A Syrian family gathered in a mosque in the Illinois suburb of Willowbrook two weeks ago today. Supported by their friends and community members they mourned the loss of their daughter, Layla Shweikani, two years after her death. Days before, the Syrian government had confirmed that Layla, a Syrian-American citizen, had died on 18 December 2016 in the notorious Saydnaya “slaughterhouse” prison, 10 months after she was arrested by military intelligence.
The 26 year-old had travelled to the Damascene suburb of Eastern Ghouta as a humanitarian in 2015 with the aim of aiding internally displaced civilians suffering as a result of a government siege. As an American citizen travelling with her father and fiancée she had thought she would be safe from being targeted by the Syrian regime, but following her arrest few attempts were made by Washington to secure her release. Her case was briefly pursued by the US State Department via the Czech Ambassador, who met with Layla in Adra Prison, a facility known for its torture of female inmates.
Layla was being pressured to confess to planning to assassinate members of the Syrian government, with officials threatening reprisals against the family if she did not comply. On 16 December, in a trial that reportedly lasted 30 seconds, she was sentenced to be executed for allegedly supporting terrorism; two days later, rights groups say, she was tortured to death.
For nearly two years, Layla’s name was among the ranks of some 90,000 others whose whereabouts are unknown after having been arrested by the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. In May this year, reportedly at Damascus-ally Russia’s encouragement, the government started releasing the names of those who had died in custody. The death certificates nearly always record the cause of death as heart failure or stroke, yet dozens bear the same death date, suggesting mass executions. The bodies of those who have died have not been released, preventing any independent assessment of how they died, and withholding closure for their loved ones left behind.
Despite the horrific nature of Layla’s imprisonment and execution, as well as her status as a US citizen, neither the White House nor the US State Department have issued a public statement on the circumstances of her death.
News of her passing was also bypassed by mainstream media outlets, as were statistics released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights last week, which found the Al-Assad regime responsible for the murder of 21,143 women since 2011 – more than 25 times the number killed by Daesh.
Amnesty International estimates that nearly 18,000 prisoners have died in custody as a result of torture in Syria’s jails, the vast majority at the Saydnaya facility. In a 2016 report the UN Commission found that the scale of deaths in prisons indicated the Syrian government was responsible for “extermination as a crime against humanity”. Over 9,000 women are still being held in jails around Syria, 8,057 of them in regime dungeons, with tens of thousands more considered forcibly disappeared by the government, their fates unknown.
Throughout the Syrian conflict the fate of women caught up in the fighting has remained largely unaddressed. Whilst activists such as Nadia Murad brought attention to the plight of Yazidi women captured and sold into sex slavery by Daesh, for which she was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, her call has been focused around women still held by the so-called Islamic State rather than the regime.
Such partial coverage of crimes against women in the region is largely responsible for the persistent myths surrounding the Syrian issue – a 2017 survey conducted by research agency Survation found that more Britons consider Daesh as responsible for the majority of deaths in Syria, despite those killed by the regime vastly outnumbering those executed by militants.
By comparison, there has been little international outrage over the fates of those arbitrarily detained by the Syrian regime, who also face relentless torture and death. Rape in particular has been consistently used as a weapon of war in prison, with former detainees relating how they were repeatedly assaulted by prison guards who wore t-shirts emblazoned with the face of President Al-Assad. They looked on as fellow inmates were “gang raped to death,” while others lost their sanity after months of physical and psychological abuse.
Layla’s family have refused to talk to the media. Whether out of grief, or fear of reprisals by the government on other family members and friends, their hesitancy is not unusual for Syrians in the diaspora affected by the war. However, the question remains as to why the international community’s condemnation is dependent on the victims of such crimes begging for support against blatant atrocities.
The silence of Washington over the murder of an American citizen is in itself deafening. Whilst President Donald Trump was happy to sanction Turkish ministers and products over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism charges earlier this year, no condemnation of Layla’s murder – at the hands of a government the US allegedly opposes – has even been released. For Syrians across the globe, such inaction once again sends the message that world leaders have little concern for crimes committed against civilians, unless it facilitates their own strategic interests.
Now entering its eighth year, as the Syrian war seems to be winding down, the international community has increasingly looked to planning the reconstruction of the country and facilitating the return of refugees. Yet for the people of Syria – who have repeatedly witnessed crimes against humanity – and with news of murders like Layla’s coming to light every day, their position remains the same: there can be no peace without justice first.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.