Family of American Citizen Killed in Syrian Prison Seeks Justice

The family of Majd Kamalmaz is pursuing a civil lawsuit against the Syrian government after U.S. officials presented them with classified information early last month saying they believe he died in Syria’s notorious prison system.

The lawsuit will be filed in the coming weeks at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The Syrian government faces allegations of murder, torture, inhumane conditions and false imprisonment, among other counts.

Kamalmaz, a U.S. citizen who helped refugees from war-torn Syria and Kosovo recover from trauma and PTSD, was detained at a government checkpoint in Damascus while visiting a family member in February 2017.

He likely died within a year or two of his detainment, his daughter, Maryam, told ABC News Digital, citing U.S. officials. The officials did not say how or where Dr. Kamalmaz died.

“That is just way too short for my father to pass away from any form of natural reasons. He must have definitely passed away under torture and some form of them killing him,” she said. “There’s no way he would pass from natural reasons. He was healthy.”

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2015 documenting the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians in government detention facilities. 

The report came after the release of more than 28,000 photos – from a Syrian military defector code-named “Caesar” – that showed people who had died in government custody. Many had signs of torture, suffocation, starvation and blunt-force trauma.

Dr. Kamalmaz’s daughter, Ula, told ABC News Digital that the family was never given a reason for their father’s detainment because there was never a case or crime against him.

She suggested her father could have been detained due to his American passport.

“He didn’t do anything,” she said. “He wasn’t very political, you know, the only thing he was doing was just … he was a psychotherapist working with refugees.” 

“They set up a temporary checkpoint, and it was set up to kidnap him. And they probably thought they could make money off of him. That’s how they do things in Syria. Now, unfortunately, he’s dead, and they won’t let him loose until the family pays a really large amount to get him out,” Ula added. “So, it’s just very corrupt.”

Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist, also disappeared in 2012 after he was detained at a checkpoint while covering the civil war. The Syrian government has denied holding Tice or other Americans.

The U.S. government has a fund set up for victims of state-sponsored terrorism that could provide compensation for the Kamalmaz family should the court rule in their favor and award them damages. 

The United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund can pay out claims, with awards ranging from $20 million to $35 million per family. Depending on the amount of money in the fund, the family could get a certain percentage of whatever award is given over several years.

Maryam said she has “begged” for President Biden to call her grandmother, or at the very least put out a statement acknowledging her father’s death.

“He’s just all talk, but he literally picks and chooses who he wants to care about. He literally does,” she added. “And we’re just not on his radar.”

“[My father] was literally the glue that brought us all together. For him to be gone and taken away from us in such an unjust, unfair way, I can’t let this just pass and go.”

Joel Rayburn, the former U.S. special envoy for Syria, told ABC News Digital the White House shouldn’t let Dr. Kamalmaz’s death go unanswered. 

“They should not let it slide that the Assad regime essentially abducted and probably tortured and murdered an American citizen. They should be held accountable. Because if you let that slide, you send a message that you don’t care about American citizens overseas, you erase whatever deterrence there would be for these regimes to do it again, or for other regimes around the world that are watching this case, to say, you know, we can do this to Americans or a rogue regime can do this to Americans and get away with it,” Rayburn said. “And then your people are less safe around the world.”

A State Department spokesperson told ABC News Digital the U.S. government extends its condolences to the Kamalmaz family and is “committed” to seeking accountability for Dr. Kamalmaz’s death.

“Our hearts go out to Majd Kamalmaz’s family during this difficult time. The United States has engaged extensively to try to bring Majd home, and we remain committed to seeking a full accounting of his fate.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged Dr. Kamalmaz’s death in a statement, nearly a month after the family’s meeting with U.S. officials, saying the Syrian government “must answer for what happened to Majd.”

“We support Majd’s family and the families of all those who are missing or unjustly detained in Syria in their quest for accountability,” the statement read in part.

The Hostage and Wrongful Detainee flag was flown Tuesday at the State Department during a ceremony for the Kamalmaz family, and also at the U.S. Capitol and the White House. The flag is flown over government buildings in Washington D.C. whenever Americans held captive overseas are pronounced dead or come home safely.

Biden signed legislation last year establishing an annual National Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Day, as well as an official Hostage and Wrongful Detainee flag. 

The White House referred ABC News Digital to the National Security Council and the State Department for comment.