Senior Fellow, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University; Fellow, Yaqeen Islamic Institute
Executive Director, Syrian Emergency Task Force
Opinions Writer and Former Tehran Bureau Chief, Washington Post
Panelists discuss the use of imprisonment and torture as political tools of authoritarian regimes, including their experiences with political imprisonment in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria, and their perspectives on the mass incarceration and mistreatment of dissidents in those countries. The panel also addresses the challenges of formulating effective responses to these violations as populations seek political freedoms and democratic reforms.
BARNARD: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for coming to this panel on the use of detention and torture as a political tool. We’re really lucky to have some great panelists with us today. This is called An Inside Look at Political Imprisonment and I’m Anne Barnard. I’m the Edward R. Murrow press fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m going to be presiding over the discussion.
We have with us today speakers on Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. On the far side is Abdullah Alaoudh. He is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding and a fellow at the Yaqeen Islamic Institute. He was a research scholar in law and Islamic law and civilization research fellow at Yale Law School from 2017 to 2018. He writes about cultural, legal and political matters in many Arab newspapers, and has degrees in Islamic law, master of laws, and doctorate of political science. His dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law focused on the role of religious institutions in post-revolutionary Arab countries and the transition to democracy.
Mouaz Moustafa is the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. Mouaz has been working on Capitol Hill for Representative Snyder from Arkansas and Senator Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, where he’s from. During his time at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, he’s been working for the pro-democracy movement in Syria, traveling regularly to the region. He accompanied many congressional delegations, including John McCain’s trip to northern Syria in 2013. Mouaz worked closely with the defector Caesar, who brought out thousands of photos of dead detainees. And he brought him to testify at the House of Representatives and worked to create the exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that highlighted the Caesar photos.
Finally, we have my colleague Jason Rezaian from the Washington Post. He is an opinion writer and the former Tehran bureau chief. From 2009 to 2014, he was the only American correspondent working in Iran. And in 2014, he was detained, spent 544 days at Evin Prison in Tehran. Now he works for freedom of the press and on behalf of Americans falsely imprisoned abroad. He’s the winner of numerous awards. And his book, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out. (Laughter.) And you can buy it here today, and I hope you do.
You may have read my large investigation into the Syrian prison system in the New York Times yesterday. And if you haven’t yet, I hope you do, because it’s relevant to the discussion we’re having today. I was the bureau chief for the New York Times from 2012 to 2018. Before that, I was the bureau chief in the Middle East for the Boston Globe and earlier the Baghdad bureau chief for the Globe. I am really happy to have been able to be on the Murrow fellowship, which really assisted me in finishing this big work that was published yesterday.
So I want to turn to our panelists now. And where I want to start is to ask each of you to discuss the country you’re an expert in. So let’s start with Syria, because Syria is the case where we have the hugest and most brutal example in the Middle East right now of a detention system that played a very pivotal role in the current conflict. Maybe, Mouaz, you could give us an overview about the numbers involved in this system, the process that detainees go through. And you could address that people following Syria may have impression that the war is winding down, so why is this torture and detention system still relevant, still in play? And why should the rest of the world care?
MOUSTAFA: Absolutely. First of all, I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for having me. And it truly is an honor to be on such a distinguished panel. And I want to reiterate that everyone should read this amazing work by Anne in the New York Times about the crushing of dissent through detention in Syria. Detention in Syria has always been, at least for the Syrian people, it’s something that was not a secret. It did not come as a surprise. Even before the uprising, it was a tool to go after any sort of political opposition, or even any sort of activists that are there.
And when the war started, it just saw a huge uptick in the amount of arbitrary detentions and, as the uprising happened in Daraa and other cities, thousands and thousands of civilians were arrested. And as the checkpoints sort of popped up around the country during the war, and as the war became more violent and more complex, it became very easy for anyone being stopped at any checkpoint to just be taken. You didn’t have to have done anything. You didn’t have to have demonstrated or acted against the government. You could have just had the wrong name. You could have been from the wrong neighborhood. The militia members or the security officers at the checkpoint could have just had a bad day that morning, and that was good enough for you to be taken into some of the worst detentions and dungeons that exist.
It was when Caesar—when I met Caesar, when I saw the photographs, I think everyone in Syria knew what happens in there, but it was—there was a little bit of a relief that now we had the evidence that we could show the entire world on what actually unfolds.
BARNARD: What year was that, Mouaz?
MOUSTAFA: This was about—the end of—I think 2014.
BARNARD: Five years ago.
MOUSTAFA: Yes, five years ago. Five years ago, when Caesar comes out with the hard drive, with his own testimony, and, you know, you speak to Caesar. You know, he thought that his job was over. Thought that, you know, we’ve got this unequivocal evidence, more powerful evidence than we’ve had against other war criminals that have been convicted in the past and thought that that would be enough to move the world to action to stop these detentions.
And, you know, during his last trip to the U.S., which was only a few months ago, I remember him mentioning that if he just continued working at his job, if he hasn’t left after two and a half year of documenting—just to give you some background, sorry. Caesar is this military photographer who, on behalf of the state, was asked to go and take photographs of any instances of death that happened under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense.
And so in Damascus alone, and only for two and a half years—so a snapshot both in time and geography—he documented fifty-five thousand pictures of men, women, children, and elderly, Christians, Arabs, Muslims, Kurds—the whole mosaic of the Syria population—that were tortured to death. And I think if you look at the numbering system within those fifty-five thousand photos, that amounted to at least eleven thousand individuals. He mentions that if he had continued his work today he would have, himself, documented about seventy-five thousand or more that have been tortured to death.
And what’s mindboggling is that after this—exposing this regime through its own documentation of what it has done to civilians in Syria, there was—well, speaking to a detainee, Omar al-Shogre, who you profile in your paper—in your article, who mentions that there was a month in that time period where torture was a little bit less, where food was a little bit more, where medicine was actually given to detainees for the first time ever. And that was when Caesar came here, testified in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and politicians, and people at the State Department, and media were talking about this. So there was a fear by the regime that there might be some sort of accountability for this.
And the former detainee mentions that right after that period when the media died down, when nothing was done, there was an uptick in detentions and an uptick in the torture. They received twice as much torture, you know, way less food, and so on. And I think that’s important to keep in mind, because what it signaled for the Assad regime that after the world has seen this, you know, powerful evidence and did nothing, that the actual arrests, detentions, and torture only increased. And unfortunately, in Syria, it has only gotten worse, and continues to be the same way.
As a matter of fact, just a last point, whenever—you know, the Caesar photos show people with numbers, no names. Whenever today as we follow up in Syria there are still families, the lucky ones that do receive that their loved one has actually been killed, it is still the same numbering system. It is still ongoing. But unfortunately, to a higher degree, because they feel they can do it with complete impunity.
BARNARD: But, Mouaz, just thirty more seconds on this. Why shouldn’t we think that because Assad is close to victory that the system won’t ease up? Maybe he can be magnanimous in victory and he will not feel the need to do this anymore. Could you address that?
MOUSTAFA: Sure. Unfortunately, the Assad regime understands that his victory comes because of what he has done. He can have a military victory, because that’s doable and that’s OK as far as the world’s concerned. So he doesn’t need to be at a negotiating table, or talking about a political transition, or a political solution to the crisis. That’s one part. And then in terms of the detention system, the Assad regime is looking to displace and detain, or kill, anyone that has gone against him. He almost wants to sort of purify Syria in a way where everyone that lives there now is either completely terrified of him and completely quiet, or a loyalist. And so for him, it’s part of the strategy. It’s the reason that he’s won. And so it’s—
BARNARD: So he’s doubling down?
MOUSTAFA: Absolutely, because that’s what’s worked for him.
BARNARD: So let’s turn to Iran and Jason. I think Iran is—Iran, of course, is a close ally of Syria, and was instrumental in the military victory there. But in Iran domestically, it’s quite a different situation. They’re not in the middle of a domestic political crisis, per se, but they also have a long-standing and often arbitrary detention system. And I wonder if you could talk about how such a system functions during, quote/unquote, “normal,” times. How many people are in it at a given time? And the torture you experienced was not physical, but psychological. Could you talk about the role of that type of torture in deterring free speech and dissent?
REZAIAN: Certainly. I think, you know, Iran is in a different era that Syria is right now. And it has a long and rich tradition of political imprisonment and doing whatever it can to silence and stifle dissent, going back to the previous regime. It’s not a new policy.
BARNARD: The shah, who was a U.S. ally.
REZAIAN: The closest U.S. ally. Political repression, political murders, imprisonment have been going on for at least sixty years in Iran. They slowed down, though, in terms of actually killing detainees because it worked as a deterrent. It silenced a lot of dissent. And I think Iran has evolved into a system in which it’ll put people in prison for many years, and that acts as a deterrent as well. Everybody knows a relative or a friend who was either executed in the 1980s or spent long periods of time in prison after that.
The other thing that Iran does, as we know, is take foreign nationals as political hostages. I am but one of hundreds. Not only Americans but citizens of the U.K., Germany, all of our allies have ended up in Iranian prisons, used as leverage in negotiations. Obviously they started with the taking of the embassy in 1979, but it continues right up until today. There’s currently at least six Americans being held in Iranian prisons. And I’m often asked—I write about them all the time—you know, what’s it going to take to bring them home? And we have a long-standing policy of no concessions, officially, in the United States. Unofficially, we’ve often made concessions to bring American citizens home.
But the ordeals that those of us who end up in these prisons go through—and to your point about the amount of public pressure and the effect that it has on the circumstances of the person being held—it’s really critical. So every time, you know, one of these families of somebody being held in Iran comes to me and asks: What should we do? I said, you should make as much public noise as possible. It’s going to change the dynamics that your loved one is enduring immeasurably. They—if they are, you know, suffering from medical conditions, they’ll get medical care. Their food will be improved. They’ll possibly have further access to the outside world in the form of phone calls back home. But if people aren’t pressing the issue, no one cares.
So we know that Iran is rational in that regard. They respond to public pressure, but not in terms of freeing people. But they recognize the value of individual cases. In my case, when my wife and I were detained in our home in July of 2014, we were taken immediately to Evin Prison and the interrogations began that first night. I was accused of being the CIA station chief in Tehran. I see a few copies of my book circulating around. You can go through all the details of that ridiculous set of accusations against us. But the vacuum that you are put in right off the bat is—you know, people talk about it as Kafkaesque or Orwellian. Whatever it is, it’s a nightmare.
I was thrown into solitary confinement. The only times I came out were for interrogations. I was separated from my wife. She was also in solitary confinement. We had no knowledge of each other’s whereabouts, or conditions for the first thirty-five days. Ultimately, she spent seventy-two days in solitary confinement and then was released, you know, under conditional—essentially house arrest. Not allowed to work. She’s also a journalist.
And, you know, they built this massive propaganda case against me publicly, put me on trial where there was no witnesses or evidence. And, you know, my situation is the best-case scenario. And obviously the Assad regime takes a lot of cues from Tehran on these sorts of things. And I don’t put it past our friends in Saudi Arabia or the UAE as well to use this sort of oppression when it suits them.
BARNARD: Yeah, to your point about isolation, this is one of the things that’s affecting literally millions of Syrians right now, because of the one hundred and twenty-eight thousand people who have never come out of the prisons since entering them since 2011, more than eighty thousand of them are considered forcibly disappeared, which means that their families have no information about where they are or their condition. So they have no access to their families, but their families—who constitute millions of people—have no information about them.
So let’s move onto Abdullah. We’ve been talking about two countries up to now that are usually on the list of bad guys in the—in the book of the U.S. government. But Saudi Arabia is a different case. It’s not only an ally, it is a critical ally in the Middle East. So can you talk about the role of political detention and torture in Saudi Arabia today, and what it means for a close U.S. ally to be engaging in this behavior?
ALAOUDH: True. It’s actually striking to see a key ally, like Saudi Arabia—and I always hate to equate MBS personally to Saudi Arabia as a system, with institutions, diverse—
BARNARD: MBS, the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
ALAOUDH: Exactly, yeah, the Mohammad Bin Salman, the crown prince. Because there is a lot of, like, discourse here in the U.S. to just simply reduce the Saudi institutions, the diverse within even the royal family itself, the diverse society in Saudi Arabia, into just one individual. And to call that individual accountable would mean calling Saudi Arabia itself, would mean implicating Saudi Arabia altogether. And in the whole rhetoric of having Saudi Arabia in our side in order to fight Iran or counterbalance Iran at least, they always tolerate practices and behaviors that are really similar, or exactly like the practices that are exercised by the Iranian regime or the Syrian regime. So it’s really puzzling. And it actually sends the wrong message to our allies and to the other people that they will be tolerated if we just—we’re going to have you on our side to protect smaller interests.
Going back to the—to the idea of imprisonment in Saudi Arabia, there is—there is a long history of imprisonment, but the new idea with MBS since he came to power in 2017, is that there is no—you cannot tell the redline, as you used to do before MBS. When MBS came to power, he presented three projects—social, religious, and economic. The economic project was to diversify the Saudi economy. And when he wanted to present that project, he put in jail the masterminds of the idea to diversify the Saudi economy from the Minister Fakeih, within his own Cabinet, during the Ritz Carlton, you know, purge. And when he wanted to present the moderate Islam discourse and to crack down on—and to curtail the religious establishment, he targeted the very moderate voices of the kingdom that have been campaigning against terrorism, and still heading the campaign against terrorism for the past two decades, like Salman al-Ouda, like Abdullah Al-Malki, and others.
BARNARD: Salman al-Ouda is your father.
ALAOUDH: Yes. And I’m going to—I’m going to—I can also—I mean, I can give you also another example of the third project. When he wanted to allow women to drive, meaning to allow some social reforms in Saudi Arabia, he put in jail the same minds that have been campaigning for the past two decades to allow women to drive and to mix men and women in Saudi Arabia, and to allow some social change in Saudi Arabia. So the idea is that he was not serious at all in all these three reforms. He was just using them to do a PR campaign. And he succeeded for some time in the West, until the gruesome killing of Khashoggi came along, and lot of people got shocked. And they needed a lot of time to realize who this guy is.
So the idea is that we should not allow another Saddam Hussein in the region. We did not have to wait so long to realize that this guy is bad for the locals in Saudi Arabia, for the region. He kept—he kept destabilizing the region. He put—I mean, for God’s sake, he put a prime minister of a foreign country, I mean Lebanon, under house arrest in the—in 2017. He cut, you know, relations with Canada over a tweet. And he, you know, waged war—the worst humanitarian war probably in contemporary history, in Yemen, just to, you know, do some interests that were really not factual. I mean, the war did not succeed in any way. So with these practices abroad and inside Saudi Arabia, it’s really dangerous to put all the eggs of the American interest, and the national interest in the one basket of MBS.
BARNARD: So let’s quickly—we have about seven minutes before we go to questions. So I’d like you all to address—quite briefly, each of you, in a couple of sentences—what are the ways that these kinds of actions are affecting not only the countries where they’re happening. I think there’s a tendency to think, OK, what can we really do about this when we’re talking about U.S. interests? We can’t worry too much about what’s happening domestically in these countries. But are there ways in which these detention systems are actually affecting other countries, U.S. interests, U.S. goals, U.S. allies, and global norms?
