Dozens of Assad shabiha end up as refugees in the Netherlands, alarming Syrians: "These are the people we fled from.": Dutch newspaper

A shabih named as 'Bashar' (center), now in the Netherlands, pictured with a German Shepherd dog and two colleagues at a checkpoint run by Branch 215 in Damascus. Photo from Facebook, 2016

Translation of report from NRC Handelsblad, Netherlands, published on November 4. Original (in Dutch) below.

One evening this summer in a quiet residential area between the hockey field and the primary school in a village in the Netherlands’ Drenthe province, Raed Sadek felt his breath catch in his throat. A photo had just appeared on the screen of his cell phone showing a man in a bulletproof vest with a weapon in his right hand.

The photo must have been taken in Syria, but the man in it lives in this sleepy village near Raed. Their wives dance and cook together and the man sometimes visits his home. Raed doesn’t know anything about his life other than that he was a hairdresser in Damascus and lost his right arm in a traffic accident.

There are more photos of the man on Facebook. He’s sitting at a table in a uniform with the logo of the military security service, with a walkie-talkie in front of him. He poses in uniform with a German Shepherd guard dog and two other men in the street. With seven others in uniform, he stands in front of a bare concrete wall with small windows high above the ground. In front of the wall is a white van, of the type Raed knows only too well.

Raed was arrested four times by the Syrian security forces for criticizing President Bashar al-Assad's regime. He was repeatedly tortured, while his wife and two young daughters remained at home not knowing if he was alive or dead. After that fourth time, Raid decided to flee at the end of 2015, via Lebanon to the Netherlands. His wife and children followed a few months later.

The family has now lived in this village for four years and had another daughter and a son. The children speak better Dutch than Arabic and they call the neighbors Grandma and Grandpa. The eldest cycles one hour daily to and from secondary school in Groningen, while the three-year-old girl receives speech therapy. She runs into the garden barefoot while Raid fixes a bicycle. "The Netherlands is my second homeland," he says.

But Syria will not let go of him. Raed is often restless, says his wife. Sometimes he searches his phone for hours on end for messages from family and friends in Syria who are at risk of being picked up. He still has nightmares about the torture he endured. The fact that he bumped into a possible member of the Syrian security service here, in his home in Drenthe, is inconceivable for Raid. “These are the people we fled from,” he says. “They can do anything in Syria, but there are laws and regulations in the Netherlands. If they are not punished there, it must be done here.”

In September of this year, Stef Blok, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, came up with an ambitious plan : the Netherlands is to sue the Syrian state, via an unusual route: an international treaty against torture that was also signed by Syria in 2004.

Blok did not come up with that idea himself. A smart young Syrian lawyer working from a British office came up with the route to such a criminal case at the beginning of this year. The office presented the plan to the authorities in Canada and three European countries and the Netherlands was the first to pick it up. The road to such a trial is long, Blok acknowledges, but he believes the Netherlands must take the lead internationally. "If we do not take the first step, nothing will ever happen," said the minister. "We owe this to the victims and must show the world that we are not going to let this pass just like that."

In the Netherlands, however, this ideal is unachieved. While the Netherlands says it wants to prosecute Assad’s regime, the regime’s accomplices here go free. The public prosecution has tried three Syrians in court for committing war crimes as members of a terrorist or Salafist organization, but no-one who fought on Assad's side as Germany did.

It should be noted that the regime is undoubtedly responsible for by far the most civilian deaths in Syria, with a June report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights revealing that Assad’s regime was responsible for a whopping 98.9 percent of the 14,388 fatal torture cases between March 2011 and June 2020.

Don't Assad's henchmen live in the Netherlands? Immigration service IND hardly sees them. A special unit called 1F is tasked with tracking down Syrian refugees who are "seriously suspected" of having committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. The department recently investigated all 12,570 files of all Syrian men between 17 and 35 years old, who received asylum in the Netherlands between January 2011 and January 2016.

State Secretary Ankie Broekers-Knol (Justice, VVD) presented the remarkable results at the end of June: the IND found enough evidence against only one Syrian to withdraw his residence permit.

In recent months, NRC has spoken with more than ninety sources - victims, lawyers, activists, officials - and has searched the social media of men who may have committed crimes in Assad's name. Victims refer to them as "shabiha," a common term in Syria for regime loyalists who arrest, rape, torture and murder political opponents. According to an expert, dozens live in the Netherlands and several hundred in Western Europe.

