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24 September

The Barakat murders: Racist hatred or political execution?

Friends and family of Orouba and Halla Barakat say the family received death threats from the supporters of the Syrian regime

Syria’s leading opposition activist Orouba Barakat and journalist daughter Halla, known for their opposition against the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria, were found murdered in their Istanbul home on Sept. 21. Their friends and colleagues were quick to point the finger at the regime, but it is too early to jump to any conclusions as the murder investigation is still ongoing.
Halla is not the first Syrian journalist to be assassinated in Turkey. There are four other cases where anti-Assad reporters were assassinated in the southeastern Antep and Urfa provinces between 2015 and 2016. ISIS claimed responsibility in some of those cases.
However, online threats received by both Halla and her mother cannot be ignored: they were constantly targeted by pro-Syrian regime trolls as they played a crucial role in helping Syrians who fled the regime and came to Turkey, seeking protection. It is also known that, Orouba had close ties to some Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups operating in Syria, particularly in Idlib, according to accounts of those who knew her well.
Halla’s Facebook posts also confirm their stance: she has posted about the deaths of many of her activist friends -- who were for the Syrian revolution -- in Syria and elsewhere. Post after post, she mourns to loss of a close friend; a chilling clue how close death was to her when she was alive.
The family is no stranger to grief. Deah Barakat, a cousin of Halla, who lived in the USA, was among the victims of the 2015 Chapel Hill Shooting in which the three Muslim students were killed in 2015. Orouba’s sister Shaaza Barakat was on board the Mavi Marmara, a vessel that was part of a flotilla attempting to defy the Israeli blockade in 2010. Nine Turkish activists were killed in an Israeli raid on the civilian flotilla, but Shaaza survived.
Orouba was loudly outspoken on the massive human rights violations committed by the regime since the 1980s. She has documented -- both to English and Arabic speaking audiences -- the atrocities committed in Assad-controlled prisons. Halla1 ref followed in her mother’s footsteps, by opting to be a journalist. Remembered for her bravery, philanthropy and kindness by those around her, colleagues say she was born to pursue a career in journalism. The young woman was fluent in English, French and Arabic, assisting her to establish a wide network of contacts from various segment of society, including leading media organizations of Turkey such as the state-owned TRT World television station. Halla graduated from Political Sciences and International Relations department of Istanbul’s Şehir University with a good GPA.
Halla is also remembered for her wholehearted dedication to humanitarian aid efforts for Syrian refugees in Turkey, often in cooperation with local civil society groups. Some colleagues have suggested that the active role she and her mother played in Syrian opposition to Assad might be linked to their murders.
‘Syrian intelligence issued arrest warrant for Orouba’
Zaman al Wasl, a Syrian website, reported on Sept. 21 that the Syrian government had issued three arrest warrants for Orouba Barakat. “According to the leaked Intelligence archives each of the three intelligence departments -- General Intelligence, the Military Intelligence and The Criminal security -- has issued warrants to arrest Barakat, who has been an opponent of the ruling Baath party since the 80s,” the daily reported.
Ertan Karpazlı, with whom Halla worked together at TRT World, has said that he had known Halla for 2.5 years. “She was as brave as her mother,” he remembers.
“She was always aware of the threats against her and her mother but still she managed to cope with them. Pro-Assad trolls were hurling threats against the family. It is likely that it is the regime behind the murders. And they will not be the first to be assassinated by Assad’s hit-men. There have been similar incidents in the southeastern parts of Turkey.”
Another Syrian colleague who once worked with Halla, speaking on condition of anonymity, points out that it is too early to put the blame on any group as the perpetrator as the incident calls for a more detailed investigation.
The same source described Halla as being “highly professional” in her journalism despite her young age. “She was promising and instilling hope for the future. Halla worked and studied at the same time, and we always arranged her work hours according to her schedule at school. We never wanted to lose such a brilliant and talented young journalist. You can see the brilliance in her work if you go through her stories.”
He added that Halla recently visited Tunisia, where she attended a panel where the role of the Russian intervention in Syria was discussed.
Halla’s presentation on Russian involvement in Syria
Engin Baş, the Turkey bureau chief for ABC News, also worked with Halla in the past. He said that insight and knowledge provided by the Barakats, both mother and daughter, helped tremendously when ABC News produced a documentary on Kaya Mueller, a human rights activist abducted by ISIS in Syria in 2013 and declared to be presumed dead in 2015 by US officials, they benefited from Orouba’s knowledge about Kayla.
Orouba and Kayla had worked together in humanitarian aid efforts Syrians both in and outside Turkey; particularly in Idlib; controlled by the opposition.
Of the mother and daughter, Baş said: “They were ardent supporters of a planned revolution in Syria. Orouba was continuing her political activities as an exiled member of Parliament-like formation and had close ties with the FSA units active in Idlib, a reason that could have made them Assad regime targets.”
According to Baş, the regime is “the usual suspects” in the Barakats' murder.
Another colleague from TRT World, Shawn Carrie, told P24 that he had had a phone conversation only a couple of weeks ago with Halla: “She generally talked about threats by pro-Russia/Assad trolls on social media but didn’t elaborate. Still, it is too early to reach a conclusion. For instance, I have several friends in Aleppo who don’t support the regime, but they also receive threats from the al-Nusra Front. Those who know Halla point to Assad involvement, but there still is no solid evidence to prove this. One thing is certain: these killings were targeted assassinations.”
Halla’s professor: She was briliant
Halla graduated from the university last year. Hasan Kösebalaban, a professor who taught her describes Halla as: “brilliant and intelligent with eager interest in her courses.” Halla always got straight A’s in her Turkish Foreign Policy course. 
“A bright future was before her. She would sometimes send me an email if she couldn’t make it to class. She didn’t put her studies aside for the sake of journalism, but she had already started doing journalism and was really good at that.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Syrian journalists Ibrahim Abd al-Qader and Fares Hamadi were killed in Turkey’s Urfa province in October 2015. Another Syrian opposition journalist, Naji Jerf, was killed in Gaziantep in November of the same year. Months after the killings, another Syrian reporter -- Zaher al-Shurqat --  was shot dead by an unidentified assailant, also in Gaziantep. Halla is the fifth of Syrian journalists slain on Turkish soil.


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