[The following is the latest from Amnesty International on human rights voiolations in Syria.]
Deadly Detention: Deaths in Custody and Popular Protest in Syria
Since the end of 2010, millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa region have taken to the streets to call for greater rights and freedom and the replacement of authoritarian regimes. In Syria, ruled with an iron hand by Hafez al-Assad from 1971 to 2000 and since then by his son Bashar al-Assad, small demonstrations were held in February but evolved into mass protests only in mid-March. Since then, the protests have spread nationwide on an unprecedented scale and with a momentum that shows no sign of abating despite severe government repression which has seen many hundreds of people killed.
The protests have been largely peaceful, yet the Syrian authorities have responded in the most brutal manner in their efforts to suppress them. The security forces1 have repeatedly used grossly excessive force, using snipers to shoot into crowds of peaceful protesters and deploying army tanks to shell residential areas while seeking to justify such force on the pretext that the government is under attack by armed gangs. Amnesty International has obtained the names of more than 1,800 people reported to have died or been killed during or in connection with the protests since mid-March;2 many are believed to have been shot by security forces using live ammunition while participating in peaceful protests or attending funerals of people killed in earlier protests. Thousands of other people have been arrested, with many held incommunicado at unknown locations at which torture and other ill-treatment are reported to be rife. Some, as this report details, have died in detention in highly suspicious circumstances.
In the face of the protests and growing international condemnation, President al-Assad has lifted the 48-year long state of emergency,3 approved legislative reforms including a law which allows the creation of other political parties to rival the all-powerful ruling Ba’ath party,4 and issued at least three amnesties for certain categories of prisoners.5 These measures, however, have failed signally to reduce the protests and appear generally to be seen as concessions proffered too little, too late by a government that continues to use the most hardline methods in its efforts to crush all dissent and popular demands for change.
The sharp rise in the number of reported deaths in custody has been one of the most shocking features of the government’s bloody crackdown on the protests. No less than 88 such deaths have been reported to Amnesty International as occurring during the period from 1 April and 15 August 2011, a figure for four and a half months which is already many times higher than the yearly average over recent years.6 In at least 52 of these cases, there is evidence that torture caused or contributed to the deaths, a concern exacerbated by reports of widespread torture in detention centres in recent months. Some of the dead, who include children, were also mutilated either before or after death in particularly grotesque ways apparently intended to strike terror into the families to whom their corpses were returned. The victims in all cases appear to have been detained in the context of the protests, though the circumstances of their arrest are often hazy, and to have died while held in the custody of the security forces in prisons or other places of detention, both recognized and unrecognized, or after being removed to hospitals while they remained in custody. Some clearly suffered gunshot wounds suggesting that they may have been victims of extrajudicial executions. Many of the deaths became known only when the victims’ bodies were handed to their families by the authorities or families were contacted and told to collect their relatives’ bodies from the morgue. Syria has a history of high levels of deaths in custody, including many cases where torture or other ill-treatment is alleged to have caused or contributed to the deaths.7
Out of the 88 cases, Amnesty International is aware of only two which are said to have been the subject of official investigations. Even in these two cases, concerning the deaths of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, aged 13, and Sakher Hallak (see Chapter 3), there is little to indicate that the investigations were independent or impartial and in both cases the findings have yet to be disclosed. Rather than mounting independent investigations, as international human rights law and standards demand, the Syrian authorities have either said nothing, denied that individuals had been detained or responded to reports of killings by the security forces by blaming these on unidentified “armed gangs” opposed to the government. Victims’ families have been denied the truth, justice and reparation, while those responsible for torture and other gross human rights violations continue to commit crimes with impunity and be shielded from accountability.
This report is based on information obtained by Amnesty International from a variety of sources. Amnesty International researchers have interviewed witnesses and others who had fled Syria in recent visits to Lebanon and Turkey,8 and communicated by phone and email with individuals who remain in Syria and continue to take serious risks to ensure that information reaches the outside world. Among others, they include relatives of victims, human rights defenders, medical professionals and newly released detainees. Amnesty International has also received information from Syrian and other human rights activists who live outside Syria.
Amnesty International has not been able to conduct first-hand research on the ground in Syria during 2011; the last time the government permitted the organization to visit the country was in June 2010. Since the protests began, the Syrian government has sought to deny access to the country by international media and independent human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, so as to prevent the full horror of what is occurring to reach the outside world. They have only been partially successful, however, as evidenced by the large amount of video material, much of it taken on mobile phone cameras, that has been sent out of the country by people participating in the protests and witnesses to the ongoing repression.
In just over half of the cases reported here, 45 cases, relatives, activists or other individuals were able to film the victims’ bodies to show the injuries that they had sustained and that may have caused or contributed to their deaths and to send the recordings out of the country. In many of the cases, the footage includes commentary by individuals whose identity is usually not disclosed but who provide details of the victim and their detention and describe marks that can be seen on the bodies that appear to have been caused by torture or other abuse. Amnesty International submitted videos of bodies for 20 of these cases and a photograph of a body for one case to independent forensic pathologists to seek their expert comment on the injuries visible and their possible origin and impact and to suggest possible causes of death, where feasible.9 Such assessments based on film evidence rather than first-hand examination must inevitably be treated with a degree of caution but they are striking nonetheless in the way that they point to a pattern of systematic gross abuse which is consistent with other evidence that Amnesty International has received from a diverse array of sources, including former detainees and families of victims.
In reporting some of these cases, Amnesty International is withholding certain names and other information to protect sources or others whose lives or safety could be at risk of their identities were to become known to the Syrian authorities. In other cases, only limited details are available, reflecting the difficulty of obtaining information about human rights violations in Syria, difficulties that have been exacerbated during the current crisis. In addition to closing their borders to most of the international media, Amnesty International and other independent observers, the Syrian authorities have continued to target local human rights defenders and civil society activists to the point where there is a widespread climate of fear that has made many people, including victims’ relatives, fearful of talking to international organizations. As this report shows, in many cases Amnesty International has been told when and where those who died were reportedly arrested and when bodies were returned to their families but often without being able to establish further details, such as whether there were eyewitnesses to individual arrests, whether victims were seen being tortured or abused in custody by other detainees, and in what circumstances bodies were returned to or retrieved by their families. Only in very few cases has Amnesty International been able to obtain information indicating where a person was being detained at the time of their death. Consequently, this report uses qualified terms such as “reported arrests” and “reported deaths in custody”, where appropriate, in order to reflect this lack of clarity regarding some of the details of the cases reported.
Despite these limitations, Amnesty International considers that the crimes behind the high number of reported deaths in custody of suspected opponents of the regime identified in this report, taken in the context of other crimes and human rights violations committed against civilians elsewhere in Syria, amount to crimes against humanity. They appear to be part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population, carried out in an organized manner and pursuant to a state policy to commit such an attack. For this reason, Amnesty International has called on the UN Security Council to not only condemn, in a firm and legally binding manner, the mass human rights violations being committed in Syria but also to take other measures to hold those responsible to account, including by referring the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. As well, Amnesty International continues to urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria and to immediately freeze the assets of President al-Assad and other officials suspected of responsibility for crimes against humanity.
[Click here to read the full Amnesty International report.]