The original article is published on DARAJ website.
Two years have passed since the assassination; since Raed and Hammoud’s blood was shed, without any investigations, a trial, or even any gathering of evidence to determine the identity of the killers. They are still at large.
It was Friday, the 23rd of November 2018, at 12 p.m., when the people heard the sound of gunshots during their prayers in Kafarnabel Kafr Nabl in Reef Idlib, northwestern Syria.
Although it is normal to hear the sounds of gunfire and bombings there, these gunshots in particular were targeted to kill the Syrian journalist and activist, Raed Fares (46 years old), and his colleague Hammud Junayd (29 years old). It was then when a twenty-year-old youth shouted at the door of the grand mosque, “They killed Raed .. they killed Raed and Hammud,” while Ali al-Dandoush, the young man in his twenties who was in the car with them survived.
Junayd, who was known as the “Barrel photographer” for daring to rush to the places where the bomb barrels were dropped by the Syrian regime’s planes to take close-up shots of the places and the victims of the bombings, was instantly killed.
Fares was rushed to a nearby hospital where he breathed his last after he got shot by several bullets and the doctors’ attempts to save his life were in vain.
Two hours later, the atmosphere of the whole town changed and grief loomed large over the Syrian community opposing the authorities of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Along with the burying of the two victims, the pages of two of the most influential figures in the course of the continuous Syrian revolution of 2011 were turned.
Although the assassination took only seconds, the planning process took much longer. Even Raed sensed danger one week before he was killed. Back then, he talked to his elder son, Mahmoud Fares (24 years) privately and told him about the “risky threats” he has been receiving, and informed him of the identity of the entity that is threatening his life.
Fares was known, during his Syrian movement path, as “The engineer of Kafr Nabl’s famous and funny banners” (banners with drawings and critical expressions sending messages in multiple languages to the international community on the Syrian case.) He was the founder of the local “Radio Fresh” programs and was the manager of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (which is a group of civil society organizations that have taken upon themselves to execute projects related to medical services, medical treatment of children, women empowerment, and media training.
In May 2017, Fares was in Oslo, the Norwegian capital, and told the Norwegian crowd: “Since our revolution does not rely on the international community, we decided to work on our own to set ourselves free from all the continuous murdering committed by al-Assad against us, so we formed a civil society organization and worked on issues like education and child organizations.”
The perpetrators managed to silence his voice which rose early to face the growing radical system in his Idlib community and the whole of Syria. He was fully aware of the risks of what he was doing but he did not stop. He made a deep change in the region, and he was full of vitality to urge the demand for change and ending al-Assad’s authority, according to those who were close to him, Fares represented the hopes of a whole generation of youth who faced the waves of change after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in March 2011.
After the assassination, the crowds in Kafr Nabl continued to demonstrate against al-Assad, Russia, and Iran and to condemn the international inaction. This all happened without Raed Fares and his colleague because they were buried under the ground after they left a legacy and archive that contains projects and ideas to promote public freedoms, democracy, gender equality, and protecting civilians and displaced persons.
In his “resistant” town which faced the conflicting parties, Kafr Nabl, Fares direct his activities in development and education, and was determined to continue broadcasting from Kafr Nabl which was controlled by “Al-Nusra Front” which later changed their name to “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”.
It has been two years since the assassination, Raed and Hammoud’s blood was wasted without investigations, conducting a trial, or even gathering pieces of evidence to determine the identity of the murderers who are scot-free living their lives among their children and relatives, while Raed’s grieving family, who fled to France, and his children who lost their father have hopes that justice will be served one day.
Although the assassination took place without revealing the identities of the murderers and without holding anyone accountable, we will reveal, in this investigation, the most prominent legal paths that should be taken to hold the perpetrators accountable during the period of transitional justice, in addition to the conditions and basics that should be available for this process to be done according to experts and human rights activists who followed the case closely, among testimonies and pieces of evidence gathered by human rights organizations which indicates that “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” is behind this assassination, although it denies that.
