[The following report was published by Amnesty International on 19 December 2013]
This briefing describes serious abuses of human rights committed in detention facilities run by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an armed opposition group that currently controls significant swathes of territory and people in northern Syria, including in al- Raqqa governorate and in and around Aleppo and Idlib. In these areas, ISIS claims it is fighting to establish an “Islamic state” and has introduced harsh rules that it said were based on Shari’a (Islamic law), including cruel and inhuman punishments such as flogging and summary killings in public.
In the areas they control, ISIS forces have committed numerous serious rights abuses, including some that amount to war crimes; they include abductions, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and unlawful killings.
Those targeted by ISIS for abduction and arbitrary detention have included a wide range of individuals, including people suspected of committing ordinary crimes, such as theft or murder, and others accused of committing religiously prohibited acts, such as zina (sex out of wedlock) and alcohol consumption. As well, ISIS forces have targeted local people suspected of organizing protests and opposition to their rule, including community activists and members of local councils set up to provide services to residents following the withdrawal of Syrian government forces, other civil society and media activists, and commanders and members of rival armed groups, including those operating as part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). ISIS is also alleged to have abducted foreign nationals, including journalists, staff of international organizations and religious figures.
This briefing is based on research conducted between 20 November and 5 December 2013 by an Amnesty International researcher who visited Gaziantep, Nizip and Akçakale in Turkey to interview former detainees held by ISIS in northern Syria. Amnesty International interviewed nine former detainees in person, separately, and spoke to another earlier by telephone. The former detainees interviewed had been abducted and detained by ISIS forces in al-Raqqa governorate and Aleppo city. They had spent periods ranging from a few hours to 55 days in ISIS detention, all between May and November 2013. All left northern Syria or went to Turkey after their release by ISIS forces but at least one continues to move between the two countries. All expressed fear for their own safety and that of their relatives, some of whom remain in Syria. They agreed to speak to Amnesty International on condition that the organization should not publish their names or other details that could expose their identities.
The accounts they gave provide a chilling picture of conditions in detention facilities run by ISIS in northern Syria. The former detainees described how they and others were seized arbitrarily by armed men wearing masks and carted off to places of detention whose location they frequently did not know and where they had no contact with their families or the outside world. Often, they had little idea why they had been detained and only fears as to what might become of them. Some encountered children in detention, including boys who were threatened and flogged; one spoke of being present in a cell with a father as he heard his 13-year-old son apparently being tortured but was powerless to act. Others spoke of prisoners being flogged on the orders of a man whom ISIS had apparently appointed as a Shari’a court judge, but who showed not the least respect for any sense of due process and summarily ordered detainees to be taken to be killed, including a prisoner who had the temerity to mock him behind his back.
The former detainees all shared a sense of relief at their release from detention and escape from the area controlled by ISIS but they remained acutely concerned for their relatives and others that they left in detention and who remain vulnerable to ISIS’s cruel, capricious and arbitrary rule. They asked that the world should wake up to the plight of those now suffering under ISIS in northern Syria.
ISIS’s domination has grown significantly over the months following its declared formation in April 2013, particularly in areas in northern Syria that have come under opposition forces as the Syrian conflict continues to degenerate into a war of attrition between the forces of the government of President Bashar al-Assad and a proliferation of often mutually antagonistic armed groups, including groups composed of foreign fighters. With more than 100,000 Syrians killed since anti-government protests broke out in early 2011 and millions of other Syrians either internally displaced or now refugees abroad, the conflict has wrought, and continues to wreak, a terrible toll. It has been marked on all sides by criminal disdain for international principles relating to the protection of civilians and the conduct of warfare: government forces have repeatedly attacked civilian residential areas using aircraft and artillery, used snipers to shoot down civilians on the streets, and tortured detainees, including children, on an industrial scale. They also stand accused of deploying chemical weapons. For their part, opposition forces have also carried out gross abuses of human rights, including torture and summary killing of captured soldiers and other detainees and car bomb and other attacks targeting areas in which civilians who support the government reside. The situation has continued to deteriorate, notwithstanding international efforts to address the threat of chemical weapons, as arms and fighters have continued to flood in from abroad and fighting and control of territory and people has become localized and fragmented.
ISIS, which is linked to al-Qa’ida in Iraq, is an armed opposition group whose fighters, all Sunni Muslims, are drawn from many countries. They reportedly include individuals with previous experience of armed conflicts in Chechnya and Iraq and militants drawn from a range of countries including Tunisia and Morocco in North Africa and states in the Gulf, aswell as Syrian fighters. They claim to advocate a strict form of Shari’a rule and use extreme force to impose it in areas that they control or where they are present. In Syria, they are reported to have been responsible for a number of bombings of targets in government-held areas, some of which caused civilian deaths and injuries, to have assassinated commandersof other armed opposition groups, such as the FSA, and to have tortured and executed captured members of rival armed groups. It is unclear how they are financed but widely believed that they have received support from Sunni Muslim sources within Gulf states. It is believed that they have also made extensive use of Turkey in order to gain entry into Syria and to bring in fresh fighters, arms and other supplies.
Amnesty International is urging ISIS to end its reign of abuse in northern Syria, including the abductions, torture and unlawful killings of detainees and others, and to respect the human rights of the area’s beleaguered population and others who come under its control. It is also appealing to the government of Turkey and other governments to take urgent, concrete steps to cut off the flow of arms and other support to ISIS on account of its human rights record and violations of international humanitarian law, and renewing its call to the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
[Click here to read the full report]