MOUSTAFA: Sure. There’s a lot of ways, I think, that this affects us here in the United States, and our allies in Europe, and elsewhere. I’ll just—a couple of examples when it comes to Syria. For one, there are our citizens that get caught up in these horrible detention centers. I think the Assad regime probably has at the very least half a dozen American citizens being held right now.
REZAIAN: And he’s killed at least one, right?
MOUSTAFA: And he’s killed one, called Layla, who’s a twenty-six-year-old girl born and raised in Chicago, that was tortured to death and murdered in Sednaya, as far as the information that we have. And they actually told her family about this officially, the Assad regime. It shows the amount of impunity that they have. So our own citizens are getting caught up in these horrible torture dungeons in Syria, for example.
The other way that it affects us, I mean, there are over ten million displaced internally and externally in Syria as a result of the war. And one of—and at one point, I think the head of air force intelligence, Jamil Hassan, mentions that there are, like, three million arrest warrants out. If you’re in Europe, and everybody—all the Syrians in Europe and elsewhere are yearning to go back home. Everybody wants to be home. They don’t want to be refugees.
But the thought of returning and being one of those three million arrest warrants, or that an arbitrary checkpoint will stop you for whatever reason, also makes it very difficult for any of them to ever consider returning to their country. And so if we ever want t the hopes of allowing refugees to repatriate, which will help sort of the political situation in Europe and counter sort of the rise of extreme right-wing parties and others that have come as the result of these big refugee flows, we must make sure that this system isn’t allowed to go on without any accountability. And so those are two of many other ways that I think it affects us here at home, including giving propaganda to extremists and others that can point to the evidence that’s out there, and the fact that the international community has done nothing about it, even when it’s their own citizens.
REZAIAN: So, you know, besides the obvious, you know, very visual immigration impact that we can see around the world, with regards to Iran this behavior of political hostage-taking, which, you know, arguably we could say that they sort of founded the modern version in 1979, has taken off in other countries around the world. Egypt does it. Turkey does it. China’s done it. Saudi Arabia recently took a couple of Americans prison that are still behind held.
ALAOUDH: Yes. Just recently, in April.
REZAIAN: Yeah. And I think in relation to Saudi Arabia, you know, the lack of consequences for all of these things that we talked about. I mean, traditionally we could rely on the U.S. government to stand up and hold foreign regimes accountable. That hasn’t happened in these past few months, shockingly to many of us. And I think that greenlights terrible behavior among dictators in other parts of the world. And I think we’re seeing it in the treatment of journalists and others, as far away as the South Pacific, the Philippines, in Mexico, and everywhere in between.
ALAOUDH: It’s not just—in the case of Saudi Arabia—it’s not just that the U.S. administration is silent. It’s that it’s actually backing MBS. It’s one of the main factor of MBS rising to power in the first place. When Rex Tillerson met with MBS just a few days before the—before the removal of MBN, the previous crown prince, and before the crisis of Qatar, and before a lot of—a lot of, like, crises that were started because of MBS. The idea is that how the—how the Saudi foreign policy and local policy affects the world is really huge. It’s a key ally in the region.
It’s actually—I mean, just look at the case of Jamal Khashoggi. They have been—they have the long arm. They dared to go outside Saudi Arabia to bring somebody. And when they failed, they did not even bother. They just killed the guy inside the consulate in a foreign soil. And they just did not stop there. They hacked the cellphone of my friend, an activist, Abdulaziz, in Canada. They—now there are new reports of three people, including one in the U.S., who have been targeted and have been told by the CIA that they have been targeted by the Saudi government. So they are reaching outside of Saudi Arabia. They are affecting the world. And what’s puzzling is how the world reacts to such behavior.
BARNARD: I think that’s the perfect segue now. We’d like to invite members to join our conversation with your questions. Please, McKenzie (sp) has the microphone there, and there’s a microphone here. If you could introduce yourself when you ask your question, that would be great.
Q: I’m Charles Brower. I’m a lawyer. And since 1983, I’ve been a judge of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal in the Hauge by appointment of first the Reagan administration and then the Clinton administration.
I’m curious as to what the result is perceived to be on neighboring states—the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar. Does this sort of flow—have a flow-over effect there that is noticed? Kuwait, I would add to that.
BARNARD: Would you like to address that, Abdullah or Jason? Yeah.
REZAIAN: I think it’s—yeah. Well, I mean, I think that we’ve seen in Bahrain, obviously, that—the most obvious signs of the spillover. And it’s a volatile situation and has been for several years. I don’t know much about Qatar and Kuwait internal dynamics, but if you go back and look, I mean, the ties between all of these countries goes back centuries. And they’re hard to break. And often they’re not conducted in the same sort of modern ways that we do. I mean, there’s a lot of transmigration of people from each one of these countries to the other. And, you know, by boat. And I think we saw an instance of it just today, that those are dangerous waters. And, you know, I don’t have specifics on the other countries, but, you know, it’s an issue.
