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Don't shoot the messenger

Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem [Bilal Abdul Kareem/Facebook]
Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem [Bilal Abdul Kareem/Facebook]

The controversial American journalist who sued the US government for putting him on a "kill list" in war-torn Syria, was arrested yesterday by a Sunni Islamist militant group in rebel-held Syria, sparking outrage both in the Middle East and across the West.

Yesterday's arrest came hours after Bilal spoke to Middle East Monitor about his growing concern over the use of torture and indefinite detentions by Idlib's ruling force Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). He showed me some of the evidence, including a graphic video exhibiting the torture methods he says are being used by HTS.

Having seen the images I can say these are all too familiar and are similar to the methods used by the Assad regime, and includes foot whipping known as "the bastinado" which involves blows delivered to the soles of the feet and executed with great brutality.

The discussion with Abdul Kareem was prompted by the re-arrest of another popular figure, British aid worker Tauqir 'Tox' Sharif by HTS, following a bruising encounter outside a courtroom with a member of the group accused of torturing Sharif during his 24 days in custody.

Abdul Kareem, a convert to Islam who co-founded the independent media outlet OGN, On The Ground News, has become a familiar figure since he began covering the Syrian revolution since 2011. However, the veteran war correspondent's fearless style of journalism and brash delivery of speaking truth to power has made him unpopular and a target by many groups and governments, including his own in America.

Abdul Kareem first began to suspect he was being targeted by the US government after narrowly surviving five separate drone strikes in 2016. He was also told by a source working at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey – where US drones often take off for missions in Syria – that his name was on a list of targets.

Hiring lawyers, he sued the US federal government in 2017 asking them to clarify whether or not he is on the kill list and, if so, to give him his day in court rather than execute him in Syria. In one of his most recent interviews he joked: "Most of my drama revolves around having a big mouth; I got it from my mother." He was referencing his alleged placement on the notorious American drone "kill list" programme.

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However, his outspoken manner has obviously upset others in Syria where he has become a target. His insightful coverage of the war and ability to interview without fear or favour Islamist groups such as al-Qaida and HTS appeared to have made him a US, Russian, Iranian and Assad regime target. However, it now seems that same ability to annoy governments has also jarred with some of the people fighting to bring down the Assad regime.

In recent days he has been working on a human rights charter with a group of Muslim scholars to protect prisoners following the number of unaccountable and forced disappearances and rumours of torture by HTS. It was this work which it is believed first led to the arrest of British aid worker Sharif, another popular figure in Idlib.

His investigation into practices of torture has cast doubt on the revolutionary and Islamic credentials of the group and appears to have precipitated yesterday's violent arrest near the Turkish border town of Atmeh. According to one eyewitness account the journalist was "battered to the ground and there was a lot of blood".

HTS media relations office issued a statement to me confirming "an arrest warrant was issued" and it adds: "There are a number of allegations surrounding the accused which are currently being investigated." At the time of writing HTS failed to respond to or address any of the allegations over the use of torture in custody. Their media spokesman also urged me not to post any incriminating videos.

The Sunni group was formed in January 2017 by a merger between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, the Ansar Al-Din Front, Jaysh Al-Sunna, Liwa Al-Haqq and the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement. There are concerns that it has become lawless and authoritarian as Idlib slides into further chaos under attack from Assad regime forces, the Russian military and Iranian-backed militias.

Idlib is regarded as the last major stronghold for anti-Assad rebels and jihadist groups in Syria. While pro-Assad forces and their allies have captured parts of the border province, rebels and Islamist fighters still control strategic areas. HTS is the main Islamist group operating there.

Ancient Greek writer Sophocloes of Kolōnos coined the original phrase: "Don't shoot the messenger. Don't blame the person who brings bad news." That was as far back as 442 B.C. but it seems even today delivering the truth can be a costly business, but for what it's worth maybe HTS should reflect on the way it conducts its business in terms of justice.

The good people of Syria did not rise up against the Assad regime to simply replace it with another that also relies on torture and brutality to oppress. Bilal Abdul Kareem might be an annoying presence but both he and OGN were proof that at least in rebel-held Syria, transparency and truth were in evidence. As long as the journalists remains locked up, that can no longer be said.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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