Seeking justice in a French court for an IS-group beheading
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More than a year after their son, a Syrian army soldier, was beheaded by Islamic State (IS) group militants, Fayza and Ghassan M. have filed a civil lawsuit against French jihadist Maxime Hauchard, one of the alleged killers, in a French court.
It’s a chilling image nobody should have to see, let alone a parent. But that’s what Fayza and Ghassan forced themselves to do in November 2014, when they watched an IS group video featuring a jihadist beheading their son.
The 16-minute clip, which announced the decapitation of former US Army Ranger Peter Kassig, made headlines across the world. But the 26-year-old American was not the only victim in that clip. In what was probably a macabre ploy to prolong and dramatise their grisly message, the IS group also included the beheadings of 18 men identified as, “Nusayri officers and pilots in the hands of the Khilafa [caliphate]”.
“Nusayri” is the term employed by the jihadist group for Alawites, the Shiite minority sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs.
The 18 condemned men in the video were Syrian military officers -- and they included Fayza and Ghassan’s eldest son, Ghaith.
More than a year after that grim video appeared online, the couple has traveled from the central Syrian city of Homs to Paris, where they hope to seek justice for their son.
The gray dampness of a Paris spring day is thousands of miles and a world away from the parched battlefields of eastern Syria, where their son met his grisly end. But in what could be a landmark case for international justice and the campaign against the IS group, the Syrian couple is suing a French national in a French court for his alleged role in their son’s murder.
The Frenchman named in the lawsuit is Maxime Hauchard, a 24-year-old native of Normandy familiar to French intelligence officials. Born and raised in a Catholic family in Le Bosc-Roger-en-Roumois, a sleepy village in northern France, Hauchard is an unlikely jihadist who personifies some of the bewildering profiles of foreign fighters who have signed up for the IS group cause.
In a July 2014 interview from Syria with French TV station BFM, Hauchard revealed that he had converted to Islam at 17 after watching YouTube videos. He then traveled to the West African country of Mauritania for religious instruction, but left when he found the education "not strict enough". In August 2013, posing as a humanitarian worker, the Normandy native traveled to Turkey and crossed the border to Syria, where he is believed to be currently living.
The 24-year-old Frenchman was one of the unmasked IS group jihadists -- many of them foreign fighters -- who were filmed beheading captives in the 2014 video. Shortly after the video’s release, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve confirmed that French intelligence services had analysed the video and concluded that “it is strongly presumed that the person [in the video] is Maxime Hauchard, born in 1992”. An international arrest warrant was issued for his arrest.
More than five years after the Syrian uprising broke, the grim nexus of that conflict is taking its toll across the world and the true impact is being felt, sometimes in the unlikeliest places.
Dressed in a neat, all-black pant suit, Fayza gazes at a TV screen in a Paris hostel room silently streaming the latest updates on the March 22 Brussels attacks investigations.
“I’m sorry for the Brussels victims because their families are also suffering, they are also victims. The things these terrorists have done -- haram, haram, haram,” says Fayza, repeating the Arabic word for “forbidden under Islamic law”, before returning to a theme that is often repeated in the course of the interview. “We are also suffering. But we are not alone. There are so many people in our position.”
A military career path for father and son
Fayza and Ghassan’s harrowing experience is being mirrored across Syria, where kidnappings and the handover of captives between rebel groups and militant commanders are rampant.
A retired Syrian army officer, Ghassan raised his two sons and a daughter in Homs, providing them all the middle class comforts he could afford.
His eldest son, Ghaith, joined the Syrian army shortly after graduation following a common career path in the Alawite community since the current Syrian leader’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in the 1970s.
In 2007, four years before anti-regime protests broke out, Ghaith was posted to Raqqa. Back then, little did the family know that the eastern Syrian city would gain international notoriety as the “capital” of the IS group’s so-called caliphate.
Although he moved from home, Ghaith continued to see his family in Homs every month. In 2010, he got married and the newly-weds bought an apartment in Raqqa, where the couple had a son, born a year after the Syrian uprising broke.
On December 13, 2012 -- a day etched in the couple’s memory -- Fayza and Ghassan saw their son. "That was the last time we saw him, but we did not know it at the time," says Ghassan, pausing to gaze at the floor. At this stage, Fayza takes up the narrative.
"On January 3 , he sent us a photo of him promoted him to the rank of naqib [captain in the Syrian army]. He was so happy and proud," recalls his mother, clicking through images on her mobile to find the photograph of her son, beaming in his uniform with captain epaulettes, on his promotion day.
It was the last piece of happy news the couple would receive from their eldest son.
‘If you want, you can have lunch with Assad’
Ten days later, Ghaith was captured in a battle between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria by FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels.
It was the start of a harrowing nightmare for the family. Kidnappings have long been a thriving subsidiary of the war business, particularly in the Syria-Lebanon region. Estimates of the number of abductions – by jihadists, moderate rebels, established criminal networks or upstart ones -- are hard to arrive at given the lawlessness across Syria. But anecdotal evidence of a kidnapping surge abounds, with an untold number of Syrian families enduring the psychological trauma of trying to get information and secure the release of loved ones in the absence of law enforcement mechanisms.
