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Victims of Assad's notorious Students' Union speak out - but the UN is not listening

A child stands near an RBK cluster bomb tail fin in Aleppo, Syria, after the Syrian armed forces launched an airstrike on a residential area 1 March 2013. © Amnesty International

By Mansour Omari

In July this year, the UN Development Program in Syria (UNDP) posted on its social media platforms that it is cooperating with the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS) in organising the Hult students Prize. The UNDP Syria post read: "In cooperation with the Ministry of Higher Education and the Syrian Students Union, the United Nations Development Program in Syria sponsors the organisation of the competition in all Syrian universities".

I wrote about this controversial and disheartening collaboration at the time and, along with other Syrian human rights activists, called on the UNDP to end its shameful partnership with the criminal thugs of the NUSS.

In July, I also emailed the UNDP headquarters in New York and asked them if they knew about the crimes committed by the NUSS and what steps they would take to address this cooperation. They did not answer my questions. Instead, they sent me an evasive statement that attempted to deny their relations with the NUSS despite their own statement on Facebook celebrating the relationship.

The UNDP Syria head, Ramla Khalidi, said to a Syrian newspaper that they do not have agreements with NUSS but also said the NUSS helped the UNDP disseminate news among students about the Hult Prize. It's as if the lack of any formal contract absolves the UNDP of any responsibility for the hurt they have caused. Their specious denials and omissions to me only add further insult. 

They could not explain or justify why UNDP Syria promotes its cooperation with the NUSS on social media, including tagging the NUSS in its posts and using its logo under the UNDP logo on several posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Such brand association benefits the NUSS and supports its efforts to whitewash its crimes by saying they are working with a UN agency. The UNDP in Syria is actively normalising a group that has assisted the regime in committing crimes against humanity. 

Due diligence

When UN agencies in Syria choose to work with groups and entities, they should be doing due diligence before engaging in activities with them. It's possible the UNDP in Syria didn't do any basic checks on the NUSS, or maybe they did and disregarded what they saw? Likely, they didn't ask any Syrian human rights groups for their analysis. We still don't know all the answers because the UNDP still denies it is or has been cooperating with the NUSS. 

A simple internet search provides many links to the nefarious activities of the NUSS and its crimes against students and academics. There are several reports from human rights groups on the role played by the NUSS as a proxy of Assad's intelligence forces. This assistance to the regime included cracking down on students and recruiting fighters for groups accused of committing war crimes. Yet even after being told about all this, the infamous UNDP statement remains online. 

Carnegie Middle East Center highlighted in its "The Banality of Authoritarian Control" how the Baath Party "mobilised youth and the various youth organisations it controls, such as the National Union of Students", to "defend" the universities. However, it seems UNDP Syria only bothers to do due diligence on those who are revealing their wrongdoing. A couple of days after I published my July article on their work with the NUSS, I found that 'someone at UNDP Syria' viewed my LinkedIn profile.

The NUSS has long served as an intelligence branch inside Syrian universities, violating the basic rules of union work, International Law,  and the Syrian constitution (for what it is worth). In 2011, NUSS was transformed into Assad's iron fist inside Syrian universities, aiding and abetting the brutal crackdown against the civilian population. NUSS crimes include assisting with torture, enforced disappearance and murder as a part of the still ongoing systematic and widespread attack against civilians. 

General comment 13 on article 13 of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explains that "the right to education can only be enjoyed if accompanied by the academic freedom of staff and students.. staff and students in higher education are especially vulnerable to political and other pressures which undermine academic freedom." Do these documents mean anything anymore?

In 2013, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that 35,000 students were arrested, including 4000 female students. In addition to arrests, the NUSS punished students for refusing to participate in the regime-organised marches to support Assad. The punishments ranged from banning people from exams to expelling them from their university. The Syrian League of Human Rights said in 2013 that the university and the NUSS punished more than 5600 students in Damascus University alone. None of this seems to be a cause for concern for the UNDP.

As I published the news of the inappropriate cooperation between the UNDP and the NUSS, several former students contacted me to express their anger at the UNDPs brazenness. Human rights groups issued statements condemning this cooperation promoted by UNDP Syria. Others were shocked about the whole affair when I contacted them, seeking their testimony. 

It has been tough to work on this piece, which the awful response from the UNDP has only compounded. I've had several nightmares as I remembered my torture and that of my former cell-mates. My days have been full of anger and disappointment at an organisation that isn't supposed to side with war criminals.

 

Below are four brief stories from victims of the NUSS I interviewed for this piece:

Sami Sari, Damascus University 2012

Sami Sari was a political science student at Damascus University. "NUSS members were armed with pistols and knives, harassed, threatened, and beat anyone who expressed free opinions or showed an attitude against the Syrian regime". Fearing for his life, Sari decided to stop attending university and went into hiding with some friends. One day in 2012, a friend of his visited them in their secret location, carrying a message from NUSS officials saying they wanted them to return. Knowing this was a trick, Sari and his colleagues refused. However, they told their messenger that they had conditions for any return, such as NUSS members stop carrying weapons inside the college. Hours later, security forces raided their safe house. "They broke our door and started beating us with rifles. Then dragged us out to the street". The security forces took them to Branch 215 of the military intelligence. Sari is now based in France and recently finished studying political science.

