On 3 February 2022, Tajammu Ahrar al-Sharqiya/Gathering of Free Men of the East, which operates under the Syrian National Army (SNA), issued a statement denying responsibility for the death of Rezan Khalil, a civilian from the village of Jaqla Foqani/Çeqelê Cûmê of the Shaykh al-Hadid/Şiyê district. Ahrar al-Sharqiya claimed that it could not be behind the killing of Rezan since it has no presence in the area of his residence. Ahrar al-Sharqiya also stated that its members visited Rezan’s family (locally known as Y’ayou family) with members of the Grievance Redress Committee and extended their condolences.
The following day, Ahrar al-Sharqiya released another statement (see annexes) under the title “Thanks and Gratitude”, in which it commended the efforts of the Military Police of Afrin in uncovering the truth of the circumstances surrounded Rezan’s death. In its statement, Ahrar al-Sharqiya also vowed to stand against what it termed “the phenomenon of spreading lies” that aims to undermine the social cohesion among the Syrian people.
Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ)carried out its own investigation into the death of Rezan Muhammed Khalil. We interviewed two members of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, two members of the Military Police of Afrin, a local medical worker, as well as other local sources in Afrin.
Our inquiries revealed that Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s statements on Rezan’s death were false. We verified that Rezan died from torture in a detention center managed by Ahrar al-Sharqiya in Afrin. He had been struck on the head with a hard object, causing a cerebral hemorrhage which killed him in late January 2022.
Sources confirmed that in the first week of January 2022 members of Ahrar al-Sharqiya arrested Azad Ismat Khalil on charges of affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Azad hails from Jaqla Foqani village of Shaykh al-Hadid and resides in Afrin city where he was arrested near Zakaria Habash School in Az Zaydiyah district. Nearly twenty days after Azad’s arrest, his uncle Rezan Khalil Muhammed went to the Ahrar al-Sharqiya headquarters, located in Velat Street in the city center of Afrin, to negotiate his nephew’s release. However, members of the Ahrar al-Sharqiya detained Rezan for five days, during which he underwent beating and torture which killed him.
In its statement of 3 February 2022, Ahrar al-Sharqiya denied having a presence in Shaykh al-Hadid town (the birthplace of Rezan and Azad), which is controlled by the Suleiman Shah Brigade (also known as al-Amshat), in an attempt to mislead the public. However, the incident occurred in Afrin city, where Ahrar al-Sharqiya has a presence, not in Shaykh al-Hadid.
On 24 January 2022, Rezan was taken to Afrin Military Hospital; however, his critical condition necessitated his transfer to a hospital in Reyhanlı, Turkey. Despite the transfer, Rezan died of a severe cerebral hemorrhage he sustained in late 2022. His body was then returned to Syria.
A source in the Military Police told STJ:
“Ahrar al-Sharqiya arrested young Azad on charges of belonging to the PKK. Then, his uncle, Rezan, went to negotiate his release with the faction, who asked for 1500 USD to do that. However, Rezan refused to pay such a large amount and thus quarreled with the members of the faction, who then detained him. Rezan underwent sever beating in detention with the result that he had to be hospitalized.”
In the same regard, a medical staff in Afrin Military Hospital testified to STJ:
“On 24 January, Rezan was transferred by ambulance from Afrin Military Hospital to Turkey through the Hamam border crossing. He was diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage. Nobody knows the exact date of Rezan’s death nor when his body was returned to Syria. Nevertheless, he certainly died in Turkey because he was alive when he entered it.”
A local of Jaqla Foqani village confirmed to STJ that Rezan died on 31 January 2022 in a Turkish hospital and his body was returned to Syria’s Afrin afterwards. The local’s testimony matches that of the medical staff in terms of Rezan’s place of death.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya and the Military Police’s Involvement in Rezan’s Death
STJ talked to two sources in Ahrar al-Sharqiya, one of whom confirmed that the faction assigned one of its Sharia advisors/ religious leaders to investigate Rezan’s death and see whether the security office of the faction was responsible for the incident. The source said:
“We confirmed that the young man, Azad Ismat Khalil, was initially arrested under a malicious report and during interrogation he confessed to belonging to the PKK. However, after a thorough search of his mobile phone no tangible evidence was found proving his confession, which suggest that he made it under pressure.”
The same source added:
“As for Rezan Muhammed Khalil, Azad’s uncle, we confirmed that he came to the faction’s headquarters to demand his nephew’s release. Then, members of the faction asked him for 5,000,000 Syrian Pounds (SP) to meet his demand. That angered Rezan, which provoked him into a dispute with the faction’s members, ended with his detention and beating by the latter.”
A second source from the faction testified that some Ahrar al-Sharqiya commanders tried to take advantage of Rezan’ death to tarnish the image of the faction’s security office in Afrin, which would instigate the faction’s leader, Abu Hatem Shaqra, to take action against it. However, Abu Hatem hastened to close the case of Rezan’ death and to conceal it with the help of members of the Military Police of Afrin with whom he has good links.
The Military Police and the Afrin Military Hospital did not publish any document or statement on Rezan’s death incident, not even a death certificate or a forensic report.
Mustafa Sheikh, a media activist and a member of the Human Rights Organisation -Afrin provided STJ with an exclusive statement in which he cited a different scenario of Rezan’s death:
“On 1 February 2022, I had a talk with a relative of Rezan who told me that it all started when Ahrar al-Sharqiya arrested Azad and his uncle, Rezan, went to the faction to ask about his nephew’s fate. Then, members of the faction asked Rezan a large sum in exchange for Azad’s release. Thus, Rezan contacted his relatives in Europe to help him secure the amount. Rezan managed to collect a sum of 2000 USD and gave it to a lawyer whom he hired to help expedite the release of Azad. Note, the faction asked Rezan for an amount other than that he gave to the lawyer.”
“Ahrar al-Sharqiya accused Rezan of getting the money from al-Shahbaa area held by the People’s Protection Units (YPJ)/ the Democratic Union Party and arrested him accordingly. During his detention, Rezan was beaten on his head. The brutal torture he was subjected to left bruises under his right armpit. Following that, Rezan collapsed and thus members of the faction took him home by their military vehicle. The next morning, after less than 24 hours, Rezan was transferred to the Military Hospital and from there to a hospital in Turkey where he passed.”
The activist Mustafa Sheikho provided STJ with photos of Rezan while being prepared to burial. Mustafa noted that the Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction threatened Rezan’s family and relatives with arrest if they published any information related to his death.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office sanctioned the Syrian armed group Ahrar al-Sharqiya and two of its leaders for committing crimes against civilians, especially Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture, and seizures of private property.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya is affiliated with the First Corps, headed by Brigadier General Adnan al-Ahmed (First Deputy Chief of Staff), who is under the command of the Minister of Defense in the Syrian Interim Government and Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Hassan Hamadeh.
Abdurrahman Mustafa is the head of the Syrian Interim Government, operates under the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC).