Syria’s protesters turn to Facebook to expose ‘citizen spies’
Activists use the internet to find and unmask those they suspect of reporting their neighbours to security forces
A pair of eyes watched from a shop as a group of young men were chased down a Damascus side street by security forces. Just in time, a resident opened his door to hide them.
It was another Friday in Duma, a north-eastern suburb of the capital, where courageous protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime show no sign of abating. But on this occasion things were about to go badly wrong for the protesters. Within minutes, their pursuers had been directed by an informer to the house where they were hiding. As some escaped to the roof of the three-storey house and jumped to the adjacent building, Jihad Shalhoub, 43, fell, grabbing a balcony banister on his way down.
A video supplied by activists to the international campaign group Avaaz captured his fate. « Jihad tried to jump, but slipped, » one of the three protesters chased onto the roof told the Observer. « The security men threw stones down at Jihad until he fell. » That night he died in hospital of his injuries.
With international media banned from reporting inside Syria, the account was given to the Observer in lengthy telephone interviews with local activists. They said the death of Shalhoub was one of an increasing number of cases in which citizen spies are playing a direct role in assisting the Assad regime’s security forces to crack down on pro-democracy protesters.
During nearly half a century of one-party rule, Syria’s Ba’ath regime has maintained its iron grip on a nation of 22 million people through a network of civilian informers known as the awainiyya – the watchers.
From the man at the next table listening in on café conversations to the local shopkeeper, taxi driver or estate agent, Syrian society is rife with those who will inform on their fellow citizens. They do it primarily for money, said activists and analysts, but also out of fear, or sometimes because they are true believers in the ideology of the regime that Assad inherited from his father.
With the Ba’ath Party estimated at two million members, and with at least 16 branches of the security services, the numbers of awainiyya at work in Syria could be in the tens of thousands.
As the uprising against Assad’s regime approaches its eighth month, security services are relying ever more heavily on their network of citizen spies to suppress protests, activists said.
« They tell security about the movement of activists and protesters during demonstrations, » said Sami, one of the activist leaders in Duma. « When there are campaigns of arrests, the informers lead security to the suspects’ houses wearing masks. »
As the attempted revolution in Syria transforms power relations in one of the world’s last police states, protesters are using social media to fight back. Facebook now hosts dozens of sites run by Syrian activists on which the names, addresses and photos of suspected informers are posted.
Residents can use the sites to report a suspected awainiyya in their neighbourhood and site administrators say they then monitor the suspect’s behaviour before outing them. One entry accused a resident of the city of Latakia of « co-operating with security and informing on the men of the revolution ».
« He currently resides in al-Martqla, the street connecting the Omar ibn al-Khattab. mosque and Sheikh Dahir, in front of Maher’s sandwich shop. He hides at home or in his car and records the names of young people. »
The site gives precise details of the suspect’s address.
Mohammad Abu Khalaf, the Duma shopkeeper who informed on Jihad Shalhoub, suffered swift retribution. A witness in touch with the activist network witnessed the whole incident. Sami said that Abu Khalaf’s shop was destroyed and he was beaten up. « He said: ‘Please forgive me. May God forgive me, Don’t beat me,’ said Sami. « Informers need to be punished. It’s self-defence: we’ve seen people taken from their houses who then die under torture in prison after having been informed on. »
In a report last month based on research by human rights staff inside Syria, Avaaz said it believed more than 5,300 people had been killed since the uprising began, roughly double the UN estimate and three times the regime’s tally. Some 15,000 people are reported to have been held in prisons where Human Rights Watch says torture is rampant.
But the targeting of suspected informers has raised concerns about vigilante killings. « I’m against outing informers because they could be killed, » said Jawad, an activist with the 17 April Youth Movement for Democratic Change. « We need to build our state. We have to depend on law in the future. We shouldn’t do what our regime did for decades. »
One administrator of an awainiyya site in Homs, a major protest centre, insisted no mistakes were made in outing informers, which he said included doctors, nurses, shopkeepers and even members of the local football team. « We gather information and confirm it, » he said. « Sometimes we depend on leaks from the police and security forces. We put them under surveillance, watch their moves, who they meet with and we ask about them. »
But some names on awainiyya sites appear to have been posted for ulterior motives. One recent post from Hama claimed a individual had been targeted unfairly and added: « I hope you will delete this person’s name because most of the people are pretty sure that his name was put on the list for personal reasons. »
Professor Stathis N Kalyvas of Yale University, who wrote a book on denunciations during civil war, distinguishes between « habitual informers » and « one-time denouncers », the supply of which, he said, « always seem to exceed what people expect ».
« For one-time denouncers I find that two motivations seem to dominate: Revenge on all kinds of issues, from the purely personal to the foremost political, and opportunism, gaining an advantage over someone else, » he said.
On the same Friday as Jihad Shalhoub fell to his death in Duma, Yasser, a 30-year-old protester, became separated from his friends after security forces opened fire in Harasta, another Damascus suburb. Yasser’s body was later found in some bushes, his neck bearing the marks of strangulation, said Jawad, the 17 April activist, who was in Harasta at the time. « At first we thought security had kidnapped and killed him, » he said. « Then a group from Rukn al-Deen, an area nearby, said Yasser was ashabeha [pro-regime thug] working with security forces. »
The Rukn al-Deen group has never admitted to killing Yasser. Jawad said he didn’t know whether Yasser was an informer or not. Since it is now too late for a fair trial, no one ever will.
by Annasofie Flamand and Hugh Macleod