Syrian Regime Forces Entrench the Denial of Freedom of Expression Policy and Persecute Those Criticizing Deteriorating Living Conditions in Regime-Controlled Areas
(Link below to download full report)
Paris – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) announced in its report released today that it documented at least 143 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention in Syria in March 2021, including two children and nine women, noting that Syrian regime forces entrench the denial of freedom of expression policy and persecute those criticizing deteriorating living conditions in regime-controlled areas.
The 40-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 March 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 Syrian regime forces continued in March 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; amongst those subjected to persecution and arbitrary arrest were a number of 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 and Daraa governorates, with most occurring during campaigns of mass raids and arrests and at checkpoints. The report also records arrests carried out by the Criminal Security Branch targeting pro-Syrian regime media workers, government employees and civilians against the background of their criticism of the difficult living conditions in the areas controlled by the regime. The report further records arrests that took place in the context of participation in activities commemorating the popular uprising for democracy in Syria, which were concentrated in Homs governorate, as well as arrests of individuals for making phone calls to areas outside the Syrian regime’s control, and against persons in connection with their movement between and travel to areas outside the control of the Syrian regime
In the context of cases in which individuals have been released, the report records the Syrian regime’s release of nearly 45 detainees, including one woman and one child, as well as military conscripts – all from Daraa governorate – from regime detention centers in Damascus governorate, as part of a special presidential pardon in the context of reconciliation agreements made by the Syrian regime in Daraa governorate. The report notes that those released had spent an average period of one to two years in the Syrian regime’s detention centers, in extremely poor detention conditions in terms of torture practices inflicted on them, an almost complete lack of health and medical care, and severe overcrowding in detention centers, while they were arrested without receiving any explanation of the reasons for their detention and without any arrest warrant being provided.
As the report reveals, Syrian Democratic Forces continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in March, with the number increasing this month. Syrian Democratic Forces targeted teachers with arrest in connection with their teaching educational curricula other than those imposed by SDF or against the background of forced conscription. Syrian Democratic Forces also carried out campaigns of mass raids and arrests, targeting many civilians on the pretext of fighting ISIS cells. Syrian Democratic Forces also carried out arrests/ detentions and assaults on medical personnel and facilities; these arrests were concentrated in Deir Ez-Zour governorate, as well as carrying out arrests of children for the purpose of conscription.
As for Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, the report stresses that March also saw Hay’at Tahrir al Sham detaining civilians, with these arrests, which were concentrated in Idlib governorate, including media activists and politicians; 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 March, most of which were carried out on a mass scale, targeting women under the pretext that they were trying to cross the Turkish border illegally, before releasing them later. The Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army also carried out mass detentions 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 143 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention in March 2021, including two children and nine women (adult female), with 115 of these cases subsequently categorized as cases of enforced disappearance, all at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria; 58 of these, including two women, were carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces, 52 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance. Meanwhile, Syrian Democratic Forces detained 52 individuals, including two children, with 50 of these cases subsequently categorized as cases of enforced disappearance.
The report also notes that the Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army detained 26 individuals, including seven women, 10 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance. In addition, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham detained seven individuals, four of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests in March across the governorates, with Aleppo seeing the largest number of arrests documented during this period, followed by the governorates of Damascus Suburbs, then Deir Ez-Zour.
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 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, including nearly 3,329 health care personnel, 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.
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 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, with the report providing additional recommendations.