Syrian scholar says family held by 'fake rebels'
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Armed men claiming to be Syrian rebels have kidnapped relatives of outspoken US-based Middle East expert Majid Rafizadeh, who tells FRANCE 24 the captors are more likely to be militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Three family members of outspoken United States-based Middle East scholar Majid Rafizadeh have been kidnapped in Syria by an armed group claiming to be fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
But Rafizadeh, who often criticises the regime in the US and international media, told FRANCE 24 in an exclusive interview he believes his relatives were actually targeted by pro-Assad captors as part of a larger campaign to silence him and other critics.
A video posted on YouTube shows kidnapped relatives of Majid Rafizadeh. The captors say the three men are Iranians who may be members of the pro-Assad Shabiha militias.
“Some anonymous pro-government groups commit crimes and label themselves [rebel] terrorist groups, in order to strengthen the government's line that terrorists and foreign-backed groups are behind this popular uprising,” the Syrian-Iranian scholar told FRANCE 24.
A video showing Rafizadeh’s detained family members and their armed captors was posted on the Internet on August 27. His cousin, Jawad Saadi, 19, his uncle, Moyassar Saadi, 65, and Moyassar’s brother Toufik Saadi kneel in front of men brandishing AK-47s and rocket launchers.
The captors identify themselves as anti-Assad rebels who have seized the men because they are Iranian, but Rafizadeh said his uncle and cousin are Syrian nationals and insisted the militiamen were likely working for the regime. FRANCE 24 could not independently confirm the captors’ affiliation.
International rights groups have documented the kidnapping of many Syrian activists and ordinary civilians by government forces since the country’s uprising began in early 2011. But prominent groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have warned that rebel forces have also carried out serious human rights abuses, including the abduction and torture of people identified as Assad loyalists.
Fleeing to Lebanon
In the video, the captors surrounding the three detainees claim they belong to the "Liberation of Damascus Brigade" of the "Shield of Islam" militia. One of them says they have questioned the detainees for answers about their presence in Syria and whether they are part of the infamous pro-Assad Shabiha militia groups.
Rafizadeh's cousin Jawad Saadi, a student in Damascus, has a fresh bruise over his right eye and on his cheek.
According to Rafizadeh, his uncle and cousin lived in the al-Meliha suburb of Damascus and were last seen eight days ago, attending a funeral. The scholar, whose mother is part of the minority Shiite Muslim community in Syria and whose father is Iranian, said his uncle and cousin were born in Syria, spoke only Arabic, and had never travelled to Iran. He added that the identification cards both men are forced to display in the video merely indicate their Iranian ancestry.
Rafizadeh’s aunt was allowed to briefly see her husband and son after their arrest, and was told they would be released for a ransom of six million Syrian pounds, or just over 70,000 euros. Remaining family members were afraid of similar kidnappings and were considering fleeing to Lebanon, Rafizadeh said.
The scholar said that while in detention, his uncle and cousin were asked to give his US telephone number. They were also quizzed about his activities in American universities and research institutions, and asked if Rafizadeh wanted to overthrow the Syrian regime.
Rafizadeh was ambassador to the National Iranian American Council, has taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and contributes to the Harvard International Review. He previously conducted research at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has also contributed to news reports by FRANCE 24, as well CNN, the BBC, Voice of America and Al Jazeera, among other international news outlets.