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A Syrian-American family plans to sue over death of loved one in Syrian prison

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A Texas family is preparing to file a civil lawsuit against authorities in Syria for the death of a Syrian American man. Majd Kamalmaz was one of several Americans believed to have been unjustly held by a repressive government, now being welcomed back into the Arab world. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In early May, Maryam Kamalmaz was sitting at a table with a group of U.S. government officials who showed her some classified information about her father. She asked them, on a scale of 1 to 10, if they now believe he died in Syrian custody, and they all gave it a high nine.

MARYAM KAMALMAZ: And so I said, so does everybody in this room right now believe that he's passed? And I went around the room, and every single one of them shook their heads, yes. They believe he's passed.

KELEMEN: And they believe he died five to seven years ago. Her father, Majd Kamalmaz, was a psychotherapist and humanitarian who was helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He traveled into Syria to see an uncle who was dying of cancer.

KAMALMAZ: He drove in without any problem from - you know, from Lebanon. He went through the border without any problems. He arrived at a family member's house in Damascus, Syria. He called my mom, told her, I'm in Syria. I'm safe. All is well. I'll call you back later. And we never heard from him again.

KELEMEN: That was February 15, 2017. Her father disappeared at a checkpoint and was believed to have been taken to a notorious prison at a nearby airbase, according to Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an advocacy group in Washington.

MOUAZ MOUSTAFA: He was held at Mezzeh Military Airport, which is run by the Assad regime's Air Force Intelligence branch, one of the worst branches. They're all terrible - but one of the worst places to be held there.

KELEMEN: He says it's the same place where another Syrian American aid worker, Layla Shweikani, was allegedly tortured and killed earlier in the Syrian civil war. Moustafa says there are still several Americans among the thousands of prisoners still being held by Bashar al-Assad's regime.

MOUSTAFA: There is no worse than Assad's dungeons. One must only look at the Caesar file and the photos that we brought out with a defector, Caesar, that shows the emaciated and tortured bodies of civilians and the conditions that they're held in.

KELEMEN: He'd like to see the Biden administration used the so-called Caesar Act to impose more sanctions on Syrian officials. Maryam Kamalmaz also has a message to Biden's Justice Department.

KAMALMAZ: I really want them to pick up a criminal case against the Syrians - Syrian government. And this is only fair for my father and for all those that have been detained unjustly and killed within the Syrian government's hands, just like my father, without a case, without a crime, without a trial. There's thousands of them.

KELEMEN: She and her sister had an emotional video call with Congressman Joe Wilson, who has taken up this case as the head of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALMAZ: I was really looking forward to him making it back and meeting everyone that was working so hard on his case. You would have fallen in love with him.

JOE WILSON: Well, it's just a confirmation - such a good and decent individual - the contrast of the regime - the murderous regime - a dictatorship.

KELEMEN: The Syrian government has never acknowledged holding Kamalmaz. The State Department is expressing condolences to the family and says the U.S. is committed to seeking a full accounting of his fate. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUANE SONG, "SECRET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.