“Many lawyers have been arrested since the beginning of the uprising,” said Azir, who specialized in international commerce law. “In the name of our colleagues, it is up to us to document what has happened.”
The lawyers collect testimony at refugee camps, including one in Turkey that is sheltering military officers who defected.
They are looking for the names of pilots who dropped bombs on civilian targets, officials who ordered massacres and supervisors who oversaw interrogations using torture, as well as evidence of bribery, corruption and rape.
They rely on existing Syrian law. Opening a book of the penal code at random, the manager of the lawyers’ office explained that the penalty for bribery is five years of hard labor plus a fine of three times the accepted bribe.
But finding an existing law that would criminalize behavior done at the behest of the existing government is not a straightforward matter.
“If someone was a spy working with intelligence as an informer, we don’t have a clear sentence,” Azir said. “But if the collaboration led to torture, we can make a case.”
About 40 Syrian lawyers are taking testimony from witnesses in Turkey, and the committee plans to open offices in Lebanon and Jordan, which also have large refugee populations. The rest are in Syria.
In the southeastern Turkish city of Antakya, the lawyers’ office is in a nondescript apartment building with no sign on the door to indicate that, inside, tales of broken lives are haltingly unraveled.
The young man who came to the office on a recent day said his name was Salam, and he agreed to allow a reporter to sit in on his testimony on the condition that his full name not be published, out of concern for the safety of his family in Syria.
Salam, 27, said he was studying food science at Aleppo University and hoping to find work in a food factory. When the uprising began almost two years ago, he soon joined the protests.
He said he was arrested last year on five counts: demonstrating without a permit, defaming the state, undermining the national unity of Syria, belonging to a banned organization and spreading lies. He was held for one month.
A brutal questioning
During interrogation, he said, a particularly brutal captain beat his legs with a plastic hose, shocked his arms with an electrical prod and kicked and punched him in an effort to extract information on other protesters.
Salam said he was questioned about incidents that he had mentioned only to his uncle.
A family member later approached Salam’s father and extracted a promise not to kill the uncle who apparently reported Salam.
“I couldn’t kill him with my own hands,” Salam said of his uncle. “But if someone else did it, I’d be happy.”
Salam said he was convicted and sentenced by a sympathetic judge to one month for time served. He eventually returned to school, passed his final exam and, the next day, left for Turkey.
Amhan asked Salam to sign a form outlining his allegations and said he would ask the judges to issue an arrest warrant for the captain.
“If we get lucky to catch this animal, I’m sure we will arrest him,” Amhan said.
Then Amhan paused, and spoke not as a lawyer dedicated to preventing revenge killings but as a man who has heard dozens of similarly harrowing tales and who harbors his own desires for retribution.
“Part of me hopes the FSA [Free Syrian Army] will execute him on the spot,” he said. “People like him deserve death 100 times.”