Their presence causes unrest in the Syrian community in the Netherlands. On numerous websites, Syrians warn each other about fellow countrymen of whom they know - or believe they know - what crimes they have committed. Some shabiha still maintain ties with the regime and use these to threaten and extort other Syrians in the Netherlands. NRC encountered several victims.

Bashar is the name of the one-armed man. He has a silver-gray BMW with which he delivers meals on weekends for a snack bar in Assen. After seeing his photos, Raed made enquiries about him. He heard stories from mutual friends who occasionally have a drink with him, sometimes smoking a joint together. They said that Bashar likes to boast about his past in Syria. He would report that he worked for a senior officer, was in the military security service and dragged opponents of the regime out of their homes as part of a "raid unit". A second source who Bashar knows personally confirms to NRC that he had bragged about it.

They are extremely serious matters. The military security raid unit in Damascus which Bashar worked with is Branch 215. In the unit's prison complex, civilians have been tortured to death on an industrial scale.

Raid asks advice from his neighbor, Gerda. One afternoon in June, while they sit on the bench in his backyard, he pulls out the photos. “He was upset,” Gerda later recounts in her living room, with her miniature dog on her lap. “Raed often speaks quickly, I know him, but then he was really scared. He showed me a picture of a man with a gun and said, 'This man has killed people like this in Syria.' ” - she mimics Raed running his hand over his throat. "He asked, ‘Gerda, what am I going to do with this?’ I said, ‘Take this to the police, Raid’. ‘Really,’ he said? ‘Really’, I replied. ‘You have to go to the police with that.’”

Not long after that conversation, Raed walked to the police station, near his house. He spoke to a cop, but the office was about to close over coronavirus concerns and so they are outside on the sidewalk. Raed’s Dutch is faltering.

Raed believed he was filing a report, but when he returns a few weeks later to find out what happened to his report, police officer, Harry Prak, cannot find anything about the conversation in the system. Raid prepared to leave.

“You’re here now,” says Prak kindly. "What do you want to tell me?" He takes Raed to a room in the office, where he tells his story with the help of an interpreter.

This was the conversation:

Raid: “I have a photo of someone and his name’s been published on a Facebook page. The person lives here. I also hear from Syrians what abuses he has done in Syria.”
Prak: "And those crimes that you want to talk about are very serious facts?"
Raed: "Yes."
Prak: "Against human life?"
Raed: "I have a picture of that gentleman." He shows it on his phone.
Prak: “Do you know this person yourself, personally? Have you been in contact with him?”
Raid: “Yes. But not anymore."

Raed isn't the only one to warn authorities about Bashar this summer after seeing the alarming photos. Another man has already reported it. The subsequent police investigation was halted after two months due to ‘lack of evidence’. A third man sends an anonymous email to the Police International Crimes Team at the end of June.

For this study, NRC spoke to more than 90 sources in the Netherlands, Syria, Turkey, Germany, France and Great Britain over the past seven months, in addition to dozens of Syrians who came into contact with 'shabiha' (loyalists of the Assad regime who arrest, torture and murder opponents), NRC spoke with academics, lawyers, social workers and sources at IND and the judiciary.

Many Syrians spoke on condition of anonymity. They fear for their safety or that of their loved ones in Syria. To gain their trust, some were approached through intermediaries. Many interviews took place with an interpreter. Almost every conversation has been recorded.

The surnames and places of residence of Bashar, Yassin and Amer have been omitted and their faces made unrecognizable for security reasons. Also details about some shabiha and their working methods have been omitted to prevent victims from being identified.

For access to often protected profiles of shabiha, we sometimes looked at sources who are friends with them on social media. NRC had the location of some photos determined by a specialist via geolocation.

The two main Syrian organizations from whom NRC requested additional information, SCM and VDC, did not provide names of sources, but provided explanations about the number and type of sources and the certainty of findings. That has been taken into account in this article. In addition to the three cases in this article, NRC came across another ten alleged shabiha in the Netherlands.

The tipster, who says he knows Bashar personally, writes that Bashar feels 'proud' about his crimes in Syria. "He was a criminal and was the reason for the arrest of many people and was responsible for the torture of prisoners in Syrian prisons," the email said. Nine photos of Bashar are attached.

The sender never received a reply.