Activating accountability and serving justice to Raed will act as a support and shield for the rest of the journalists and activists who still work in Idlib, its country, Syria and other dangerous geographical areas after Syria ranked second in the “Committee to Protect Journalists” global index of impunity for the year 2020, Which sheds light on countries where journalists are killed while the killers remain free.
In another global ranking done by Reporters Without Borders in April 2019 on journalism freedom for 2019 entitled “The Fear Machine Is Working at Its Maximum Capacity,” which included 180 countries, Syria ranked 174 after being ranked among the most dangerous areas for journalists where the Syrian regime and radicals are racing to suppress journalism freedom and to murder journalists.
For its part, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent human rights organization, documented the murder of 707 journalists since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, including six women, nine foreign journalists, and 52 were killed under torture, in addition to 1563 injuries of varying degrees at the hands of the conflict parties.
551 journalists, including a woman and 5 foreigners, were killed at the hands of the regime forces, while the Russian raids claimed the lives of 22 journalists.
During the same period, 64 journalists were killed by ISIS, and another 4 were killed by “YPD-PKK”, while 33 journalists were killed at the hands of armed groups opposing the regime. The attacks of the international coalition against “ISIS” resulted in the killing of a journalist, in addition to the killing of 32 others by unknown gunfire.
Whereas, the country witnessed at least 1.169 cases of arrest and kidnapping of journalists, and about 422 persons (Including 3 women and 17 foreign journalists) are still arrested or forcibly disappeared. Moreover, the Syrian regime is still detaining 353 journalists, including 2 women and 4 foreign journalists.
Threats and Attempted Assassinations
As soon as Al-Nusra Front consolidated its grip on Kafr Nabl and all of Idlib and seized it from the Syrian Regime forces in late 2012, the activists and journalists started bearing the brunt of the threats, harassment, and restrictions on media freedom.
On December 30, 2014, elements of Al-Nusra Front struck a military cordon around the headquarters of Radio Fresh, and the military squads and a big bus cordoned the area.
Ali al-Dandoush (23 years old), the witness who survived the assassination attempt, was working in the radio station at the time in the (audio mixing). He was terrified and could not believe what was happening. “A minor fighter (under the legal age of 18 years) from Al-Nusra Front entered the headquarters, with a copy of a newspaper that published a fictional picture of the Prophet Muhammad, thinking that the paper was ours. He exchanged a few words with the other fighters about whether they would kill us in the headquarters or not? But when we provided the evidence that we had nothing to do with the newspaper that published the cartoons, they left and departed.
It did not end here, it even repeated in another incident of the raid on the same broadcast station, but this time the attack was more brutal with the workers and officials there, according to the witness, specifically on January 17, 2015, and ended up with the arrest of Fares himself.
“We were in the office about 5:30 a.m.” he added, “and all of a sudden, the fighters of Al-Nusra Front raided the station’s headquarters and locked me, Raed, and another person in a room. While we were there, we heard the sounds of smashing the broadcast equipment, and then they opened the door and ordered us to leave, but they arrested Raed and after a while they released him,’ explained al-Dandoush.
The third time was on December 10, 2016 when they arrested Fares in Ma’arrat al-Numan district, southern Idlib, for 48 hours, during which he was tortured in a (Shabeh) method for six hours to force him to unlock his mobile phone which he refused until his relatives found out about his detention place and exerted pressure to have him released, according to his son Mahmoud al-Fares.
The reasons behind the detention of al-Fares included the post he published on Facebook addressing “The Nation of Iqraa,” in which he harshly criticized customs and traditions, calling for laying the foundations of science and humanity, which Al-Nusra deemed contrary to Shari’ah as provided in the Agreement that included the terms on which al-Fares would be released and was published later after the Agreement was concluded and signed by Hadi Al-Abdullah (a friend of Raed) and someone called Abu Khalil the Emir of Al-Nusra Front in Kafr Nabl.
