All roads lead to prison

Within months of her kidnapping, Zeitouneh was seen at Tawbeh prison by another female detainee, according to audio testimony obtained by DW. The woman pointed Zeitouneh out in a mix of pictures that included images of other people, according to rebel and activist sources who were present.

"We in Tawbeh had heard the name Razan Zeitouneh," the woman said in her testimony to another rebel group. "They once brought her to an interrogation. She refused, so they beat her, and she fainted. They asked us to bring her back into her cell. When she woke up, I saw her green eyes."

Several other witnesses have placed Zeitouneh in Tawbeh prison between 2014 and 2017, according to DW's sources. Because of potential threats to them for sharing information, neither their identities nor further details of how and when they saw her can be revealed.

DW also spoke with former Jaish al-Islam prisoners who confirmed many of the atrocities committed at Tawbeh, including rape, torture and summary executions.

"There's no difference between the prisons of Jaish al-Islam and the prisons of Assad's regime. It's the same torture, the same mistreatment – it's all the same," Rateb Khbieh, a former rebel leader and Tawbeh prison detainee, tells DW.

Jaish al-Islam founder Zahran Alloush (centre) was likely unaware of the kidnapping when it occurred (photo: Hamza Al Almahi/AA/picture-alliance)
Alloush's untimely assassination dashed hopes of Zeitouneh's release: security sources say it is unlikely that the group's late founder and military leader, Zahran Alloush, was aware of the abduction in advance. At the time, he was fighting a strategic battle against Assad's forces to open a supply corridor to Douma. He is believed to have found out only days after. His deputy, Abu Qusai al-Dirani, oversaw the group's security branch in Douma. Evidence suggests that al-Dirani and the group's religious leader, Samir Kaakeh, conspired together and ordered the abduction without Alloush's knowledge.

Perpetrating atrocities

Jaish al-Islam's leadership has consistently denied the group's involvement in Zeitouneh's disappearance. DW confronted the Islamist militia's spokesperson, but he accused the witnesses of providing false testimony.

"I officially deny, and we have previously denied, that Jaish al-Islam has held anyone from Razan's team, neither Razan nor her companions. Absolutely, never, definitively – and I swear to that," spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar told DW.

Security sources say it is unlikely that the group's late founder and military leader, Zahran Alloush, was aware of the abduction in advance. At the time, he was fighting a strategic battle against Assad's forces to open a supply corridor to Douma. He is believed to have found out only days after.

His deputy, Abu Qusai al-Dirani, oversaw the group's security branch in Douma. Evidence suggests that al-Dirani and the group's religious leader, Samir Kaakeh, conspired together and ordered the abduction without Alloush's knowledge.

DW requested interviews with al-Dirani and Kaakeh. Those requests were denied. Both men remain active in Jaish al-Islam. It is unclear to what extent others in senior leadership are aware of the group's involvement.

Attempts to release her

After he was informed, Zahran Alloush reportedly grew desperate over what to do with the four abducted activists, according to rebel and activist sources.

Only weeks before a Russian airstrike would kill him in December 2015, Alloush promised friends and families of the victims to settle the question regarding their fate.

 

"I even offered them to record a videotape, stating that, out of financial or political problems, I ordered the kidnapping of Razan – or whatever they wanted as a guarantee," Mazen Darwish, a human rights lawyer and long-time friend of Zeitouneh's, told DW about closed-door talks in the Saudi city of Riyadh. "The negotiator replied: even if you give us the tape, can you guarantee that Razan won't talk? And I felt that, yes, they have her."

However, Alloush's untimely assassination torpedoed the deal.

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