In a response, the International Crimes Team said: "An acknowledgment of receipt would have been appropriate."

Nobody knows exactly why the shabiha are called that. They drive around in the particular type of Mercedes with blacked-out windows which are favoured by security forces in much of the Arab world and is known as the 'shabih', which means spirit. Or perhaps they conjure up ghosts of involvement in shadowy crimes, dark torture chambers and death.

In any case, any Syrian can tell you what the shabiha are, says Ugur Üngör, a professor of genocide studies affiliated with the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD). He is writing a book on the subject. According to him, the shabiha are an integral part of the Syrian state's machine of violence - often young, poorly educated men from poor families who are used by the regime to do the dirtiest jobs. "They are the ‘flexible workers’ of the violence industry," said Üngör. "They can be deployed anytime, anywhere as a kind of vigilante, an armed civil mobilization to repress dissenters."

This came in handy when, in the spring of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets during the Arab Spring in a revolution to demand freedom. Assad mobilized his shabiha to beat up, torture, or murder protesters. "The Shabiha committed crimes against humanity on an industrial scale," said Üngör. "That is precisely the violence that has radicalized the conflict."

These men soon became part of Assad's security forces and of the NDF (National Defense Forces), a militia created in 2012 to help the losing Syrian army. As the war intensified, many left for Europe. "Fighting at the front is a different story to beating up opposition kids on the street," said Üngör. "Many shabiha thought: ‘We didn’t sign up for this.’"

They traveled with the millions of Syrian civilians whom they had just displaced. According to Üngör, they could slip into European countries and the Netherlands unnoticed because no one was paying attention to them. "All the debates were about jihadists in the refugee stream," says the academic. "I have watched this with restrained anger, because the regime's share in the destruction of Syrian society is many times greater."

Syrians themselves immediately raised the alarm. From the start of the refugee crisis, they set up websites and Facebook pages to map shabiha traveling to Europe. Üngör has been watching these media over the years, counting “at least dozens” in the Netherlands and hundreds in Western Europe. "At the time, the information was hardly picked up by European investigative services," he says. "There was just very little interest in Assad's crimes."

That is changing as Germany leads the prosecution of Assad's henchmen in its own country. In the city of Koblenz, the world's first case began this spring against two alleged regime torturers. The main suspect Anwar R. (57) is charged with the torture of 4,000 people and 58 murders, his accomplice Eyad A. (43) is on trial for complicity in 30 cases of torture. Shortly afterwards, German police arrested a Syrian doctor who allegedly tortured his patients after Der Spiegel and Al Jazeera Arabic reported about him. All the suspects were recognized by Syrian refugees.

The German initiatives gave new impetus to the search for Syrian war criminals across Europe. A new stream of information about the shabiha appeared on social media.

"Finally we see that our efforts can lead to something," said Mazen Darwish , founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) in Paris. The prominent Syrian human rights lawyer was himself tortured by the regime for years and traveled to Koblenz to testify. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are working with prosecutors in Canada, the United States and seven European countries to share evidence about possible new suspects. "Koblenz is just the beginning for us," says Darwish. "It is time for the rest of Europe to take action."

Recruiting fighters

In a city in Northern Holland lives a Syrian-Palestinian man who is known to authorities as a menace. He and his sons have intimidated other refugees. He often complains that he wants more money, say two former counselors from Refugee Work. His application to the Food Bank was rejected when his bank statement showed that he had thousands of euros and that he made large debit card withdrawals and expenses. "That’s raised some questions about his origins," says a source.

The man's name is Yassin. He was born in 1966 in the Syrian city of Homs, studied mechanical engineering in Germany and lived and worked in Russia for a few years. In the late 1990s he returned to Homs, where he started a construction company which eventually employed 400 employees and had construction orders across the country.

In the Palestinian refugee camp al-Aideen in Homs, where he lived, Yassin was a well-known figure. He was involved with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), an organization listed on the European terror list and working closely with the regime. Later he joined the pro-Assad militia Liwa al-Quds (the 'Jerusalem Brigade'). He regularly shares news about that militia on Facebook. In photos, he poses with the two top commanders Mohammed al-Sa'eed and Adnan al-Sayyed. The militia page has photos of Yassin in uniform. In one he wears the militia logo on his arm.

