Activist Yara Faris Released From Syrian Prison

2014 710 free sw(Image: Hand and prison via Shutterstock)Yara Faris was arrested on December 8, 2013, by Syrian State Security officers, detained in the ‘Adra Prison in Damascus and accused of “financing acts of terrorism” — all because she had provided food and assistance to Syrians displaced within their own country as a result of the three-year civil war in which an estimated 150,000 Syrians — a third of them civilians — have been killed.

Faris was accused of “financing acts of terrorism” under Article 4 of Syria’s 2012 Anti-Terrorism Law and her case referred to the Anti-Terrorism Court. Human rights groups have widely criticized this law for its “over-broad definition of ‘terrorism.’” Not only have activists like Faris who were distributing humanitarian aide been charged under the law. Syrian doctors who provided medical care for people injured in areas held by the opposition have also been detained and tortured.

Recognizing the unjustness of Faris’ detainment, more than 2,700 people signed Care2 petition started by Amnesty International demanding that Faris be freed. On June 13, she was released (pdf) under a presidential amnesty that pardoned those charged with certain offenses under the Anti-Terrorism Law.

Faris returned to her home in Sahnaya, a suburb of Damascus, the day her release was announced, according to Amnesty International. She does not seem to have lasting health problems after her months in prison and is recovering from the months she was detained. As she noted to relatives during the very few times they were allowed to visit her (pdf), there was insufficient food for the many people imprisoned with her. Only those who received money from their families have been able to obtain additional food.

As Amnesty notes, Faris is “one of the few political detainees known to have benefitted” so far from the presidential amnesty. In March, the Violations Documentation Center, a monitoring group in Syria, reported that 37,245 people are in detention, according to Human Rights Watch. Among them are Faris’ husband, Maher Tahan, who was detained on September 20, 2012 (pdf), along with Iyas Ayash and Abd al-Aziz al-Khayyir, the Head of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB) Foreign Affairs Office, a mostly secular coalition of political groups and activists. All three men are being held in conditions “amounting to enforced disappearance.”

The conflict in Syria is now entering its fourth year. 9 million people have had to flee from their homes — Syria now leads the world in forced displacement. According to the United Nations refugee agency, there are 6.5 internally displaced persons within Syria and 2.5 million now living in neighboring countries including Turkey and Jordan. An upsurge in the number of refugees in the world — more than 50 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, a number unheard of since World War II — has been attributed to the ongoing strife in Syria.

Half of those uprooted are children. A recent Human Rights Watch report has found that non-state armed groups have been — in violation of international law — using children as young as 15 to fight in armed conflict, sometimes recruiting them under the false pretense of providing them with an education. Extremist Islamist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) have also been recruiting children to be soldiers under the guise of offering free schooling. Interviews with 25 children and former child soldiers have revealed that they have been forced to be snipers, to stand at checkpoints, to spy on hostile forces, to tend to the wounded on battlefields, and to bring ammunition and other supplies to the front lines in the midst of fighting.

President Obama is seeking $500 million to train “moderate” Syrian rebels, a call seen as reflecting “increased worry about the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Iraq.” The release of Faris is surely heartening but also a reminder that many, many more Syrians remain unjustly detained.