On Thursday, May 11th the MENA Prison Forum co-hosted a virtual panel discussion including a Q&A session entitled "Seeking Justice: Mzaik v. Syria and the Free Syria's Disappeared Coalition for Accountability" together with the Free Syria's Disappeared Coalition (FSD) and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP). The event was moderated by Emma Beals, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, while the speakers included Obada Mzaik himself, the plaintiff of the lawsuit; Wafa Mustafa, a Berlin-based Syrian activist and daughter of a forcibly-disappeared detainee in Assad's prisons in Syria; and Ahmad Soliman, a staff attorney with the Center for Justice and Accountability.
The panel event centered around a co-filed lawsuit against the Syrian Arab Republic that was handed in at the US District Court in Columbia and accuses the Syrian regime of widespread and systematic torture in its detention centers. The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), based in San Francisco, California, on behalf of its client Obada Mzaik. Mzaik, who is Syrian-American, was detained and tortured by the Syrian regime while visiting family members in Syria in 2012. In the framework of this lawsuit, a group of detention survivors, families of detainees, and human rights groups launched the FSD coalition.
Currently, more than 140,000 individuals are still detained or have disappeared during the Syrian conflict, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. However, the number of detained individuals is feared to be much higher, as documentation of these cases is difficult due to a variety of reasons. During the event the FSD coalition’s important work in supporting more similar investigations and cases in the United States and in Europe was frequently pointed out. In addition to the invaluable work the coalition is undertaking, the initiative also provides a bridge and facilitates communication between advocates and lawyers, and former detainees and the families of detainees. The resulting platform for solidarity and connection allows for personal connections between these two key groups of individuals.
During the talk, Mzaik shared his personal experience having been held for 60 days in a Syrian prison. He spoke about the devastating impact of not only being personally physically and psychologically tortured, but also witnessing torture being inflicted upon others, including children who were detained. He also spoke of the difficulty of not knowing the status or condition of his family members while he was detained, and having no way to know how they were.
Soliman noted during the event that it is not customary nor foreseen in general US law to file a lawsuit against a country. However, he noted that in Mzaik’s case, two things were crucial: first that Syria is on the US-designated State Sponsors of Terrorism list and therefore can be sued under this condition, and second, Mzaik is a US citizen and therefore the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act can be applied, which also allows for legal action to be taken against a state. Consequently, the CJA was able to file a complaint at a DC district court of detention and torture on behalf of Mzaik in January 2022 which opened a civil case against Syria.
However, as in many other civil cases before, it is not likely that Mzaik’s complaint will lead to any consequences in terms of a court conviction, imprisonment, or a monetary reward. These types of civil cases tend more to serve as testimonies of the crimes the victims have suffered from and by this, offer a chance of closure, to give them dignity and some peace of mind. On a larger scale, these cases also aim to raise awareness of the Syrian regime's crimes and increase pressure on the Syrian regime to free those who are still detained or to at least get information on their whereabouts. In the following Q&A session there were questions about the filing of lawsuits for individuals who do not have US citizenship, the recent welcoming back of Syria in the League of Arab States, and further questions about the overall impact of these civil cases, even in the absence of legal accountability or punishment.
Obada Mzaik is a Syrian-American engineer and entrepreneur who filed a case against the Syrian regime in the US District Court for the District of Columbia for the detention and torture he endured at the Mezzeh Military Airport by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate in 2012. His case is part of his efforts to highlight the Assad/Syrian regime’s widespread and systematic detention, interrogation, and torture of Syrian civilians, a practice that continues to this day.
Wafa Mustafa is a Syrian activist, journalist, and a survivor of detention. She left Syria on 9 July 2013, exactly a week after her father was forcibly disappeared by the regime in Damascus. She moved to Turkey and began reporting on Syria for various media outlets. In 2016, she moved to Germany and continued her interrupted studies and graduated from Bard College Berlin. Mustafa has extensively lobbied the United Nations Security Council to call for the release of the names and the whereabouts of all the disappeared by the Syrian regime and other actors within the country. In her advocacy, Mustafa covers the impact of detention on young girls, women and families. Mustafa also campaigns for international recognition of Syrian refugees and against normalized international relations with the Assad regime.
Ahmad Soliman is a Staff Attorney with the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA). Prior to joining CJA, he graduated from UCLA School of Law where he was Editor-in-Chief of UCLA’s Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs. While in law school, he interned with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) in Geneva and the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague. Ahmad also holds a Master’s from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a Bachelor’s from the University of Michigan.
Emma Beals is an independent consultant, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C, Senior Advisor at the European Institute of Peace, and a former visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.