After American’s Killing in Syria, F.B.I. Builds War Crimes Case Against Top Officials

For months, guards at a Syrian prison brutally tortured an American aid worker and threatened to kill her loved ones. She eventually caved to their demands, confessing to crimes she did not commit. A trial that lasted no more than a few minutes followed, and she was ordered executed in late 2016.

Human rights workers and politicians were outraged when the American government stayed noticeably silent about the death of the aid worker, Layla Shweikani, 26. Her case never received the same level of attention as those of other American citizens captured abroad, including Austin Tice, a freelance journalist covering the war in Syria who was abducted outside Damascus in 2012; Jason Rezaian, a correspondent for The Washington Post, who described being subjected to psychological abuse and sleep deprivation after he was released from an Iranian prison in 2016; and Brittney Griner, a professional basketball star who was imprisoned for nearly a year in Russia.

But for five years, the Justice Department has been quietly investigating Ms. Shweikani’s killing, led by the U.S. attorney in Chicago, according to four people with knowledge of the inquiry. F.B.I. agents traveled to Europe and the Middle East to collect troves of evidence and interview potential witnesses, including the man who may have buried Ms. Shweikani. Federal prosecutors convened a grand jury, which has been hearing evidence.

The inquiry, which has not been previously reported, aims to bring to account top Syrian officials considered key architects of a ruthless system of detention and torture that flourished under President Bashar al-Assad: Jamil Hassan, the head of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate when Ms. Shweikani disappeared, and Ali Mamlouk, then the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau intelligence service.

A federal indictment accusing the men of committing war crimes would be the first time that the United States has criminally charged top Syrian officials with the very human rights abuses that Mr. al-Assad has long denied using to silence dissent. Although the men are unlikely to be apprehended, a conviction would signal that the United States aims to hold the Syrian government responsible. Already, the United States has imposed sanctions on Mr. al-Assad and his inner circle, including Mr. Mamlouk and Mr. Hassan, over abuses like violence against civilians.

International efforts to bring top officials in Syria to justice for war crimes committed over more than a decade of conflict have been starkly limited. Few perpetrators have been prosecuted, raising the stakes of any possible charges and testing diplomatic relations. A potential indictment would “personalize the evil of this regime and make it clear you can’t do business with Assad,” said former Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s special representative for Syria engagement.

Even as it is widely acknowledged that security forces under Mr. al-Assad have systematically sought to stamp out opposition to his authoritarian rule, he has inched back onto the world stage. A few Arab countries, led by the United Arab Emirates, are trying to draw Syria back into the international fold. Critics have accused President Biden of tacitly shifting from the position held by previous administrations that no nation should ever engage with Syria, accusations the White House has denied. And after a powerful earthquake devastated Syria in February, Western nations have worked more amicably with Mr. al-Assad’s government to deliver aid.

Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an advocacy group, said that an indictment would send an undeniable message. “No one should normalize relations with a regime that has killed an estimated 500,000 to a million people, including Americans and Europeans, and that continues to do so,” he said.

Asked to comment for this article or whether the F.B.I. had reached out, Ms. Shweikani’s father, Mohamed Shweikani, said, “I want nothing to do with running your story or the F.B.I.”

Spokeswomen for the Justice Department and the F.B.I. declined to comment.

As a child, Ms. Shweikani traveled to Syria to see family, and she earned a computer science degree in 2012 from Arab International University, according to her LinkedIn account. After working for a few years as a software engineer, she relocated in 2015 from suburban Chicago to Damascus to join a grass-roots network of humanitarian relief workers. But Mr. al-Assad tightly controls all official aid efforts in his country and he has treated citizen-run efforts as a threat, accusing them of terrorism.

By the time the authorities detained Ms. Shweikani on Feb. 19, 2016, along with her father and her fiancé, who were also in the country, almost every member of her relief group had been taken into Syrian custody. She would spend nearly a year in prisons on the outskirts of Damascus where cramped conditions, illness and torture run rampant: a detention facility at the Mezze airport, the Adra civilian prison and the Saydnaya military prison, where witnesses believe she was tried and executed.

Syrian guards tortured Ms. Shweikani, witnesses would later tell Justice Department investigators, recounting how they vowed to kill her father and fiancé, who had been detained for only a few days. The guards eventually forced her to falsely confess to crimes against the state, including terrorism.

Some of the worst abuse she endured is believed to have been at the Mezze detention center, which was then controlled by Mr. Hassan. One former detainee described the stark conditions there after he was arrested in 2012 as part of the government’s crackdown on Homs, once the heart of the resistance against Mr. al-Assad.

