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Two years and no word of Osama al-Habaly

Osama al-Habaly's health, whereabouts, and status remain unknown. (Facebook/Freedom for Ousama Alhabaliy)

It's been exactly two years since citizen photojournalist Osama al-Habaly disappeared into regime custody as he crossed from Lebanon back to his home country of Syria. His friends and colleagues tell CPJ they have not heard a definitive word about him since.

Al-Habaly's story resembles the stories of so many Syrians in recent years who have faced arrest, abduction, injury, and even death for daring to pick up a camera. Al-Habaly began filming protests in the heart of the Syrian revolution, his hometown of Homs. It was in Homs where Syria witnessed some of its largest protests in the spring of 2011, and it was in Homs where the regime's brutality spearheaded the transformation of a peaceful protest movement into a civil war. Al-Habaly was there to document it.

His work is featured in several shorts for the Abounaddara Collective, a group of anonymous filmmakers that have published short clips on the Syrian conflict once a week since 2011. A representative of the group told CPJ that al-Habaly made many films for the collective. In one, called "The Child Who Doesn't Cry," a young boy stoically braves the pain of receiving stiches for a deep gash in his back. In another, "My School," dozens of regime soldiers break in to and deface a school. Al-Habaly also served as both a protagonist and cameraman for the award-winning documentary "Return to Homs." To protect his identity at the time, the film gave him the pseudonym Osama al-Homsi--in English, Osama from Homs. Al-Habaly was not previously included in CPJ research because his work as a journalist had not been publicly disclosed.

On April 4, 2012, al-Habaly was driving to an area of Homs being hit by shelling when he was himself hit by a mortar shell. With life-threatening shrapnel lodged in his head, neck, legs, and hands, al-Habaly went to Beirut to receive medical care. Months later, on August 18, 2012, he finally recovered from his wounds enough to return to Homs and continue his work. It was then--two years ago today--that he was arrested at the border crossing near the town of Talkalakh. His computer containing his work was also confiscated.

Since then, al-Habaly's fate has been a mystery to his friends, family, and colleagues. A Facebook user posted in September 2012 that he had seen al-Habaly while being held in the military security branch in Homs. Amnesty International later reported that an unnamed source told al-Habaly's family he had been transferred to the military intelligence branch in Damascus. One rumor had it that he was to be released in a prisoner exchange. Another suggested he had died.

Still, two years later, the Syrian government has yet to confirm anything about al-Habaly's health, whereabouts, and status.

A Syrian lawyer, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, told CPJ al-Habaly had been referred to a military field court and was being held in Sednaya prison, but did not offer further details. CPJ could not independently confirm this claim. But if true, the news is extremely troubling. The prison has long been known for the brutal treatment of its detainees, even before the Syrian conflict began. At least one journalist, Palestine Today TV reporter Bilal Ahmed Bilal, died several months ago while in custody in Sednaya, reportedly under torture.

Al-Habaly does not belong behind bars. And as a photojournalist and activist committed to nonviolence, he seems to be a perfect candidate for a general amnesty announced by the Syrian government in June, which Justice Minister Najm al-Ahmad described as a step for "social forgiveness, national cohesion and calls for coexistence." According to a joint statement by 12 local and international human rights groups issued last month, the amnesty technically applies to many of the charges faced by journalists and activists, including some provisions of the counterterrorism law.

But in practice, the vast majority of imprisoned journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers remain imprisoned even as official government sources claim thousands have been released in the amnesty. Given the lack of transparency in both al-Habaly's case and the implementation of the amnesty, it is difficult to know whether al-Habaly fits the technical requirements of the amnesty. But, putting technicalities aside, al-Habaly's case fits the spirit of what the government claims it seeks to achieve by the amnesty.

At the very least, Syrian officials should explain why it has held al-Habaly for two years incommunicado. If he has been charged, they should publicly declare those charges and provide evidence to support them. The government should also guarantee al-Habaly's safety while in custody and transfer him to a facility with better conditions than Sednaya--if that is, in fact, where he is held.

Much has changed since al-Habaly disappeared two years ago. By the time of his arrest, the high hopes of the opposition protests in 2011 had already given way to terrible bloodshed. As "Return to Homs" documents so well, the city had fallen under government siege, and many of the protesters al-Habaly first filmed chanting in nonviolent protest had turned to armed resistance in the face of the regime's brutal crackdown. It was a shift that clearly troubled al-Habaly, who remained committed to nonviolence despite the violence all around him, as "Return to Homs" portrayed.

What has happened since would likely trouble al-Habaly even more. Independent voices like his, the ones that first rose in protest in 2011, have ever smaller space to speak out as threats from all sides close in. After two years of bombardment, blockade, and starvation, the siege of Homs, whose beginning he first helped document, finally ended in May after opposition forces agreed to evacuate. The city once called the capital of the revolution has been reduced to rubble under complete government control. Opposition forces in Aleppo, the last remaining stronghold of the mainstream opposition, now face a similar fate as regime forces encircle them on one side and the Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State on the other. More than 100,000 Syrians have died since al-Habaly was arrested.

What does al-Habaly know of all this in the isolation of his jail cell? And if he were free, what would he say? What would his camera reveal? It seems the regime does not want to find out. And that's precisely why you should. Join us in calling for Osama al-Habaly's release using the Twitter hashtag #FreeAlHabaly.

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