“We knew that the arrest and the raid took place because the broadcast aired songs and music and allowed the voices of women broadcasters. Consequently, the demonstrations were staged in the city calling for the release of Raed, and this was after journalist Hadi al-Abdullah pledged not to broadcast music again,” says Mahmoud, Raed’s son.
Indeed, Fares tried to cope with the restrictions that were gradually growing after canceling the broadcast of songs on the radio, and replacing the music of the news bulletin with the chirping of birds. Moreover, the voices of the women broadcasters were amplified through sound mixing programs and techniques.
According to lawyer Yasser Al-Saleem, France-based, who was an old friend of Raed al-Fares since childhood, the threats to Raed came from Al-Nusra Front directly because of the radio and songs broadcasting, and because of the secular orientation he adopted.
In May 2018, the United States announced the enlisting of Tahrir al-Sham among the terrorist organizations, after it changed its name from (Al-Nusra Front) to Tahrir al-Sham in January 2017, to “reinforce its position in the Syrian war and achieve other goals, In the context of its relations with Al-Qaeda”.
Before the “Tahrir al-Sham” took control of Kafr Nabl, ISIS controlled it for a while in 2014, during which ISIS tried to assassinate Raed. One night when he was returning home at midnight, one of the ISIS elements shot him, and he was injured with three bullets in his shoulder and chest and was transferred to the United States to receive his medical treatment.
23 November 2018 The assassination of al-Fares and Hamoud Junayd in Kafr Nabl
Fighting on Two Fronts!
Al-Fares worked his way in Kafr Nabl by attracting the youth of the district and other Syrian cities to participate in the launch of the Radio Fresh.
However, with the accelerating pace of events in Syria, the continued momentum of public demonstrations calling for change, and the emergence of Islamic factions, al-Fares found himself fighting on both fronts in this town, he was overwhelmed and confined between the military raids of the Al-Assad Regime Forces, which he first revolted against, and the restrictions of hardliner Islamic militant groups that is growing, such as ISIS and Al-Nusra Front ( Tahrir al-Sham), (the face of al-Qaeda in Syria)
From the very beginning, al-Fares challenged the version of Bashar Al-Assad Regime, in his paintings and his ability to influence others. He mocked the International Community’s inaction to put an end to the massacre of the Syrians, which he made his first priority to face the authoritarian regime represented by Al-Assad and the hardliners) in defense of the people.
“He has a different character and a different opinion, and he has characters and governments who support his cause in freedoms, so Raed was not an easy number in the region.”
Meanwhile, al-Fares consolidated his efforts by taking them to the streets and squares even more. He was back to voice his call from his mountain city that the Syrians are living between the two faces of terrorism (the Syrian Regime and the extremists,) which he signified in a famous sign that read: “In fact, the Syrians are the victims of two forms of terrorism, one from Al-Assad’s terror, and the other from the terror of ISIS and other extremists.”
Among the famous signs he wrote in red and held in his hands, was one that read, “There are two opposing parties: The people who are trying to survive, and the regime that is trying to quash them.”
Raed’s peaceful movement was also associated with Radio Fresh, and it was one of the reasons for which he was the target of death threats as he adopted a liberal ideology and a different approach from the prevailing approach and the extremist religious ideology.
Bassam Alahmad, the Director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice Organization confirmed that al-Fares was not like other media professionals who would buy the account of the dominant parties, and perhaps take their side, but he rather introduced a different project and different opinions from the account told in the areas of the Salvation Government (A service arm of Tahrir al-Sham In Idlib), and was challenging her official account.
“He had a different personality and a different opinion, and had prominent personalities and governments that supported his case in freedoms that is why he was a very significant figure in the region,” he added.
What Happened on the Black Day?
Ali al-Dandoush started working in Radio Fresh in 2014, and he soon built a deep relationship with Raed Fares and the rest of the radio staff, so much that they were practically living in the radio headquarters.