According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), a Syrian NGO that documents human rights abuses by all parties to the Syrian conflict, the militia is guilty of war crimes. Its members not only fought IS, but also participated in regime attacks in Aleppo, East Ghouta and Idlib, among others, that killed thousands of civilians. According to the NGO, the militia is also responsible for summary executions, kidnappings, torture and arrests.

Yassin had many functions, according to more than seven sources who know him from Syria. As a prominent figure, he mediated between the regime and the inhabitants of the camp. Sometimes he negotiated for prisoners’ release, at others he negotiated to have opponents of the regime arrested. Due to being in his fifties, he probably did not join the militia, but he would be involved in the recruitment of underage fighters.

The NGO confirms that the militia is recruiting child soldiers, posting numerous photos of young fighters on social media. In an article on Syrian opposition media by Syria Call about a campaign by the militia to recruit “the youth of the camp”, Yassin is in the front of the photo.

In his living room, Yassin talks about his life in the camp for four hours in the presence of an interpreter

In his living room, Yassin talks about his life in the camp for four hours in the presence of an interpreter. His gray hair is dyed black on top. He wears tracksuit pants and a white T-shirt with 'Nike Air' in black letters. His wife makes coffee and sits down next to him on the couch. Every now and then she nods in agreement.

He was on the neighborhood committee, the mosque committee, the hospital committee, a charity club in the camp. He did everything to keep his people safe, he says, adding that this is why he maintained good relations with the Syrian regime security forces and the Popular Front.

In 2015 his position changed. The PFLP-GC was losing influence and he received fewer invitations from the regime. He feared for the safety of his children and sent them to the Netherlands. Over time, like everyone else, he became “involved in military affairs,” he admits, adding, “Civilians no longer existed. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.”

“I have never recruited or facilitated child soldiers. I completely deny that, ”he says. "Those are lies from the opposition."

Yassin openly talks about his ties to Liwa al-Quds. In 2017, for example, he had breakfast with Commander Adnan al-Sayyed, who has been his friend “for 20 or 25 years”. “I requested him to protect the camp,” he says, adding that it was only during that year that he wore the uniform, as a "security guarantee".

Did he recruit child soldiers? "I have never recruited or facilitated child soldiers," he says, calling this opposition lies.

In the summer of 2017, Yassin traveled to the Netherlands to be reunited with his children. Not because he had much to fear in Syria, it seems. He went there again in 2019, according to his own words, to see family and to maintain good ties with the regime. The IND has already examined him extensively. Nothing came of that, he says. "I'm not afraid to talk."

When large numbers of Syrian refugees came to the Netherlands at the same time from 2015, "the paper sometimes came in wheelbarrows," recalls a former employee of the IND’s ‘Department 1F’. The department is named after the article of the same name in the Refugee Convention which states that residence in a country can be denied to people who are guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity. It was founded after Vrij Nederland published a report in 1997 about Afghan refugees who had met torturers and executioners from their country in the Netherlands.

With one such specialist investigation, says the former employee, “you can easily spend three months”. That time was often not available. “Possible cases were sometimes closed without an interview. And where refugees were interviewed, the preparation was often poor,” says another former employee.

The question is whether accomplices are actually picked out upon entry. The number of Syrians who are denied residence because they are suspected of having committed a war crime has remained the same for all these years: “less than ten” per year, according to the IND. “There is still little proactive information gathering,” says the former employee.

Similarly, the reassessment commissioned by the Netherlands’ then- Secretary of State of all those files of Syrian men this summer, yielded little. The thought was that the IND now knew more about the war, the workload had decreased and the screening had improved. For example, since March 2016, 1F has also been investigating refugees' social media and data from their phones..

The department does not have to prove that someone has committed war crimes. A 'serious suspicion' is sufficient. The IND website states that the department wants to prevent 'victims who have been offered protection from feeling unsafe because of the presence in the Netherlands of those who are responsible for having to flee home and hearth'.

23 people work at 1F, including management and support staff. Only one speaks Arabic. The department conducts long-term, specialist research, handles asylum applications involving international crimes, and assists IND colleagues who see these people first.

Last year, the department conducted investigations into ninety refugees from a number of war-torn countries, including fifty Syrians. According to the IND, “less than ten” Syrian refugees receive 1F status every year. The IND cannot say whether this concerns Assad's accomplices or other terrorists.

