What is this case about?

This case was brought by the Plaintiff, Obada Mzaik, a Syrian American, who was detained and tortured at the Air Force Intelligence Branch at the Mezzeh Military Airport in Syria in January 2012. The Center for Justice and Accountability, in partnership with pro bono counsel Freshfields LLP, filed a civil suit in U.S. federal court on his behalf, bringing claims against the Syrian regime for the Plaintiff’s unlawful detention and torture.

This case is about holding the Syrian government accountable for abuses committed against the Plaintiff and, more broadly, for the government’s systematic use of detention, torture, and enforced disappearance of thousands of Syrians.

What are the goals of this case?

This case is an opportunity to present evidence and to have a U.S. federal court make findings of fact and law on the Syrian regime’s nationwide strategy to suppress protesters and perceived opponents to President al-Assad’s authoritarian rule. Integral to the regime’s repressive strategy was the widespread and systematic detention, interrogation, and torture of Syrian civilians, a practice that continues to this day.

Is a lawsuit against a foreign state allowed?

While the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) generally shields foreign governments from being sued in US courts, there are exceptions. This lawsuit is possible under the exception which permits certain victims to sue designated state-sponsors of terrorism for the torture of U.S. nationals. Because Syria is a designated state-sponsor of terrorism and the Plaintiff is a US national, CJA and our partners were able to file this lawsuit on his behalf against the Syrian government.

Why is this a civil suit rather than a criminal prosecution?

Every Syrian should have the opportunity to achieve justice for crimes committed against them, their families, and their communities. But opportunities for legal accountability are limited and imperfect. International criminal prosecutions, including universal jurisdiction prosecutions in Europe, have generally aimed to hold accountable individual, lower-ranking officials who were present in Europe. The Plaintiff in this US civil suit alleges that the Syrian government itself is responsible for the harm inflicted upon him and the countless other Syrians who were victims of the regime’s repressive policies.

Because of his US nationality, the Plaintiff is able to file a civil case against Syria in US federal court for his torture. But this case reaches beyond his individual story. The case is emblematic of the harms suffered by so many Syrian detainees and their families. One man’s case is every Syrian’s call for justice and accountability. This case is about the more than 130,000 still detained or forcibly disappeared by al-Assad’s regime and every family member impacted by the loss of their loved one at the hands of the Syrian security forces.

Where was this case filed?

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Where in the legal process is this case?

The complaint was filed on January 6, 2021. Syria was served with the complaint in February 2023 and the U.S. Court rendered the lawsuit public in April 2023. To-date, Syria has not answered or otherwise responded to the complaint.

Who is the Plaintiff in this case?

The Plaintiff, Obada Mzaik, is a US-born American citizen who moved to Syria with his family as a child. In the summer of 2011, he fled the escalating repression in Syria and returned to the US, where he continued his studies. In January 2012, the Plaintiff travelled to Syria to visit his family, landing at the Damascus International Airport, where he was immediately detained and transferred to a number of detention facilities before ultimately being sent to the notorious Air Force Intelligence Branch at the Mezzeh Military Airport. As alleged in the suit, Plaintiff was then tortured and forced to witness the torture of others in reprisal for his perceived opposition to the regime.

What issues are raised in the complaint?  

The complaint describes the Plaintiff’s detention and torture in Syria in January 2012. It raises three specific claims under the terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605A:  assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment.

Where was the Plaintiff detained?

Among other detention facilities, the Plaintiff was held at the Air Force Intelligence Branch at the Mezzeh Military Airport in January 2012. The Mezzeh Military Airport operates in the shadow of the presidential palace and houses the presidential plane of President al-Assad. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported that the Mezzeh Military Airport has one of the highest mortality rates across all Syrian detention centers.

Countless other Syrians have been detained, tortured and killed at the Mezzeh Military Airport —and a notorious network of other detention centers—including human rights defenders and activists.

Who is representing the Plaintiff in this case?

The Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based international human rights organization, and Freshfields LLP, a global law firm, represent the Plaintiff on a pro-bono basis. CJA partners with impacted communities in pursuit of truth, justice, and redress, and has successfully brought cases against defendants such as the commander in charge of the Lutheran Church Massacre in Liberia, the military officer responsible for the assassination of Chilean activist and singer Víctor Jara, and Syria’s Assad regime for its targeted killing of war correspondent Marie Colvin.

Could monetary damages be awarded if the Plaintiff wins the case?

While a monetary judgment is possible, a damages award is very unlikely to ever be collected by the Plaintiff. Recent plaintiffs awarded monetary judgments in other cases against the Syrian government have likewise been unable to collect. While the federal statute that permits this suit for torture against the Syrian regime requires that a claim for money damages be requested, the goals of this case are not about a monetary judgment, which again is unlikely to ever be collected, but about establishing the truth regarding Plaintiff’s detention and torture and the broader system of repression that enabled it.

Where can people learn more about this case and broader justice initiatives for Syrians?

Updates about this case—including pleadings, evidence shared with the court, and public reporting—will be posted to the case page on our website. Follow CJA on twitter for instant updates and reactions.

For updates from the Syrian-led coalition supporting justice initiatives for Syrians, including this case, follow Free Syria’s Disappeared campaign on their website and on twitter @FSDCampaign.

CJA owes a huge debt of gratitude to the coalition of justice-seeking organizations and individuals who contributed immeasurably to this case. Check the following links to learn more about their work: