Syrian journalist Amer Matar stands outside the German court where he testified against former Syrian official Anwar Raslan in April 2021 holding a sign that says "10 years ago I was a prisoner in Al-Khatib police branch. Today I prosecute my jailer." (Photo: Fares Matar)

Syrian journalist Amer Matar on facing his torturer in court

Syrian journalist Amer Matar was regularly blindfolded, handcuffed, and beaten with cables, whips, and fists during the eight months he was held in a Syrian prison. When a German court sentenced one of his torturers – Syrian army colonel Anwar Raslan – to life in prison earlier this month, Matar finally felt that at least partial justice had been done.

Matar, who has lived in Germany in exile since 2012, testified against Raslan in April last year about his treatment in the prison where Raslan was the head of investigations. Matar told Human Rights Watch that Raslan hit him in custody after asking about a photo that Matar took of him.    

Matar, a reporter for the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, was arrested in 2011, one of dozens of journalists detained in the months after the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad began.

The Syrian Civil War extracted a staggering toll on Syrian media. At least 139 journalists have been killed in incidents related to their journalism since 2011, making Syria the deadliest country for journalists worldwide over the past decade. That figure includes 23 murders and at least six deaths in the Syrian government’s custody. At least nine more journalists are still missing, feared dead.

CPJ talked to Matar about the verdict, his participation in the first torture trial of a member of the Assad regime, and the impact of the trial on Syrian journalists’ broader quest for justice. CPJ cannot independently confirm the details of Matar’s treatment in custody, but his description of his and others’ torture is in line with documentation by human rights groups. CPJ emailed the Syrian interior ministry and the Syrian mission to the United Nations for comment but received no replies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Back when you testified in April you told Human Rights Watch that it was one of the hardest things you have ever done. How did you move forward after that experience? 

I started having migraines on the day of the trial. It was a disturbing experience. And I lived with it for a while after. It brought me back to every detail that happened 10 years ago. It was like walking into prison once again. After having almost daily nightmares about my jail experience and dreaming about attempts to escape my jail, I had to face my own jailer. It was tiring. I remembered a lot of small details to connect with my emotional memory. I had to ask the judge for a break after a few hours.

But after the experience, I had other feelings about what happened. Both my jailer and I were in exile. I tried to avoid looking at him during the trial. I wanted to avoid disrespecting him. I didn’t want him to feel humiliated as a prisoner. And I decided I would not attend the session where the verdict would be handed down. I didn’t want to be celebrating or be present for the anger and noise after the verdict was announced. I know now it was the right thing to do — to be at home and feel it alone. It was best for me personally. 

Do you feel that justice has been served? 

Yes, it was partial justice — an individual case of justice. In my dreams, I wish I had met Raslan again in Syria, that justice could happen inside our country. But I was beaten and tortured by many inside jail, not just Raslan, and in different detention centers. I saw children and elderly people being tortured everywhere I was held. That is all proof that the country is far from justice.

It is good to know that it won’t be safe in Europe or outside Syria for those who used to publicly express with pride their human rights atrocities. In reality, the message it sends is clear that even after 10 years, there can be justice. Even partially. 

What is the significance of the verdict for Syrian journalists? 

As a journalist, the verdict represents some accountability for me personally, to know that those who jailed and interrogated me over and over in custody over every word I wrote are facing consequences. I never thought — and I’m sure my jailers never thought — they would face any accountability. I sometimes had lost hope or confidence that my work as a journalist mattered. The verdict changed my view. I believe documentation of what happens, writing about it, mattered, even 10 years later.

What do you think of the U.S. trials on behalf of foreign correspondents killed in Syria? In 2019, a U.S. federal court ordered Syria to pay $302.5 million to the family of Marie Colvin, and Islamic State suspects are now on trial in Virginia for the murder of James Foley.

Justice in violations against foreign journalists is important for Syrian journalists. It is great to see the government of Colvin and Foley fight for them and for their families, and to see other foreign journalists freed from capture, to have any justice, even if it is symbolic. It adds pressure on the criminal Syrian regime to abate its targeting of journalists overall. 

Of course, the families of Colvin and Foley are lucky to even have information about what happened to them. It is something none of the tens of thousands of families in Syria and Iraq have while the anti-Islamic State military coalition keeps them in the dark. Unfortunately, many of the journalists who fought the Islamic State with their cameras and pens are disregarded and met with neglect today.    

Are you still a practicing journalist?

I am working on an online archive, the ISIS Prison Museum. It should launch in a few months. It is part of my personal attempt as a journalist to find my brother Mohamed Nour, a photographer who was abducted by the Islamic State inside Syria in 2013. I am also working with many journalists inside Syria who are trying to find three other journalists: Osama Al-Hasan, Abdullah Al-Hussein, and Ahmed Matar, who were taken captive by the Islamic State. We are providing 3D maps of 30 former Islamic State prisons, gathering hundreds of testimonies of victims who were held there, and tens of thousands of documents left behind by the militias after their defeat.

[Editor’s note: CPJ is unable to independently confirm that Al-Hasan, Al-Hussein, and Ahmed Matar were abducted by the Islamic State; more than 100 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria since 2011 according to CPJ research.]

How are journalists in exile able to continue covering Syria? 

Many Syrian journalists in exile, including myself, have been met with so much apathy about the work we do documenting the atrocities in Syria. While in Syria we would take plenty of risks – face jail or die to collect and share information that people in the West would see on their cell phones on their way to work and then do nothing about. It was disappointing and depressing for a while.

But we hope that the work we do, including the website archive I am working on, will provide crucial information for people inside and outside Syria, including the thousands of families who had their loved ones kidnapped or disappeared by the Islamic State. We also hope it will help raise the voice of local journalists, so that they know that their sacrifices were not in vain.