ALAOUDH: For the Gulf, you know, Oman has been always closer to Iran. And it was said that it brokered a lot of, like, relationship between the West and some Western countries and Iran in the past. And Kuwait was less, you know, friendly to Iran. Qatar used to be less friendly, but after the Gulf crisis the quadrate—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE—pushed Qatar further to be closer to Iran. So that’s kind of the dynamics in the Gulf.
Q: I’m Tom Miller. I’m chairman of the board of the International Commission on Missing Persons.
My question is about the International Criminal Tribunal, ICC, and specifically on Syria. You know, one would—one would think that Assad would be totally not concerned about this, but with what has been happening in Sudan lately, and the fact that Bashir is now in jail and I don’t think it’s inconceivable that at some point they could turn him over, could you talk a little bit about war crimes and the ICC?
MOUSTAFA: Absolutely. So—
Q: I’m not going to ask about MBS, I’m sorry. (Laughter.) You know, I mean, if you want to talk about him. And I’m not going to really ask about the Iranians.
MOUSTAFA: So in terms of the ICC, first of all, for Syria, Syria is not a signatory to the ICC, so we need a U.N. Security Council referral. And the Russians have vetoed that possibility every time. And so what’s been relied upon—there was—there is an effort where people that are displaced into, like, Jordan, for example, that is, I think, a signatory to the ICC, that there could be a way to do that. But that would need Jordanians to go along with it, which I don’t think will happen. And so that leave us only with the options of countries with universal jurisdiction or dual nationalities. And this is an effort that there’s been a lot of amazing people working on it. And I think Caesar and his colleague Sami who was with him throughout his whole experience, has been key witnesses to some of these national cases that have been approached.
So there’s an investigation in France based on two dual nationals that were tortured to death. There is—there is a case in Sweden that was more recently opened under universal jurisdiction, but also know that there are Swedish citizens that were tortured to death. But it’s very difficult always, as you know, Anne, you know, when it comes to people speaking out. They have the rest of their extended family in Syria and so on. And so it’s always hard to get the witnesses and the—you know, without—you know, and there’s a huge black hole in taking care of the families of victims and witnesses that are key to these prosecutions.
In Germany, I think that’s where we’ve had the most—you know, a lot of success in that case. ECCHR is the law firm that have been working there on behalf of former detainees that became refugees to Germany. Germany has universal jurisdiction if it finds that it’s within the state’s national interests to pursue the case. And finally, in Spain, there is a case as well based on a lady whose brother was tortured to death in Syria. So the only way—there is no court. ICC is not an option. There is no sort of ad hoc tribunal that’s out there. And so it’s just been—we’ve been reliant on some of these national prosecutions. And I also believe that the United States is another place where a case can be opened, whether it’s Marie Colvin, a journalist that was targeted and killed, or whether it is Layla and other Americans that continue to be held there.
But it is very frustrating to see that there isn’t an international court that can take this, and that Assad doesn’t have to fear that, you know, of the same fate of Bashir. And what’s also really heartbreaking is the Caesar photos, fifty-five thousand photos, just the numbers in the pictures, they were released—cropped and released for people to try to identify their loved ones, at least have some closure. And when Syrians call and—you know, somebody calls me and said, OK, that’s my sister. Obviously she was tortured to death. Please, you know, what court can we open? We want justice. I have to ask, well, does she happen to be also Canadian or European? And it’s almost a reminder to the Syrians that their lives are just, you know, not worth as much as other people are.
BARNARD: I’ll just add, if you don’t mind, I worked on this recently in Europe, as part of my Murrow fellowship research travel. And in addition to the countries you mentioned, there’s also a case open in Austria. And they’re trying to work in more countries. This is actually a very impressive effort, in the sense that it involves the incredible resilience of survivors and relatives of the dead and missing. And some of the lawyers involved in this are Syrian human rights lawyers who are also survivors. So it’s great to see these people taking agency and trying to work on this.
And what they say is that this is better than nothing. Of course, it’s not going to immediately lead to arrest, but it has led to some specific consequences. There have been three arrests, one person in France and two in Germany, who had fled as refugees but were accused of being part of the torture apparatus. So there’s actually been arrests. There’s been an arrest warrant issued for Jamil Hassan, who’s the head of air force intelligence, and for Ali Mamlouk, who is the head of intelligence and security overall. So previously Mamlouk was traveling to Italy and other places—was trying to travel to other places in Europe to have counterterrorism discussions, to try to sell the Assad government as a partner. So at least—at least people cannot just travel to Europe and go shopping—(laughs)—or this kind of stuff.
Now, what’s the point of keeping this alive? I think just to keep it on the table, keep the discovery process going, to keep archiving things. There’s an organization called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability that has collected almost a million documents that were smuggled out of Syria, that are from the government’s own internal communications, that are being used to build, you know, with the chain of custody for the documents and everything, to build cases that could actually stand up in court in the future, with lessons learned from previous crimes against humanity prosecutions that didn’t work because it lacked this kind of judicial meticulousness.
So there is also an effort in the U.N. where the General Assembly bypassed the Security Council impasse by creating, through a General Assembly vote, something called the IIIM, which is a body designed to essentially take the place of CIJA in a more official U.N. capacity, to keep these archives, to share them, to coordinate among all these different prosecutions, and to keep it going. Now, of course, they can’t arrest of charge anybody, so. Anyway, thank you for the question.
Q: This question’s for Mr. Rezaian. My name is Jason Hansberger. I’m in the Air Force.
When you were being held, did you feel like a political imprisonment? Did you feel like your questions from your detainers were tied to specific domestic or international political strategies? And how, you know, well was your treatment aligned with that, or how poor? And how well did they question you to advance those goals?
REZAIAN: I think in the first seven weeks, while I was in solitary, the whole point of the exercise was unclear to me. And their questioning was not very sophisticated, based on emails that they were able to hack into that really didn’t contain anything sensitive. I mean, all they were trying to do as get me to go on television and admit to being a spy—confess to being a U.S. spy, which is something I didn’t do. And it didn’t work out for them in that regard.
But as time went on, it became clear that my ongoing detention was very much tied with the nuclear negotiations. And when my trial began, which was in May of 2015, right as the JCPOA was almost being finalized, the four trial sessions that I had spread out over a three-month period were all highly coordinated with meetings of the JCPOA negotiations. And the last one—or, excuse me—the third trial session—the third of four—actually happened the day after the nuclear deal was signed. So this was obviously a message that, you know, we have this other parallel thing going on that is a thorn in the side of outreach to the U.S.
And ultimately, you know, I’ve learned through the reporting of my book, that, you know, the negotiations were sort of decoupled from one another, run separately. But as July 2015 came and went and I was still in prison, that’s when the negotiation for the release of me and others really picked up. And it was made clear to the Iranians that, you know, we’re not going to be able to lift certain sanctions until Americans are released. We’ll agree to it, but it’s not actually going to happen until the release of these people.
BARNARD: Thank you.
We have a question here.
Q: Walt Cutler, former Foreign Service, including Saudi Arabia.
I’d like to go back to the infamous case of Khashoggi. It’s obvious that the royal family, be it here in Washington or in Riyadh, both families would like to get this behind them and move on. And yet, MBS has said that—you know, that this was a rogue operation and those responsible will pay. How do you see this playing out? How do you see MBS closing this book? Does he perhaps think it’s not that necessary, given what we’ve seen since then in the way of foreign investment? And if I may, just one other question: Do you sense that this is not much of an issue within Saudi Arabia, that is, among the people? Do they really give as much as a damn as the Washington Post and members of our Congress?
ALAOUDH: So to answer your second question, yeah, a lot of people care. I mean, the thing with the—I mean, even within his own base, within MBS’ base, a lot of people did not care about the killing, but they cared and they were disappointed when they admitted it. You know, I mean, honestly, I mean, they would love for somebody to be a strongman, to do whatever it takes to, you know, consolidate power, arrest dissidents, kill journalists, but to be smart about it, to not admit it, to stand to the Western powers, and to be, you know, strong, and to defy the pressure. So that was the idea. And they were really disappointed because they saw Saudi Arabia as bowing to international pressure. They admitted it. They tried to, you know, uncover the worst cover up, as Trump once called it.
So that was—I mean, a lot of people cared. I mean, even his own base was shocked. A lot of people were disappointed that in—I mean, it sent a message, even about your first question, that the people who did this operation is actually still at work doing also another—other operations. I mean, they did—they sexually harassed feminists in jail in 2018. They—I mean, there were reports of dead—like, dead prisoners under torture. There were—I mean, so it was—it was an idea of, well, if it was a rogue operation, why the rogue operatives are still operating in the kingdom? Because the same practices are still being made right now while I’m speaking. Like, just to—like Saudi Americans were arrested in April—just April, like, last month. And other people were tortured. Some hacking just took place after Khashoggi. A lot of Saudis were called to go back to Saudi Arabia to be arrested from other parts of the world.
You have—you might have seen the reports of the three people that I talked about being tracked, and there were attempts to—either to threaten them physically or through other means by the Saudi government after Khashoggi. Now these practices after Khashoggi.
BARNARD: So are you saying, Abdullah, that you don’t think they want to resolve it, in the sense that they want to keep using these methods, and to have everyone know that they do it?
ALAOUDH: They want to send a message—they want to send a message to the locals that they are strong enough. So they want to defy the international—the Western pressure. That’s the message. And at the same time, they want to give a message to the West that they can change. So it’s a dilemma how to do this.
Q: I’m Edward Wong, diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, a colleague of Anne’s.
Whenever people talk about human rights in these prisons, there’s always a question of whether the State Department or the administration raises these issues in diplomatic conversations. And so oftentimes the State Department might put out a statement saying: Oh, we raised the issue of the Syrian prisoners, or we raised the issue of Khashoggi, or we raised the issue of Jason. And so the question then is, what—do you think that that’s useful? Or do you think that that’s not useful, unless it’s attached to some sort of direct policy implication, sanctions, or ongoing negotiations over something else, military options for example?
And then, if you think the latter is true, then in these current situations that you’re each focusing on, whether it’s Iran or Saudi Arabia, or the Syrian prisons, what are your policy recommendations right now for what quid pro quo should be attached to alleviating the conditions in these prisons?
