Islamist rebels suspected in abduction of key Syrian human rights leader

Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights activist who’s the leader of the civic opposition throughout the two-and-a-half-year-old Syrian uprising, was abducted along with her husband and two other activists from the war crimes documentation center where she worked, the center confirmed Tuesday.

Unknown assailants broke into the office of the Violations Documentation Center, a respected human rights monitoring group, on Monday night and ordered the four to leave at gunpoint, the center said in a statement.

The abduction occurred in Douma, a town northeast of Damascus that’s under the control of several competing rebel groups. No group claimed responsibility, but suspicion fell on Jaish al Islam, or Army of Islam, the most powerful rebel military force in Douma, as well as on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al Qaida affiliate that Zeitouneh recently had criticized for carrying out abductions throughout Syria.

A spokesman for the Islamist Front, a coalition of Islamist groups that includes the Army of Islam, said the Army of Islam was investigating the abduction. The centrist Free Syrian Army also has troops in Douma, which has been the scene of intense fighting against government forces.

The Violations Documentation Center called Zeitouneh, who’s 36, “an icon of the Syrian revolution” and a fighter “against injustice and tyranny.” Trained as a lawyer, Zeitouneh rose to prominence shortly after the uprising began in March 2011, through her outspoken criticism of President Bashar Assad. A short time later she went into hiding.

Abducted with her were her husband, Wael Hamadeh, an activist and former political prisoner, Samira Khalil, and a lawyer and poet, Nazem Hamadi.

Zeitouneh co-founded the Local Coordinating Committees – anti-Assad groups that have sprung up throughout rebel-held Syria – the Violations Documentation Center – which is considered one of the most careful chroniclers of violence in the country – and the Local Development and Small Projects Support Office, which helps fill basic needs and supply essential services for civilians who are affected by the civil war.

Zeitouneh’s activities would have made her a target of pro-Assad forces, but the suspicion that it was an anti-Assad group that abducted her underscored growing concern that religious fundamentalists have broken with secular revolutionaries and are attempting to establish an Islamist state.

Zeitouneh recently took aim at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has launched a fierce campaign in the past three months against the more secular Free Syrian Army and has installed harsh Islamist rule in cities and towns it’s conquered. Earlier this month, she wrote in the Lebanese magazine NOW that more than 50 activists, most of them so-called citizen journalists, had been abducted in rebel-held areas primarily in Syria’s north during the second half of this year.

“More than 90 percent of the cases of abduction are carried out by ISIS, which continues the role of the regime in assassinating activists and pushing those who remain to exile,” she said.

Zeitouneh cited the case of Ahmad Saleim al Bikaae, a young doctor who was abducted early in October in Ghouta, an area east of Damascus, and whose fate is unknown. Bikaae had founded a doctors’ outreach group called Saving Souls that now operates in towns around the capital.

“Until now, no one knows the fate of Dr. Ahmad al Bikaae nor the group that abducted him,” she wrote, decrying that few were demanding his release. Criticizing the Free Syrian Army, the newly installed rebel police force, and other institutions in the rebel-controlled area, she called for a redoubling of efforts to determine what happened to the physician and accountability for those who abducted him.