After the 16th of March 2011, arrests became more frequent to reach anyone security forces could get their hands on during protests. This was after the famous downtown Marjeh square arrests of detainee relatives, who were protesting against the imprisonment of their family members in a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Interior in Damascus on that day. As protests grew in size, young activists, male and female, became the main target of security forces, because of their role as the driving motor behind the movement.
As the first weeks passed by, scores of detainees started to flood courthouses in all governorates, especially Damascus. Security forces were bringing in individuals and groups of prisoners around the clock in large buses. The Damascus Courthouse's holding cells were tightly packed with detainees.
Criminal lawsuits increased immensely in Damascus courts, with charges varying from rioting and igniting demonstrations for most detainees, to harsher "ready-made" charges for activists (such as "undermining the image of the state", "spreading false information that weakens national moral", "membership in banned groups aiming to evert the state system", and "membership in international organizations").
Our group of volunteer lawyers in defense of prisoners of opinion and conscience was way over its head facing these huge numbers of detainees. We were about 15 lawyers, our tasks distributed amongst us: some would visit the detainees in ʿAdra male and female prisons, some would trace the names transferred to the district attorney in Damascus, while others would follow up on the cases of detainees facing military and civilian courts in Damascus and its suburbs. Despite all logistic and financial obstacles and security harassments, we followed up the largest number possible of prisoners.
I remember walking daily on foot from my house to the Courthouse to save time. I’d arrive there at 9am, and head directly to the registry of prisoners to see who has been transferred there. I would then go to the holding cell where prisoners wait before they stand in front of the judge. I would meet the new detainees and learn their names, in which security branch they were incarcerated before, and the conditions of their detention. I would also find out whether they like to inform their families that they have been transferred to court. I would provide legal advice, tell them how they should behave in front of the judge. Lastly, I would explain that security branch confessions have no legal value since they were extorted under pressure and torture, and that they can deny them in front of the judge.
This work was done by all members of the defense team, including Khalil Maʿtouk, Anwar al-Bunni, Ibrahim al-Qasem, Razan Zaitouneh, Nazem Hamadeh, and others whose names cannot be mentioned under the current circumstances.
Our visits to the detainees in the holding cell of the Courthouse was much like a remedy, it reassured and comforted them, and they would often ask us to call their families to let them know that they were well and in good health. I once called the family of a detainee who was living in Rukneddin neighborhood in Damascus, and informed them that their “Ahmad” was fine, they could come to see him at the Courthouse, and that he might be released that day. To my surprise, I started hearing very loud joyful ululations (zagharid) on the phone as I shouted back “Hello! Hello…”. A few seconds later I heard the voice of his mother, smothering me with "thank yous", expressing her wish to come and see her son.
Indeed, in about half an hour, she and her husband were meeting me at the Courthouse. Ahmad’s mother asked in chaotic eagerness: “Where can I find Ahmad?” I replied: “Wait a little bit Ma’am and you’ll see him, they will bring him in front of the judge.”
About five minutes later, she saw her son escorted by two police officers, his hands in cuffs, his clothes a filthy mess and his beard all grown. The mother tried to step forward to hold him, however, she collapsed to the ground under the emotional strain, her son yearning for her but unable to detach himself from the police. The mother got up, we gave the police officer “his share” to let her hold her son for less than a minute. I explained to Ahmad what he should do when the judge questions him, that he should not be afraid, and to remember what are the charges against him.
Then the judge’s bell rang announcing the beginning of the questioning. Ahmad walked in with his parents' love and blessings. The wait was endless, 15 minutes of questioning felt like a year to the parents.
Ahmad walked out of the judge’s office afterwards, full of joy without his handcuffs. He rushed like a maniac to embrace his parents, then knelt down and started kissing his mother’s feet.
The moving scene lasted a few minutes before the police officer put an end to it, asking Ahmad to come back down with him to the holding cell to collect his mobile phone and personal belongings. His mother was frightened they might take him again, so I told her: “Don’t worry Ma’am. I’ll go down with him.”
As we went down the stairs, every policeman we saw asked for his “ gift” like proper beggars. Before Ahmad's parents left the Courthouse, his father handed me an envelope. I asked what it was and he answered: “It’s a small amount, a cup of coffee to thank you for your support.” This was always an awkward moment for our volunteer work, so I handed it back in embarrassment reassuring him that I hadn’t done anything, it was only my duty; I told him: “People keep each other’s backs, your prayers are enough for me, and your joy is mine.”
Such were the daily happenings in our work at the Courthouse for over three years, until the end of 2013. Then the security branches stopped transferring detainees to the Courthouse, all cases started being referred directly to the Counterterrorism Court, which was given the authority to decide if the offense falls within its mandate or not, instead of letting normal courts determine that.
[Main Image: Artwork by artist Ahmad ʿAli (Ahmad ʿAli’s official Facebook Page)].