regime and the inhabitants of the al-Aideen camp – at times to get prisoners released, but also to have political opponents arrested. Within Liwa al-Quds, Yassin probably did not take part in military action himself, but instead is said to have been involved in the recruitment of new fighters, including minors.

The VDC confirms that the militia does indeed recruit child soldiers. On social media, the armed group has published countless of pictures of strikingly young fighters. Yassin himself also appears in an article on a local event “aimed at recruiting the youth of the camp” published by the Syrian opposition outlet Syria Call. On the accompanying picture of the event, Yassin sits in the front row.

 

In the living room of his new Dutch home, Yassin receives NRC to talk about his life in the camp for over four hours

 

Recruiting child soldiers is a war crime.

In the living room of his new Dutch home, Yassin receives NRC to talk about his life in the camp for over four hours. His grey hair is dyed black on top. He’s dressed in track pants and a white ‘Nike Air’ t-shirt. After serving coffee, his wife joins him on the couch, nodding in silent approval as Yassin tells his story.

He speaks of his work for the neighbourhood committee, the mosque committee, the hospital committee and the camp’s own charitable organisation. What mattered to him most, he says, was the safety of his people. Hence the need for good contacts with the Syrian security services and the PFLP-GC.

In 2015, his position changed. The influence of the PFLP-GC faded and Yassin received fewer invitations for meetings with regime officials. He feared for the safety of his children and decided to send them to the Netherlands. Eventually, he admits, he “got involved in military affairs” – but so did everyone. “There were no civilians anymore. Whoever says otherwise is lying.”

Yassin speaks openly about his relations with Liwa al-Quds. He tells of a breakfast he had in 2017 with its commander Adnan al-Sayyed, who had already been his friend for 20 or 25 years. “I asked him to offer protection to the camp”, he says, adding that it was only since that year that he began wearing the militia’s uniform – “as a safety precaution.”

Did he ever recruit child soldiers? “I never did such a thing nor did I ever facilitate it”, Yassin says defiantly. “Those are allegations put around by members of the opposition.”

In the summer of 2017 he was reunited with his children in the Netherlands. He doesn’t seem to have had much to fear in Syria, however, as he returned to Homs in 2019, purportedly to visit family and maintain good ties with the regime. The Dutch immigration authority IND has already investigated him, he says, but didn’t take any action. “That’s why I’m not afraid to speak.”

“Our preparation was often mediocre”

The IND’s 1F Unit’s efforts to identify potential war criminals seem to have been overwhelmed by the large influx of Syrian refugees since 2015. “The paperwork was sometimes brought into our office in wheelbarrows”, a former employee recalls.

The Unit is named after an eponymous article in the Refugee Convention which states that the right to asylum may be denied to suspects of war crimes or crimes against humanity. According to one former staffer, a single specialist investigation “can easily take up three months”. At the start of the refugee crisis, that time simply wasn’t available. “Some potential cases were closed without conducting an interrogation. And even if we did interrogate, our preparation was often mediocre”, another ex-employee says.

It is debatable whether much has changed. The number of Syrians who were denied asylum on suspicion of having committed a war crime, has remained “less than ten a year” throughout the years since the start of the refugee crisis, the IND indicates. According to one of its ex-staffers, “pro-active collection of information is still very limited.”

No wonder that the re-assessment of 12.570 files this summer yielded so few results. The idea was that the IND would by now have a greater understanding of the Syrian conflict, less work pressure and improved tools for screening. As of March 2016, for instance, the 1F Unit also investigated social media accounts and refugees’ mobile phones.

 

 

The re-assessment took a year and a half to complete, which amounts to screening roughly seven hundred files a month. The result? Just one single procedure against a suspected criminal. Maarten Bolhuis, a specialist in Article 1F at the Free University of Amsterdam, concludes that “all those extra investments” in better screening methods “have apparently yielded very little results.”

The Netherlands has a safety net meant to filter out those cases that go unnoticed by the 1F Unit. The International Crimes Team (TIM) – also known as the ‘War Crimes Unit’ – is a specialist force tasked with both identifying and prosecuting war criminals in the Netherlands. A difficult tjob, as its officers are unable to carry out investigations in Syria and often deal with crimes committed many years ago amidst the chaos of war. To make things even more challenging, victims and witnesses often mistrust the police or fear that reporting a crime could endanger their loved ones in Syria.

The War Crimes Unit achieved several successes against war criminals from Rwanda and Ethiopia. It also provided witness testimonies related to Syrian suspects to prosecutors in Germany and France and according to insiders is “extremely eager” to start a case of its own against one of Assad’s henchmen in the Netherlands. Yet to achieve that, it has to maintain good relations with the Syrian community.

“That’s exactly where things sometimes go wrong”, says Hope Rikkelman of the Syria Legal Network, a Dutch NGO made up of Syrian lawyers, human rights activists and law students. For years now, Rikkelman has been mediating between the War Crimes Unit and the Syrian community to facilitate a smoother reporting of war crimes. The Unit means well, she says, but in practice fails to capitalise on the wealth of information within refugee communities. Compared to German prosecutors, who actively reach out to Syrian activists to discuss potential cases, their Dutch counterparts are more reticent.

Rikkelman: “The War Crimes Units wants people to report cases but often doesn’t follow up afterwards. It even asked us explicitly to not look into the details of potential cases.”

Other offers of assistance are similarly rebuffed, she states. Since 2016, she has been drawing attention to the inept Arabic translations of the brochures with which the War Crimes Unit hopes to inspire refugees to report war crimes. Nothing happened, and when a new brochure was finally issued, Rikkelman wasn’t informed. “We represent a well-meaning and cooperative Syrian community in the Netherlands, but they didn’t even send us a copy.”

A spokesperson of the Public Prosecutor’s office says that brochures are limited in content “due to standard regulations regarding police brochures”, adding that “potential flaws in the translation will be taken into consideration.” The War Crimes Unit considers close contact with Syrian organisations of “great importance”, but the spokesperson argues that providing continued feedback on tips and information would “naturally obstruct” the course of ongoing investigations.

After Raid reported Bashar, the police re-opened his case.

Anonymous threats

Fear of the shabiha often causes Syrian refugees in the Netherlands to mistrust one another. They limit their social contacts and at times avoid public gatherings. Several activists say they’ve had to censor themselves on social media following anonymous threats. According to the ‘Syrian Committee’, a representative of the Syrian opposition in the Netherlands, turnout at anti-regime demonstrations has dropped because of unknown men turning up to film protestors.

Sometimes the threats are more explicit. There are cases of shabiha pressuring other Syrians by threatening to harm their relatives in Syria. NRC uncovered at least five victims of such practices. Three of them only dared to speak through aid workers and other intermediaries. “I already lost my country”, one man apologised through a friend, explaining his reasons for not agreeing to an interview. “I don’t want to lose my father in Syria as well.”

 

Victims were blackmailed into paying large sums of money to prevent their families from being harmed

 

Their fear is well founded. Upon voicing criticism of the regime in front of another Syrian, one victim promptly received a video from Syria showing a family member being badly beaten. Another victim’s father was arrested in Syria after a shabih in the Netherlands threatened this would happen. In two other cases, victims were blackmailed into paying large sums of money to prevent their families from being harmed.

There are indications that these crimes are being coordinated with the Syrian authorities. Two sources learned from family members in Syria that the secret service referred to information from the Netherlands during its interrogations. NRC also obtained a recording of a telephone conversation between a Syrian in the Netherlands and another man in Syria who was most likely working for the regime. This conjecture is supported by various references to military ranks as well as by the broader context of the conversation, in which the Syrian man in the Netherlands explicitly says that he is collecting information on activists based outside Syria in order to pass it on to the government.

The NIOD’s Ugur Üngör underlines the threat which the shabiha pose to Dutch society. He notes that many of them are in touch with one another and some are already active in organised crime. “That number will only continue to grow as soon as these men receive their Dutch passport”, he warns. “These are people who excel in violence and are dealing with an enormous sense of loss of power. It is only a matter of time before they put their old skills to use and set up armed gangs in the Netherlands as well.”

Corpses at a checkpoint

Just before midnight, a Syrian man in the Netherlands kneels down on the floor of his living room and wraps his hands around the back of his head. “That’s how they killed my friend”, he says. “I washed his body myself. One finger was ripped off and there was a bullet wound in the back of his head. That’s why I think he was executed from behind, with his hands on his head. Thirteen stab wounds covered his body.”

On the eve of the killing, in August or September 2012, the victim had rushed off to the east of Damascus to save his sister-in-law. She was trapped in Ain Tarma, a neighbourhood which at the time was being besieged by the regime. As she found a way to escape the next morning, she saw seven corpses lying at a checkpoint. One of them was that of her brother-in-law.

Another family member of the victim decided to pick up his body and shared his experiences with the man who now lives in the Netherlands. The men working at the checkpoint told the family member that he could take his “animal corpse”, but only if he signed a paper confirming that “the terrorists” were behind the murder. The family member signed and got out as quickly as possible. Yet as he was about to leave the checkpoint, he saw a familiar face: Amer.

