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A Syrian American is suing the Syrian government for torture he says he suffered

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An American is suing the government of Syria for his treatment in a Syrian jail. This is the latest in a series of efforts to hold Syria accountable for more than a decade of torture and abuse. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Obada Mzaik speaks to me on Zoom from his home in Columbus, Ohio, about his detention in Syria.

OBADA MZAIK: Then I went to the prison. They punished me and tortured me while I'm, like, fully naked. And after they finished, they called it the welcoming party. That's what they call it.

SHERLOCK: It was a beating they called the welcoming party for the weeks he was to spend in an underground prison at a military airport in Damascus, a desperate place where, Mzaik says, detainees were crammed together in cells with no sunlight. Mzaik was born in the United States to parents of Syrian descent. And the family eventually moved back to Damascus. He was there as a university student when peaceful protests against the Syrian government began in 2011. He was arrested a first time and held for 35 days on suspicion of taking part in those demonstrations. Then in early 2012, he was at Damascus Airport, returning from a visit to the U.S.

MZAIK: And the officer at the border, he just, like - his face, like, changed.

SHERLOCK: He says he was accused of being a Zionist traitor and taken to a prison controlled by the feared Syrian Air Force Intelligence branch. There, Mzaik says, torture was routine. He describes hearing guards whip a child and pour freezing water on the child's naked body.

MZAIK: I can't forget, like, the boy, like, kid's voice while he was scared and asking for mom, looking for his mom.

SHERLOCK: Mzaik says his interrogators stripped him naked and threatened to electrocute him. They punched him in the face hundreds of times and then beat him with a PVC pipe.

MZAIK: It was a green color, like, very thick. It was beating - they beat me up. And he said that he needed to torture me without any sound. So if I make any sound, he make the torture more and more.

SHERLOCK: At one point, he says, interrogators brought in his cousin, who was also detained, and forced Mzaik to listen to his cousin's screams as guards hung him from the ceiling by his handcuffs. Mzaik was released after 23 days after he says his family managed to pay a bribe to a senior regime official. Now he lives in the U.S. and is suing the Syrian government in a civil lawsuit in a federal court in Washington, D.C., that outlines these allegations in detail. The case is backed by the California-based Center for Justice and Accountability, which seeks to prosecute human rights violators. The Syrian government did not respond to NPR's requests sent to its foreign ministry. In the past, the regime has denied it commits torture despite extensive evidence to the contrary. Syria hasn't so far responded to this lawsuit, and in another case in the U.S. of an American journalist killed in Syria, never responded. Any ruling in the United States against the Syrian government is hard to enforce. But Mzaik says this isn't really the point of the case.

MZAIK: I hope to draw public attention for hundreds of thousands of Syrian who are less fortunate than me. And they are still detained and tortured in Syria until this time.

SHERLOCK: Some countries are rebuilding ties with the Syrian regime as it survived the Syrian war. Mzaik hopes his case and others will make them reconsider that and instead seek justice for the thousands of people still in Syria's jails.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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