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Lawyer Calls For Fate Of Prisoners To Be Included In Syria Peace Talks


Syrian peace talks got started again in Geneva this week. One Syrian woman hopes to get an issue on the agenda - the fate of hundreds of thousands of people detained. It is a very personal issue for her, as NPR's Alison Meuse reports.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: I met Noura Ghazi on her way from Damascus to peace talks in Geneva. She's a lawyer who defends prisoners in Syrian state jails.

NOURA GHAZI: There are people who are suffering every day. And we don't know how they are living. We just want them to come back.

MEUSE: Ghazi can visit her clients in civilian prisons, but she says many are locked away in secret detention centers. One of them is her husband, arrested for his peaceful activism at the start of the uprising. His whereabouts are unknown since he was transferred from a civilian prison to military custody in October 2015. She fears he's back in the notorious Sednaya Prison where he was tortured before.

GHAZI: He was burned with cigarettes. He has under big torture and naked all the time with no water, no food. And it was sexual humiliation. I'm afraid if he has died. Yeah, I love him so much, and I can't imagine my life without him. And this is not about me. This is about a thousand people in Syria.

MEUSE: The U.N. has documented what it calls an extermination campaign in Syrian government jails. Ghazi and other activists believe the regime and allied militia have detained some 300,000 people over the course of the war. But Ghazi thinks the regime doesn't want to release them.

GHAZI: Because everything will be open now, and the crimes will be discovered.

MEUSE: Rebels also hold prisoners. Activists say groups affiliated with al-Qaida are thought to be holding 6,000 captives. They include rival rebels and civilians. NPR reached 20-year-old Batoul Samir, who was held by rebels for nine months. She spoke by phone from Latakia.

BATOUL SAMIR: (Through interpreter) The first few days, every day, we would think they're going to kill us.

MEUSE: But her captors wanted to swap. Every month or two, she'd get a minute to call a relative and beg for help.

SAMIR: (Through interpreter) The armed men would tell us that the government is not concerned about this issue. We were made to feel like we are nothing, like we don't matter in this world.

MEUSE: Finally, they were freed in a prisoner exchange. Samir says negotiators in Geneva should focus on the fate of hostages.

SAMIR: (Through interpreter) How is it possible that we were kidnapped, that our parents were killed and no one at all thought to ask about us or what became of us?

MEUSE: This week's U.N.-led talks are unlikely to achieve a settlement in Syria, but lawyer Ghazi wants negotiators to push for a more limited goal - justice for detainees. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADNAN JOUBRAN'S "THAT MOMENT WHEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.