Ibrahim Al-Idelbi, Syrian human rights activist active in the rebel North-West of the country, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by translated remarks in English.
To Be Confirmed
Full Remarks: English
First of all, I want to thank you for allowing me to be the representative of thousands of Syrians at this conference.
I wanted to be among you in order to tell you about the suffering of journalists in Syria, and the human rights violations the regime and the warring parties subject us to.
Let me start by introducing myself:
I am Ibrahim al-Idlibi, 27 years old, a Syrian journalist from the Jabal al-Zawiya region, from the village of Kansafra. Before the Revolution began, I was studying civil engineering at the University of Aleppo. I was previously detained on December 12, 2012. I joined the revolution from its early days, like many of my classmates. We tried to express our opinions through peaceful demonstrations to revendicate our legitimate rights.
At first, I was protesting on campus and in the college’s courtyard, and the security forces were surrounding us and fired tear gas at us to disperse us. Nonetheless, we kept on protesting and the demonstrations increased manifolds until some members of the regime started hitting us with clubs, and most of the time they used electric sticks in order to render us unconscious and then arrest us.
We were considered the country’s educated segment, and our generation was deemed to be one of the pillars for constructing a modern state. At first, the regime used its security forces to detain us for a few hours, in order to intimidate us. And on numerous occasions, they hit and insulted us, before releasing us after making us sign a written statement in which we agreed not to take part in the protests again. They would describe us as corrupters and saboteurs and would, even at times, call us terrorists.
Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, whoever claims his rights in Syria is considered a corrupter, a saboteur, and those who lead the resistance, choose disobedience, and protect minorities are considered terrorists by the regime.
During one of the protests on campus, the regime brought a fire truck and parked it in front of the university. We had organized a protest and determined a date and time for it to take place. When the protest started, the regime used the fire truck’s water cannon to disperse the protesters. We were surprised to discover that the security forces had mixed some red paint with the water. They dyed our clothes red. When we scattered and went back to the dorms, all the doors were locked behind us, and the security forces entered the dorms looking for those whose clothes were dyed red. Unfortunately, I was among them. I lived on the 6th floor of the building, and I watched as they herded my classmates like sheep while waiting for them to enter my room.
When they arrived on my doorstep, they broke down the door and entered our room, while yelling and insulting us. As soon as they saw me covered with the red dye, they beat me and insulted me, before binding my arms behind my back with the help of plastic zip ties.
One of the officers entered and said, “I went on your Facebook profile, you filthy animal.”
“I don’t have Facebook, sir,” I answered, and he started beating me up and kept on insulting me, telling me to “delete your Facebook now! By Allah, you will not see the sunlight again, you filthy animal.” Then they searched my room, and there was a graphing calculator I used in the course of my studies to calculate some scientific questions such as material resistance. When he found it, the officer laughed and started kicking me on the floor with his foot, insulting me as he did, before saying “This is Facebook, you will never see the light of day again!” He then proceeded to arrest my roommate and called his superior: “Sir, Sir, I found Facebook with the terrorists.”
I yelled at the top of my lungs that the object he was holding was a scientific calculator, but he silenced me. When his superior arrived, he asked where my Facebook account was, and the officer replied: “This is it, sir”.
The superior stared at him and told him: “May Allah curse you, you stupid animal, this is not Facebook you jerk.”
They took us to the station as they had each previous time, and while we got in and out of the bus, they did not stop beating us. We stayed at the station for one day and then were released because it was exam period.
Immediately after getting released, I realized that what terrified the regime and made it so brutal in its crackdown is the use of social media to document the actions of security forces. After that, I stopped organizing the protests, but focused instead on documenting the latter – as well as the violations perpetrated by the security forces against the demonstrators – and posting them on social networks. I didn’t know how to do any of this or how social media worked, and I was even more terrified than when I started attending the peaceful protests.
After that, I started uploading what I filmed on YouTube and naming the videos in a way that would make it easy for anyone to search for the footage and find it. For example, I would title [the video] “demonstration,” and then specify the location where it took place, namely “University of Aleppo” before adding “Syria,” as well as the date on which the event took place and publish the result as a public view video. I had no idea that a URL link was generated when I uploaded a video. When the regime’s forces started harassing all those who were found to be carrying a phone in the streets by breaking their devices, it pushed us to secure for ourselves micro-cameras hidden in wristwatches.
Since then, I started looking on YouTube for novel ways to perform media work, such as how to film or how to edit a movie. The regime increased its crackdown on us and started arresting suspected citizen journalists. If someone was arrested at a protest, then he was released. If they arrested a journalist, then that person would never see the sunlight again. Therefore, I decided to return to the Idlib province to be with my family and friends.
I used to travel between Aleppo and Idlib’s provinces, but with great difficulties because of multiple regime force checkpoints on the road. What helped me the most is that I worked under a pseudonym and not under my real name. I went to places with public internet and used a VPN I had previously downloaded named ‘UltraServe,’ in order to mask my IP address.
We media activists have suffered a lot in Syria in order to bring out the truth, especially the crimes the regime has committed against the people, such as the daily bombardments, destruction of infrastructure, and many others.
We journalists have gotten special treatment from the regime, especially because the lens of our cameras and what we wrote with our pens made the throne of injustice tremble in the entire world, not only in Syria.
Today, I stand before you to tell you about the arrests, kidnappings, tortures, killings, and assassinations that I and thousands of other activists have been victims of.
The Assad regime has never shown any mercy, nor will it ever; it is still trying to track us down and control us through the use of undercover agents, which has forced most of us to flee the country to save ourselves – just like I did.
Last year’s statistics are terrifying. So what if I take you back to the start of the revolution in Syria?
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Syria is considered the most dangerous country for us journalists. At the end of 2014, 17 journalists were documented as having been killed, 43 have been kidnapped, and 15 others were injured. The regime forces killed 10 journalists, including 3 by torturing them to death in jail. ISIS killed 4 journalists and factions from the armed opposition killed 2. My colleague Muhammad al-Qasim was killed in the Idlib province by unknown assailants. I also lost 43 of my colleagues in Syria to arrests and kidnapping: the Syrian regime arrested 8 of them and released 6 and the other 2 remain detained in an undetermined location. Kurdish forces arrested 8 journalists and subsequently released them all once they had pledged not to report in a manner deemed inconsistent with the former’s policy. Extremist groups in Syria arrested 20 journalists, 14 were released, and the fate of 6 others is unknown. We recorded the cases of 2 journalists detained by the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria), one of whom was then released, and the other’s current whereabouts are unknown. The other warring parties in Syria arrested 5 further journalists.
In my profession, I face many challenges, which have only made me more determined to do my work. I thank God that I wasn’t arrested by regime forces for being a journalist, but on suspicion of having bombed a government building in Aleppo. I spent 53 days in the cells of the regime, a period during which I was subjected to all kinds of torture imaginable. Being ghosted for hours is enough for a person to confess to things he did not do. Being tied to a wheel and then being whipped is enough to make you faint due to the pain. And in case they despair from getting any confession out of you, they’ll put you on an electrified chair after a long torture session while being drenched in water for the shock to be stronger. In the end, you’ll confess to things you haven’t done and that can lead you to the gallows.
Even sleeping in jail would be a dream. Every prisoner gets a space of 54 centimeters long by 54 centimeters wide to sleep – while you’re in a pitiful state – and they only give you one meal a day, sometimes with the food not even cooked.
Regarding going to the bathroom, you have less than a minute to do so, after which you are beaten and driven back to your cell with your eyes blindfolded. You can’t tell where the beating comes from, but you can hear the horrific sound of screams everywhere around you.
After those 53 days, my case was sent to a judge, just so there would be some semblance of judicial process. When I entered the courtroom, the judge said: “My son, you confessed to a terrorist act. Is this true?” But I did not answer.
Instead, I took off the shirt I was wearing, which was so worn out to the point that it looked like a piece of cloth dating back to the Stone Age and its stench filled the room. I told him – as I showed him my scars – that after all this beating and torture, I would not confess to a terrorist act, but rather, I would confess to being the biggest terrorist in the world.
The judge then looked at me with pity in his eyes and told me: “Go and stand in that corner” after he had read my file and seen all the ecchymoses in my hand from the electric torture I endured from the regime forces. In the room, there was only the judge and two policemen standing by my side. The judge said: “If I set you free, son, what will you do?”
I answered spontaneously and without thinking, “I will go out and work to get my rights back from those who did this to me. Because I know that you, Your Honor, will not be able to give me back my rights since you are a prisoner of the law as I am and the only difference between us is that I no longer love this life, while you still love it.
The Judge then said: “The defendant, Ibrahim ibn Fatim al-Qurarat, is innocent of the charges that have been brought against him.”
I wasn’t conscious of what I had said and what he had just told me. The two policemen escorting me then told me: “Congratulations on being free.”
I left the courthouse to see the sunlight again and I was eager to see a demonstration, to join in, and the anger I harbored would have been heard across Syria.
This is only one story of the few Syrians who managed to get out of the regime’s prison. During my time there, my relatives were still serving in the army as high-ranking officers, and I had respect for them until I left jail. But I am sorry for those who did not get out and whose fate remains unknown to this day.
