Black Market Profits from Disappearances in Syria

The vast scale and chillingly orchestrated nature of tens of thousands of enforced disappearances by the Syrian government over the past four years is exposed in a new report by Amnesty International.

The Syrian state is profiting from enforced disappearances via a black market of bribes paid in exchange for information on missing people, said the Amnesty International report.

Over the past four years, more than 60,000 people have disappeared in Syria in what Amnesty International has called a crime against humanity, citing “the vast scale and chillingly orchestrated nature” of the enforced disappearances.

In a damning report titled, “Between Prison and the Grave: Enforced Disappearances in Syria”, the London-based rights group accuses Syrian officials and prison staff of benefitting from bribes paid by desperate family members to “middlemen” and “brokers” in exchange for information on their loved ones.

Allegations that the state is profiting from the disappearances was echoed by French documentary filmmaker Sophie Nivelle-Cardinale, whose report on missing persons in the Syrian conflict was broadcast Tuesday on the French-German TV station Arte.

“The regime has set up a war machine of death,” Nivelle-Cardinale told FRANCE 24. “It is an organised system of enforced disappearances, which already existed before the conflict began but has been amplified to a disproportionate and industrial scale today.”

Nivelle-Cardinale’s film features interviews with survivors of Syrian detention centres that she calls “concentration camps”. The survivors recount horrific tales of torture and detention in inhumane conditions, which Nivelle-Cardinale stresses is just the tip of the iceberg. “Not everyone agreed to talk and be filmed, out of fear,” she noted.

When families ‘pay dearly for any information’

The bribes paid by family members in exchange for information range “from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars”, according to the report.

The vast sums, which put a considerable financial burden on families already reeling from the effects of the conflict, are paid for information about the whereabouts of their loved ones or simply to find out if they are still alive.

“In a war situation, when a loved one disappears, desperation mounts with the waiting and not knowing, and many people are willing to pay dearly for any information,” explained Nivelle-Cardinale.

With the intractable Syrian civil war set to enter its fifth year in March, numerous rebel groups continue to battle each other, the regime as well as the militias allied with Damascus. The dangers for civilians are multifaceted since rebel factions – including Islamist brigades, al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) group – all use kidnappings and ransoms as a revenue source.

Given the anarchy, when a person disappears without a trace, families have to consider all eventualities. “The system feeds the anxiety of relatives by refusing to return the bodies of the missing,” said Nivelle-Cardinale. “As long as there is no body, the family remains hopeful.”

Endemic corruption

At times huge sums are paid for false information. The Amnesty report cites the case of a man whose three brothers were disappeared in 2012. He told Amnesty International he had borrowed more than $150,000 in failed attempts to find out where they are. He is now in Turkey working to pay back his debts.

Those forcibly disappeared include peaceful opponents of the government such as demonstrators, human rights activists, journalists, doctors and humanitarian workers.

Others have been targeted because they are believed to be disloyal to the government or because their relatives are wanted by the authorities, the report states.

In some cases, especially in the last two years, enforced disappearances have been used opportunistically as a means to settle scores.

Amnesty International has said there’s little doubt that the Syrian regime financially benefits from the orchestrated abductions.

“We are certain that government and prison officials are profiting from the payments they receive in relation to disappearances, as this has been corroborated by hundreds of witnesses,” Nicolette Boehland, the author of the report, told AFP. “The practice is so widespread that it is difficult to believe the government is not aware of it and effectively condoning it by failing to take action to stop it.”

Such allegations are difficult to confirm. Corruption was endemic in Syria even before the start of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. The government has never succeeded in eradicating it despite numerous promises to tackle the issue.

The lawlessness on the ground today has merely exacerbated the problem. But it is difficult to hold Damascus accountable, since it is hard to prove that the money taken by any individual Syrian official, warden, ranking army officer or policeman — or anyone else – directly benefits the Syrian state.

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