The reassessment took eighteen months, which equates to roughly 700 files per month. The answer? One procedure against a suspected criminal and perhaps seven others. Of those seven, only three are currently under investigation. Lecturer Maarten Bolhuis of the VU University in Amsterdam, who is considered an expert on Article 1F, concludes that “all the extra investments” by the IND to improve screening, “therefore yield little extra”.

The Netherlands effectively provides a safety net for Assad's henchmen who slip through the immigration service. The International Crimes Team (TIM) is a specialist police team that, under the leadership of the Public Prosecution Service, detects and prosecutes war criminals in the Netherlands - a difficult job. The detectives cannot investigate in Syria, the crimes were sometimes committed a long time ago, in the midst of chaos and war. Victims and witnesses distrust the police and fear that reporting could endanger their own safety or that of loved ones in Syria.

The team has achieved some success with war criminals from other countries, sentencing three Rwandans and one Ethiopian man. It provides information and testimonies on Syrian war crimes to Germany and France. Now it "wants nothing more" than to start a case against an Assad accomplice in the Netherlands, say those involved. To do this, it must also maintain good contacts with the Syrian community.

“That's where things sometimes go wrong,” explains Hope Rikkelman, affiliated with the Syria Legal Network in the Netherlands, a network of Syrian lawyers, human rights activists and law students. She has mediated for years between the Syrian community and the TIM in reporting war crimes. She sees the will to present a case, but says: "There is so much information in that community and the judiciary makes far too little use of it." While the Public Prosecution Service in Germany actively invites Syrian lawyers and activists to discuss cases, the Netherlands is reluctant, she says.

Rikkelman: “The TIM wants people to report matters and then does not hear anything. It has even explicitly asked us not to be involved with any business content. ”

Other help is also withheld, she says. Since 2016, she has pointed out flaws to TIM in the brochures in which it calls on refugees to report crimes. The translation was flawed and Syrians did not understand what was being asked of them, meaning nothing happened with it. Rikkelman recently heard reports that a new brochure is to be published, but adds, “We represent the Syrian humanitarian community in the Netherlands. The TIM did not even send us the brochure.”

In response to this, a spokesperson for the Public Prosecution Service and the TIM said that the brochure "is limited in content because of the applicable rules for making police brochures", adding, "We will deal with the indications of possibly flawed translation."

The Public Prosecution Service calls “close contacts” with Syrian organizations “of great importance for the detection” of international crimes and says it will invest in this. But it also indicates that it cannot provide feedback. That would "of course only stand in the way of investigations."

After Raed filed a report, police have started to look into the case again.

Syrian refugees often do not trust one another in the Netherlands for fear of the shabiha. They limit their social contacts and sometimes avoid public gatherings. Multiple activists say they self-censor on social media because they receive anonymous threats. Fewer and fewer people show up at demonstrations because unknown men turn up to film the demonstrators, says the organizer of those demonstrations, the Syrian Committee.

Sometimes the threat goes one step further. Shabiha put other Syrians under pressure by threatening to do something to their loved ones in Syria. NRC counted at least five victims of this type of practice. Three of them only dared to talk through social workers and intermediaries. “I've already lost my country,” one man apologized through a friend. "I don't want to lose my father in Syria too."

Two victims were forced to hand over money to prevent harm to their families in their home country

Their fear is real. Shortly after criticizing the regime to a fellow countryman, a victim was sent a video showing a family member being beaten up in Syria. Another one’s father was arrested after a shabih had threatened he would be. Two victims were forced to hand over money to prevent harm to their families in their home country.

There are indications that this wrongdoing is being coordinated with the Syrian authorities. Two sources heard from family members in Syria that the secret service has mentioned information from the Netherlands during interrogations. NRC also has a recording of a telephone conversation between a Syrian in the Netherlands and a man in Syria who presumably works for the regime through a source. The latter is evident from the military ranks that are discussed several times and the context of the conversation, in which the man says that he collects information about activists and passes it on to the government.

Ugur Üngör of the NIOD emphasizes the danger of the shabiha for Dutch society. He sees that they have mutual contact and are sometimes active in organized crime. “As soon as they get their Dutch passport, that number will only grow,” he warns. “These are people who excel in violence and experience a tremendous sense of loss of power. It is only a matter of time before they reassert their old skills and start armed gangs here too.”