Fortunately, al-Dandoush miraculously survived the assassination on November 22, 2018. Al-Dandoush gave us an account of what happened, “A day before the assassination, Raed was spending the evening with his cousins and friends, and each of them later went home… At the time, Raed used to go home for a few hours to spend time with his family and then head to the radio headquarters to spend the night. That night, he asked me to give him a ride home on the motorcycle, around 1 a.m., which I did.”
“Three hours later, Raed called me asking me to give him another ride to the office,” al-Dandoush added.
At dawn, they both decided to sleep over at the office. They carefully locked the doors and went to sleep.
The next day, November 23, both men woke up at noon. Hammoud Junaid joined them, and they decided to go on a retreat to Kafr Nabl mountains to dine with other friends.
The three of them (Hammoud, Ali, and Raed) drove in the direction of a side road leading to Raed’s cousin’s house, as he was supposed to join them on the trip.
At that time, most townspeople were praying al-Juma’a (Friday) Prayer, and it was a weekend, thus there was barely any traffic.
“Raed was driving, Hammoud was sitting next to him, while I was in the back seat. We passed the grand mosque on a road leading to Raed’s cousin’s house. A closed gray Hyundai Starex passed near us. Upon reaching the house of Raed’s cousin, the closed car suddenly advanced and stopped right beside us,” said al-Dandoush.
“The closed car stopped to our left, and that’s the last thing I saw. Windows were opened, and a 5.5 rifle appeared. The shooters were not masked, however, I could not observe their faces,” he added.
“I lowered my head and hid for a few seconds while we were under fire. The shooting finally stopped and the car left. I raised my head to find Raed lying on his seat, while Hammoud was not in his place, I thought he managed to escape, but later found out that he opened the door and tried to escape but was shot. Raed took two bullets in his thighs and a bullet in his waist, and another in his underarm area, close to his heart. As for me, a bullet penetrated my coat near the head,” he continued. They were taken to the hospital.
“I raised my head and found Raed lying on his seat, and I didn’t find Hammoud in his seat, so I thought that he managed to escape, but I discovered later that he had opened the door and tried to but was injured in the process.Raed was hit by two bullets in the thigh.”
After the ‘accident,’ members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) arrived at the scene and talked to Raed Fares’ son, told him they would open an investigation, and left without taking any action.
The nearest HTS checkpoint was only one kilometer away from the scene of assassination, there were also other HTS checkpoint situated on Kafr Nabl’s northern and western exits, while there were no such checkpoints on neither the eastern nor the southern exits, which suggests that the perpetrators drove through them, especially the eastern exit, towards downtown.
In a report that included showing and exposing initial leads and investigations into the assassination, published on November 28, 2018, Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) pointed out that “the gunmen retreated immediately after the operation which was planned to coincide with the Friday prayers, knowing that most residents would be at the mosques performing the weekly prayer, which facilitated the assassins’ movements, and helped them to pull off their terrorist act without being identified or recognized by people.”
After the assassination, Radio Fresh’s future is now in jeopardy, especially since the keystaff’s financial support has stopped for six whole months. Broadcasting resumed later, after the team changed headquarters and moved to another city.
“Work is still going on after Raed’s murder, but organizations stopped funding us for six months. Despite the difficulties we faced due to losing Raed, we managed to overcome this adversity and move on, believing in Raed’s saying: “Radio Fresh is an idea, and ideas never die,” said Mahmoud Raslan, radio’s current CEO.
Both Ali al-Dandoush (the surviving witness) and Mahmoud Fares (Raed’s son) agree that the three months preceding the assassination were the “most dangerous,” as during these months, Raed sensed a real danger to his life, due to obtaining leaks of people from HTS; indicating that they wanted him killed. This led him to tell his son, Mahmoud, about these threats and how serious they were, and emphasized that if something were to happen to him, it would be HTS’ doing.
In September 2018, large weekly demonstrations were resumed in Kafr Nabl, coordinated by a number of people in town, led by Raed. During one of these demonstrations, HTS members ran through the crowd with two military vehicles and raised HTS black flags, leading to altercations between both parties, and resulting in arresting the lawyer Yasser al-Saleem.
