Texas Family Finally Learns Fate of Man Held in Syria

Since an American therapist from Texas disappeared while visiting Syria in 2017, his family has navigated years of milestones in uncertainty: his 41st wedding anniversary, the births of four grandchildren, his wife’s cancer diagnosis.

Earlier this month, at a hotel in Washington, national security officials told the family that highly credible, classified information indicated the therapist, Majd Kamalmaz, had died in captivity, held in one of the world’s most notorious prison systems.

Mr. Kamalmaz’s relatives intend to grieve soon, finally, at a mosque and at the family’s home in Grand Prairie, Texas. They had hoped for a different outcome, but now that they have accepted the news, his daughters said they would fight to hold Syria accountable for their father’s detainment and death. The family plans to sue the Syrian government for damages and to seek justice for others still in detention.

“They literally kidnapped him and disappeared him,” said Mr. Kamalmaz’s older daughter, Ula Kamalmaz. “We’ve heard nothing from them. That’s unacceptable.”

Mr. Kamalmaz is one of several Americans who have disappeared in Syria. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist covering the country’s civil war, was abducted outside Damascus in 2012. Layla Shweikani, 26, an American aid worker, was arrested, accused of terrorism and executed. The Justice Department is investigating her 2016 death as a war crime carried out by Syrian intelligence officials.

Confirmation of Mr. Kamalmaz’s death, which has not previously been reported, underscores the brutal detainment and torture in secret prisons in Syria that have flourished under President Bashar al-Assad. Syria denies that it uses torture and other abuses to silence dissent.

In Syria, citizens and foreigners vanish with no explanation. The government refuses to say whether detainees are alive or dead, and it uses them as tacit leverage in negotiations with the West. When U.S. officials traveled to Syria in 2020 to discuss the possible release of hostages, including Mr. Kamalmaz, he had likely already died, years earlier. Families are left in limbo, enduring a crushing cycle of hope and despair that can last years.

The Kamalmaz case shows how difficult it is for families and other nations to hold Mr. al-Assad accountable. Most of the world shunned Syria in 2013, after it was accused of using chemical weapons on its own citizens. But it has edged back onto the world stage, strengthening its ties with Iran, China and Russia. Before the war in Gaza, Arab states were reopening lines of communication with Syria.

“Pursuing accountability for Majd is symbolic and a measure of justice” for those detainees who have perished or remain in Syria’s dungeons, said Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an advocacy group.

Mr. Kamalmaz, then 59, was running a nonprofit in Lebanon helping refugees deal with trauma when he drove to Syria in mid-February 2017 to visit a relative who had cancer. Once in Damascus, he called his wife to tell her that he had arrived safely. The family never heard from him again. As in the case of Mr. Tice, Syria never acknowledged holding Mr. Kamalmaz, and there was little information about his whereabouts.

Syria is “a very dark black box,” said Mr. Kamalmaz’s other daughter, Maryam.

But in January 2020, F.B.I. agents visited the family’s home in Texas. The U.S. government had information that Mr. Kamalmaz had suffered a heart failure in Syria and died, they said.

That summer, members of the family traveled to Washington, where F.B.I. agents showed them a document, written in Arabic, that indicated Mr. Kamalmaz had been taken to the hospital with heart failure but that doctors had failed to revive him. It was dated June 2017.

“The date on that document just blew our mind,” Maryam Kamalmaz said. Her father had been in good health, making his death only four months after being detained appear more improbable. “We questioned that paper because of the date. It didn’t make any sense.”

She added, “How could he suffer from a heart attack and die unless they did something to him?”

The family also sought the help of the Czech ambassador at the time, who often acted as an intermediary since the United States cut off formal diplomatic ties with Syria.

Mr. Moustafa said he and his research team strongly suspect that Mr. Kamalmaz was imprisoned, at least for some of his time in Syria, at a facility at the Mezze air base in Damascus, which is known for its harsh conditions and brutal torture. The complex was then controlled by Jamil Hassan, the leader of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Mr. Hassan, and the Justice Department is investigating him as part of its inquiry into the death of Ms. Shweikani, the aid worker. The German authorities have also sought his arrest.

Years passed with no more insights into what happened to Mr. Kamalmaz. His 41st anniversary came and went in October. His family, including his four children, kept waiting.

Then finality came in early May at a Marriott Courtyard in Washington, at the meeting with U.S. officials, including F.B.I. agents. Eight officials affirmed the sensitive information that led the government to its conclusion. Maryam Kamalmaz declined to specify what the officials had provided her, but she said, “it was convincing after hearing how many levels of investigation it went through.”

She pressed each official. After more than two hours, her doubts had dissipated. “There is no more hope,” she said.

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