“I’ve known Amer since I was a child”, the man now living in the Netherlands says. He grew up with him in the neighbourhood of Dwel’a in eastern Damascus. Amer comes from a poor, Christian family and joined the local shabiha at the start of the uprising, several sources confirm. Dwel’a was full of such men hanging out in night clubs, dealing in drugs and terrorising the neighbourhood, the man in the Netherlands says. On multiple occasions, he personally witnessed Amer working at another local checkpoint known as Kabas.

Amer pictured in Syria, where he is said to have staffed regime checkpoints.
Source Facebook

In 2015, shortly after his arrival in the Netherlands, the man receives a message from a friend: Amer is also in the Netherlands. Soon after, the first photos appeared on Facebook. In one of them, Amer is sat on a plastic chair in front of an overpass, wearing a military uniform and resting a gun on his lap. In another picture, he appears in jeans and white sneakers in an Amsterdam metro station.

Amer now lives in a small village in the Dutch province of Gelderland. This spring, he took a course for Syrian refugees entitled “Start Your Own Company” in the nearby town of Tiel. Other participants on the course recognised him from the pictures. “All of a sudden no one dared to attend the course anymore”, one of them says. “But we were scared to say anything.” The course instructor who was eventually informed about the issue, refused to comment due to privacy concerns.

Amer’s network on social media says a lot about his background in Syria. Various Facebook posts indicate that his oldest brother fought alongside the regime until he was killed in October 2014. Another brother has included the Facebook page of Dwel’a’s local NDF-militia amongst his ‘likes’. On that same page, another man with the same family name poses with a burned corpse.

What Amer has done himself, is hard to determine with certainty. But the checkpoint at Kabas was considered one of the most dangerous in Damascus. The Syrian Violations Documentation Center has documented at least nine summary executions at the checkpoint in the years 2012 and 2013. One of the victims was a child.

NRC reached out to Amer by phone twice. On both occasions, he hung up within minutes. He did however mention ‘Bab Sharqi’ (“Whether I’ve defended Damascus, Bab Sharqi or the Arab world, don’t call me”), a gateway to the historic centre of Damascus which is reached by the same road that also passes the Kabas checkpoint.

 

The heavily securitised Damascus neighbourhood where Bashar was photographed

 

“For me it’s all over”, Amer says aggressively before slamming the phone down a second time. “It’s not necessary to talk about these matters. If you have something in hand, go ahead and submit it to the court.”

Powerful friends

Back in the small village in the province of Drenthe, Bashar is more keen to talk. While helping his wife unload the groceries from his BMW, he looks up somewhat relieved when he notices NRC’s visit. “I know why you’re here”, he says. He was even hoping people would come to asks questions, so that he can finally tell his side of the story.

Ever since the accusations against him started floating around, Bashar has been receiving anonymous threats. In the Arabic corner shop, people whisper as he passes. “One friend no longer talks with me”, he says. Yet by his own account, he has done nothing wrong. There are no pictures of him in front of a body, he says, not even in front of a prison.

Upon entering his living room he says he’s happy to discuss any questions relating to him or the Facebook photos. As was the case with Yassin before him, he seems very much at ease. Shortly into the conversation, he takes off his artificial arm.

Bashar’s own story, in short, runs as follows: he dropped out of school when he was fourteen or fifteen to become a hairdresser. He then did his compulsory military service, returned to hairdressing and made some extra money as shuttle bus driver. When someone approached him with an offer to become the personal driver of a wealthy car dealer, he didn’t think twice.

His wealthy and powerful boss had wealthy and powerful friends, including the head of the infamous Raid Unit (Branch 215), the head of Military Security, the Syrian Ambassador to Romania, and Assad’s own cousin, the businessman Rami Makhlouf. Bashar could see them, but not talk with them. “I was just a driver.”

He runs through the pictures one by one. What about that friend who posted an image on Facebook glorifying Branch 215? Bashar smiles. “He’s just bragging.” The picture with the gun? “That’s in the villa of the Ambassador to Romania, before the uprising.” The one with the German Shepherd was taken behind the Ministry of Education, he says, “in a residential area.” And the one with the minivan? That was in front of his boss’ office. But yes, he admits, some of the people on the picture worked with Military Security. “This man here on the right was with Branch 215.”

 

Checkpoints at which Amer was sighted around the Damascus neighbourhood of Dwel’a

An expert geolocated Bashar’s pictures on behalf of NRC.

 

His wealthy boss simply used his good contacts within the Military Security service to arrange personal guards, Bashar explains. He says that he not only wore a uniform with the security’s logo, but also had a gun licence and a military ID in order to safely pass checkpoints. “Due to the nature of our work, we sometimes had to pass a military line.”

