Syrian Teenager's Public Death Reveals Growing Anger as Civil War Continues

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The teenager's name was Muhammad al-Qatta, and he was 14 years old when witnesses said radical Islamists in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo pulled him from his coffee kiosk on Sunday and later executed him in a public square.

Muhammad had left his house to close up his kiosk, where his work supported his family, his mother said. When someone approached him looking for a free cup of coffee, the teenager uttered the phrase that cast him among the victims of the war's growing depravity.

"He was talking to this guy and told him, 'I don't want to lend you anything,' " the teenager's father quoted him as saying.

"If Muhammad, peace be upon him, were to come to this earth right now, I would still not lend a cup of coffee to anyone unless they pay for it," the teenager said.

Three men with long hair, wearing long beards and the robes favored by ultraconservatives, overheard the exchange. They accused the teenager of insulting the prophet, told him to leave the kiosk and then took him away in the car. When they returned an hour later, Muhammad bore the marks of a beating. In a square, they covered his head with his shirt, a makeshift blindfold, as if he were "some big shot," his mother said.

She watched from her balcony, as hundreds of people gathered around. A resident of the neighborhood, Abu Abdo, heard what the men said. Addressing the "respected people of Aleppo," they warned that cursing God or the Prophet Muhammad was a sin, saying it would be "punished this way."

The teenager's father heard the shots. His wife told him that the men had killed their son.

"His blood ran in front of me," Muhammad's mother said in a grim video posted on the Internet on Monday. In her anguish, she invoked the name of another teenage victim in Syria, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, whose death at the hands of government forces helped propel the uprising, now a war in its third year. He was pulled aside two years ago by government agents at a protest, brutalized and killed before being sent back to his family.

Just as Hamza's death crystallized the rage against President Bashar al-Assad, Muhammad's killing stoked similar feelings against a new power that has emerged during the war. It focused anger on hard-line Islamists, including foreigners, some of whom have seized on the conflict in Syria as an opportunity to impose their mores. For Muhammad's mother and some her neighbors, the tyrannies were indistinguishable, trapping many Syrians in a vise.

In a home in Muhammad's neighborhood, Mr. Abu Abdo said what had happened to the two boys was "the same."

"Who kills a teen, whatever the reason is, is a killer," he said, adding that Syrians were looking for life without the government's security thugs "or radical Sunnis who raise black flags, and want to build a state not fit for our minds."

On Monday, Syrian opposition groups rushed to distance themselves from the killing, which was publicized by a watchdog group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in Britain.

The Syrian Coalition, the main umbrella opposition group, said in a statement that it "condemned the unconfirmed reports" of the death and called it a crime against humanity. The Local Coordination Committees, an antigovernment group, called the killing "heinous" but blamed the Syrian Coalition for failing to secure "liberated areas."

The condemnations were a measure of the growing anger at the small but assertive cadre of extremists who have joined the rebel ranks, and whose hard-line beliefs have unsettled even pious Syrians. Their influence is being felt in mosques, in schools and in committees and courts intended to enforce a strict version of Islamic law. Disgust with the radicals has peaked in recent months after reports of summary executions, including of government soldiers and men accused of crimes and then punished.

Last month, antigovernment activists in Aleppo were beaten and detained by armed guards of the city's Shariah committee, after the activists tried to raise the flag of the Syrian revolution.

One of them, Seif Azzam, said the Islamists threatened two of his friends by saying they were "infidels who should be killed for the sake of God." The two were eventually released.

"The Shariah committee's behavior is completely identical to that of air force intelligence," said Mr. Azzam, referring to the most feared government intelligence agency. "We are revolting against Assad's regime, and the Shariah committee at the same time," he said.

The identities and affiliations of the three men remained a mystery. Muhammad's mother said she thought that two of them were possibly foreigners, but that the third was Syrian. His father, who spoke in a separate video interview, was less sure. "Are they Afghans? I don't know. There are a lot of battalions nowadays, how can we know?"

Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Antakya, Turkey, and an employee of The New York Times from Aleppo, Syria.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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