As Syria promises to release political prisoners, Channel 4 News talks to film-maker Sean McAllister about his fears for two of the activists he met whilst undercover who have since “disappeared”.
(Jihad Jamal, left, and Manal al-Janabi, right)
Sean McAllister was working undercover in central Damascus for Channel 4 News in mid-October when he was arrested along with a contact, Jihad Jamal. The two men were arrested and detained by secret police.
The last time Mr McAllister saw Jihad Jamal was in the prison where they were both held. Sean says he walked past a room and saw Jihad blindfolded and being interrogated by two men.
Mr McAllister was released six days later, but Mr Jamal was not freed with him. His family believe he is still being held. A second activist who Sean met in Syria, Manal al-Janabi, has subsequently been arrested and imprisoned because of her association with him.
He says he was incredibly moved by her bravery.
“I kept telling her it’s dangerous,” Sean says. “But she said she knew the risks and didn’t care. I asked her to consider her freedom, and she told me: ‘What freedom? Freedom always comes at a price. Your democracy didn’t come easy did it, why should our democracy come easy?”
Sean McAllister says Jihad Jamil also knew the risks.
“He had been picked up before and detained for 60 days. I think he’d been out of prison for a week when he met me. He was so angry about being in prison he talked to me, and now he’s gone back to prison.”
Sean McAllister says he is very concerned for Jihad and Manal’s safety.
The documentary maker was not beaten or tortured himself – but was forced to sleep in a dungeon. He says the conditions at the prison were “horrendous”.
“God only knows what they are going through right now. When I was captured I saw detainees ‘broken down’. They were beaten and electrocuted, the severity of which was dependent on the case,” Mr McAllister said.
“Syria is at war. And these people are viewed as the enemy within, the interrogators don’t see them as human beings. They are blindfolded, stripped, and beaten, treated more like dogs than human beings. It’s a process of dehumanisation,” he continued.
Sean McAllister’s interrogators told him that they “loved their jobs” and said that these were “busy days for them”.
“They told me that ‘We start at 8 o’clock, we do eight hours, then we have lunch, and then we do another 10 hours.” Sean says.
This intense activity, he recalls, extended to a big backroom factory “where secret police were processing reams of information about people downstairs in the dungeons.”
“Upstairs they are collating information. There are rows and rows of tables and computers where secret police decide on who next to abduct.”
Will Davies, from the human rights group Avaaz, told Channel 4 News that most detainees are tortured, not killed. They are eventually released after signing confessions admitting they are terrorists.
“The vast majority are tortured. People’s fingernails are pulled, they’re electrocuted, forced to stand up for a week whilst tied up in cramped conditions with no toilets, and very little food.” Mr Davies says.
“They are then sent back into their communities to serve as a traumatised warning to others.”
Despite this, there are still over 13,000 people being held by Syrian authorities – and a further 3,000 whose whereabouts are unknown since the uprising began, according to Avaaz and other human rights organisations.
Yet regardless of the crackdown and arrests, Sean McAllister says the activists he met remain defiant.
He hopes the activists he met are released soon. He says of Manal: “She’s never scared, she has a brave heart, she does whatever she wants to do. So I just hope that strength of her character can get her through.”