HTS extorts families to include their detained members in government exchange lists

IDLIB, Syria (North Press) – Relatives of detainees in Idlib, northwest Syria, say they pay sums of money to leaders of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra Front) in exchange for including the names of their detained sons in the prisons of the Syrian government in the Prisoners Exchange Lists.

According to them, HTS leaders take between $1,500 and $2,000 to list the names of the detainees who were previously affiliated with them, while they take more than $5,000 to include the names of civilian detainees.

Mustafa Zubaidi (pseudonym), an IDP in the camps of the border town of Qah, north of Idlib, was forced to pay $2,000 to include his son’s name, who was detained two years ago, on the Prisoners Exchange Lists that the HTS conducts with the government from time to time.

Although his son was affiliated with HTS, Zubaidi was forced to pay to one of the HTS leaders, after all his attempts to include his son’s name in the prisoner exchange lists failed.

The HTS should have placed his son’s name on the lists unconditionally or paid money, “but in the HTS’ laws, you have to pay.”

He is currently awaiting the upcoming exchange lists, hoping that his son will be among those released. 

Ignoring their demands

The Syrian government, HTS and the Turkish-backed armed opposition factions in Idlib carry out prisoner exchanges from time to time.

On August 12, 2020, the HTS exchanged a number of its detainees with the government forces in Miznaz in the western countryside of Aleppo.

At that time, the government forces handed over seven people, including six women, from HTS.

In return, the HTS handed over three members of the government forces, including an officer, who were arrested during the clashes that took place between the two parties in early 2020.

On May 16, 2020, an exchange of detainees took place between the Syrian government forces and the opposition factions in the Darat Izza area in the western countryside of Aleppo.

A military source told North Press at the time that a colonel and a member of the government forces was exchanged with three members of the HTS and a member of Ahrar al-Sham faction.

Sa’id al-Omar (pseudonym), was asked by HTS leader to pay $1,500 to in exchange for including his son’s name, who has been detained for more than two and a half years, in the exchange list.

He said he cannot secure the money, as he is barely managing his and his son’s family needs.

Al-Omar, with other residents, were frustrated with HTS ignoring their demands to include the names of their detainees affiliated with HTS without paying money.

“HTS makes profits in exchange for the release of its arrested members,” he added.

Deception and fraud  

Last year, Ra’ed al-Eido (pseudonym), an IDP from the city of Ma’arat al-Numan and residing in the city of Idlib, was able to release his son from government prisons after a period of detention that lasted for more than five years.

He said the Syrian government forces arrested his son at a military checkpoint while he was on his way to the city of Hama to receive his monthly salary.

Al-Eido paid $4,500 to a leader of the HTS, who put the name of his son on the prisoner exchange lists, so that the son was released after five months.

According to the statistics of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the government security services have arrested 968,651 people since the beginning of the Syrian war, more than 105,902 died of torture.

Razouk al-Dawdi (pseudonym), an IDP from the northern countryside of Hama, lives in the Deir Hassan border camps, was subjected to a fraud operation after he paid $1,500 to an HTS leader, to release his detained brother from the government prisons. 

The young man said after he paid the amount, he could not reach or contact him anymore, as he changed his phone number.

Reporting by Samir Awad