BEIRUT: An actor from the popular television series Bab al-Hara was brutally murdered over the weekend in Damascus, setting off a debate over whether he was killed for his opinions or his alleged actions in support of the regime.
Mohammad Rafeh, 30, was kidnapped Friday night from an area near his home in Masaken Barzeh, a northern neighborhood of the capital, and found dead the following day, according to a source close to the family.
In Bab al-Hara, set in the early 20th century, he played the character of Ibrahim, a young merchant – ironically, the character meets his end as a “martyr” during clashes between Syrian rebels and the French occupation forces.
The Facebook page of the Masaken Barzeh Coordination Committee announced the killing of Rafeh and said it was carried out by the Grandsons of Al-Siddiq Battalion, affiliated with the Free Syrian Army rebels.
The Facebook post, citing the battalion, said Rafeh was killed because he was a “shabbih,” or member of a pro-regime militia, although the claim was strenuously disputed in other social media and by friends of the actor.
The group said a weapon and a “military ID” were found in his possession when he was abducted, and posted what it said was a piece of paper also found with him.
The hand-written paper, in note form, is divided into two sections. The first section notes the estimated strength of rebel fighters in the towns of Yabroud and Rankous, which are areas outside Damascus.
The second provides details about a man who is wanted by the authorities for engaging in anti-regime activities in the southern town of Swaida, and the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, which both have Druze-majority populations. The paper notes that the man lives in Jaramana and lists his mobile-phone number.
A television executive, who requested anonymity because of the sensitiveness of the case, told The Daily Star that the accusations against Rafeh appeared “exaggerated” and said he was not involved in any repression of activists or anti-regime demonstrators.
“He was just an ordinary guy,” the executive said. “He loves Syria, and he loves the president [Bashar Assad], and he took part in marches of support [for the regime], but he never took part in any killing, and had no connection with the military.”
The executive said no ransom was demanded by the kidnappers, who behaved brutally with Rafeh’s corpse, which was dumped in an orchard near his home.
“There’s no explanation for it,” the executive said, adding that the murder triggered a massive outpouring of support for Rafeh’s family, who were receiving condolences Sunday.
Rafeh was the son of an actor, Ahmad Rafeh, a Palestinian refugee who settled in Aleppo after the founding of Israel.
The incident triggered a controversy on social media, where pro-uprising civilian activists and certain elements of the FSA have been trying to fight off accusations that the rebel cause has become increasingly tainted by human rights violations. They say that while isolated incidents have taken place, the regime is guilty of a vastly higher number of such abuses.
After news of the killing spread, the Coordination Committee was obliged to offer a follow-up post, saying that “many shabbiha and ‘philosophers’ living in the gray zone critcized the [murder], saying that someone should not be killed for his opinion ... the shabbih was not killed because he supports the tyrant. If this had been the case, we would have been the first ones to denounce such a crime.”
The post promised that further evidence of Rafeh’s guilt would be produced at a later date, but after a storm of comments on the murder, the site posted a photo of an ID issued by Military Intelligence, authorizing Rafeh to carry a Glock pistol.
Some comments on the site took issue with this bit of “evidence,” arguing that it could have been manipulated via Photoshop or other means.
The Coordinating Committee site said, “our Free Syrian Army does not commit crimes against anyone, and you can support the tyrant, or oppose him, and this is your opinion, for which Almighty God will hold you to account on the Day of Judgment. But if you go as far as to carry arms, or write reports against our free [citizens], we have the right to respond and hold you accountable, in the absence of the state and the law.
“This shabbih used to pass through all the checkpoints in Damascus with a gun in his car, but if one of us has a [suspicious] photo on his mobile phone, he’ll be arrested by the secret police.”