The fight for freedom inside Syria’s prisons is on—and 200,000 have disappeared
By Shawn Carrié and Luna Watfa
No sunlight enters the dingy, oxygen-less cell. Six by ten meters in length, each identical to the other two dozen, occupied by thirty men who sleep on the cold ground. Thaer bides his time, nursing a broken foot and abscessed ear—poorly healed marks from a previous torture session—by drawing caricatures on the walls, caked with a slovenly, muck-like amalgam of sweat, blood, and the thick black smoke from the burning trash which provides the only heat during the cold desert nights in Syria’s heartland. It’s an idle retreat that allows him to briefly escape his reality.
“Life inside the prison is utterly static. The only physical action is you and your cellmates being drained psychologically and somatically. Your sense of time and place and your surroundings disappears, like shadows you can see but cannot grasp,” Thaer told Newsweek Middle East. We spoke to him through a cellphone he managed to smuggle into the prison. His name is being concealed to protect his safety, but Newsweek Middle East has confirmed his identity and case number through a family member, as well as a lawyer in Damascus.
When revolution broke out in Syria in 2011, Thaer, then an out-of-work theatre director, quickly began organizing theatrical performances promoting freedom, dignity and citizen participation. For a time, art was a relatively safe way to express dissent in Syria. He took part in peaceful demonstrations, and urged fellow activists to remain committed to non-violence when the revolution started arming itself. Then, one summer morning in 2013, the “ghosts” came for him. Named for their shadow business as government hitmen, they carry out the Syrian regime’s dirty work before disappearing without a trace. It was 6:30AM when three cars pulled up to Thaer’s home in Hama. Ten men poured out carrying Kalashnikovs. Without a word, they broke down the door, cracked him in the head with the butt of their rifles, tied his hands and feet and threw him in the trunk of the car. Three years later, he sits in Hama Central Prison, with about 850 others in the “disorder wing”—reserved for political prisoners.
Thaer is one of the lucky ones. He is alive. His family knows where he is. The same cannot be said for the over 200,000 Syrians estimated to have simply disappeared—swallowed up by a shadowy system of secret prisons without any record in the courts. Agonized, their families have gone years not knowing where they are, if they’ve been charged or sentenced, or if they are alive or dead. In most cases, all that’s known is that they were taken away by the secret police, and never seen again.
A few weeks ago, tensions reached a breaking point. The prisoners staged a revolt, blockading themselves inside the disorder wing. In a desperate battle for their lives, they found themselves in control of half of the prison—staring down their jailers, it was either victory or death. What happened next would reverberate from Damascus to Moscow to Geneva, rocking the stasis of the Syrian War.
In early July, an NBC journalist walks into the Presidential Palace in Damascus to sit down with Bashar Al Assad for a landmark interview. He presses the president hard about the mass destruction he has presided over in Syria—bodies of children pulled out from the rubble of airstrikes pounding densely-populated civilian areas, half the country besieged on all sides, food and medicine denied to sick and starving Syrians just kilometers from the capital. Yet the interview signals a turning point from the president’s blunt past encounters with the press. Calmly dismissing accusations of war crimes in the same confident tone he has kept since 2011, Assad responds bluntly: “There are only terrorists.” Arrogant, recalcitrant, the Syrian president’s self-assurance grows as he dodges the reporter’s best shots, and watches a world politically capitulate to his insistence that he isn’t going anywhere.
As government forces barrel toward Assad’s promise to “retake every inch of the country” from rebels, much of the discussion about Syria focuses on the military theatre of the conflict. Five years of war have decimated much of the country. What remains, however, is the machinery of the regime whose fall was demanded by thousands of voices filling public squares in 2011. Behind the battle lines lie the stories of Syria’s forgotten prisoners.
The most comprehensive effort to date documenting human rights violations committed over the course of the Syrian conflict was completed in April 2016 in a report by the Violations Documentation Center of Syria (VDC). After years of painstaking research collecting documentation through gut-wrenching interviews with the family members of detainees, it estimates some 200,000 have disappeared inside the prison system, and confirmed 23,000 of their names. After testifying with his research at a U.N. commission of inquiry, Bassam Al Ahmad, one of VDC’s founders, collected his files and left Syria. “It’s too much. We’re talking about not just a catastrophe on the level of Syrian society, the future of the economy, of families… People will need psycho-social support for generations,” Al Ahmad told Newsweek Middle East.