Shortly after he fell into rebel hands, Ghaith featured in an FSA video of captured Syrian civil servants and soldiers. His captors then contacted the family by phone, seeking a prisoner exchange.
“We tried and we tried, but it was impossible,” explains Ghassan. “Some of the [regime’s] prisoners were killers and they would never have been released.”
But Ghaith’s captors were implacable. “They told me you’re an Alawite. If you want, you can have lunch with Assad. But I’m not the defence minister,” says Ghassan helplessly.
Enter the intermediaries – for a price
And so, the negotiations continued at a painstaking pace until the FSA unit holding their son threatened to sell Ghaith to Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria branch. “They told me, ‘you know what Nusra will do with an Alawite,’” recounts Ghassan.
The FSA rebels were right. After six months of fruitless negotiations, Ghaith was turned over to the al Qaeda group – and that’s when the phone calls got even more tormenting.
“At first, Nusra asked for a prisoner exchange. When we said we couldn’t manage that, they started demanding money,” said Ghassan.
The ransom demands were exorbitant for a middle class Syrian family struggling to get by in a wartime economy. Nusra asked for $30,000, or around €22,000 under the exchange rate at that time. "Even if I -- and my brothers -- sold everything we owned, we would never get that amount of money,” explains Ghassan.
Frantic negotiations ensured, with the family using the help of several intermediaries, including tribal chiefs – always for a price. “In total, I paid around 935,000 [Syrian pounds or around €4,600] to intermediaries,” explains Ghassan.
‘In three days you will be with us’
Their son’s well-being, under the circumstances, was their top priority. But things weren’t looking good. Sitting on a bed in a Paris hostel room, Ghassan crosses his palms and exhales slowly before plunging into a particularly tortuous chapter of their travails.
“They were always insulting me in the worst possible way because I’m Alawite and they were torturing him in the background, I could hear him scream,” says Ghassan. “I had a heart attack,” Fayza adds, “because they kept asking, ‘Do you want a finger or a hand or a leg...,’” she breaks down sobbing, unable, for the moment, to continue.
At that stage, the negotiations suddenly got frantic. Jabhat al-Nusra threatened to sell Ghaith to the IS group. It was September 2014 by then, 20 months into their son’s captivity, and the IS group’s proclivity for brutality was well-known.
“Things got rushed and we finally reached an agreement for a release against 2.5 million Syrian pounds [around €12,400]," says Ghassan.
The family somehow managed to cobble together the money. The sum was handed over to an intermediary who promised Ghassan his son would be released within three days. "I was confident. They allowed me to call my son and I told him, 'Good news: in three days you will be with us.'"
‘France has allowed killers to come to Syria’
But three months passed without any news. No more phone calls, no more ransom demands, no more threats, nothing.
"Then one day, one of our relatives told us about the beheading video. In fact, our neighbors knew about it, but no one dared tell us," recounts Fayza.
For good reason. Although Kassig’s beheading does not feature in the video, the death squad-style executions of the Syrian captives are displayed in gruesome slow motion.
More than a year after the video release, the emotional wounds for Ghaith’s parents are still raw. As the sobbing retired Syrian army man buries his face in his hands, his wife, softly muttering, “haram, haram,” digs into a suitcase and fishes out a plastic bag full of photographs of their son.
Fayza and Ghassan will have to relive their trauma again, probably repeatedly, in a Paris courtroom in the days to come as they seek justice for their son. On Friday, March 25, the couple presented their evidence to a French judge. Their lawyer, Fabrice Delinde, told reporters it was “the first time that a Syrian family is a plaintiff in a case implicating a French jihadist who has gone to Syria called”.
Attempts by Ghaith’s parents to bring the case to court in France were initially rejected, but the Paris appeals court later ruled it was admissible.
The appeals court ruling was an almost unexpected development for Delinde and his clients, who were entering legally unchartered waters and were frankly not certain about how far the case could go in the French courts. Fayza and Ghassan have repeatedly asserted that they are not seeking financial compensation, they merely want to see justice served.
But that still left open the question of financing a lawsuit in France. Following the loss of their “ransom” money to an intermediary, as well as the costs of simply surviving in Syria’s wartime economy, Fayza and Ghassan are in a difficult financial situation. But, Delinde noted, the couple has “taken steps to raise the money, and the vast majority of their trip [to France] has been paid for by third parties”.
For Delinde, it was indeed important to have his clients in France to pursue what he sees as an important legal case. However the costs -- including trips to the Lebanese capital of Beirut for visas, air tickets to Paris and living expenses -- proved too much for the couple. That’s when Delinde decided to approach the Syrian authorities. "A few days before their departure, and since the French judiciary agreed to hear [the case], I myself requested assistance from the Syrian authorities so that my clients could come and be heard," explained Delinde. The amount the Syrian authorities put up, the French lawyer said, was negligible and barely covers a fraction of the costs incurred.
For Ghassan, the unprecedented legal move makes perfect sense. “France has allowed killers to come to Syria to kill our sons,” says Ghassan. "The Syrian justice system cannot function in the current context. It is up to France to judge its citizens when they commit atrocities in our country."
Justice, if it comes, will be most welcome. But Fayza insists nothing can ever take away the pain.
“It’s an open wound," she admits. "I’m sorry to say this, but even if you look sad, you cannot feel what I feel. I am bleeding inside.”