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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Khalil Maatouk: More than a decade of forced disappearance

On the morning of October 2, 2012, 53-year-old Khalil Maatouk, a Syrian lawyer of Christian faith, left his house in Sahnaya, southwest of Damascus, heading to his office in the city accompanied by his friend Muhammad Zaza who was driving Khalil’s car. Neither of them has been seen since. Maatouk and Zaza are believed to have been arrested at an Assad regime checkpoint on their way to Damascus but as far as anyone knows were never formally charged or convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, in the years since then, reliable sources have mentioned the testimonies of former detainees who confirmed seeing the two men at several different security branches in Damascus.

Khalil Maatouk sketch; Credit: Marc Nelson

Despite repeated requests from his relatives, Syrian authorities have not provided any information about the fate or whereabouts of Khalil Maatouk and it is assumed that he is still being detained in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance. Having never been formally tried or convicted means that Maatouk has been held outside the protection of the law amid grave concerns for his physical and psychological well-being compounded by his urgent need for the medical treatment he was receiving for an advanced lung disease at the time of his disappearance.

Khalil Maatouk was, and continues to be, one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Syria

It is also assumed that Maatouk was detained by the regime for the major role he had played in providing legal assistance to hundreds (and possibly thousands) of political opponents, journalists, peaceful protestors, and prisoners of conscience in his career as a lawyer in a country that is hostile to defenders of human rights. Held in high regard by his peers, Maatouk was Executive Director of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, President of the Syrian Center for the Defense of Detainees, and a member of the Lawyer’s Association for Defending Prisoners of Conscience in Syria as well.

Maatouk spent nearly twenty years of his life unconditionally defending those who were targeted for persecution and arbitrary detention by the Assad regime

To summarize his importance to the opposition that rose up against Assad in 2011, Khalil Maatouk was, and continues to be, one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Syria. Before his disappearance, Maatouk spent nearly twenty years of his life unconditionally defending those who were targeted for persecution and arbitrary detention by the Assad regime. From the late 1980s until the date of his arrest, Maatouk played a prominent role in defending many activists in front of military courts, state security courts, and civilian courts, especially Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Iraqis in addition to his defense of many Syrian political prisoners. He consistently put himself in disfavor with the consecutive Assad regime by co-authoring many texts on justice and respect for fundamental freedoms and publicly denouncing the regime’s practice of depriving his clients of their right to a fair trial, including human rights activists Mazen Darwish and Mazen Uday, as well as the head of the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Abdul Karim Rihawi.

“He always defended my freedoms and raised me to be a strong, independent woman, but suddenly, without his protection, I was facing a hostile community”

Raneem Khalil Maatouk

Earlier in his career, Khalil Maatouk had also drawn the ire of the Assad regime for working as an observer for Amnesty International in Iran prompting them to impose a travel ban on him that lasted from 2005 until 2011. After his disappearance, Assad’s militia extended its persecution to his family on February 1, 2013, when they arrested his daughter Ranim, who was a university student at the time, and kept her arbitrarily detained in regime prisons until June 12, 2014.

Ranim Maatouk next to “For Khalil”, a painting she drew for her father; Credit: Rissan Hamid

Ranim left Syria four months later but the aftereffects of her father’s enforced disappearance are ongoing. “He left a huge hole in our life […] It is like hell living without him. He always defended my freedoms and raised me to be a strong, independent woman, but suddenly, without his protection, I was facing a hostile community,” she told Amnesty International. In 2015, Ranim stood in for her father at the Lawyers for Lawyers Award ceremony in the Netherlands which “aims to honor lawyers who have made significant contributions to the protection of the rule of law and human rights in challenging environments.” Her father came in second on the jury’s shortlist.

Raneem Maatouk speaking at the Amnesty International enforced disappearances in Syria event at the UN on Oct. 21, 2015

As usual, the Assad regime has denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of Khalil Maatouk, even though former detainees have testified that he was seen with deteriorating health in a number of the regime’s notorious prisons. The last reported sighting was in September 2013, in Branch 235, known as the Palestine Branch located in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

In September 2019, 42 regional and international human rights organizations issued a statement demanding that the Assad regime release the lawyer and human rights defender, as well as his friend, Muhammad Zaza. Also true to form, all demands for their release have been ignored by the Assad regime and have come to no avail.

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