Early one Friday morning in late April, Hala Abdulaziz, a 29-year-old interior designer, went online from her apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, to check the latest on protests in her home country of Syria.
Moments later, Hala recognized her father in a video of demonstrators under fire. Two other protestors carried him slung between them as he bled profusely into a shirt she gave him on her last trip to Damascus.
Unable to reach her family over jammed telephone lines, Hala didn’t receive confirmation that her father had died until she saw his name, Abdalgafar Abdulaziz, on a list of people killed on a news program. It was another month and a half before she could get through to her family on the phone.
“The situation is very bad for us,” Hala told Al Arabiya. “I just wanted to talk to my mom, see her, console her, hear from her directly how they are. I had no way of knowing for six weeks.”
In the following month, Hala sought recourse the only way she could from Washington – she sued Bashar Al Assad and members of his regime under an American legal clause that gives US citizens the right to sue foreign governments for torturing or killing their relatives.
That’s when the scare tactics began. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation later learned, employees of the Syrian Embassy in Washington were behind a campaign of intimidation.
“Someone called me, speaking Arabic, and said they would take my daughter in Syria, kill my family, and kill me if I didn’t drop the case,” said Hala. She says her five-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Damascus, was seized by authorities for five hours, while two of her brothers were arrested and tortured.
Hala is one of many receiving threats from the embassy, according to Syrian activist Mohammad Abdallah, who served jail time in Syria for political dissidence before moving to the US.
Mr. Abdallah recounted run-ins with embassy employees at protests over the past few months. Employees would film and photograph demonstrators, and threaten to send their names to intelligence officials in Syria to put pressure on their families back home.
“Many activists were receiving threats, so they came together to report them to the authorities. The FBI investigation revealed that the threats were coming from people employed by the embassy… so the embassy was conducting surveillance on American citizens,” said Abdallah.
One activist’s mother was barred from leaving Syria, and others have had family members arrested, prompting some protestors to start covering their faces during demonstrations.
US officials are taking the accusations seriously. The State Department summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to address the complaints earlier in July. As recently as Wednesday this week, Assistant Secretary for the Middle East Jeffrey Feltman said the FBI will continue to investigate the embassy’s actions.
“The US government takes very seriously reports of any foreign government actions attempting to intimidate individuals in the US for exercising their lawful right to freedom of speech… We’re also investigating reports that the Syrian government has sought retribution against Syrian family members for the actions of their relatives in the US, and will respond accordingly,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
The Syrian Embassy did not respond to Al Arabiya’s requests for comment on the case, and the FBI said they cannot talk about ongoing investigations.
Hala Abdulaziz remains undeterred, though she said the FBI recently started watching her apartment after she reported a suspicious man from the embassy lurking near her home. She says she will continue to demand accountability for the Syrian regime – not just on behalf of her father, but also for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have sacrificed.
“I will not drop the case until Bashar Al Assad is brought to justice.”
(Angela Simaan is a producer in Al Arabiya’s Washington, DC bureau. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)