REZAIAN: So I’ll talk about Iran just briefly. I mean, I think it is obviously something that gets raised every time that they meet with Iranian delegations, although they’re not meeting with Iranian delegations at this point, right? It’s about a year since communications have been basically cut, when Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. I think it made a difference in my situation personally. And I also know of other cases, not necessarily of dual nationals, but when their cases were raised by European diplomats to Iranian ministers on business to Tehran, or when Iranian ministers came to Europe, that it moved the needle from time to time.
I think—I don’t want to say that, you know, the U.S. should make it a demand to further negotiations with Iran. But we’re at—we’re entering this phase. The State Department has this maximum pressure campaign going with Iran. And I’m not really sure what they’re trying to get out of that maximum pressure campaign, but it seems to me that they’ve been woefully silent over the last couple months on the situation of Americans being held there. And I think it should be a much bigger issue than it is.
MOUSTAFA: I would just say that bringing it up always helps. I think that—and I think one thing that needs to happen, I mean, looking at Syria. I mean, Syria, it’s—there’s countless women, and children, and elderly that are behind held, and all kinds of people. And I know that, you know, I mentioned the story when people were speaking about it, that at least conditions were slightly better. But I think also naming and shaming those people that we know are heading these different intelligence branches—it doesn’t have to be just the highest ranking individuals—I think can also help act as a deterrent or also help, you know, produce more witnesses and defectors and others that want to—or, would rather be a witness than a suspect. And I think that’s important.
Beyond that, on a very specific policy recommendation, you know, there is a bill named after Caesar in the United States Congress called the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which does that. It goes after the heads of different intelligence branches, and also focuses more widely on the protection of civilians. And I think the more than we pass legislation like that—this legislation has passed the House and Senate, but we need the same version to pass both to hopefully make it law. This year it’s passed now the House of Representatives three times. I think these things can help at least deter a little bit what is ongoing.
ALAOUDH: Saudi Arabia is totally dependent on the U.S. Its economy, politics, and all. And for the U.S. to pressure is really important and effective. The most recent example is the arrests of feminists. When the—when—I mean, it was said that the U.S. department pressured MBS to release at least some feminists in order to—for the U.S. to allow the female ambassador to take—to have its position here in the U.S., because it’s ridiculous just to allow MBS to sell the idea that he is empowering women, and giving—like, appointing the first female ambassador, while at the same time imprisoning the, you know, prominent feminists in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia released temporarily some feminists, and also still holding others. But that pressure worked. And also, policy-wise, I mean, the idea—one main way of pressuring and changing the policy is to build new bridges with other people, with other—with institution within Saudi Arabia. Within—I mean, to build bridges with the Saudi society itself, that has been seen as a black hole for a long time, and nobody knows anything about it. It’s important even for the pressure to work on MBS and others to open ways and channels with other people—within the royal family, within the Saudi institutions, and within the Saudi society.
BARNARD: So and I’m a journalist, so it’s not my role to make policy recommendations, but I will say two things regarding the opinions of people I’ve reported on. One is that someone who is from the inner—not the inner-inner circle, but who’s from a military family that’s been close to the Syrian government for decades, told me that the only way to make anything happen—whether it’s limiting Assad’s remaining years in power to pushing for security reform—is to have extremely targeted and extremely painful economic consequences, not so much for the top security officials but, as you know, Syria is a place that has a hierarchical, you know, map of how the government works, but that’s not the real one. The real one is based on these personal relationships with a very small inner circle around the Assad family. And that you have to make those people hurt. That’s the only way to make anything happen. So he basically is saying that the sanctions have to be much more targeted and much more significant.
When it comes—I really think that there’s also a bigger picture that we need to look at, and I think we have time for a couple more questions. But I just want to say that in general when we’re thinking about policy on these things what I hear again and again from people in the region, especially the civil society advocates who are trying to democratize and advocate for pluralism and meaningful citizenship in these countries, they say that there is—there is a misconception in the West that this is just how things are over there, and this is how those societies have to be ruled. And that is something that the authoritarian leaders of those societies, allies and enemies of the United States, use against the rest of the world all the time, to say: You should really thank us for cracking down on these people, because, you know, you know, you don’t know what they’ll do if they have any freedom.
And I think what we’ve learned over the last couple of decades is that, you know, obviously societies are much more complicated than that, and that we really have to differentiate, as Abdullah said, between different parts of the society, and try to empower the parts that are looking for, you know, the same things that people all over the world are looking for. These things are not unique to the Middle East. These are products of political and economic dynamics that are explicable not by some mysterious nature of Arabs or Muslims, but because of the way these countries have been governed for decades, with Western acquiescence. So that’s the message I get across the board from people in these countries.
Yes. Oh, wait, let’s go to someone who hasn’t had a question yet, and then we’ll come back to you. Yes.
Q: Yeah, I’m Frank Lockwood. I’m with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Jason, if I understood you correctly, you said: When someone’s held by Iran, making as much noise as possible is a good thing, getting as much visibility as you can. What about people that are being held—American being held in Syria? What’s the best approach for them?
REZAIAN: I mean, I would say that if it’s an American citizen, right, the best approach is always raising it, because you don’t expect these regimes to do the right thing out of the goodness of their hearts. You expect them to do the right thing when pressured by the U.S. government to do the right thing.
BARNARD: Didn’t that backfire with Layla’s case?
MOUSTAFA: No, Layla’s case was actually not public at all. And so it only—Layla’s case only became public after she was executed.
BARNARD: But it was after the Czech ambassador, on behalf of the U.S. government, has raised the fact that she was an American citizen.
MOUSTAFA: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
BARNARD: Like, the next day she was executed.
MOUSTAFA: What was interesting about that case is that, yeah, she—the Syrian regime with Layla had—almost wanted to make the point that they could get away with it. And the way that the Czech ambassador and the State Department, I think, approached the whole issue probably—obviously didn’t work, right? It didn’t help, because, yeah, I mean, the Czech ambassador meets with Layla, meets with Ali Mamlouk, and then but a few days later she gets, like, a two-minute trial, and then she’s executed. So I think raising it privately is important, but it needs to be coupled with a very public—you know, raising it very, very publicly. I think that’s—you now, look at—you know, at Austin Tice or maybe—(inaudible)—and others, you know, there’s hope that, you know, God willing, that they’re alive and that they’ll come back home.
But there, we had both a back channel and a private conversation, and a very public one. So I think that they should raise it, but they should—they should almost simultaneously go with public attention, which is really difficult for families to do. I mean, it’s like the hardest thing to do. I have—I have an uncle who was taken by the Syrian regime. He’s not an American citizen, but, like, one of the hardest things to do, even now, like thinking about it, just to bring him up, just to say that, because you fear that that may increase his torture, or make things worse, and so on. But the fact is, at least from my experience, it needs to be both public and private.
ALAOUDH: Yeah, I echo that. Also, there is the case of Loujain Hathloul. I mean, the Saudi government always tries to send the message that pressure backfires. And they will retaliate. And they will, you know, attack the families. They will find a way to pressure them. And they have done, to me, seventeen members of my family are banned from traveling. When the brother of Loujain, and the sister, went public and talked—
BARNARD: Loujain is one of the feminist activists.
ALAOUDH: Right. And Walid went even on CNN to raise the issue of Loujain. And he talked in a lot of, like, forums and panels. The Saudi government through secret channels sent a message to him that we will keep Loujain as long as you talk, because we cannot, you know, allow somebody to tell us what to do, or twist our arm, or, you know, pressure us. We are a state. We are strong. And so even the family decided to stay silent for some time to see if that could work. And that didn’t work either. So it’s really—I mean, for me, the pressure, the staying—trying to pressure hard and make noises as much as possible always works in the long run, but it could have some consequences in the—in the, you know, short term. So.
BARNARD: I think we have two more minutes for a quick question. Yes.
Q: Peter Rosenblatt, a lawyer.
From the perspective of hostage-taking regimes, what is the point of abusing hostages if the ultimate purpose is to release them in exchange for some benefit?
REZAIAN: I mean, my experience is that beyond the initial abuse of trying to coerce you into confessing the things that you didn’t do to essentially raise your public profile and value, there is no use to further physical abuse. And in my experience, the longer the detention went on, and the more I personally showed signs of frailty physically and emotionally, and the more the public pressure campaign raised, the better I was treated. And that’s my experience. And it’s been the experience of other people held by the Iranian regime, which I would say is sort of the vanguard of hostage-taking regimes.
ALAOUDH: I mean, for me, if I can add something, I mean, it’s always problematic in the West to try to rationalize everything, because you always assume the actor is rational and they have, like, rational forces, and they’re driven by rationale and all that. But not everyone is, you know, like that. (Laughs.) I mean, a lot of people are just driven by personal gains, by some envy, by some personal problems. I mean, what’s the point of cutting Khashoggi after killing him? What’s the point of sexually harassing Loujain, Aziza and others when they are in jail and they were interrogated? There’s no point for that.
BARNARD: And I think, of course, hostage-taking is in contrast to the other type of detention we’ve been talking about, which is the political repression detention. And in that case, of course, the purpose of the physical and psychological torture is to break people and to stop them from opposing the government.
REZAIAN: And they want that to get out to other people.
BARNARD: And to spread the message, exactly.
REZAIAN: To put fear in everybody.
MOUSTAFA: If you look at the Syrian case, I mean, just in terms of that—I mean, just the terrorizing sort of the state, and showing that they can act with impunity regardless of who this person is, or who they might be tied to and connected to. I mean, in Syria I think one of the most powerful propaganda tools of the regime wasn’t the message to the international community that he’s protecting minorities and just fighting ISIS and terrorists. But it was the hundreds and hundreds of videos that were leaked out of people in military garb torturing everybody else in some of the most heinous ways. I mean, just the sadistic nature of regime prisons, regardless of what your nationality is, and especially if you’re a Syrian, is—it’s hard to process. I mean, even for me, looking at these pictures now for five years and so on. But it is definitely a tool to sow fear within the community and also, like, tie the fate of specific ethnic groups to the ruling party, and just making sure that there can never be any way to move forward without this—you know, this system of government, without this specific regime.
BARNARD: OK. I think on that cheerful note we’ll wrap up the meeting. Thank you very much for attending. Please do read the book, and read my article, and read these guys’ work. Thank you so much. (Applause.)