I continued my media work and my civic activities until I became an upstanding citizen of Syria. With the developments in the conflict, it became too dangerous for journalists to work in liberated areas and it became necessary to work with an armed group in order to protect yourself from the other warring parties and from the undercover agents of the regime.
At the beginning of 2013, I started working as the director of the media office for the organization “Free Syrian Army.” As I had the opportunity to cover military affairs, civil affairs, and anti-regime protests, I was able to gain more experience in the field of journalism and was taught how to deal with armed groups.
On April 8, 2013, the formation of ISIS was announced. At first, I could get around without being intimidated by them. They would not attack us, but their influence grew in the Northern province. In July 2013, I was going to Aleppo’s province, the Al-Rashideen region, in order to prepare a briefing tour of the current situation there. While returning before sunset, I was stopped at an ISIS checkpoint, where they asked me to get out of the car. They then proceeded to search my vehicle thoroughly and instructed me to return to the place I was coming from, Darat Izza, on Aleppo’s outskirts. They claimed that there was ongoing fighting on the road leading to Sarmada, where my offices were located at that time.
I realized that ISIS was trying to make me stay in the area that they controlled at night in order to kidnap me, so I changed my itinerary completely since I knew the roads in the area well. ISIS knew that I was Ibrahim al-Idlibi, and I was therefore in real peril. I traveled on a bumpy sideroad and entered the village of Dana in the Idlib province, which is ISIS’ main stronghold in the region. I was stopped at another checkpoint, where the Sharia court is located. A soldier asked me: “Where are you going, Sheikh?” I answered that “I was driving back to my place in the Atmeh camp,” and that I had gone to the Aleppo province to pay my condolences because a relative had passed away.
I hid my camera under my car seat and lied to the soldier. Thank God, the soldier at the checkpoint did not recognize me.
When I arrived at my office, I decided never to enter ISIS territory again due to the violations they have committed against journalists, including kidnapping and killing media professionals. I lost a number of my colleagues, including Obaidah Battal, whom ISIS arrested, and I haven’t heard from him to this day. Then, they murdered Muhammad Saeed, an al-Arabiya correspondent, at the barbershop. And then Samar al-Saleh went missing in September of that year.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, ISIS was no more merciful than the regime, but it was much harsher with journalists and activists. With the same weapon with which we had fought the regime, we went on fighting against ISIS. With our cameras’ lenses and our pens, we documented their crimes. I was threatened by their supporters on more than one occasion, and I was unable to visit my family in the Jabal al-Zawiya region because ISIS controlled it for more than 4 months. They were searching for me every now and then in the village and would ask my brothers if they had seen me around. I served as a source of information for many international news agencies, writing articles, and conducting investigations into crimes committed by ISIS.
When the war against ISIS started, I wrote on my personal Facebook account: “Today, the revolution returned to the right tracks, and the sun of freedom has begun to shine anew.” After ISIS retreated from the Idlib province, I was one of the first to visit its strongholds. I made a video and wrote a piece for Al-Jazeera’s website about the Islamic State’s crimes and the mass graves it had left behind.
The armed opposition was no better in its treatment of journalists. On September 4, 2014, I wrote an article about errant shells that hit a mosque in the city of Jisr al-Shughur, which resulted in civilian casualties. The armed faction in the area circulated my name to all the checkpoints it manned because I had exposed the truth about the errant shells and I was published in Al-Jazeera.
And then the situation in Syria worsened when the Al-Nusra Front started attacking the Free Syrian Army, took control of large swaths of the Idlib province, and arrested civilians and started abusing them. I began reporting on their crimes on social media, and they accused me of apostasy, of being an infidel, and of having dealings with the West because of my work. This forced me to leave Syria in order to save my life and protect my family in Jabal al-Zawiya.
Today, I have a younger brother and sister and I cannot see them not only because I’m far away, but also because of the constant threats of Al-Nusra’s militants arresting me, killing me, and ending my journalist career. All I want is to be able to gently caress my little sister, who is a year and a half old, and my little brother, who hasn’t celebrated his first month of life, as well as to see my other siblings.
So my life as a journalist came at the cost of sacrificing my social life, my relationship with my family, my relatives, and my country. But I still insist upon continuing my work on reporting the facts on the situation in Syria.
Although I now live abroad, I am working hard to expose every single person who abuses the Syrian people, even as I know that my fate will not be a happy one because of the pressures being exerted on me and the death threats I am subjected to.
I always quote my friend, the martyr Ibrahim al-Abdu, who said: “We’ll die, we’ll die, but the homeland will live.”