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Witnesses to the Era - Before the International Court of Justice - The Hague, Netherlands

By Naama Al Alwani.

It was 6:27 a.m., when I was there hearing the chirping of birds that had just awakened. Joined by several individuals, I was waiting for the doors to open. Courteously, a guard handed me "Pass No. 2" to attend the inaugural hearing at 10:00 am, the pleading session against the Syrian regime, at the International Court of Justice on October 10, 2023, in The Hague - Den Haag. The hearing was in response to the application jointly filed by the Netherlands and Canada several months before, requesting the court to urgently impose provisional measures to stop the ongoing torture in Bashar al-Assad's prisons.

Such measures aim at having the Syrian regime effectively and immediately stopping cruel and inhumane acts of torture; refraining from destroying, or denying access to, any evidence related to the underlying cases of detainees; disclosing the whereabouts of those who died due to torture; releasing arbitrarily or unlawfully detained individuals; ending all forms of incommunicado detention; and permitting independent monitors and medical personnel access to official and unofficial detention sites.

The square in front of the court was filled with Syrians, gathering since 6:30 AM, waiting for their turn to enter the hearing. Fifteen people gained entry, while others, brandishing Syrian revolution flags and images of their loved ones detained in Assad's jails, followed the live broadcast of the proceedings. The focal point of the hearing rested on the request filed by The Netherlands and Canada to impose orders on the Assad regime to desist from torture in its prisons. The plea accuses the regime of violating the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. "There can be no question that the persistent and recurring breaches by Syria of the Convention against Torture are causing irreparable prejudice to the rights at issue, and that the circumstances require the Court’s urgent intervention," said Teresa Crockett, Canadian Government representative.

Observing this entire scene made me reflect deeply on everything that had transpired since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011. When the protests started in Syria, no one could have imagined that we would reach this point — thousands of prisoners of conscience and enforced disappearances. We merely sought change, aspiring to express our opinions as Syrians without fear. As a former detainee in the Syrian regime's prisons, I immensely remember the sense of disappointment, feeling like the entire world had let us down within the confines of our cell.

In the midst of those thoughts, I spotted Lula Al-Agha, a friend who did not miss the opportunity to be present in front of the court, despite the long distances from France to The Hague. Lula, a former detainee, is a mother and a revolutionary from Aleppo.

After exchanging greetings and cheek kisses, we began discussing our feelings, sharing our detention experiences. "I remember how I was arrested during the protest and spent three years in prison. Today is an important event for us, especially as we still have friends and loved ones behind the prison bars, some of whom we lost in the detention centres," said Lula.

Quivering, Lula continued, "I did not expect to be here today. I am free, and the files of Assad's crimes are now under consideration before the court. Despite the faint glimmer of hope, we believe in achieving justice."

Survivors often feel guilt for surviving a life-threatening situation, a phenomenon known as "survivor's guilt." Most of those who have experienced detention and left others behind in the detention centres feel guilty for surviving.

Rawan Al-Samman, a researcher at the Syrian Network for Human Rights, recounts the shock experienced by some attendees in front of the International Court when they learned that no representative from the Syrian regime was present during the pleading session. "It is highly expected that the Syrian regime would act this way, given its history of torturing, killing and displacing Syrians, and violating all human rights conventions," Rawan emphasised. "However, this does not diminish the significance of the court's actions or the importance of the cases filed against the regime. We will uphold our role and goal of defending the cause of detainees and disappeared persons, reminding everyone of the survivors' narratives so that the Syrian regime does not overshadow their stories."

Holding back her tears, Rawan continued, "Through our work at the Syrian Network for Human Rights, we documented 96,000 enforced disappearances out of 135,000 detainees. These are not just numbers; they are our friends, our loved ones. It is our right to demand their release and disclosure of their fate."

At the same time when this court session was held on October 10, 2023, Idlib was being systematically bombarded by the Syrian regime. Some Syrians argue that the regime did not have the time to attend the session or even send lawyers on its behalf because it was busy killing civilians in Syria and torturing detainees in its security branches.

At twelve noon, a group of 15 people was preparing for the response session, the second hearing on October 10, 2023. However, the first group informed us that the subsequent sessions were cancelled, as the Syrian regime sent a message through its embassy, apologising for not attending this session and the following ones on the next day. According to Alan Kessel, the head of the Canadian legal team, "Syria's decision not to participate in today's proceedings does not shield it from the court's directives".

This news was frustrating for some, but it did not deter Yasmen Almashan. She was carrying pictures of her five brothers—Zuhair, aged 19, who was martyred during a protest; Uqbah, aged 36 and a father of two, who was arrested because his family refused to acknowledge that armed elements were responsible for Zuhair's death, the truth of which came to light several years later through Caesar's photos; Ubaidah, who was martyred while providing medical assistance to the wounded; and Tishreen, who was killed by a sniper affiliated with the Syrian regime. The youngest, Bashar, was murdered by ISIS. 

"There wasn't sufficient media coverage for the event today. It is disappointing, making me feel like Syrians were insignificant to the world and that human rights were not created for us". Yasmen, having placed considerable hope on the hearings at the International Court of Justice, told me this with a voice echoing sadness.

For 20 minutes, I sat trying to soothe my heart and breath. Despite the overwhelming events I experienced, my mind ceased to discern the surroundings. I heard the chants of Sarout through the loudspeakers, the voice that accompanied our protests in Homs, in the alleys of my neighbourhood, "Al-Qusour," and his image accompanying the early days of the revolution. This day in October marks the tenth anniversary of my arrest, when I spent eight months moving through various security branches and cells.

After wiping away tears with embarrassment in the solemn moment, I rejoined the protesters in front of the court building, carrying my wishes and prayers like all Syrians here, calling for the maximum penalties against the Assad regime and anyone involved in torture in Syria. We seek the truth, justice and freedom that Syrians have long dreamed of.

By Naama Al Alwani.



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