Relatives of a Druze man from the Golan Heights who was freed after 13 years in a Syrian prison this week say they still have no idea why he was imprisoned.
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Syria released Berjas Aweidat, 47, of Majdal Shams on Monday. The reason for his detainment was unclear, but MK Ayoub Kara said he was suspected of spying for Israel.
Awiedat’s brother, Sa’id, said Wednesday he had spoken to his brother on the telephone after he was released, but didn’t ask him about the imprisonment as his brother was still in Syria and he was cautious of what he said.
“I asked him how he was. He say’s he’s OK, he’s healthy, with the family. The uncle [with whom Aweidat is staying] said he was in great shape. What’s going on inside his head, I don’t know,” he said.
Aweidat has six sisters and four brothers. Some of them were at the family’s house in Majdal Shams, where the missing brother’s picture hangs on the wall beside a portrait of his father, who died while his son was in prison. The family said he didn’t know his son was in prison, only that he had disappeared.
Aweidat’s mother said that during the first seven years of Aweidat’s imprisonment they didn’t even know he was in custody.
“In 2008 there was a story in an Israeli newspaper, then we started hearing rumors that he was in prison. Since then, bit by bit, we found out more details,” Sa’id said.
The mother’s brother, with whom Aweidat is now staying, serves as a judge in Syria. He was the first to contact Aweidat. In 2010 his mother visited him in prison. Even then, she said, she wasn’t told what he was detained for.
“To this moment we know nothing,” Aweidat’s sister, Hindia, said. “We’re angry at the media for saying he’s a spy and we’re afraid something will happen to him. A lot of things were said about him, my mother was there and no one told her what he was in jail for.”
“If he was a spy they would have executed him,” Sa’id said. “Some websites said he was caught with counterfeit money, but the rumors were all wrong.”
Ghazala, Aweidat’s sister, said Berjas himself doesn’t know “and they don’t know in Syria, either. Everything that was written is wrong. They wanted a story.”
She said Aweidat had never been put on trial. “In Israel you know what you go in [to prison] for, in Syria you don’t. I’m afraid it will harm him. Everything’s a mess in Syria. The situation in Syria is bad. He went into prison, now he’ll come out and hear what they say about him.”
Family members said a year after Aweidat had started studying at the University of Haifa he received a confirmation that Damascus University would recognize his studies. He went there to study law in 2003.
During his studies Aweidat returned to Israel for a visit, like other students from his village who went to the same university. After two and a half years he disappeared.
He had been in Adra Prison near Damascus for about 10 years, then transferred to Sweida Prison. Only then was he allowed to see a lawyer, the family said. Some 250 members of Aweidat’s family live in Syria, some of them in Swieda and some in Damascus.
Sa’id said he was angry with Israel. “If an Israeli is lost they’ll turn the world upside down to bring him back,” he said. Over the years the family had asked the Interior Ministry, the Red Cross and MKs for help, but only Kara helped eventually.
“They avoided us, sent us to the Red Cross nobody cared. He was in prison for 13 years for nothing,” Sa’id said.
Residents of Majdal Shams said Awiedat’s disappearance isn’t the first. Another resident, Saliman Mer’I, had disappeared for almost 33 years until one day he returned to the village and said he had been in prison in Syria. He also could not say why.