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As countries normalize relations with Syria, regime victims fear no accountability


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has held on through a decade of civil war seeming to prevail. And now even countries that once opposed him are starting to deal with his government again, which raises the question, what about the Syrians who perished in the country's jails just for asking for democracy or those who fled the country in fear of reprisals for speaking out? NPR's Ruth Sherlock looks at whether diplomatic normalization will affect attempts to hold Syria accountable.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: For Syrians like Ghufran Khoulani, watching the regime be slowly rehabilitated is particularly painful.

GHUFRAN KHOULANI: I feel sad that some countries start to normalize with Assad and to forget all the people who died and suffer under the regime.

SHERLOCK: Security forces imprisoned her sister Amina and four of her brothers. Three of those - Mohammed (ph), Majd and Abdelsattar - died in detention. Speaking with me from Ireland, where she now lives, Khoulani says this is the price her family paid for peaceful opposition to the Syrian government.

KHOULANI: If you heard about the initiative of flower and water...

SHERLOCK: In the demonstrations in 2011, Khoulani says her brother Majd, then a 19-year-old law student, and his friends taped fresh flowers to water bottles and gave them to soldiers sent to attack the protesters. They added handwritten notes - Khoulani calls them signs - appealing for unity.

KHOULANI: There is sign to say, why you kill us? Me and you in the same side.

SHERLOCK: On the same side. Yeah.

KHOULANI: Yes. I remember that exactly.

SHERLOCK: The family became known for these kinds of nonviolent actions. One by one, security forces detained Khoulani's siblings and then refused to say where they were being held.

KHOULANI: So we were searching about them, and we tried to find any information about them.

SHERLOCK: Paying bribes, the family eventually found Majd and Abdelsattar. They were in the notorious Sednaya prison, where documentation shows thousands of people have been executed or have died under torture. They were allowed to visit for just five minutes. Then, years later, Khoulani says the government issued their death certificates. Khoulani says she learned the fate of her other brother, Mohammed, through photos a Syrian police defector known to the world as Caesar smuggled out and posted online showing thousands of dead prisoners. She and a relative spent days searching through those images, seeing the scars of torture on inmates' bodies, until they found him.

KHOULANI: I searched between those pictures a lot, and it was an awful experience. And in every picture, I start to imagine not only Mohammed - also searched for Abdel (ph) and Majd.

SHERLOCK: Now, Khoulani is part of the Caesar Family Association, a group that calls for justice for Syrian victims of torture and forced disappearances. The Syrian ministry of foreign affairs did not reply to NPR's request for comment. Although no one has been prosecuted for what Khoulani says was done to her family, senior Syrian officials have started facing charges outside the country for other cases.

LINA KHATIB: There have been a number of trials in the West already against figures in the Assad regime for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

SHERLOCK: Lina Khatib is the director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS University in London. In one, a former Syrian colonel was convicted in Germany for torture in Syria's prisons. In another, a Syrian American filed a case to a court in Washington, D.C. This is happening as some countries in the region are rebuilding relations with President Assad, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Khatib says for now, that shouldn't affect the cases in Europe and the U.S.

KHATIB: Arab countries themselves have, for the most part, not really pursued any legal mechanisms to hold the Syrian regime accountable for war crimes. So we are talking about a very different context in the Arab world.

SHERLOCK: Patrick Kroker, a lawyer who's represented some of the Syrian torture victims in Germany, broadly agrees with Khatib. But he says as more countries reopen ties with Assad, it could make it harder to follow through on prosecutions. For example, when a court asks a country to act on an arrest warrant and detain an individual, he says, say a wanted Syrian official visits Saudi Arabia. Now that Saudi has a relationship with Damascus, it has a decision to make.

PATRICK KROKER: What is more important to us? Is it justice or is it, you know, the outlook of making good business deals in Syria? And, yeah this is just a very cynical scenario, but one that has become a lot more likely now.

SHERLOCK: Kroker says prosecutors will likely continue to try cases against Syrian officials and remind people of the abuses there.

KROKER: Any country that is normalizing relations to the Syrian regime must be aware that it's normalizing torture.

SHERLOCK: He hopes this will stop countries from warming up to Syria. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.