Journalists assassinated and detained incommunicado, peaceful protesters arrested

Expression

"What can I do with someone who tried to kill me and put a weapon in my face, and before that he wanted to prevent me from entering the area of Tarheen and tried to prevent me from filming there?" – Slain journalist Hussain Khattab

On 12th December 2020, journalist Hussain Khattab, also known as Kara Al-Safrani, was assassinated by unidentified masked gunmen on a motorbike who shot Khattab in the head and chest, killing him instantly. Khattab was killed in the city of Al-Bab, in the countryside of Aleppo, as he was preparing a media report on COVID-19. Khattab, who was a member of the executive office of the Aleppo Media Union, worked in several media outlets, including the Turkish TV channel, TRT Arabic.

Commenting on Khattab’s assassination, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) stated that Syria is “still one of the most dangerous places for journalists, who continue to be targeted with murder and harassment while performing their journalistic work.” GCHR further condemned “the level of impunity and the lack of accountability for attacks on journalists and the human cost of these crimes.”

Khattab, who was originally from the city of Al-Safira, in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, was previously the subject of threats in retaliation for his work as a journalist. On 27th September 2020, Khattab commented on one such threat on his Facebook page, stating, "The person who carried a weapon and raised it in my face was Ahmed Al-Abdullah (Al-Sous). Therefore, my problem is with him in particular and the complaint I submitted was against him only."

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) has several sources who reported that this was not the first assassination attempt against Khattab, who had previously been targeted by an explosive device placed in front of his office in the city of Al-Bab.

In a statement issued in response to Khattab’s murder, SCM said:

“[SCM] calls on all parties to the conflict and the de-facto authorities throughout Syria to shoulder their responsibilities for the safety of civilians residing in their areas of control, especially activists and journalists, in accordance with the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention of 1984 and the relevant international treaties. SCM also calls on them to impose the necessary measures to ensure freedom of journalistic work and the safety of press personnel, prosecute perpetrators of the crime, and hold accountable those responsible for neglecting previously submitted complaints”.

In separate developments, civil society activist and journalist Nour Al-Shilo was detained incommunicado after she was arrested in Aleppo on 15th September 2020 by Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an extremist armed faction operating in northern Syria near the border with Turkey. HTS is infamous for committing extrajudicial executions of innocent citizens, including activists. Al-Shilo has worked for a number of local media outlets as well as women's rights organisations in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. Al-Shilo was released on 4th January 2021.

In yet another case involving activists and journalists, on 9th December 2020, Syrian civil society organisations marked the anniversary of the kidnapping of four activists in Douma in 2013, by calling for accountability in their disappearance. Seven years ago an armed group attacked the offices of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), the Local Development and Small-Projects Support (LDSPS), and “Rising for Freedom” magazine and kidnapped activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil and Nazim Hammadi. “Despite the fact that all the military factions left the area after the forces of the Syrian regime took control of it, the fate of our colleagues remains unknown to this day,” they wrote.

In its campaign marking #16DaysofActivism against gender-based violence (GBV), GCHR highlighted that Al-Shilo, Zaitouneh and Khalil were among Syrian women human rights defenders who “are abducted, arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured, killed, harassed physically and virtually, displaced and exiled, while being denied fundamental rights by de facto state and non-state actors. Most importantly, they remain under-documented.”

Peaceful Assembly

Amnesty International reported on the arrest of 11 men who were detained following peaceful protests which began on 7th June 2020 in the predominantly Druze city of Sweida. The protests were initially centred on concerns over Syria’s dire economic situation but grew to include calls for “regime change”, the withdrawal of Russian and Iranian forces from Syria and the release of detainees. In the days that followed, a prominent activist who helped organise the protests was arrested by Syrian security forces. He has not been heard from since, and his fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

On 15th June 2020, nine more men were arrested during a peaceful protest in Sweida and a student was arrested at a checkpoint the following day. Anti-government demonstrations were confronted by organised pro-government supporters while security forces reportedly beat anti-government protesters.

Regarding the repression of peaceful protest in Syria, Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, commented:

“The Syrian government’s brutal response to protests since 2011 has led to years of bloodshed and unfathomable suffering for people in Syria. This latest crackdown goes to show that the government has no intent of changing its brutal and repressive practices nine years on.”