The Syrian Regime’s Appointments and Reshuffles of Security Branches’ Officials Seem the Most Likely Cause of the Decrease in the Number of Regime Arrests in January, with Syrian Democratic Forces Perpetrating the Majority of Arrests, Followed by Syrian National Army Forces
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SNHR announced in its report released today that it documented at least 213 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention in Syria in January 2021, including 24 children and five women, noting that the Syrian regime’s appointments and reshuffles of security branches’ officials seem the most likely cause of the decrease in the number of regime arrests in January, with Syrian Democratic Forces perpetrating the majority of arrests, followed by Syrian National Army forces.
The 35-page report explains that most of the arrests in Syria are carried out without any judicial warrant while the victims are passing through checkpoints or during raids, with the security forces of the regime’s four main intelligence services often responsible for extra-judicial detentions. The detainee is tortured from the very first moment of his or her arrest and denied any opportunity to contact his or her family or to have access to a lawyer. The authorities also flatly deny the arbitrary arrests they have carried out and most of the detainees are subsequently categorized as forcibly disappeared.
This report outlines the record of arbitrary arrests/ detention it recorded in January 2021 by the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria, as well as shedding light on the most notable individual cases and incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention that the SNHR’s team documented during the same period, in addition to categorizing cases and incidents of arrest according to the location of the incident. The report does not include those kidnappings and abductions in which the report was unable to identify the responsible party.
The report also documents arbitrary arrests that were subsequently categorized as enforced disappearances. A number of criteria must be met before SNHR will classify a case as an enforced disappearance: the individual must have been detained for at least 20 days without his or her family being able to obtain any information from the relevant authorities about their status or location, with those responsible for the disappearance denying any knowledge of the individual’s arrest or whereabouts.
The report notes that the Syrian regime in January instituted a series of appointments and reshuffles among its management officials and officers at several security branches in a number of Syrian governorates; the report further notes that this may be the main reason behind the decreased number of arbitrary arrests documented by SNHR in January, as well as referring to reports of Russian directives which demanded a reduction in the number of arrests as a show of goodwill, in preparation for the presidential elections to be held in the first half of 2021, with the aim of calming public opinion in favor of handing over power to Bashar al Assad in Syria for the next fourteen years. In addition to this, the report notes a return of the fear and terror which permeated Syrian society for decades among the people given the pervasive domination of the security services, deterring members of the public from reporting violations for fear of being targeted, which contributed to the inability to document many cases of arbitrary arrest. Despite that, the report stresses, Syrian regime forces continued in January to persecute Syrian citizens in connection with their political dissent and expression of opinions, despite the right to both being guaranteed by the constitution and international law.
The report stresses that Syrian regime forces in January continued to persecute and arrest individuals who had concluded settlements of their security status with the Syrian regime in areas that had previously concluded settlement agreements with the regime; these arrests have been concentrated in Damascus Suburbs governorate, with most occurring during campaigns of mass raids and arrests and at checkpoints.
The report notes that January saw arrests of pro-Syrian regime media personnel in connection with their filming of reports criticizing the working practices of state personnel employed in service institutions. The report also documents arbitrary arrests of citizens solely because they criticized the deteriorating living conditions in regime-controlled areas.
In the context of cases in which individuals have been released, the report records the release of one detainee who had been arrested at the end of 2020, and eight other detainees who had been arrested in January, from different Syrian governorates.
As the report reveals, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in January, with the rate of arrests/ detentions documented as taking place at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces this month was the highest amongst all the parties to the conflict. The report adds that Syrian Democratic Forces have targeted civilians for their kinship relationships with individuals in the Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army, as well as carrying out campaigns of mass raids and arrests, targeting many civilians, including children, on the pretext of fighting ISIS cells, with some of these campaigns backed by US-led coalition helicopters.
The report also documents arrests of media activists, in addition to teachers and students – children – who were detained over their participation in protests held to condemn the earlier arrest of other teachers by the SDF.
As for Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, the report stresses that January also saw Hay’at Tahrir al Sham detaining civilians, with these arrests, which were concentrated in Idlib governorate, including activists working with civil society groups, media workers and doctors; most of these arrests occurred due to the detainees expressing opinions critical of the HTS’s management of areas under its control. These detentions were carried out arbitrarily in the form of raids in which HTS members stormed their victims’ homes, often breaking down the doors, or by kidnapping their victims while they were traveling or passing through temporary checkpoints.
The Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army also continued carrying out arbitrary detentions and kidnappings in January, targeting IDP civilians and activists, under the pretext of having kinship with ISIS, before releasing them later; we also recorded mass arrests targeting those coming from areas under the control of the Syrian regime. In addition, the report records detentions carried out under an ethnic pretext, with these incidents being concentrated in areas under the Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army’s control in Aleppo governorate. Most of these arrests occurred without judicial authorization and without the participation of the police force, which is the legitimate administrative authority responsible for arrests and detentions through the judiciary, as well as being carried out without presenting any clear charges against those being detained.
The report documents at least 213 cases of arbitrary arrests/ detention in January 2021, including 24 children and five women, 159 of which have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance, all at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria, with 46 of these, including four children, carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces, 38 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance. It also documents 107 cases of arbitrary arrests/ detention at the hands of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, including 18 children and one woman, 75 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance.