Aya Aljamili, Aleppo University 2012

In Aleppo University, the NUSS practised the same methods they used everywhere else in Syrian universities, working with intelligence forces to arrest and torture students. NUSS members also marked students who participated in opposition activities or publicly expressed their opinions. The NUSS then sent the names of the marked students to intelligence forces to arrest them or accompanied these forces inside the university and its campus to arrest them. Many former students believe that most of Aleppo university student arrests were made possible with the cooperation of the NUSS. For example, on 3 May 2012, security forces arrested 200 people when they raided the Aleppo university campus.

Aya Aljamili, then a fourth-year English literature student at the University of Aleppo, was one of those 'marked'. On 17 May 2012, The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) visited Aleppo university when students called for peaceful demonstrations to show the Mission that a non-violence movement exists even though the Syrian regime denied it. 

Aljamili was stopped by security agents, accompanied by a NUSS member. They asked for her ID, and while she was getting it, the officer grabbed her by the hair, slapped her, and insulted her using sexually explicit language. He said, "are you demonstrating against the government?” As he hit her and threw her to the ground. He instructed another officer to arrest her with the support of the union member. Aya was later able to escape arrest after security forces stole money from her colleague as a bribe. Despite that, Aya remained wanted by the intelligence services. Tragically, she had no choice but to leave her parents' home, and she could not return to her university to receive her graduation certificate. Eventually, she ended up as a refugee. Later on, Aljamili continued her studies in exile and obtained a master's degree in international development.

Sharif, Damascus University 2012

Sharif was a political science student at Damascus University and lived at the Basel Al Assad University residence. He debated with professors at his college and discussed political theories, including his attitudes towards the Tunisian uprising. Later, he also expressed his attitudes against the violence committed by the Syrian government. 

One day in the fall of 2012, a NUSS member came to his room and asked him to come out and meet the head of the NUSS in Damascus. Once out, he found leaders and members of the NUSS waiting for him. "They surrounded me in a circle and started shouting and abusing me". Later, they accompanied him out of the campus. As soon as they arrived at the stairs of a tunnel, they pushed him down and started beating him, breaking his eyeglasses. Sharif said he did not want to fight back because they had pistols and knives. "They kept hitting me for around 5 minutes until I could not hear or see." Sharif lost conscience. He found himself covered in blood with his ID card thrown next to him when he woke up.

Sharif thought he could get some justice for what he suffered. So, he went to a NUSS official to file a complaint. The official said to him, "I know who you are. You are an enemy of the state". Two days later, Sharif received a phone call from the same official who asked him to come to the office of the Baath Party. For whatever reason, Sharif went, and when he arrived, the official asked him to go to the next office. It was the office of the NUSS official who beat him. Soon, security officers arrived and took him and another student to Branch 227 of the military security. The NUSS officer and other NUSS members also went to the Branch. As soon as Sharif arrived, they started beating him and sent him to a dirty and crowded cell.

"I could not sleep for three days. I started to hallucinate, and my cellmates told me later that I was saying strange things, sometimes funny," said Sharif. On the fifth day, an officer called him for interrogation. The officer told him: "You participated in a demonstration son of a …" and asked the officers to hang him on a ladder. They tortured him for days. After seven days, he was retaken to interrogation. Several students were also there and were being questioned and beaten. They said to him that they were arrested by the NUSS too. He was released after 43 days. He learnt later that one of his friends died under torture. He had no choice but to leave Syria. "I have never imagined that expressing my political opinion in the college of political science would subject me to torture, end my academic future, and send me to exile," Sharif said to me.

My cellmate, who was murdered in detention

When the regime detained me in 2012, several university students were imprisoned with me. Ahmad was a fourth-year student at Damascus University in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. He described the day he was arrested. In May 2012, a friend of Ahmad's was beaten and humiliated by NUSS members on the campus, who called intelligence officers to help crackdown students' activities. Ahmad did not participate in the action that day, but he approached NUSS members and asked why they were beating his friend and that they should stop. NUSS members attacked Ahmad, beat him and then handed him to the intelligence forces. In detention, Ahmad was subjected to severe torture and deprivation of sleep and food. He lost a significant amount of weight, so much so that his skin hung from his body and rippled whenever he moved. He had to fold the skin on his belly when he walked. Ahmad was always sensitive about this.

After being released in 2013, I smuggled his name and my cell mates' names written on cloth hidden in a shirt. As I kept tracking and following the news of those named on the fabric, I learned from his family that they obtained a death certificate for him in 2020.

I can only hope that staff at the UNDP and other UN agencies reflect on this horrible collaboration and think about its impact on survivors of Assad's torture machine. The current dismissive attitude from UNDP HQ does not fill me with confidence that they will do the right thing. It will only go down as yet another unaddressed scandal by the UN in Syria.

 

Mansour Omari is a Syrian human rights defender. He holds an LLM in Transitional Justice and Conflict. Omari works with international and Syrian human rights organisations to hold the perpetrators of international crimes in Syria accountable. In 2015, he published his research book Syria Through Western Eyes, an in-depth look at the Western reporting on Syria in 2013-2014. In 2012, Omari was detained and tortured by the Syrian government for 356 days for documenting its atrocities while working with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression as the supervisor of the Detainees Office.

 

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