Osama al-Habaly, a Syrian freelance photojournalist and camera operator, died while in custody of Syrian authorities. Charif Kiwan, a former coworker of al-Habaly’s, told CPJ in 2018 that the journalist’s relatives were told that the journalist was listed as “deceased” in a Syrian civil registry document, although information that he may have been dead had circulated in previous years.
Al-Habaly, 24 years old at the time, was arrested as he crossed from Lebanon back to Syria on August 18, 2012, according to his friends and colleagues. The journalist was detained in Sednaya Prison near Damascus.
Al-Habaly’s work is featured in several shorts for the Abounaddara Collective, a group of anonymous filmmakers that published short clips on the Syrian conflict once a week starting in 2011, a representative of the group told CPJ.
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 reported in October 2012 that an unidentified source told al-Habaly’s family he had been transferred to the military intelligence branch in Damascus.
A Syrian lawyer, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, told CPJ in August 2014 that al-Habaly had been referred to a military field court and was being held in Sednaya Prison near Damascus, but did not offer further details. CPJ could not independently confirm the claim.
Sednaya 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 in either late 2013 or early 2014 while in custody in Sednaya, his station reported. Reports by local human rights groups and news outlets said he had been tortured to death.
Reports in 2017 said that al-Habaly died in prison. The reports differed over whether the journalist died under torture or whether authorities executed him. In May 2017, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that it had received information that al-Habaly died after being tortured in Sednaya prison. The rights group did not provide further details or specify where the information came from. The journalist’s family was cited in a news report as saying that authorities executed al-Habaly.
His former co-worker Kiwan told CPJ in 2017 that the journalist’s family found out through unofficial channels that authorities executed al-Habaly. Kiwan said at the time that the family told him authorities had not yet sent back the journalist’s ID card, which is how the government usually confirms an execution.
A friend of al-Habaly’s, who has spoken with the family and who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told CPJ that authorities put the journalist on trial in Sednaya prison in 2015, and executed him. CPJ could not independently verify the information.
The Syrian mission to the United Nations did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for details on al-Habaly’s case.
Thousands of Syrians have disappeared into Syrian custody since the start of the uprising in 2011. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, families are often forced to pay large bribes to learn any information about their relatives, and other families never approach the security branches for fear of being arrested themselves. Of 27 families of deceased prisoners interviewed by Human Rights Watch for the report, only two received formal death certificates.