A foreign-backed terror group in Syria, and not the Syrian government, was behind the killing of the female rights activist Razan Zaitouneh and her companions in 2013, a report has revealed.
Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer and civil society activist, along with her husband, Wael Hammadeh, and two of their friends and colleagues, were mysteriously abducted in the office of Violations Documentation Center, which she had founded to document atrocities by terrorists and armed groups, in Douma, a militant-held town on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.
There has been no trace of the ill-fated activists since their disappearance.
Zaitouneh’s fate has been one of the longest-running mysteries of the conflict in Syria. She was 36 at the time of the abduction.
At the time of Zaitouneh’s disappearance, Douma, which is located in the Eastern Ghouta enclave, was hotly contested by the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group, the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, Jaish al-Islam, among other militant outfits.
Jaish al-Islam, which follows the Wahhabi ideology, is one of several Takfiri terrorist groups operating in Syria.
Germany’s international news channel Deutsche Welle (DW) recently issued a report which proved beyond doubt that Zaitouneh and fellows were kidnapped and killed by Jaish al-Islam. Indications had already suggested this scenario to be the case.
The investigative report by DW is based on evidence gathered from six countries and interviews with dozens of witnesses with intimate knowledge of the case. It tracked down the nefarious terror group.
In 2011, Zaitouneh was co-recipient of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
In the summer of 2013, Zaitouneh was busy trying to gather evidence and write reports about violations committed by militant groups. However, despite being repeatedly denied access to militants’ facilities, including those operated by Jaish al-Islam, she continued her research.
When she refused to back down, members of Jaish al-Islam took things a step further. They launched a social media campaign to discredit her, including making her out to be an immoral woman and likening her to a spy working for Damascus, according to several rebel and activist sources who were in Douma at the time, the report said.
DW obtained a voice recording of a man who was ordered by a Jaish al-Islam associate to threaten Zaitouneh. He can be heard describing his interaction with the victim.
The man, who was called Hussein al-Shazly, was a local security figure of the terror group and later confessed that he received direct orders from Jaish al-Islam's religious leader, Samir Kaakeh.
The report, citing sources, said al-Shazly had threatened to kill Zaitouneh if she did not leave Douma “within days.” However, she insisted on her investigation into human rights violations.
According to the DW investigative unit, around 10 pm local time on December 9, 2013, the kidnappers stormed the headquarters of the Violations Documentation Center. Two other friends, political activist Samira Khalil and lawyer Nazem Hammadi, were also there at the time.
The report said the activists' computers and phones were among the objects taken, along with a handful of files. DW was told that over 25,000 euros’ worth of Syrian lira on the table was left untouched.
Citing unnamed sources, the report said two months after the abduction, a member of Jaish al-Islam accessed the social media accounts via a computer given to Zaitouneh and Khalil by a US State Department-funded program.
US authorities were able to geolocate the computer and identify the user who had accessed it. That person's identity is known to DW, the report further said, adding that the computer was traced to Jaish al-Islam's security complex in Douma, which houses a notorious prison structure known as Tawbeh — Arabic for “repentance.”
According to audio testimony obtained by DW, Zaitouneh was seen at Tawbeh prison by another female inmate within months of the abduction.
“We in Tawbeh had heard the name Razan Zaitouneh,” the woman said in her testimony to another militant group.
“They once brought her to interrogation. She refused, so they beat her, and she fainted. They asked us to bring her back into her cell. When she woke up, I saw her green eyes.”
All efforts to release Zaitouneh and her companions failed.
Only weeks before a Russian airstrike would kill him in December 2015, Jaish al-Islam founder and military leader, Zahran Alloush, promised friends and families of the victims to settle the question regarding their fate.
In late January 2020, French authorities detained Majdi Mustapha Nameh, better known by his nom de guerre, Islam Alloush, in connection with Zaitouneh's disappearance. Nameh was among the top ranks of Jaish al-Islam, serving as the group's spokesman for over five years.
In March 2021, a criminal complaint was filed in France by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, which jointly held Jaish al-Islam responsible for the abduction.