Jabhat a-Nusra forced its way into the opposition-held city of Rastan in Homs province last November after winning a brief skirmish with local rebels.
Nusra now rules over the city in an uneasy alliance with the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Tahrir Homs Movement–a collection of former regime commanders–and other rebel brigades.
When Jabhat a-Nusra entered the city, they began applying sharia law and arresting those who they called thieves, Ryad al-Homsi, 24, the alias of a photographer and media activist in Rastan tells Syria Direct’s Malek al-Aboud.
“I criticized this behavior on my social media page,” he says.
Al-Homsi was then arrested and spent nearly a month in a Nusra prison until his family and local activists secured his release. Today, al-Homsi says he is fearful about publicly resuming his activism. Nusra, he says, is implementing its own agenda in Rastan.
“They seek to gain more power and terrify people, like the Islamic State.”
Q: When were you detained by Jabhat a-Nusra? Why?
I was arrested on December 18, 2014. When Jabhat a-Nusra entered the city, they began applying [Islamic] law and arresting those who they called thieves. I criticized this behavior on my social media page. I demanded that the FSA Military Council and the local court work with the people of Rastan to avoid bloodshed, especially since 30 people were killed during the clashes between Nusra and the FSA when Nusra first entered the city.
Jabhat a-Nusra did not like my criticism, but they couldn’t arrest me because they feared the media so they threatened me instead. Nusra needed a specific reason to arrest me so it coordinated with the Tahrir Homs Movement, which I was already on bad terms with because I had also criticized them.
I was arrested on the charge of slandering the Tahrir Homs Movement, but really I was punished because of my criticism against Nusra. At first they told me that the investigation would be easy, and that I would go home soon afterwards. I believed that. But I wasn’t released until January 10 of this year.
Q: Where were you detained?
I was detained for more than 20 days. My detention cell was a cave in the ground. The size of the cell was about four by four meters. I stayed there with 30 captives. Afterwards they put me in an individual cell.
Q: How long were you in the individual cell? How did they treat you?
I spent the last seven days in the individual cell. I couldn’t see anything because they blindfolded and handcuffed me. It felt like the cell was very tight and small, and I couldn’t move freely.
Q: Did they investigate you? Did a judge hear your case?
They told me that I would be transferred to a Nusra headquarters in Idlib. There I was supposed to have my case heard by a judge. But that did not happen, and instead I was transferred by an Egyptian and investigated by a Libyan.
Q: What were the charges against you?
Spying for the West by means of the media.
Q: What about the rest of the prisoners there? How would you describe life in Nusra prisons?
They used to send us out with the guards to cut the grass. Then would we clean and cook by ourselves. When we fasted, they provided us with half a piece of bread and some apricot jam. The cave was very cold because it was underground and I was there during the middle of winter. We only saw the sun when we were taken outside and beaten. We had to pray while sitting because the cave’s ceiling was very low.
Q: Why were you released?
I was arrested for 20 days. My family managed to find the first place where I was detained, but I was relocated afterwards. Throughout the process, Nusra denied that I was in its prisons. My family found me again and they came with FSA members and media activists, and managed to get me out.
I’m still suffering from trauma and I have weak vision as a result of my detention.
I am no longer wanted by Nusra, nor am I followed, but I was banned from leaving Rastan. I am scared of being arrested again or killed if I resume my activism.
Q: What is your opinion of Nusra now?
I don’t trust any group that comes from outside Syria. They seek to gain more power and terrify people like the Islamic State.