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On June 7, 2021, American Syria-based journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem posted a link on his Telegram channel to an 18-minute YouTube video in which he was interviewed by the outlet Middle East Eye. This is the first time he spoke publicly since his conditional release from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) prison, where he was held for six months. At the end of February 2021, an HTS court ordered Kareem not to report on Syrian affairs for three months, and to refrain from any social media activity for six months.
During the interview, Kareem claimed that torture is common in HTS prisons, adding that the group's leader, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, is "unfit to rule." He claimed that HTS detained him because he reported on their wrongdoings in Idlib, adding that HTS perceived him as a threat after he exposed their practice of torturing prisoners. Kareem nevertheless said that while he does not support HTS or Al-Julani, he also does not view HTS as a terrorist organization.
It is worth noting that in an interview released this week on the US PBS network, Al-Julani denied that detainees held by the group were subject to torture.
In response to Kareem's interview, a pro-HTS channel on Telegram published an article discrediting him. The three-page article, authored by Omar Zaidelddin, claimed that Kareem is a member of Ethbeto Operation Room, which consists of five factions that split from HTS, including Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, Huras Al-Din.
The article claimed that Kareem was involved in supporting abductions carried out by the operation room against members of HTS, and in striking residential areas in Idlib. adding that he was detained with other individuals responsible for these "crimes."
According to the article, a court found Kareem guilty of collaborating with anti-HTS groups which "had conducted no military activity against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad." It further said that Kareem acted as a media front for these groups, conducting campaigns aimed at destabilizing security in Idlib during a critical time when HTS was fighting against military offensives launched by the Syrian regime.
Elaborating on his conditional release, the article claimed that following a petition submitted by local leaders in Idlib, HTS agreed to the release, and met with Kareem to discuss his future as an Idlib-based journalist: "We met with him to discuss the future and what can we do to ensure his return to the ranks of the Syrian revolution and to the path for which he left his country [the U.S.], that his efforts will return to the right path, thereby granting him the right to criticize and identify mistakes."
The article noted that despite HTS efforts to cooperate with Kareem, who was motivated by "hatred and jealousy," continued to report on HTS in an unprofessional and inappropriate way unbecoming to Syrian society or the Syrian revolution.
"Among the most pressing issues we discussed with him was the conditions of the prisons. He wanted us to release all the criminals, corrupted people, and the spies and thieves of the regime." The article claimed that Kareem's demands were shallow and defied Islamic shari'a, adding that his "western" background has confused his judgement.
The article ended by saying that Kareem and HTS agreed to form a committee of clerics who will examine the issue of the imprisonment of "criminals" in light of shari'a law. However, said the article, Kareem ultimately left Idlib, in breach of the conditions of his release.