It may be impossible to ever know the full extent of the violations or prove responsibility to war crimes tribunals because the Syrian government does not allow the U.N. or international organizations access to the prisons. “The government won’t allow observers access to the scene of the crime,” Al Ahmad said. “They don’t want outsider actors meddling in the state’s affairs.”
Understanding the Syrian conflict today requires looking back at the country’s history. Over four decades, Hafez Al Assad steadily built up the country’s security apparatus into a mechanism of social control, while the secret police ruled through intimidation. One anecdote familiar to Damascenes tells of a jovial drunkard named Abu Al Azz who would saunter around the cafés, telling jokes about the president—if you laughed, you might just disappear, because the jester was actually a government spy.
After Hafez Al Assad’s death in 2000, hopes were high that his son and successor Bashar, with his youthful, charismatic smile and British education, might prove to be a reformer. In his inaugural speech as president, he spoke of democracy—a word Syrians had scarcely heard—and promised to “improve old ideas and renew them to suit the present and the future.” In the first months of Bashar’s tenure, a renaissance of reform came to life in the “Damascus Spring.” Intellectuals and opposition figures met in privately-organized forums, hoping to inject new life into the democratic discourse with statements calling for an end to the Emergency Law and the Baathists’ single-party rule.
Suhair Atassi, a veteran opposition activist who organized the longest-running Damascus Spring forum, was skeptical of the younger Assad’s promises from the start. “His first speech implied some hints of reform, but many of us had no feeling that Bashar would be reformist, from the way he started changing the constitution within five minutes in office,” Atassi told Newsweek Middle East. Her instincts proved true—“Bashar’s reaction was to swiftly make arrests and clamp down on hope for the freedoms which were being spoken about,” Atassi said.
Though short-lived, the Damascus Spring tilled the ground for the future. March 2011 brought the upheaval of the Arab Spring, toppling decades of dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt, and Syria was primed for revolt. The powder keg exploded on 15 March, when a demonstration to free a group of teenagers jailed in Dar’aa for spray painting anti-government graffiti on the wall of their school was met with machine gun fire from police.
Seeing Syrian blood being spilled sparked mass protests across the country. Still, with violence intensifying, many held onto the hope that the president would respond rationally, waiting for his speech to come. Their hope was dashed when Assad finally addressed the National Assembly. He laughed at the idea of protests for reform, mocking them as a “foreign conspiracy.” With the blood and the anger of Dar’aa still fresh, his callousness poured salt on the wounds and turned many against him for good. Suhair Atassi described Assad’s speech on March 30 as a turning point: “The revolution had started with simple calls for freedom and dignity—but after it responded with live bullets, those calls became a demand that the regime must fall.”
Every country in the Middle East has an intelligence agency: the mukhabarat. Syria has four. Utilizing a web of informers to report subversive activities, usually to gain favor with the regime and reap monetary rewards for their loyalty, they rule the country by force and fear. At the helm of the patronage panopticon is the most notorious of Syria’s secret police units—the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, or Mukhabarat Al Jawiyya. Its name, having nothing to do with the Syrian Air Force, is a sort of euphemism. It was created by Hafez Al Assad and his inner circle during his time as commander of the air force. Operating in a grey area of the law, the intelligence agencies act in total secrecy and impunity. They keep no public records, and report directly to the president.
When someone is arrested in Syria, they are usually taken not to a police station or a court, but to a field office of one of the intelligence agencies. In any of the 250 branches spread throughout the country, detainees might spend months or years here before they are ever charged with a crime. But the unit’s infamy comes from its systematic use of torture not only to extract confessions, but as a sadistic method of showing who is in control.
“In Al Mukhabrat Al Jawiyya, death is your companion, but they are keen to keep it away from you. They enjoy seeing you alive, as you wish to die,” Thaer said. The arbitrary and indefinite detention is fully sanctioned by the 2012 Terrorism Law, a preexisting law that protects security officers from prosecution for actions performed in the course of their duties without approval from higher up.
