January 17, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1056

The Razan Zeitouneh Kidnap Affair: Syrian Human Rights Activists Face Danger From Both Regime And Extremist Islamists

January 17, 2014 | By N. Mozes*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1056

On December 10, 2013, late at night, masked men burst into the office of a human rights organization – the Violations Documentation Center – in the town of Douma in the Rif Damascus governorate, and kidnapped the office director Razan Zeitouneh, her husband Wael Hamada, and two other human rights activists, Samira Al-Khalil and Nazem Al-Hamadi. Zeitouneh's friends and civil opposition activists accused Jaysh Al-Islam, a Salafi group operating primarily in the Damascus region which is part of the Islamic Front and is considered one of the largest Islamist forces fighting the Assad regime. The organization, for its part, denies any connection to the incident.

The abduction of Zeitouneh, who has won many prizes for her human rights activism during the revolution from both Western and Arab bodies, epitomizes a phenomenon that has been growing in recent months, namely the abduction of journalists and human rights activists. The problem is most acute in Aleppo, which is controlled by extremist Islamist organizations headed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Rami 'Abd Al-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, many opposition brigades "kidnap any activist who does not agree with their views."[1]

The abductions, which paradoxically target people who supported the Syrian revolution from the outset and oppose the Syrian regime, has provoked anger and deep concern among civil activists; the latter feel that their revolution has been hijacked by the Islamist organizations, which aside from the objective of toppling the regime have nothing in common with them. This sentiment is expressed in posters and slogans posted on the social networks in connection with the Zeitouneh affair, such as "Return the Symbol of the Revolution" and "Whoever kidnapped Zeitouneh kidnapped the revolution" as well as in demonstrations organized by Zeitouneh's friends after her abduction. The activists and their supporters claim that the kidnappers effectively serve the Assad regime by eliminating its opponents who work for a democratic, civil and pluralist Syria, and also by tarring the revolution with the radical Islamic brush, thus allowing the regime to present itself to local and international public opinion as the sole civil and moderate alternative.

The abduction of Zeitouneh and her friends sheds light on the complicated situation and the many dangers that civil opposition activists in Syria must cope with even in areas no longer controlled by the Syrian regime. Following their abduction, criticism increased against opposition leaders who reside abroad and live an easy life in contrast with the local activists who risk their lives on a daily basis.

Razan Zeitouneh – A Human Rights Activist And The Recipient Of Numerous Awards

Zeitouneh (36), a law graduate of Damascus University, began her human rights activity before the 2011 Syrian revolution, when, upon completing her studies, she joined in the defense of political prisoners and was a founding member of the Human Rights Association in Syria. In 2005 she established a website documenting human rights violations by the regime, and over the years she published dozens of articles and reports on diverse websites and newspapers pertaining to human rights conditions in Syria. When the revolution broke out she was a founding member of Syria's local coordinating committees, and reported from the field to the various media outlets. In cooperation with the "Soriyat for Development" organization Zeitouneh opened three "Women Now" centers to train women who have lost their livelihood as a result of the war.[2]

Her activity resonated powerfully not only in Syria but also outside it, and she received numerous awards from various bodies, including Reach All Women in WAR (an organization supporting women human rights activists in conflict regions), the European Parliament, the American State Department and the Ibn Rushd Fund for Freedom of Thought.

Her activity infuriated the regime, and in May 2011 the security apparatuses raided her home, arrested her brother-in-law and seized many documents. Her husband was also arrested a few days later and held for three months.

Even after armed opposition forces headed by Jaysh Al-Islam took over parts of eastern Al-Ghouta, Zeitouneh continued her human rights activity, and apparently angered these organizations. In September 2013 it was reported that armed men had fired on her house and left a message that her life was in danger unless she left the area within a few days.

As mentioned, on December 10, 2013 unidentified persons burst into her office and kidnapped her with her husband and two other activists. Jaysh Al-Islam, whom local activists suspect of the kidnapping, denied this, and its spokesperson, Muhammad 'Alloush, declared that the organization does not kidnap people but summons them for interrogation. He added that Zeitouneh had actually entered the region with Jaysh Al-Islam's help, and that she had worked in the town of Douma far from the organization's normal area of activity. He praised Zeitouneh's activity and said that she and other activists served the revolution, and there was no justification for their arrest.[3]

The four abductees: (clockwise) Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Al-Khalil and Nazem Al-Hamadi (

Civil Opposition Activists On Facebook "Give Us Back The Symbol of the Revolution"

Elements inside and outside Syria hastened to condemn the kidnapping of Zeitouneh and her colleagues. Douma's local Shura Council condemned the "cowardly act" designed "to weaken the ranks and distract public opinion from the suffering, siege and war that the Syrian people is enduring.[4] U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi also condemned the kidnapping and called for the activists' release.[5]

The kidnapping caused local civil activists deep concern as they viewed it as a further indication that radical Islamists were hijacking the revolution. Activists working for Zeitouneh's release opened pages and hashtags on the social media and published many announcements urging the release of the "Symbol of the Revolution," as they called her.[6]

"Give us back the Symbol of the Revolution " (

The activists voiced concern for the revolution's fate. A post published on Zeitouneh's own Facebook page, whose name following the kidnapping was changed to "Freedom for the Symbol of the Revolution," said: "Razan's kidnapping is not just a blow to human rights, it butchers the revolution."[7]

From the "Freedom for the Symbol of the Revolution" Facebook page (

Demonstrators hold placards saying "Zeitouneh-the spirit of the Syrian revolution (, December 16, 2013)

"Whoever kidnapped Zeitouneh kidnapped the revolution." (, December 24, 2013)

Similar concern was also expressed by Syrian opposition activist Muluk Shanawani in a column in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat: "...Following [Zeitouneh's] kidnapping the besieged [eastern] Al-Ghouta remained alone. Razan conveyed its inhabitants' suffering to every media [outlet] that she could reach... She left behind a model of "civil revolution" that we are still defending..." Shanawani speculated on the possible repercussions of the kidnapping on Zeitouneh herself and on the civil revolution in Syria: "If Razan Zeitouneh, with her status in the revolution, was not spared harm to her rights, then who is fighting whom in Syria and what [type of] struggle is going on in the country? Will [Zeitouneh] be forced to yield to religious demands? Will she be forced to don a hijab? Will her activity to document human rights violations be stopped? And what will remain? What influence will [her kidnapping] have on the other civil activists in Al-Ghouta...?[8]

Kidnapping Human Rights Activists Harms The Revolution And Abets The Syrian Regime

Zeitouneh's kidnapping raised awareness to the abduction of human rights activists, clerics and journalists, which has been growing in recent months. The spokesperson for the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy condemned the harm to civil activists, journalists and members of civil society who devote their lives to improving Syria's future.[9]

Syrian opposition elements also condemned the phenomenon, emphasizing that it harmed the revolution's objectives. The Syrian National Council, in an announcement published after Zeitouneh's kidnapping, said that there has recently been an uptick in activity against human rights activists, clerics and journalists, ranging from threats and pressures to kidnapping and murder. The council added that, "undoubtedly, the regime its agents and groups, who are alien to Syrian society and its values and to the values of our revolution, are behind many of these actions. [But], no matter who is committing them, these crimes are unforgivable and unacceptable. These are war crimes..." The council voiced apprehension that the matter would tarnish the image of the revolution and the revolutionaries, and called upon armed opposition forces operating in areas where kidnappings of activists have occurred to pursue the perpetrators, release the hostages and prevent a recurrence of the matter.[10]

Zuhair Salem, a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB), severely criticized the kidnappers in an article he published on the movement's website: "...The oppressors have crossed every line. They specialized and went overboard in harming the revolution and the insurgents... Dozens of those bearing the burden of the revolution in Syria have been writing to me for several months... [saying,] 'I quit. They kidnapped me... I find myself alienated from what is happening in my country...' Woe to the revolution if its victory will come at the hands of those who come out against us and [indiscriminately] attack the believers and the infidels, those who fail to respect the elderly and do not take pity on minors... We do not recognize the religious law that these extremist heretics present. This revolution they are conducting is not our revolution and we do not want to assist it..."[11]

Lebanese columnist Hazem Al-Amin argued in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat that events of this type serve the Assad regime, which wants to convince global and local public opinion that it is fighting terrorist organizations rather than a popular revolution: "Let us imagine the following scene at the Geneva conference: [Seated] at the negotiating table, the head of the Syrian regime delegation opens his briefcase and extracts from it a picture of Razan Zeitouneh, Samira Al-Khalil, Wael Hamada and Nazem Al-Hamadi and presents it to the head of the Syrian opposition delegation saying: 'your forces kidnapped these four Syrian civilians...' [This scenario shows] that one can easily exploit this case in order to reinforce the regime's position in the negotiations. This is one case out of hundreds that the Islamist brigades have provided as a gift to the Syrian regime... The Islamists fighting in Syria kidnapped Father Paolo[12] and dozens of other activists and journalists, [some of] whom they killed, and threatened the population in many regions that they control. All these activities effectively supply ammunition to the regime, [helping it] to market the claim that it is fighting terrorist organizations and to spread fear about the possible alternatives, should it fall...

"Whoever knows Razan Zeitouneh realizes what her kidnapping signifies. Aside from the fact that she is the most prominent civilian face of the Syrian revolution, her presence in Syria seriously challenged the regime's claim that it is fighting terrorist organizations. Furthermore, she is the only [known activist working] inside Syria that the revolution has not yet lost..."[13]

Unlike The Political Opposition Abroad, Zeitouneh Stayed In Syria And Fought

The affair of Zeitouneh's kidnapping was an opportunity to criticize the political opposition abroad, as opposed to the civil activists who remain in Syria and fight on a daily basis at a risk to their lives. A post on the Facebook page "Freedom for the Symbol of the Revolution" called Zeitouneh "one of the few civilian voices who preferred to remain within Syria and work in the liberated areas... She was the voice that did not remain silent for a single day about the oppression which the Syrians endured at the hands of their executioners. Zeitouneh is the voice of truth, the voice of the revolution and the voice that labored to preserve our dignity."[14]

Columnist Jihad Al-Zein also attacked the Syrian oppositionists abroad in an article in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar: "The kidnapping of the valiant Syrian activist Razan Zeitouneh embarrasses many, for two reasons. The first is that this action against Razan and her friends in the Damascus Rif governorate may symbolically mark the end of the civilian role in the Syrian opposition... [and] many civil opposition leaders abroad can no longer ignore this, after they have done so for a long time. The second reason is that Razan has become a symbol not only for her civil democratic struggle... but also, and perhaps primarily, for belonging to a small group of civil leaders who elected to remain in Syria, while the majority of the civil struggle's [leaders] are abroad, instead of inside [the country] with the Syrian people and amongst them...

"Razan Zeitouneh provided a practical example – not a theoretical one – of [remaining] committed, and to the best of my knowledge she turned down attractive proposals to leave Syria. She did not succumb to them at a time when other activists succumbed [and opted for] the political good life in five star hotels..." [15]


*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.




[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 30, 2013.

[2], January 12, 2014.

[3], December 10, 2013.

[4], December 18, 2013.

[5] December 19, 2013.

[6];; Zeitouneh Facebook hashtag.

[7], December 17, 2013.

[8] Al-Hayat (London), December 23, 2013.

[9] December 17, 2013.

[10], December 18, 2013.

[11], December 12, 2013.

[12] Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest was kidnapped in August 2013 in ISIS-controlled Al-Raqqa.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), December 15, 2013.

[14], December 15, 2013.

[15] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), December 17, 2013.



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