At that time, Raed started to sense danger, and stopped spending the nights at home or even at the radio’s headquarters, instead, he stayed at a friend’s house in a nearby village.
Evidence That the Assassination Was Planned
The investigation team met with four witnesses and heard their testimonies, including those of the only survivor (Ali) and Raed Fares’ son (Mahmoud). The team also examined informed human rights reports suspecting HTS’ direct involvement in the assassination.
Mahmoud Fares lays a number of incidents as foundation to his narrative of HTS’ responsibility for his father’s assassination, saying that “a week before my father was assassinated, I was working at the radio, my father called me and told me to go to the headquarters. He told me that during the past week, he had received direct threats, and that it was now worse than ever. He asked me to be careful because the threats were strong, dangerous, and serious.”
“My father told me that if something happened to him, no one but HTS would be responsible,” he continued.
His father told him that he confided in two other close acquaintances who still reside in Kafr Nabl to this day, and told them that HTS would be responsible for anything bad that happens to him, and told them that “HTS wants my head, if something bad happened to me, do not say ‘he was killed by anonymous people,’ and do not say ‘we’re not sure who killed him.’ I don’t have any other enemies within or outside of Syria.”
Mahmoud Fares quotes a relative who told him about a meeting with an HTS leader in Kafr Nabl the morning after the assassination, saying “right after the assassination, one of our acquaintances met with an HTS leader in Kafr Nabl. They were talking about Hammoud Junaid’s murder, and the leader said that Junaid deserved to ‘die’ because he was with Raed Fares.”
Among the facts on which the son based to prove his story is that the area was completely under the control of Tahrir al-Sham organization and that no evidence was found by the surveillance cameras installed in the streets, showing the passage of the closed gray car that assassinated his father and his colleague, so the assassins know the roads of Kafr Nabl well, as well as the places where the cameras are installed, so they were able to hide the evidence.
“The decision to assassinate my father has not been taken by an individual as no one in the organization can take such a decision and bear its consequences. Rather it requires the approval of al-Joulani himself, and needs to be planned and other consequences that may not be taken into consideration,” he said.The son’s account is identical to that of the assassination survivor Ali al-Dandosh, because the entire region is under the control of the ‘Tahrir Al-Sham’ faction, so that wherever the car carrying the perpetrators went after the operation it would pass through HTS military checkpoints. “So I am sure they assassinated him,” he says.
He supports his narrative by saying: “They did not ask me what happened, they did not take the car information from me, and they did not open an investigation even though all evidence was available at that time”.
Bassam al-Ahmad, the Director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization, which issued a detailed report about the incident, commented by saying: “During documenting the assassination, we noticed that whoever executed the assassination was very comfortable in controling the area. He was not at all scared of being held accountable, he also studied the city very well, so he probably is one of its residents, and not a stranger or a visitor, as he seems to be well acquainted with its streets.”
Days after the accident, all the clues pointed towards Tahrir Al-Sham Organization, which issued a statement through its official agency “Ibaa”, saying that there were “parties supporting the counter-revolutions trying to get them involved in the assassination”.
The statement entitled “A Crime in a Region Aiming to Involve the Authority” claimed that “the murder of Fares and al-Junaid coincided with “a systematic campaign led by some networks of suspicous purpose and funding, as they spread a huge amount of lies to undermine the stability of the liberated north and try to cause a rift between the Mujahideen and their supporters”.
In an endeavour to understand why an official investigation has not been conducted, the investigation team communicated with the Minister of Justice of the Syrian interim government, Abdullah Abdul-Salam, who confirmed that the interim government does not control the area and cannot enter it in the first place.
“We have no control over the area where the assassination took place, and we cannot even reach that area because this will cause problems with the Salvation Government,” said Abdul-Salam.
He added: “There is no contact between us and the Salvation Government (a service arm, and a government supporting Tahrir Al-Sham Organization), and the assassination took place in areas controlled by “Salvation” and we do not have access to the area or know anything about the incident”.