Once a prisoner is transferred out of the intelligence branches—if they survive that long—they wait an endless trial process either in a civil prison, where they have at least a shred of hope to someday be released, or a military prison, from which few are ever heard from again. Khalid—not his real name—an attorney born and raised in Aleppo knows the courts system in Syria inside out—until 2014, he worked as a criminal defense lawyer in a private law firm, and represented dozens of cases of people arrested in civil demonstrations. He explains that in civil courts, the process can be comparatively fair—he regularly saw cases thrown out for lack of prima facia evidence supporting a charge. “In the civil court the judges know that people have done nothing wrong. They are very careful to [maintain the appearance of fairness.] But it’s all a show,” Khalid said.
If the intelligence branches so decide, prisoners may be transferred to a military prison without ever seeing a judge. A ‘field military court’ dooms their fate. “To call it a court isn’t even accurate. The field court is under the control of the secret police from A to Z. It’s just reading out the sentence, no lawyers, no defense. The whole procedure can take two minutes per case, and often conducted without the defendant’s physical presence,” one of the network’s lawyers in Syria who is familiar with the procedure told Newsweek Middle East.
The U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry reported that proceedings in the field courts “bear no resemblance to a fair trial, and confessions obtained during torture are often submitted as the only evidence, to the extent any evidence is submitted at all.” Those convicted by such purported trials were reportedly executed by hanging or firing squad, amounting to a summary execution.” The lawyer who spoke to Newsweek Middle East from Syria was adamant that field courts operate in clear violation of both national and international law. “The law is already inhumane, and they aren’t even following the law,” the lawyer said.
When Syrians refer to “the regime” they aren’t just talking about the government headed by Bashar Al Assad. The word “nidtham” implies not just one ruler, but an entire apparatus. For decades, the hated Emergency Law and Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) were the signature tools of a police state and its intelligence agencies as enforcers fixated on erasing any resistance to its rule. The laws allowed anyone deemed a “threat to the nation” to be detained without charges, and as pro-democracy protesters continued to be arrested by the thousands, ending them became one of the revolution’s key demands. “Arbitrary detention has always been used in Syria, since the time of Hafez,” Atassi told us. “But it was never as obvious and intense as it became after the revolution, when the security branches became centers for mass killing and torture.”
By 2012, the revolution had evolved from peaceful demonstrations to armed revolt. At the same time, Assad was planning a masterstroke to feint the reformers. Granting their number one demand, he issued a decree canceling the Emergency Law and abolishing the SSSC—but the reform was purely superficial. They were soon replaced by a new Terrorism Law and Terrorism Court, which was even set up in the same building as the SSSC, on Mezzeh Street in western Damascus.
“In my opinion, the Counter-Terrorism Law was made only as an attempt to legitimize the regime’s use of arbitrary detention. The irony is that it talks about countering terrorism, but in fact created thousands of terrorists out of everyone who protested peacefully against the regime,” Atassi said.
The Terrorism Law codifies extremely broad definitions for punishable offences, such as “providing material or moral support to terrorist groups in any way.”
Like its predecessor, the Terrorism Court eschews basic norms of fair trials as a matter of procedure. Lawyers familiar with its procedures told us that they aren’t allowed to speak to the detainees they are representing, or even to access the case files outside of the courtroom, making a defense all but impossible. Defendants are denied any chance to answer to the charges—which are usually based off of confessions extracted through torture. If they dare to speak up, they can be charged with insulting the state. Sentences range from years of hard labor to death penalty.
“They’re nothing but two worse sides of the same old coins,” explains Khalid. Experts estimate that 80,000 arrestees have been referred to the Terrorism Court since its creation in 2012—as many as 2,400 cases pour in a single month. “I can say that 95 percent of the people I represented were arrested in demonstrations, some just for posting their opinion on the internet,” Khalid said. “I had one man who passing through a checkpoint near his home, and because he was not polite enough to the soldier, they decided to search his bags and found some food, and they arrested him and charged him with bringing food to terrorists,” he continued. “To the regime, anyone is a terrorist.”
Working in the government-controlled part of Aleppo, Khalid didn’t fall in line with the regime—or side with the rebellion. “Many of us considered ourselves a third position of opinion in Syria. We were against killing by anyone,” Khalid told Newsweek Middle East. He hoped that his profession would allow him to continue working in the interest of justice, but stories from his clients worsened. By 2013, trials had all but dried up in Aleppo’s civil court, as more cases were referred to the Terrorism Court. He would soon find out for himself what was going on behind the scenes.
In early 2014, officers of the secret police came to Khalid’s office to arrest him. “Will you cooperate? Or will you be a problem?” the captain asked him. He went quietly, and was taken to a branch of one of the intelligence divisions, where officers accused him of helping to organize demonstrations. Khalid answered that he had never taken part in any. The captain, named Maher, replied, “So you’re going to be a problem now.” Guards seized him, and began to beat him with metal pipes, making him count to eighty. “While they’re beating you, it’s like a dream. You become unconscious, but you are still aware of what is happening. Your mind just hopes that your body can survive the beating,” Khalid recalled. After some time, the officers threw a bucket of cold water on him. His skin shrank, having been stretched out by the beating. Maher asked if he was ready to confess. Khalid swore to God that he had nothing to confess. He says he’ll never forget what the captain uttered next: “Bring me the mother of storms.”
A guard brought Captain Maher a silicone bat with a metal tip charged with electrical shocks, searing Khalid’s drenched body. “Each hit felt like it made a hole in my head. I didn’t know if I was alive or dead.” But the worst was still to come. Guards fixed thin plastic cuffs to Khalid’s wrists and hoisted him up, suspended from the ceiling. The plastic cut into his skin as he hung with his full weight. He doesn’t know how long he hung for, but eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. When he was brought down, he said he could see bone protruding from his wrist. Khalid then signed a document written up for him, using his mouth to hold the pen.
“If I didn’t have this experience, I would never believe it. After I’ve been inside, I’ve seen things that will make you crazy for the rest of your life,” Khalid said. After eight months in a civil prison in Adra, Khalid was brought to the Terrorism Court in Damascus. Chained together in a line with twenty other men, officers led them into the building through an underground entrance at the east of the building, then up a long flight of stairs, where a row of soldiers kicked and beat them with clubs as they walked toward the courtroom. As Khalid waited, he listened to the sentences handed down to detainees before him. Execution by hanging. Seven years’ prison. Ten years’ prison with labor. When it was Khalid’s turn, the judge recognized him and asked, “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?” Khalid nodded his head. “So you confessed under torture.” He was released without charges, and walked out the door. A week later, he left Syria.
Given asylum in Germany, Khalid now assists with a clandestine network of lawyers advocating on behalf of prisoners who have no voice. Some, taking exceptional risk, operate underground from inside Syria while others in exile are more free to communicate and liaise with the families of those detained, providing one of the only lifelines of information over safely encrypted channels. Lawyers participating in the network, speaking to Newsweek Middle East on condition of anonymity, say they have connections inside ten prisons throughout Syria—including to police and intelligence officials who, they claim, are willing to talk.
Unlike Khalid, few make it out of the Terrorism Court. Many languish in the depths of Syria’s intelligence branches, their fate decided by military tribunals that bear no such formalities of justice. Carrying out their work in secrecy, the network’s members see their work now as a duty to their countrymen who have been swallowed by a dark labyrinth of the regime’s prison system.
A certain solidarity is born out of the austerity of prison life. Of necessity, its dwellers have to look after each other to survive. The complex of Hama Central Prison consists of two buildings separated by a corridor with a heavy metal door. On one side is the staff’s offices, visiting area, and dormitories for about 150 criminal prisoners. On the other is the main section of the prison, housing 800 detainees in the “disorder wing,” reserved for political detainees referred by the intelligence divisions. Other than guards posted only at the passage separating the two buildings and the staff running the food section, the prisoners are largely left to manage their own affairs.
On 28 April, Hasan Al Durzi, a well-liked man of 55 years, fell gravely ill. He had cancer, and guards refused to take him to the hospital for treatment, so a small group of inmates staged a “bread strike” to demand Al Durzi be treated. He died three days later.
The following morning, a unit from the Military Intelligence Directorate arrived and announced that five prisoners were to be transferred to the military prison in Sednaya. Already bereaved by the events of the day prior, the prisoners erupted into revolt. A turbulent crowd gathered at the main door. Guards fired tear gas, but were overcome by the prisoners. Realizing they had gained control of the gate, they locked themselves in. At that moment, the prisoners and guards were in a deadlock: A faceoff was inevitable.
