A huge hole in our lives: the disapperance of human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq

Three years after her father’s disappearance, 24-year-old Raneem Ma’touq tells her family’s story.

Raneem Ma’touq is the daughter of Khalil Ma’touq, a human rights lawyer and the director of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research, who disappeared on 2 October 2012, along with a colleague, while they were on their way to work in Damascus. It is believed he was arrested after being detained at a government checkpoint, and has been held in conditions amounting to an enforced disappearance ever since. Today marks three years since he was arrested.

When Raneem Ma’touq’s father disappeared nearly three years ago, she was 21 years old. She and her family felt as if their whole world had fallen apart.

“[His disappearance] left a huge hole in our lives. For a young woman in our neighborhood, it was like hell living without him,” she said.

As a human rights lawyer defending political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Syria, her father, Khalil Ma’touq, was no stranger to threats, harassment and intimidation by the Syrian authorities. Even before the Syrian conflict began, he was subjected to a travel ban.

On 2 October 2012, he vanished while driving to work in nearby Damascus with his friend and assistant Mohammed Thatha.

His family has not heard from him since. The Syrian authorities have denied holding him. Unofficial reports suggest he and his colleague were stopped and arrested at a government-controlled checkpoint. Since then, released detainees have reported seeing him in various detention facilities across Damascus.

Khalil Ma’touq is one of tens of thousands of people who have been subjected to enforced disappearance at the hands of Syrian security forces since the conflict began. Amnesty International considers these disappearances to be part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population that amount to crimes against humanity.

After her father disappeared, life was rough for Raneem and her family in Sahnaya, the predominantly pro-government neighborhood where they live on the outskirts of Damascus.

“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 said.

In early 2013, a man pretending he knew where her father was said he’d help her bring him medication. Khalil Ma’touq suffers from a lung condition and needs regular medication, and his family fears his health has sharply deteriorated in prison. Instead of helping, the man abducted her.

“[My abductor] put a gun to my head, but then let me go. Now I think he just wanted to take pictures of me to show to my father in prison that he has me,” she said. The man, who she suspects may have been a member of the Syrian internal security forces, held her for a few hours before releasing her.

Raneem was then arrested by the Syrian government on 17 February 2014, seized from her home during a raid on the neighborhood.

“There were about 30 men, shouting and threatening us with their weapons. They took everything from the house: money, computers, papers – everything,” she said.

She was barely able to get dressed before they shoved the handcuffs on to her wrists. They took her to one of Syria’s most notorious military intelligence branches – Branch 227 – in the Kafr Sousseh area of Damascus, where she was held for two months before being transferred to ‘Adra prison.

The interrogators questioned her about her “role in the revolution” and ties to armed groups.

“I just told them the truth: I had been helping people who needed support,” she said. “I was beaten a lot during interrogation. I also asked them about my father – where he is – but they hit me again. One of the interrogators said to me, ‘Don’t be like your father.’”

In prison, she endured horrific detention conditions. She and nine other women were kept in a tiny cell, two meters long by one meter wide. Her bed sheets were splotched with bloodstains and crawling with insects.

From her cell, she could hear the screams of other detainees during interrogations, suggesting they were being tortured or otherwise ill-treated.

“That alone was torture,” said Raneem. “Our cell door had a small window and we could see bodies lying in the corridors and in the bathrooms. Every morning, the guards would come and take some of the bodies out of the cells, but usually only after they had been dead for some days. It was mostly men, but children, too. The children looked like they were between 10 and 15 years old. Others were lying for days in their cells, dying after they had been tortured.”

Raneem told Amnesty International that when she threatened to go on hunger strike, an officer sexually assaulted a fellow female prisoner in front of her with a bottle in an attempt to make her call off the strike. She did.

After four months in detention, she was finally released on 11 June 2014. Soon afterwards, she and her family left the country.

Raneem, now 24, appears far from broken by this traumatic experience. Instead, she has drawn remarkable strength from it.

When her father was first imprisoned, she and her family were keen to feel his hardship and intentionally endured cold and hunger.

When I was arrested myself, I understood that we need to do the opposite: we need to be strong because I know that he worries about us and we need to be well to support him when he is released,” she said.

This strength has helped them survive and persevere in the hope that, despite three years of disappearance, he will one day be reunited with his family.

This article was first published by Syria Deeply.