For more than a decade Razan Zaitouneh, Syria’s celebrated 36-year-old human-rights lawyer and activist stood her ground against the depredations of President Bashar Assad’s regime. But her strength was no match for the masked men who abducted her, along with her husband and two colleagues, from her home in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Monday night. They are the last in a long line of scores of Syrian civil rights activists to be abducted, assassinated or driven out of the country as the once peaceful uprising, launched in March 2011, has devolved into armed conflict.
Her kidnapping, from a rebel-held area, came as a shock to Syrians who have long held her up as a symbol of peaceful defiance. “She was my Mandela,” laments colleague and antiregime activist Assaad al-Achi, speaking to TIME by phone from the U.K. (although he goes in and out of Syria regularly). It is not yet clear who is behind the abduction, but many accuse Islamist rebels in control of Douma, who have threatened Zaitouneh in the past. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a prominent antigovernment intellectual married to one of Zaitouneh’s kidnapped colleagues, openly accused the Army of Islam, writing in a Facebook post, “Based on my intimate knowledge of the situation in Douma, I see that ‘the Army of Islam’ bears full political and moral responsibility for the abduction of Samira [his wife], Razan, Wael, and Nazem.” Army of Islam commander Muhammad Aloush denied responsibility in a Facebook post, saying “Abducting people is not part of [our] approach.”
As armed opposition factions reshuffle their alliance and extremists rise in the ranks, the revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring has been supplanted by a vicious and increasingly sectarian civil war in which every party’s motives appear dubious. Anti-Assad extremists are subjecting Syrian citizens to abuses identical to those meted out by the Syrian government over the past four decades, leading many to wonder if the country is ever going to change for the better. As a result, Syria’s civil rights movement has faltered.
Just two months ago, Saleh, the husband of Zaitouneh’s colleague, was forced to leave the country after his hometown of Raqqa was seized by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. In a farewell letter posted on his Facebook page, Saleh complained of being forced to hide in his “liberated” city after 2½ years of the revolution. He spoke of the “strangers” who had taken over his town, “detaining human beings and disappearing them in their prisons,” noting that they were “always political activists.”
Long before she took on the Islamists, Zaitouneh’s outspokenness brought her to the attention of Syria’s authorities, earning her a foreign-travel ban in 2002. When the uprisings started she co-founded the Local Coordination Committees and the Violations Documentation Center, two Syria-based nongovernmental organizations that track deaths, disappearances and human-rights violations. Nor did she shy away from calling out opposition fighters on their mistakes. A year ago, she published an op-ed urging the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, a loose-knit rebel umbrella group, to work alongside civil activists in rebel-held towns. By doing so, she and her colleagues sought to establish a successful model of local governance that could strengthen the revolution’s cause and serve as a bulwark against extremist groups that brought in their own system of Islamic law. Her commitment to human rights has earned her many international prizes, including Europe’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Anna Politkovskaya Award by Reach All Women in War in 2011 and the International Women of Courage Award granted by the U.S. State Department in 2013.
For opposition activist Aous al-Mubarak, Zaitouneh’s abduction is a devastating blow. On Tuesday morning he went to her apartment, along with some friends, only to find it ransacked with all the activists’ laptops missing. The loss of civil activists leaves a vacuum that many worry extremists will be quick to tap into.
“Her abduction is a setback for the civil movement,” says activist al-Achi, who is also a spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees that Zaitouneh helped found. “It signals a move toward complete radicalization and confrontation between two evil forces: the regime and the Islamic fanatics.” The only hope for her kidnapping, he says, is that widespread outrage over her abduction will push people to “marginalize, once and for all, all radicals.” In a Syria shadowed by war and ideological divisions, it’s a thin hope.