Families of Syria detainees hope for news amid US sanctions

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Laure Ghosn, whose husband Charbel Zogheib has been missing for the past 37 years, speaks as she holds their wedding portrait during an interview at her home in Sarba, north of Beirut, Lebanon. Ghosn said her husband is held in Syria and hopes that a new wave of sanctions imposed by the U.S. against the Syrian government will force Damascus to reveal the fate of hundreds of Lebanese citizens held in Syria, including that of her husband. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT – Alaa Arnous and his family found the photo of his father Mohammed online last week, the first proof of his fate since he was seized by Syrian government forces seven years ago. The image showed his corpse, his face battered and bruised, his mouth hanging open.

The elder Arnous was among thousands of Syrians who, since their country’s civil war began in 2011, went missing into Syrian government prisons. Survivors and rights groups say thousands more are known to have died under torture.

Anguished relatives are poring over photos of torture victims from Syrian prisons, posted online by activists after the United States imposed heavy new sanctions on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad last month.

“We were living on hope that he was still alive,” Alaa Arnous told The Associated Press from the opposition-held town of al-Tah in northwest Syria as he looked at his father’s photo on his smart phone.

“It is terrible when you see the photograph of your father and imagine what the torturers did to him,” he said.

The photo is among tens of thousands of images of torture victims smuggled out of Syria in 2013 by a forensic photographer-turned-whistleblower who used the code name Caesar. The photos became public at the time, but most were images of piles of bodies, difficult to identify.

But activists have begun circulating more detailed photos again online after the U.S. imposed its new sanctions, named the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, after the photographer. The sanctions bar anyone around the world from doing business with Assad’s government or officials, and among its provisions it demands Syria release detainees and allow inspections of its prisons.

For Mohammed Arnous’ wife, Nadima Hamdan, the impact of the photos was unbearable. She searched for hours through the photos. She not only found her dead husband — who was arrested in 2013 as he travelled to Lebanon for work — she also found photos of her brother and nephew.