The “Salvation Government” was formed on November 2, 2017, in the areas under the control of “Tahrir al-Sham” in Idlib and Reef Halab, and a week after its formation, the organization handed overall service facilities to it, which confirms the link between the two sides, but the “Salvation” denies that it is a civil arm for “Tahrir al-Sham” despite all evidence of this relationship.
Our team also contacted the media office of the Salvation Government to understand why they have not started an investigation in this incident. In the beginning, they were responsive, but when they knew our report was about the assassination of Raed Al-Faris they stopped responding to our messages.
Al-Ahmad considers that the absence of an investigation into the case is due to the fact that the salvation government does not want to carry out this investigation, or has orders from its military wing, which may be involved, not to start an investigation into the case. If there were any intentions to start investigating, whether from the salvation government or the interim government, that would have happened.
The Judicial Path and Accountability. Where Is The Case Now?
Searching for the possibility of promoting the prevention of impunity for crimes against journalists through fair trials, or the formation of a court similar to the one that prosecutes war criminals even after a while, Fadl Abdel Ghani, director of the Syrian Human Rights Network, said, in an interview with the report team, that “Achieving justice through the judicial system in the death of Fares is essential, although it may take a long time, up to ten years, but there are other tracks to achieve what it calls “Urgent accountability” for the perpetrators, which is achieved through the societal rejection of the one accused of the assassination, as well as those dealing with them boycotting them, i.e.the Syrian military factions and fighters and their supporters.
“All of them have to boycott the organization, as a result of the criminal act it has committed, as well as impose a blockade on it economically and politically, and expose this crime,” he says.
He referred to the role of the press in talking about the crime and revealing its circumstances, which is also part of the accountability.
As for international justice, it is available according to the international jurisdiction, but it needs an effort and action to gather evidence and present it to the public prosecution, after which the prosecution accepts it, and a number of extremist factions are held accountable using universal jurisdiction. According to Abdul-Ghani, “this is a long path and can result in holding one or two people accountable”.
The Syrian Human Rights Network suggested that Tahrir Al-Sham was behind the assassination of media activists based on analysis of evidence and information, and on testimonies from the region. In turn, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of expression, which is directly involved in the litigation of crimes against journalists, Yara Badr, the Center’s media freedom director, says that no criminal responsibility has been established at the legal level, allowing for procedural judicial steps to be taken, because no independent investigation was conducted into the death of the al-Faris.
The Center, which is currently active in the areas of preventing impunity for crimes against journalists, focuses on Syria and on the most dangerous countries for journalists such as Mexico, Iraq and Colombia. They filed a lawsuit in the case of the murder of American journalist Mary Colvin in targeting the Baba Amr Media Center in Homs in February 2012, and the murder of the French military photographer, Remy Oschlick.
Badr adds, “In partnership with international organizations at the level of UN mechanisms, they work to improve the legislation to guarantee freedom of expression, and they press for the approval of the international badge of journalists”.
According to lawyer Yasser Al-Salim, who was once imprisoned in the notorious Iqab prison (in the western part of Idlib and is used today as a prison and a security investigation branch for Tahrir al-Sham): “The killers did not leave behind any concrete evidence, and the party controlling the region is still the same. Who will investigate?” asked the man who left Syria fearing for his life due his critical opinions.
“None of the perpetrators can be prosecuted until the situation stabilizes and the organization’s control over the region ends,” he says.
Bassam al-Ahmad agrees that “in these circumstances, it is impossible to bring justice to the case, and even if there is a trial, it will be unfair or incomplete, because there is no independent and impartial judiciary, within the Salvation government and the Tahrir al-Sham organization.”
But “the inquiry committees and the neutral international mechanism can collect information about the case in order to prepare for a future judicial track,” he added.
Al-Ahmad concludes by inviting the victims’ families, and witnesses as well, to keep documents, facts and evidence in their possession, waiting for the disclosure of specific information or the ability to conduct a trial.