Beirut, July 22, 2019 -- The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Syrian authorities to immediately account for all journalists who they have arrested during the years-long civil war, including those who have died in state custody. Most recently, the family of Alaa Nayef al-Khader al-Khalidi say they learned that the freelance photojournalist allegedly died under torture in a military prison.
In 2016, Syrian government forces arrested al-Khalidi, a freelance photojournalist also known as Wissam al-Dimashqi, while he was covering clashes in the city of Douma, northeast of Damascus, according to Mohammad Nayef al-Khalidi, the journalist's brother, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
On July 12, 2019, a Syrian prison official sent a voice message to the journalist's family leaking information about al-Khalidi, saying that he had died in Sednaya Military Prison under torture, but did not tell them the exact date of his death, Mohammad Nayef al-Khalidi told CPJ. The family was not provided any documentation about the journalist's death, Mohammad Nayef al-Khalidi said.
The Syrian Defense Ministry did not reply to CPJ's emailed request for comment.
"It is wrenching enough that journalists have languished for years in Syrian prisons, families have been deprived of their loved ones, and the journalistic community has been decimated. The Syrian authorities have deepened this years-long nightmare by arbitrarily releasing information or not at all," said CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. "We call on the Syrian authorities to immediately disclose the details of Alaa Nayef al-Khader al-Khalidi's death and account for all journalists in state custody."
Syrian journalist Ali Mahmoud Othman died in Syrian state custody on December 30, 2013, and Palestinian-Syrian photojournalist Niraz Saeed died in similar circumstances in September 2016, although neither death was disclosed until years later, according to CPJ research.
At least five journalists are imprisoned in Syria for their work, according to CPJ's most recent prison census. Authorities have not responded to CPJ's repeated questions about their health and whereabouts. Al-Khalidi was never included on the annual prison census because CPJ was unaware of his arrest and imprisonment.
Mohammad Nayef al-Khalidi told CPJ that government forces arrested al-Khalidi on June 26, 2016, and initially took him to the Branch 215 prison, which is run by Syrian military intelligence.
In September 2016, an anonymous caller told Mahmoud al-Khader al-Khalidi, another of the journalist's brothers, that the journalist was accused of doing media work for the opposition, and that his family could pay a large sum of money to have the journalist transferred from a military prison to a civilian one, according to a report by the France-based press freedom group the Syrian Journalists' Association. The journalist was eventually transferred to the Sednaya Military Prison, Mohammad Nayef al-Khalidi said.
Al-Khalidi reported on military clashes, as well as bombings and airstrikes on Douma, and he worked with the Douma Coordination Office, an organization that documented civilian deaths and casualties, his brother said. Syrian researcher and journalist Waseem al-Khatib, a close friend of al-Khalidi, told CPJ that al-Khalidi worked as a freelancer.