Bashar had an alcohol problem. On the 16th of December 2016 his drunk driving led to a car crash that ripped off his arm. When he recovered in early 2017 after 45 days in a coma, his relation with his boss was not quite as good as it used to be. Threats from regime-linked individuals soon followed, prompting Bashar to escape to the Netherlands via Turkey. He now hopes to apply for a Dutch passport.

“Yes, he worked with Branch 215”

The statements made by Bashar, Yassin and Amer are hard to verify. Witnesses of their possible crimes are often in Syria, where any contact with journalists may lead to arrest – or worse. To access such sources in the safest possible manner, NRC presented the three cases to the SCM of human rights lawyer Mazen Darwish, which has years of experience in collecting testimonies from Syria.

His team spent weeks researching the cases and spoke with a total of 23 sources, including witnesses currently in Syria and regime dissidents with access to official information. NRC has received a copy of the confidential reports that resulted from this investigation.

 

The findings about Bashar closely match the allegations circulating in his Dutch village

 

The findings on Bashar closely match allegations circulating in his Dutch village. From the start of the uprising, multiple sources in Syria confirm, Bashar beat up protestors and participated in house searches and arrests. Some of his actions had deadly consequences. An eyewitness says that, on one occasion, Bashar raided the home of a man whom he battered until his body was covered in blood. The man was then taken away and later died under torture in the prison complex of Branch 215, the report finds.

Bashar (centre) with a German Shepherd and two colleagues at the spot where Branch 215 managed a small checkpoint. The picture was published in March 2016 on the Facebook page of the man on the right. Source Facebook

According to Darwish’ team, it is indisputable that Bashar used to work for this branch. Several sources in Syria attest to the fact, including an eyewitness who saw him partake in Branch 215’s arrests. The conclusion is further supported by the pictures of Bashar with the German Shepherd and two colleagues. A geolocation of the images reveals they were taken behind the Ministry of Education in a heavily securitised part of Damascus. On this exact spot, the SCM says, Branch 215 managed a small checkpoint.

Branch 215 assisted security services throughout Damascus. In particular, Bashar is found to have closely cooperated with a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Political Security Directorate. The branch where that officer worked, is only 300 metres away from the place where Bashar was pictured. In addition, the car in which he had his accident belonged to the very same Lieutenant-Colonel, the SCM report finds. A source in the Netherlands confirms that it was indeed this specific officer (whose name cannot be disclosed at the request of the SCM) about whom Bashar likes to brag in closed circles. The same source says he has never heard of the car dealer whom Bashar mentioned to NRC.

As for Yassin, the SCM concludes that he didn’t just wear the Liwa al-Quds uniform to avoid getting into trouble with the regime. Rather, Yassin himself was the leader of the ‘Homs Company’ within that militia. Furthermore, the SCM cites three additional sources confirming that Yassin personally participated in the recruitment of child soldiers. On Facebook, one of his family members and a close friend can be seen posing in uniform with a group of armed youngsters. Their profiles show some were only sixteen or seventeen years old at the time.

Amer is certain to have fought for the regime in and around his neighbourhood of Dwel’a, the report finds. Several sources confirm they have seen him at the Kabas checkpoint and say he used to hand over civilians to the security services. He also participated in the regime’s siege of nearby Dukhaniya, the SCM says. Finally, the report concludes that Amer was known for blackmailing civilians by threatening arrest and used to sell furniture that was looted from the homes of the displaced.

Following renewed attempts for comment, Amer redirects NRC to his lawyer, who states that his client has already been under investigation by the IND’s 1F Unit since May 2017 and that this examination produced no results. “I haven’t got the file at hand”, the lawyer says, insisting that Amer didn’t work at a checkpoint, but was simply given a uniform by a local church to defend his area against extremists. “That’s all I can say at the moment.”

Yassin seems to be more cautious than during his first interview with NRC. Replying to written questions via Whatsapp, this time he writes that he didn’t have any connections with the PFLP-GC after all, never returned to Syria and had nothing to do with any type of militia. Again, he also fiercely denies any involvement in the recruitment of child soldiers.

Bashar replies with a single sentence: “With all due respect, the questions you are asking are devoid of truth.”

Shortly after filing his criminal complaint against Bashar, Raid Sadek was contacted by Dutch police. In the weeks that followed, however, he didn’t receive an update. “Perhaps it’s because my cell phone broke”, he says. “I’ve lost all my contact numbers.”

Nevertheless, Raid hopes the police will take reports like his seriously. “If they don’t, the shabiha will think they can get away with anything in the Netherlands as they did in Syria”, he warns.

But most of all, he is concerned for his children. “When a Syrian does something wrong against a Dutch person, the Dutch will blame us for it”, Raid sighs. “But we are part of this country. Syrians want these crimes to be punished as much as you do.”

Read the original article in Dutch.

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