“You’re blindfolded, handcuffed and naked,” said Mohamed, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of retribution. “Your cell is so full that you sleep standing up. You don’t know what time it is. But you know that you’re always awaiting torture.” He had scabies and lice, and his skin was deteriorating. Some prisoners died of gangrene from mutilations and amputations, others of starvation and suffocation.

Guards suspended him by his wrists, feet barely touching the floor, alternately beating him and leaving him hanging for hours to listen to the screams of men, women and children as guards set upon them.

“I confessed to anything they wanted me to,” he said.

Eventually, Ms. Shweikani was moved to Adra prison, where the Obama administration dispatched the Czech ambassador, Eva Filipi, to meet her in December 2016 because it had cut off formal diplomatic relations with Syria. Convinced that Ms. Shweikani had confessed under torture, she relayed that to officials in Washington, two former officials said.

But before the U.S. government could intervene, Ms. Shweikani was transferred in late December to the Saydnaya military prison. After a brief field trial, she was convicted. Investigators believe she was hanged. She died at 7:07 a.m. on Dec. 28, 2016, according to a government document obtained by a Syrian news service.

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria in 2018, Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, disclosed Ms. Shweikani’s death to the public.

“She became the first American citizen that we know of to be killed by the Assad regime,” Mr. Kinzinger said, adding, “Whatever response the administration decides to take will shape how the regime and its backers treat other Americans.”

At the hearing, Ambassador Jeffrey confirmed that Ms. Shweikani died “in Syrian government hands.”

Four months later, at a private White House meeting, President Donald J. Trump told Republican lawmakers that he was unlikely to respond to a killing by the Syrian government, according to two people familiar with the conversation. Even though human rights groups had details supporting allegations of torture and murder, Mr. Trump said he was not inclined to address the matter because of Mr. Assad’s claims about aid workers and extremism.

But two F.B.I. agents privately told Mr. Kinzinger that the bureau would not be dissuaded from investigating her death, the people said. Former and current U.S. officials involved in scrutinizing Ms. Shweikani’s activities also expressed doubt about Syria’s accusations of terrorism.

While investigators gathered ample information that placed Ms. Shweikani in the prisons and testimony about her brutal treatment, the bigger challenge was directly linking Syria’s top intelligence officials to her torture and death. But they made inroads, largely with the help of Syrian activists, victims and nongovernmental organizations that for years have collected evidence of Syria’s activities.

At least one prisoner testified to seeing Mr. Hassan at Mezze prison while Ms. Shweikani was there. The gravedigger’s papers authorizing him to dispose of the bodies from Syria’s prisons were signed and stamped by Mr. Mamlouk. He said in an interview with The New York Times that Mr. Hassan ordered his work.

Nearly every night, intelligence officers called him on a military communications device to meet tractor-trailer trucks that ferried bodies to mass graves. “Sometimes it was impossible to open the truck because the pressure built up inside from the decay,” he said.

The trailers tilted the corpses into vast trenches. “Hundreds of bodies flowed out. Some human beings looked skeletal because they were starved. Others had their guts spilling out. I would see a river of parts,” the gravedigger said. “Those that got stuck on the ledge, me and my team would have to get them into the hole.” The smell lingered in his nose and mouth for days.

But the bodies from Saydnaya were different, arriving in cars, a few dozen at a time. “Their bodies were still warm, just executed,” the gravedigger said. “I always saw the mark of the noose on their neck and their hands and legs tied. They were always naked.”

Prosecutors in Germany and France have spent years establishing criminal cases against Mr. al-Assad’s lieutenants, underlining some of the difficulties in pursuing justice for atrocities committed in countries like Syria.

In January 2022, a German court handed down a landmark life sentence against Anwar Raslan, a Syrian colonel, for crimes against humanity, including the torture of more than 4,000 Syrian prisoners. In 2018, German prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Hassan, but they have yet to apprehend him.

In March, prosecutors in France indicted and issued arrest warrants for Mr. Mamlouk and Mr. Hassan related to the killing of two men with dual French-Syrian citizenship.

If the Justice Department were to charge Mr. Hassan and Mr. Mamlouk, it is highly unlikely that the men would enter a country willing to extradite them to the United States. But human rights lawyers say the prosecution would still be valuable, revealing more about the atrocities that continue to be committed in Syria.

“Assad is still in power,” said Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer for the International Federation for Human Rights who represented the family of the two victims in France’s recent indictment. “Prosecutions are the only way at the moment for victims to articulate their quest for justice.”

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