The stakes were high–every Syrian knows the story of what happened in 1982. After an assassination attempt against then-President Hafez Al Assad failed, the government retaliated against political dissidents to “teach them a lesson,” Assad said at the time. The president’s brother, Major General Rifaat Al Assad led the army into Hama, slaughtering tens of thousands in a two-week slaughter. The final death count is still unknown, but it was enough to silence dissent in Syria for the next 30 years. “When dealing with the Assad regime, fear took over. We knew its brutal history,” said Thaer.
The prisoners had to plan quickly. The revolt erupted spontaneously, but the prisoners quickly mobilized a well-organized resistance. It wasn’t their first in action planning. “Confidence filled the air. There was fear and confusion, yes, but among us are detainees who have organized several protests during the previous years, so the readiness was always there,” Thaer said.
Every man contributed. Committees were set up to manage the rationing of food and water. Each cell appointed one man in charge, and they took decisions by vote—no one could act alone. Those with cell phones scrambled to contact news agencies and international organizations to try and garner as much attention as possible, hoping that global awareness would be their protection.
From the windows, they could see soldiers beginning to surround the complex. Inside, they feared a slaughter. “Our lives were on the line. We didn’t expect negotiations. We waited for the assault to come,” Thaer said. For eight days of deadlock, water and electricity were cut off, and the detainees rationed what was available, mostly eating moldy bread. Then, on May 10, the regime came to the door to negotiate. A young engineering graduate named Mustafa Shaira—or “Abu Ghaleb” as he was also known—who had been popular for his role in organizing early demonstrations in 2011, was elected the detainees’ principal negotiator.
On the other side was Interior Minister Sheikh Nawaf Almelhem, sent from Damascus, and General Ashraf Taha, the chief of police in Hama. Abu Ghaleb described Taha as a short-tempered and irritable military type, hoping to gain repute as a negotiator who could close the matter expeditiously. Taha gave comforting assurances that he would see to it that all prisoners in the disorder wing would be released in a month. Taking him at his word, an oral agreement was reached to hand over control of the prison doors back to the guards in exchange for restoring water, electricity and food.
The deal followed through at first, and 180 detainees were released over the following three days. But the numbers declined daily, and after a week passed, no more were released. A lawyer in Hama said that some of the names on the regime’s list of released detainees didn’t match theirs, and that at least two were arrested again after less than 24 hours. On May 28, the head judge of the Terrorism Court himself, Reda Musa, came to Hama Prison. He was furious with General Taha for negotiating with the prisoners, and gave them an ultimatum to either each pay 5 Million Syrian Pounds (about $22,300 USD) to be released, or else all remaining detainees would be referred to the Terrorism Court in Damascus. This was an outrage; after some spending years in jail without trial, they had had it with courts. When Abu Ghaleb delivered the news, a revolt erupted anew, within minutes. Judge Musa had walked out with his guards, leaving General Taha inside with the prisoners as an assault with tear gas and rubber bullets began.
This time, the negotiations lasted just three days. Damascus sent a special delegation that first offered to release the detainees over 50 years old, then the men who were married, then the detainees arrested as whole families, of which there are a considerable number in the disorder wing. The detainees declined all such offers, insisting that everyone be released together.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, reported that prisoners had deliberately taken General Taha and other officers as hostages, but sources within and outside the prison confirmed that security forces attacked while Taha was still inside, abandoning him. Abu Ghaleb said that he personally unlocked the main door and let him out late on the third night, and surmises that Judge Musa threw Taha to the lions to punish him, and provide a pretext for an assault. The next day, a new agreement was reached that left Hama’s detainees in control of the disorder wing, while they waited for the regime to draw up a new list of detainees to be released.
Both the detainees and the legal support network consider the May uprising as success, but it leaves questions that prod at their hopes to replicate their efforts for future negotiations. Why was it so easy to get the regime to reconsider the sentences of hundreds of prisoners, and even immediately release some? Khalid sees more than coincidence in the timing of the revolt with sputtering political talks on Syria in Geneva. The first day of the revolt, American and Russian diplomats were scrambling to salvage a fragile ceasefire effort, and the Syrian government grabbed the opportunity to press their advantage. Hassan Abdulazim, head of the opposition’s committee on detainees told Newsweek Middle East that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov personally advised the Syrian government that an assault on Hama would be bad for its reputation.
“Hama isn’t the story—it’s the exception to the reality,” Khalid assesses. “The regime will not keep its promises. They think they are showing a good face, but they’re just showing how ridiculous their game is. What about the other prisons? There are 60,000 prisoners in Sednaya, where you can be sure there are no smuggled cell phones,” he said.
It would be a gross error to assume that anti-government opposition groups and extremist factions in Syria have not also committed atrocities. But none approach the scale and clinical thoroughness of the state apparatus.
The great conundrum of Syria’s future is putting an end to the impunity which rules the day. Al Ahmad, the VDC founder, contested: “I’ve participated in many of the discussions in Geneva, the biggest stumbling block is accountability —each side wants it from the other, but nobody wants to give it.”
Anas Al Abdah, president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), told Newsweek Middle East: “We are clear that there should be transitional justice in Syria, and it should apply to any party that is guilty. We have to focus on accountability, but also on reconciliation—perhaps there will be a need for amnesties, truth committees. I think we have to look at examples of what happened in other countries like Serbia, Rwanda and others.”
The Syrian crisis is one composed of many parts. A huge portion of the population is exiled, a lost generation of young people. Yet the political discourse tends to focus almost solely on the military aspects, leaving many Syrians behind to suffer. Samirah Masalmeh, co-vice president of the SNC, described this as one of the mistakes of the revolution. “The revolution erupted in response to injustices, for the sake of building a democratic state in which all citizens’ rights are equal.
But these goals took a back seat in the armed groups’ discourse, leaving the revolution behind. Prioritizing the military problem blurs the most crucial issue of the arbitrary imprisonment, and demanding a humane and democratic state ruled by law must be at the top of the list for all Syrians.”
The crisis of arbitrary, indefinite detention has major geopolitical implications, and potentially drastic consequences. Firstly, there is the obvious human and ethical weight. Secondly, prisons provide the perfect breeding ground to foster extremism, and offer prisoners ample time to ruminate on their revenge against a world that has forgotten them. “These prisons are a factory for radicalization. People go through that experience, and they come out wanting to fight,” Al Ahmad said. “It would be wise to take notice that a number of the men who later went on to become the founders of Daesh met in an Iraqi prison during the American occupation.”
The Terrorism Law also contains provisions that allow the state to seize all “movable and immovable property” by anyone referred to the Terrorism Court. This has huge implications—if it wanted to, in one wave of its hand, the Syrian government could deem any citizen who has fled to Europe as an enemy of the state and seize their property and assets in absentia—ensuring they become permanent refugees, never to be able to return to Syria under Assad’s rule. And this has already begun happening. “I was one of those whose assets were seized—my family members who stayed in Syria cannot even inherit them from me, and this is happening to many people,” Suhair Atassi told Newsweek Middle East.
Even if Assad wins the war, and the world reconciles with him staying in power, it will also need to reconcile with the injustices that caused the revolution in the first place.
On June 3, the siege of Hama prison ended, and full control over the disorder wing was handed over to the detainees. Damascus sent a committee to investigate corruption among the guards—and the detainees had to give up their cell phones. Before we lost communication with Thaer, he told us: “What the revolt taught us is that you don’t need weapons to fight for freedom. The next revolution will begin when people begin shed their fear.”
“I recall one man asked me: ‘This is the end for us isn’t it? I could see the fear in his eyes, and I knew I needed to inspire him. I answered: we could achieve in five hours what revolution failed to do in five years.” Just as those who took to Syria’s streets in 2011 demanding freedom in the face of death—people faced the danger, knowing that they could be killed. But they took the risk—and this, Thaer said, is real freedom.
“During the first hours, the main idea was to bring back the spirit of the revolution in its peaceful nature, to overcome the regime’s force by our own force without weapons. That was the first principle of the revolution,” Thaer told us in his last messages. “We have never known democracy in Syria, and we had no means to defend ourselves inside the prison. But still we could produce real freedom in such conditions. Freedom is a very pretty thing like that.”
Shawn Carrié is an American journalist based in Istanbul. Luna Watfa is a Syrian journalist and former political prisoner, exiled in Germany.
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