Bodies at the checkpoint

And then there is a third and final case. A Syrian man in the Netherlands tells us about it. He kneels on the floor of his house and clasps his hands around the back of his head. “This is how my friend was shot,” he says. “I cleaned the body myself. One finger was missing and there was a bullet wound in the back of his head. That's why I think he was executed from behind, with his hands on his head. There were thirteen stab wounds in his body.”

The night before death, in August or September 2012, the friend rushed to the east of Damascus to rescue his sister-in-law. She was trapped in Ain Tarma, a neighborhood under siege by regime troops at the time. When the woman was able to get out the next morning, she saw seven bodies lying at the checkpoint outside the entrance to the ward. One belonged to that friend, her brother-in-law.

Another family member of the killed man decided to collect the body and told the man who now lives in the Netherlands what he found there. The men who worked at the checkpoint said the relative could take the body of the man they referred to as “the animal” if he signed a piece of paper stating that "the terrorists" were behind the murder. The family member signed and left. Before he left the checkpoint, he saw a familiar face: Amer.

"I have known Amer since childhood," says the man who now lives in the Netherlands. He grew up with him in the Dwel'a district, also in the east of Damascus. Amer comes from a poor Christian family and joined the local shabiha at the beginning of the uprising, according to multiple sources. Dwel'a was full of them, they hung out in nightclubs, sold drugs and terrorized the neighborhood, says the man in the Netherlands. He saw Amer himself several times at another checkpoint in the same neighborhood, near the Kabas viaduct.

In 2015, shortly after his arrival in the Netherlands, the man received a message from an acquaintance: Amer is also in the Netherlands. Not long after that, the first photos appear on Facebook. Amer is seen sitting in an army uniform and with a rifle on a plastic chair in front of a viaduct. In another photo: Amer in jeans and white sneakers in a metro station in Amsterdam.

Amer now lives in a Gelderland village. This spring he took a ‘Start Your Own Company’ course offered to Syrian refugees in Tiel. There, other students recognized him from the photos. "All of a sudden we were afraid to attend that course," says one of them, "but no one dared to say anything." The instructor who has raised the issue does not want to respond in order to protect student privacy.

Amers's social network says a lot about his environment in Syria. His eldest brother, for example, fought with the regime and was killed in the process in October 2013. Another brother liked the Facebook page of the NDF militia of Dwel'a. A man with the same last name and with whom Amer still exchanges warm messages on Facebook, poses on that page with a burned body.

It is difficult to determine what exactly is on Amer’s conscience. But Kabas' checkpoint was considered one of the most dangerous in Damascus. The Syrian Violations Documentation Center documented nine summary executions in the years 2012 and 2013. One involved a child.

NRC called Amer twice to ask him questions. Both times he hung up again within minutes. He refers to himself as 'Bab Sharqi' (“Whether I have defended Damascus, Bab Sharqi or the Arab world, don't call me”), a gateway to the historic center of Damascus, which is an extension of the road past the checkpoint. from Kabas. "It's all over for me," says Amer fiercely. “There is no need to talk about these things. If you have something in your hands, take it to court.”

Powerful friends
Bashar in the village in Drenthe is more generous. One afternoon while he helps his wife unload the groceries from his BMW, he seems almost relieved that NRC is visiting him. “I know what you are here for,” he says. He even hoped people would question him so he could finally tell his story.

He has been receiving anonymous messages since the allegations online. People whisper in the Arab shop. "An acquaintance no longer talks to me." He hasn't done anything wrong, he says. There are no pictures of him in front of a prison or with bodies.

In his living room he invites us, in the presence of an interpreter, to ask all questions and to discuss the photos of him. Like Yassin, he is relaxed. After a while he takes off his prosthetic arm.

This is the story of Bashar himself, in short. He left school when he was fourteen or fifteen. He became a hairdresser, served in the army, became a hairdresser again and drove a shuttle bus. Then someone approached him to become a driver for a wealthy car dealer who he knew.

His rich and powerful boss had rich, powerful friends, including the head of the infamous Arrest Unit 215, the Chief of Military Intelligence, the Ambassador of Romania, and President Assad's cousin, businessman Rami Makhlouf. He saw them, he says, but did not speak to them: "I was just the driver."

He goes through the photos one by one. His friend, who glorifies the raid unit 215 with a self-made logo on Facebook? He smiles. "Showing off." The one with the gun? It was made for the uprising in the villa of the ambassador of Romania. The one with two other men in uniform and a German shepherd? Nothing strange, they are in a residential area near the Ministry of Education. His and the others for that van? That was in front of the car dealer's office. Some in that photo are from the military security service, he says. "The man on the right is from ward 215."

