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The Syrian Regime Killed a US Citizen. Where is the Accountability?

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

One of the hundreds of death certificates issued by the Syrian regime over the last few months, one is for American aid worker Layla Shweikani. Experts say it is now time for the US to seek justice.

In September 2015, 26-year-old Layla Shweikani travelled from her house in the United States, where she was born and raised, to the Syrian capital Damascus. 

It was the year that a mass influx of more than 14,500 internally displaced people were arriving in Damascus from opposition-held Eastern Ghouta as a result of Syrian regime siege and airstrikes. Shweikani studied computer engineering, but she felt the need to travel to Damascus to help with humanitarian work.

In February the following year, she went missing.

Two years later, the Syrian civil registry has sent a death certificate to her family.

Reports emerged that she had been detained, badly tortured and finally executed by the Assad regime. An anonymous source tells TRT World that she was killed in the infamous Sadnaya prisonon December 18, 2016, after being transferred from Adra prison.

US courts currently have another case pending against the Syrian regime for the killing of a US citizen.

Journalist Marie Colvin was killed in 2012 by a rocket as she tried to escape the besieged city of Homs. Her case has already been before the federal court and is currently pending in Washington DC as her family decided to engage a legal team to file a civil action suit in the US federal courts.

“Colvin's case can effectively set a precedent for other similar cases being brought in the US federal courts,” Toby Cadman, an international law specialist in the field of war crimes and human rights told TRT World.

Discussing the death of Shweikani in Syria, Cadman said: “The fact that she is a dual American and Syrian citizen would appear to give her standing or her family standing to bring a case in before the American courts.

Alternatively, he said: “The same kind of process as Colvin’s case could be taken by legal groups working in the United States and brought on her behalf.”

However, Shweikani’s dual citizenship could complicate her case.

According to Cadman, for the Syrian regime, it means she effectively travelled Damascus as a Syrian. But that doesn't mean that there's no obligation on the US authorities to take action when a citizen has been abducted and disappeared, he added.

There are reports that the Czech ambassador, on behalf of the US State Department, asked Bashar al Assad’s security chief Ali Mamlouk to release Shweikani on December 18, eight months after she was detained. But instead, a military judge ordered her killing a week after the request. She was executed two days after the order.

It is unknown if the US made any other effort to save its citizen and no information was released on the whereabouts of her body. 

The only information that families of the victims receive from the regime is either a phone call or a document from the civil registration, without provision of any tangible proof. International law considers these cases as forced disappearances without a body.

Approximately 82,000 enforced disappearance cases were recorded by the SNHR between March 2011 and August 2018.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, founder of Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) told TRT World that he doesn't think that the State Department did enough to save Shweikani. He said they could solve the issue with discussions and negotiations, or through Russia, which has been actively involved in the war since 2015 as an ally of the Syrian regime.

“There is not enough effort and pressure against the regime or those prisons. Without the pressure the regime feels like it has a green light and they’re able to do whatever they want - including using chemical weapons and torturing thousands of people in Syria,” he said.

Since spring 2018, the Syrian regime began issuing death notices at an unprecedented rate, even though the political prisoners had been killed years earlier.

Both Ghany and Cadman agree that is why Shweikani’s family received her death certificate. It is a sign of Assad's claim that he is consolidating his grip on power and the need to close the chapter on executed political prisoners.

“The regime discovered a way of doing it through the civil registry - reaching the families, telling all of them that it is natural causes and heart stroke that killed them,” Ghany said.

“It is odd because it is not the job of the civil registry - it is the prisons’ and hospitals’.”  

In Syria, when someone goes missing, it is likely they have been sent to a Syrian regime prison where tens of thousands are tortured and died in custody.

“It [this trend] shows the mechanics of the regime using military intelligence, using the courts to effectively cover up their crimes by issuing these phoney death certificates,” said Cadman.

“There is also a certain level of impunity by the Assad regime - they'll issue a death certificate, and they know nobody's going to be able to prosecute them for that person's murder.”

In the wake of recent certificates issued by the Syrian regime, a UN Syria coalition, with the support of SNHR, published a reporton November 27 calling on the Syrian regime to suspend any enforcement of capital punishment, including when issued by military or field courts.

But both Ghany and Cadman believe the Assad regime does not consider itself to be bound by laws of international justice. They say what needs to happen now is that the US should question the Syrian regime about the circumstances of Shweikani’s death, and get a response


“The US department should order the regime deliver the body, declare how she has died publically and at least give the family her belongings,” said Ghany.

“This is a minimum accountability that this lady deserves to have.”

For Cadman, justice is a complicated issue when it comes to Shweikani’s case.

“[It is] Financial compensation as result of a civil case and not a criminal case,” he said.

“What we want to see are the individuals responsible for her death to be held criminally accountable.”


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