Syria Weekly: Jordanian tourists disappeared by Assad's regime
The fate of around 50 Jordanians detained in Syria has set back relations between the two countries, as memories in the kingdom linger of citizens crossing the border before the war and never returning.
Human rights groups say they are particularly concerned about the fate of a Jordanian photographer who entered Syria in February as a tourist and was arrested and "disappeared" by the regime's notorious Air Force Intelligence agency.
Meanwhile, Venezuela appears to have stated it will follow the brutal blueprint used by the Syrian regime in 2011 in dealing with current peaceful anti-government protests.
Jordanians detained in Syria
Syria has agreed to release eight Jordanians who have been held in the country following repeated complaints by Jordan's foreign ministry who insist they were "detained without reason", with Amman saying on Thursday that four had been released or were on their way home.
Of the eight men due to be released, three were detained after Jordan's border crossing with Syria re-opened in mid-October, while four were arrested before, and one has already been released. The names of the men have been revealed by local media, who added that they all entered Syria as tourists.
Jordan's embassy in Damascus is processing their repatriation to the kingdom, while human rights workers say they do not know why these individuals were selected for release - as many more remain behind bars in Syria where torture and murder by authorities are widespread.
Fears for their safety increased after Jordan's foreign ministry issued a statement last week saying they were unable to meet any of their citizens and had been given no information by Syrian authorities about the reasons for their imprisonment.
"The Chargé d'affaires of the Syrian embassy in Amman [Ayman al-Alloush] was summoned for the fourth time and was told of Jordan's displeasure and concern over the repeated arrests of Jordanian citizens without giving reasons," a statement by the foreign ministry read last week.
"Jordan has always opened its arms and houses to Syrian brothers and hosted more than 1,300,000 Syrians," referring to the Syrian refugees currently in Jordan.
Alloush reportedly pledged to follow up with "the concerned authorities and to provide an answer" soon, expressing his "understanding for the legitimate Jordanian request", The Jordan Times reported earlier this week.
At least 30 Jordanians have been detained by its neighbouring country since the two countries re-opened the al-Nassib border crossing in October in a bid to re-invigorate trade after years of tensions and hostility during Syria's war, which saw Amman support some southern rebel groups, until the presence of hostile jihadi groups became apparent close to the kingdom's border.
Another 25 Jordanians were detained by Syria before the crossing re-opened. It is not known when and why they were detained, but families are often scattered across both sides of the border in southern Syria and northern Jordan.
The situation is not unique, with reports before the war of Jordanians disappearing during visits to Syria, even though the country was a popular destination for Jordanians before the war. Syria became a key trading partner after Jordan was forced to close its borders with Iraq following the turmoil that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
Emirati media reported last year that one Jordanian held in Syria entered the country on 1 November and was detained due to "private issues" with an "Interpol warrant issued by the UAE".
Among the cases that have human rights groups most concerned is Jordanian photographer Omair Gharaibeh, who has been "disappeared" by Syria's notorious Air Force Intelligence agency during a trip to Damascus in February for the purposes of tourism. His name was not on the list of detainees due to be released this week.
Human rights groups have told The New Arab that Gharaibeh and two friends were stopped at a checkpoint in the countryside south of Damascus as they travelled back to Jordan from the Syrian capital.
The agents inspected his camera and detained him, the group said. Syrian sources initially told the Jordanian foreign ministry he was being treated well - but then later publicly denied "the circumstances of the arrest of Gharaibeh". His family insist that the only photos on his camera were of panoramas of Damascus, and military buildings or other sensitive installations were not captured in the images.
"[He] was arrested and they took him to an unknown location. The Syrian authorities still haven't given any official or public information regarding his fate of whereabouts, so he is still forcibly disappeared to date," Giulia Carlini, human rights officer for Syria at the Switzerland-based MENA Rights Group, told The New Arab.
"As he is disappeared, we do not have any information on how he is being treated in detention nor the reasons for his arrest. Unfortunately, torture and ill-treatment by Syrian authorities in prison are widely documented as being systematically carried out against detainees."
Gharaibeh is among hundreds of thousands who have disappeared in Syria's notorious archipelago of dungeons, where tens of thousands of prisoners are believed to have been hanged or tortured to death by the regime.
"Death notices" are now being issued to the families of detainees and it appears that most of the victims were peaceful protesters or compliant civilians, which shows the dangers for anyone held by the regime.
Syria's Air Force Intelligence is probably the most-feared of the regime's security branches. It operates a number of facilities, checkpoints and notorious detention centres across the country.
Even if Gharaibeh is found and released, the troubles for the Jordanian prisoners might not end at the Syrian border, Carlini added. Although Jordan's security services are considered to be less severe than their Syrian counterparts there is still a lack of independent oversight for those held by the kingdom's General Intelligence Directorate, human rights workers say.
"Given the track record of the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate of keeping individuals incommunicado for prolonged periods of time, we are concerned that even if these individuals are returned to Jordan in the custody of the [intelligence agency] it is not guaranteed they will be safe," the rights worker added.
Friends in need
Venezuela has been a key political ally for the Syrian regime throughout the war, and Caracas' violent suppression of peaceful protests in the country has echoed the similarly brutal tactic used by Damascus when pro-democracy demonstrations swept through Syria in 2011.
Supporters of the Venezuelan government have used the turmoil in Syria as a warning against "foreign intervention", despite Russia reportedly sending mercenaries to the oil-rich South American country to shore up support for the embattled authority, just as it did with Bashar al-Assad when his regime was on the ropes.
Last week, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza flew into Damascus for a meeting with Assad, and the Syrian president was quick to make the same comparison and urge Venezuela to follow the example of his regime and crush the protests.
"When President Assad described the stages before and the stages during the early days of the war on Syria, similarities with what we are experiencing in Venezuela were immediately noticeable," Arreaza said during a press conference in Damascus. "We have the same enemy."
He continued: "With the help of our friends, we have to avoid war, to stop the war," Arreaza added. Syria's suppression of peaceful protests led to an armed rebellion against the regime with regime bombing and shelling of civilian opposition areas contributing heavily to the killing of around 500,000 people and forcing half the population to flee their homes.
It appears that the Venezuelan regime will be happy to mimic this blueprint for victory-at-all-costs, particularly after long-time dictators in Algeria and Sudan were recently ousted following pressure from mass demonstrations.
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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin