Last month the U.S. government confirmed that an American citizen had died in Syrian captivity. Sources concluded that Layla Shweikani, a U.S. citizen with Syrian roots, had been tortured and then executed.
The response? Nothing. Neither the U.S. government nor the American public reacted in any noticeable way.
“It’s disheartening that there not only has been no outrage over the murder of an American by the Assad regime, but that there has been little to no coverage on her story by our national media,” Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told me this week. “I’ll continue to ask questions, I’ll continue to speak out for Layla, and will urge my colleagues to do the same.”
Shweikani lived with her family in a suburb of Chicago. Appalled by the destruction of the war raging in her ancestral homeland, she went back in 2015 to help those devastated by the conflict.
Given that at least 6 million people have been displaced inside the country, there was plenty to do. She took part in organizing and delivering relief to the worst-hit regions. She was a humanitarian, and it was for that work that she ended up going to prison and losing her life.
In February 2016, Shweikani was arrested along with some of her relatives and aid workers. Little was known about her whereabouts. She was being held in solitary confinement with no contact with the outside world.
Finally in December 2016, the Czech Embassy — which represents U.S. interests in Syria, because Washington and Damascus have no diplomatic relations — was able to arrange for its ambassador to visit Shweikani in prison.
Since then, absolutely nothing was known about her fate. Last month, though, the Syrian government released its civil registry, which tracks births and deaths, and it included Shweikani, who reportedly died on Dec. 28, 2016.
Late last month, in a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria Engagement, confirmed Shweikani’s death, and that it happened while she was in Syrian government custody.
The timing of the Czech ambassador’s visit, and Shweikani’s death soon thereafter, doesn’t prove that she was killed because she was an American. But it does demand a much deeper investigation into what happened to her, whether or not other Americans are in custody or have been killed, and what the Trump administration plans to do about it.
“I understand there are some classified details, but it is disappointing that Ambassador Jeffrey was unable to say more on behalf of the administration about what happened to Layla and what the repercussions will be when he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. … I’m still waiting on an answer,” Kinzinger told me.
Kinzinger says there’s a “high possibility” that other Americans remain in Syrian regime custody.
Reporter Austin Tice, for example, went missing in Syria more than six years ago and is believed to still be alive. A lawsuit filed by the family of acclaimed correspondent Marie Colvin in a U.S. court makes the case that she was tracked down and murdered by the Assad regime.
“Bashar al-Assad’s brutality knows no bounds, and now American citizens are his victims,” said Lina Murad, president of Americans for a Free Syria. “Layla Shweikani was a humanitarian whose work helping displaced persons in Syria was admirable, but Assad and his security forces saw fit to detain, torture, and execute her. Her tragic and unjust death is a wake-up call for Americans and the U.S. government. Assad must no longer be able to carry out his atrocities with impunity.”
Unless we begin to demand answers for the detention and death of Americans around the world, I don’t see any incentive for Assad or other thugs to stop targeting our citizens.
Every day more innocent people die in Syria. Some say it’s hard to understand the scope of that kind of human carnage. But when an individual who has lived most of her life enjoying the relative peace and prosperity of the United States is killed because she chose to go help the victims of a faraway war, don’t we owe it to her to acknowledge her sacrifice – and to at least tell the story of how she lived?
Rezaian is a writer for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.