The report also documents 51 cases of arbitrary arrests/ detention, including two children and four women, at the hands of the Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army, 39 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance. In addition, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham detained nine individuals, seven of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance.
As the report reveals, the vast majority of detainees involved in the popular uprising for democracy in Syria, including political and human rights activists, media workers, and relief activists, and similar prisoners of conscience, have been accused by the security branches of several charges based on testimonies taken from detainees by the regime under coercion, intimidation and torture, which are documented within regime security authorities’ reports, with these security reports being referred to the Public Prosecution Service, after which the majority of these cases are referred to either the Counter-Terrorism Court or the Military Field Court; the lowest conditions of fair courts do not meet in these courts, which are also closer to a military-security branch.
The report notes that the Syrian regime has issued nearly 17 amnesty decrees, the last of which was in March 2020, and many of which were similar to one another and focused on securing the release of perpetrators of crimes, felonies and offences, while including only a very small number of detainees referred to exceptional courts such as the Counter-Terrorism Court and the military field courts, and excluding the largest proportion of detainees who were not subjected to any trial during the years of their detention, who have been classified as forcibly disappeared.
The report further notes that detainees held by Syrian regime forces are subjected to exceptionally brutal and sadistic methods of torture, and subjected to unimaginably squalid, unsanitary and massively overcrowded conditions in its detention centers without even the bare minimum of hygiene or sanitation to protect against illness and disease. The report also notes that maintaining these brutal conditions is a very deliberate and widespread strategy on the part of the Syrian regime with the aim of further debasing and torturing detainees. Subjecting detainees to conditions that foster disease and infection and leaving them to suffer without medical help or treatment is another deliberate and conscious part of this policy, forcing already physically and emotionally traumatized detainees to endure an additional layer of torment and degradation often leading to death. The report warns of the increasing danger facing prisoners in regime detention centers with the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in light of the brutal detention conditions that are favorable for the spread of infectious diseases such as the COVID-19 coronavirus; this now threatens the lives of approximately 130,000 people who are still documented as being detained or forcibly disappeared by Syrian Regime forces, according to the SNHR database.
The report notes that the issue of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons is one of the most crucial human rights issues in Syria which there has been no progress in resolving despite its inclusion in several resolutions of the UN Security Council, as well as in the UN General Assembly resolutions, in Kofi Annan’s plan, and finally in the statement of cessation of hostilities issued in February 2016, and in Security Council resolution 2254 of December 2015, article 12, which states that all detainees, especially women and children, must be released immediately. Despite all these resolutions and other official statements, no progress has been made on the issue of securing the release of detainees in any of the rounds of negotiations sponsored by international parties regarding the conflict in Syria. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been unable to conduct any periodic visits to any of these detention centers, constituting a violation of International Humanitarian Law.
The report stresses that the Syrian regime has not fulfilled any of its obligations in any of the international treaties and conventions it has ratified, most particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It has also violated several articles of the Syrian Constitution itself, with thousands of detainees detained without any arrest warrant for many years, without charges, and prevented from appointing a lawyer and from receiving family visits. 65 percent of all detentions documented have subsequently been categorized as enforced disappearance cases, with detainees’ families being denied any information on their loved ones’ whereabouts, while anyone making inquiries about the detainees faces the risk of being arrested themselves for doing so.
The report notes that the other parties (Syrian Democratic Forces, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham and the Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army) are all obliged to implement the provisions of international human rights law, and that they have committed widespread violations through arrests and enforced disappearances.
The report calls on the Security Council to follow through in the implementation of Resolution 2042, adopted on April 14, 2012, Resolution 2043, adopted on April 21, 2012, and Resolution 2139, adopted on February 22, 2014, all of which demand the immediate cessation of the crime of enforced disappearance.
The report provides a set of recommendations to the Human Rights Council, to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI), and to the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM).
The report calls on the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces to immediately end arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, to reveal the fate of all arrested/ detained and forcibly disappeared persons, to allow their families to visit them, and to hand over the bodies of detainees who were killed as a result of torture to their families.
The report also calls on them to unconditionally release all detainees who have been imprisoned merely for exercising their political and civil rights and to publish a register containing the detainees’ data together with the reasons for their detention, the locations where they are held, and the sentences issued.
The report stresses that the UN and the guarantor parties at Astana should form an impartial special committee to monitor cases of arbitrary arrest, and reveal the fate of the 99,000 missing persons in Syria, approximately 85 percent of whom are detained by the Syrian regime. The report adds that pressure should be applied on all parties to immediately reveal their detention records in accordance with a timetable, and to immediately make detainees’ whereabouts public, and allow human rights groups and the International Committee of Red Cross to have direct access to them.
Lastly, the report emphasizes that children and women should be released, and families and friends of detainees or wanted individuals should not be taken as prisoners of war. The report calls on the official newly appointed to take charge of the detainees’ file at the UN special envoy’s office to include the issue of detainees at the upcoming rounds of Geneva talks, as this issue is of far greater importance to the Syrian people than other longer-term issues that can be jointly addressed later, such as the constitution.