The wealthy businessman arranged for people to protect him through his friends at the military security service, thus Bashar says that not only did he wear a uniform with the logo of the military security service, he also had a license for his weapon and had a military security pass to pass the checkpoints safely. "Due to the nature of our work, we sometimes had to cross the military line."

He drank too much, including when he was in a car accident on December 16, 2016. He was in a coma for 45 days and lost his arm. When he came to in 2017, the relationship with his boss turned out to be severely cooled. He was threatened by regime loyalists and fled to the Netherlands via Turkey. He hopes to be eligible for a Dutch passport soon.

After the conversation, he says goodbye to his visitors.

The claims of Bashar, Yassin and Amer are difficult to verify. Witnesses to their alleged crimes are often still in Syria, where contact with journalists quickly leads to arrest and worse. In order to obtain more information as safely as possible, NRC presented the three cases to the Paris-based team of human rights lawyer Mazen Darwish. They have a lot of experience in collecting witness statements and other information in Syria. His team investigated the three for weeks and spoke to 23 sources, including many witnesses in Syria and dissidents within the regime with access to official information. The confidential reports are in the hands of NRC. And the very first rumors about Bashar in the village in Drenthe appear to be very similar to the findings of the research team in Paris.

Bashar beat up protesters from the start of the uprising and participated in searches and arrests - multiple sources in Syria, the sources report. Sometimes his actions had deadly consequences. A witness says that Bashar raided a man's house and beat him until his body was covered with blood. The man was taken away and later died of torture in Branch 215 of the military intelligence service.

That Bashar worked for this department is certain, according to Darwish's team. Multiple sources in Syria confirmed this. A witness saw Bashar participating in arrests carried out by Branch 215. The photos in which he poses with a German Shepherd and colleagues at the Ministry of Education support these findings. The ministry is located in a high-security government district. Just behind it, Branch 215 managed a checkpoint, according to the team.

The arrest unit assisted security forces all over Damascus. In particular, Bashar is said to have collaborated with a lieutenant colonel from the political security service. The ward where that Lieutenant Colonel worked is about three hundred meters from the location where Bashar was photographed. The car in which he had that accident belonged to the lieutenant colonel, the report says. A Dutch source confirms to NRC that the lieutenant colonel is the one that Bashar brags about by name in private circles. The car dealer? The source doesn’t know anything about that.

Yassin didn't wear Liwa al-Quds' uniform just to avoid problems with the regime, the team concluded. He was the leader of a ‘Homs company’ within the militia. The team in Paris also heard from three sources that Yassin was recruiting child soldiers. In addition, a family member and friend of Yassin are pictured in uniform with a group of armed boys on Facebook. Some of them are sixteen or seventeen years old according to their profiles.

According to the team, Amer definitely fought with the regime in and around his Dwel'a neighborhood. He was spotted at the Kabas checkpoint by multiple sources, turning civilians over to security forces and taking part in sieges of a nearby residential area, the report said. According to sources, Amer also extorted residents by threatening to arrest them. He sold furniture that he stole from the homes of displaced civilians.

After rejecting the evidence, Amer informed his lawyer that from May 2017 he was extensively investigated by the IND’s 1F department and that nothing came of this. The attorney "does not have the file to hand," but says Amer was given a uniform from the church and had defended his territory. Amer also insists he didn't work at a checkpoint. "That's all I can say about it at the moment."

Yassin is more cautious about additional questions. He has no ties with the Popular Front, he insists and did not travel back to Syria or have no position in the militia or any other company. Again he denies recruiting.

Bashar responds with a text message: "With all due respect, the questions you are asking are incorrect."

Not long after Raed Sadek's complaint against Bashar, he spoke to the police again. After that he heard nothing more. "My phone broke and I lost all my numbers." Raed hopes the police will take reports like his seriously. “Otherwise, the shabiha think they can do anything here too. Then they get arrogant.” He also thinks about his children, “They grow up here. If a Syrian does something against a Dutch person, the Dutch person says: 'You do that'. But this is also our country. We also want these crimes to be punished.”

Original article by Esther Rosenberg and Melvyn Ingleby (in Dutch), published by NRC Handelsblad on November 4, 2020: