By Patrick J. McDonnell
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
1:11 PM PST, December 10, 2013
BEIRUT -- A prominent Syrian opposition activist lawyer, Razan Zeitouneh, and three of her colleagues have been kidnapped in a mostly rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus, according to fellow activists and media accounts Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, relatives of a pair of Spanish journalists revealed that the reporter-photographer team had been kidnapped by Islamist rebels in northern Syria, adding to a string of abductions of journalists inside the war-torn nation.
Kidnapping of Syrians and foreigners has become a common occurrence in rebel-held swaths of the country, where power is wielded by various armed groups, some linked to Al Qaeda. Just last week, a group of Greek Orthodox nuns was taken from a monastery in Maaloula, a historic, mostly Christian town north of Damascus, the capital.
In the case of the human rights activists, unknown assailants broke into the headquarters of a group known as the Violations Documentation Center and detained Zeitouneh; her husband, Wael Hamada, and two colleagues, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a pro-opposition activist group.
Human rights organization and activists condemned the kidnappings and called for the release of the four.
Zeitouneh was among the most prominent figures of the unarmed opposition inside Syria. She has won several international human rights awards and has frequently been interviewed by foreign journalists.
According to various accounts, the four were abducted late Monday evening or early Tuesday in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which is largely under opposition control but is the site of frequent clashes between government and rebel forces.
No group immediately took public responsibility for the abductions.
The Daily Star, an English-language daily in Beirut, quoted unnamed colleagues as saying the four had likely been taken by Islamist rebels operating in the Douma area. Colleagues said Islamist groups had threatened Zeitouneh for her “secular values,” the Daily Star reported.
Zeitouneh, 36, has been an outspoken critic of the government of President Bashar Assad since the outset of the rebellion in Syria more than 2 1/2 years ago, and had previously worked on behalf of dissidents. She told interviewers that she went into hiding more than two years ago because of threats from authorities.
In 2011, Zeitouneh garnered several prestigious human rights prizes, including the Anna Politkovskaya Award, named after a slain Russian journalist. She was also one of five Arab activists awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, named after Andrei Sakharov, the late Soviet dissident scientist and Nobel laureate.
Taken with Zeitouneh and her husband were two colleagues, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hamadi, opposition activists said.
[Updated at 4:12 p.m. on Dec. 10: Their seizure was just the latest in a rash of kidnappings of civil society activists and free-speech advocates in opposition-controlled zones. Some rebel groups appear even less tolerant of open debate and a free press than the government, a fact that greatly dismayed Zeitouneh and other peaceful opposition figures.
In an online article that appeared Dec. 1, Zeitouneh denounced the surge in kidnapping and assaults in opposition-controlled areas. More than 50 activists, mostly working with media issues, were kidnapped in the latter part of 2013 in so-called liberated zones of Syria, she wrote. Many others fled out of fear, she said.
An Al Qaeda-linked rebel group believed to be behind most of the kidnappings “is completing what the regime has started in eliminating the activists and pushing who is left to leave the country into exile,” she lamented.]
The Spanish journalists kidnapped in northern Syria were identified as Javier Espinoza, a Beirut-based correspondent for the daily El Mundo, and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a freelance photographer.
The two were taken almost three months ago but family members and El Mundo held off on publicizing the abductions in the hope the pair’s release could be secured. But relatives said there has been no contact from the kidnappers, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an Al Qaeda-linked faction.
The same group is believed responsible for the abductions of other journalists and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was kidnapped in July in northern Syria.
Espinoza had previously escaped danger in Syria, reaching safety in Lebanon after surviving a shelling in the city of Homs in February 2012 that killed fellow Western journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.
About 30 journalists are missing in Syria, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In the last two months alone, the group says, at least seven journalists have been reported kidnapped inside Syria, including two from Sweden and another Spaniard.
Special correspondent Lava Selo in Beirut contributed to this report.
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