Culture

How a Facebook page sent one Syrian dissenter to prison

Jalal Mando documented the humanitarian crisis in Syria -- until a random check by the military got him thrown in prison.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

Jalal Mando always took precautions.

The Syrian drama student, now 25, concealed a computer memory card inside his shirt collar every time he crossed from Syria to Lebanon. He routinely wiped his laptop's drive and was careful about what he said on social media. Sometimes a friend would even bake Mando's microSD cards into cakes to be smuggled into Beirut.

An amateur filmmaker and photographer documenting scenes of devastation in his hometown of Homs, Mando knew he was a target for the Syrian government. Other photographers and journalists had been gunned down or thrown in prison. Mando didn't want to end up like them. It's why he smuggled his videos and photographs into Lebanon on those memory cards, so that friends there could post them online.

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Jalal Mando spent two years in Syria prisons after the government found videos he'd made of blasted buildings and neighborhoods in Homs. He now lives in Potsdam, Germany, where he acts in the Hans Otto Theater, pictured behind him.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But he wasn't careful enough -- or maybe just not lucky enough. He wasn't captured by anyone tracing the digital footprints of his documentaries and photographs. Instead, he was caught because of his Facebook page.

"For social media, I went to prison," Mando says, rubbings the ligature marks on his wrists. "That was my mistake."

The torture scars are reminders of the two years he spent in Syrian prisons. Of the 400 men imprisoned with him, only nine survived, Mando said.

More than 11 percent of Syria's population has been wounded or killed in five years of civil war. Hundreds of thousands, mostly men, have been arrested or kidnapped by government troops, rebel forces or ISIS. Last year alone, more than 1 million Syrians fled to safety in Turkey and Europe, according to the latest UN figures. Many ended up in Germany, where Mando now lives.

CNET this summer sent reporters and photographers thousands of miles to see tech's impact on the global refugee crisis. In nearly every case, we found social media serving as the lifeline for people looking for help, shelter and a human connection. But we also found out that it can lead to harm. Human smugglers use online networks to lure migrants desperate to reach Germany, only to ditch them in Serbia instead. ISIS relies on social media to spread fear and to recruit members to its terrorist organization.

And Syria's government uses technology to track down anyone opposing President Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime. The Counter-Terrorism Act of 2012 grants it the authority to arrest and try anyone, including journalists and filmmakers, who uses social media for what it deems revolutionary or terrorist purposes. If convicted, they can be sentenced to 15 years in prison.

More than 60 people -- average Syrians as well as journalists and filmmakers -- who've described events in the country are currently detained, held hostage or missing, according to a tally by Reporters Without Borders, a global nonprofit that defends freedom of the press.

CNET wasn't able to verify the details of Mando's story. But this is what he says happened to him.

Bad luck

Mando started making documentaries not long after civil war broke out in 2011. He filmed scenes of human suffering, much like the now-viral image of a young Syrian boy, looking stunned and covered in dust after airstrikes decimated his home. He knew he couldn't upload the images without getting caught. So Mando smuggled them to Lebanon, where people he knew would post them online.

On August 18, 2013, Mando was stopped at a Syrian army checkpoint on his way to Damascus from Homs. The guards inspected the computers and phones of everyone who passed through. Mando just happened to have his laptop with him that day.

The army wanted to know what he did on his computer.

Syrian women walk between destroyed buildings in the government-held neighborhood of Jouret al-Shiah in Homs.

Getty Images


The guards took him into custody and tortured him until he gave up his Facebook password. And that's where they found a private conversation he'd had with a Lebanese contact discussing his latest documentary and the situation in Homs. The military recovered everything Mando thought he had erased from the laptop's drive, restoring all his files, photographs and films.

Mando is both actor and playwright of "the other face of the moon," performed this month in Potsdam.

Jalal Mando

"It was by accident [I was caught]," Mando says in his new home in Potsdam, 25 miles from Berlin.

They threw him into Military Intelligence Branch 235 prison in Damascus, where he was tortured by prison guards. For more than a year, his family had no idea where he was or even if he was alive.

That changed when he was moved to a civil prison, where he could use the phone for three minutes each month. Mando was released in August 2015 after his family paid a judge 1 million Syrian pounds (about $5,300, based on the exchange rate at that time).

Freedom

Two months later, Mando made the long trek through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria to reach Germany.

The German government sent him to Potsdam. The former theater major was drawn to the Hans Otto Theater, an architectural jewel of glass and cantilevers on the banks of Potsdam's Tiefer See. He now volunteers as an actor for the theater and participates in the building's Refugees Club, where locals and refugees come together for music, poetry, films and performances.

Later this month, the Potsdam T-Werk theater company will present Mando's play "The Other Face of the Moon," the story of a Syrian woman's life before and after the war. He's also acting in the play.

"I lived in Syria for 25 years and didn't do anything," he says. "My first five months in Germany, I did everything. The most important thing, I feel safe."

Mando received official asylum papers this summer, seven months after reaching Germany. He's still cautious when it comes to Facebook. It's not that he's afraid of being arrested, he just wants to distance himself from Syria's chaos.

"War will destroy everything," Mando says. "What's here is people I love, not just land. I don't see any future in Syria."