Tens of Thousands of Students and Workers in State Institutions Were Deprived of Liberty to Force Them to Vote for Bashar al Assad
(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 162 cases of arbitrary arrest in Syria in May 2021, in addition to recording that tens of thousands of students and workers in state institutions were deprived of liberty to force them to vote for Bashar al Assad.
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. Every 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/ detentions it recorded in May 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 have continued to persecute and target Syrian citizens in areas under regime control in connection with their political dissent and expression of opinions, despite the right to both being guaranteed by the constitution and international law. This proves once again the truth of the crucial point which we have reiterated several times previously, namely that no Syrian citizen can feel safe from arrest since these are carried out without any basis in law or any oversight by any independent judiciary, and are perpetrated by the security services with no involvement by the judiciary. Following these arrests, detainees are routinely classified as forcibly disappeared persons, and therefore the areas under the control of the Syrian regime cannot be considered to constitute any sort of safe haven for residents there; all this underlines the fact that regime-controlled areas of Syria are very definitely not a safe haven for the return of refugees or IDPs. The report stresses that there will be no stability or safety in light of the survival of the regime’s brutal security services, who have committed crimes against humanity since 2011 and are still continuing to do so up to the current date. The report adds that among the arrests and detentions documented by SNHR in May were those by Syrian regime forces showing that they continue 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 and Daraa governorates. The report also records random arrests against citizens in Hama governorate, which are believed to have been based on malicious security reports issued due to the targeted individuals’ opposition to the Syrian regime. The report further documents arrests of civilians in Damascus governorate, in connection with chanting anti-regime phrases, and tearing up pictures of the Syrian regime president, Bashar al Assad. The report also documents arrests targeting civilians on the grounds that they did not participate in the ‘presidential elections’ held on May 26, while they were passing through the Syrian regime checkpoints, mainly those adjacent to areas that had previously seen settlements.
The report adds that at least 32 cases of arrests of civilians, including children and women, were documented in Tartus governorate on the Syrian coast, from where they had been trying to emigrate illegally to Cyprus.
In the context of cases in which individuals have been released in May, the report records the release of at least 76 detainees held by the Syrian regime, 17 of them women, including civilians, government employees, media workers, university students and politicians, who had criticized corruption and the poor living conditions in areas controlled by the Syrian regime; these detainees were released under Legislative Decree No. 13 of 2021 issued on May 2, with the period of detention for most ranging between two and six months, with no sentences issued against them, with most of them known for their support for the Syrian regime, especially the media workers among them. The report also documents in May that Syrian regime forces released 54 detainees, including three children and one woman, who were released from regime detention centers after the end of their arbitrarily imposed sentences, with their release not being linked to Amnesty Decree No. 13 of 2021. May also saw a number of releases in the context of exchanges between Syrian National Army and Syrian regime forces.
As the report reveals, Syrian Democratic Forces continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in May, carrying out campaigns of mass raids and arrests, and targeting many civilians on the pretext of fighting ISIS cells, with some of these campaigns backed by US-led coalition helicopters. The report also documents arrests targeting members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Area Committee.
As for Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, the report stresses that May also saw Hay’at Tahrir al Sham detaining civilians, with the targets of 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. The report also records summonses being issued by the Media Directorate of the Salvation Government against media activists, after they published posts on their personal Facebook pages on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.
The Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army also continued carrying out arbitrary detentions and kidnappings in May, most of which were carried out on a mass scale, targeting individuals coming from areas controlled by the Syrian regime, as well as documenting detentions carried out under an ethnic pretext.
The report notes that the concept of elections in political and legal sciences is based on the principle of freedom of choice. In stark contrast to this, the security services in Syria control every detail of citizens’ lives, including their voting, and monitor their movements, issuing direct instructions to state institutions, schools and universities ordering personnel and students to elect one candidate exclusively, namely Bashar al Assad, and creating a state of intimidation and terror that coerces people into voting for him. Based on all of these facts, the report adds, the grotesque periodic performances that have taken place in Syria during the reign of Hafez and Bashar al Assad cannot be truthfully described as elections, rather they are more like forced enactments of electoral rituals. In this context, the report notes that the regime’s security forces carried out operations in universities, schools, and state institutions depriving staff and students of their liberty in order to force them to vote, noting that the actual commander of the state security services is Bashar al Assad, not the Minister of Interior. This means that voters are subjected to a state of terror and intimidation to force them into voting for Bashar al Assad. As the report reveals, any university students who refused to comply with these orders were threatened with administrative penalties with the possibility of being summoned for interrogation within the security branches, forcing the vast majority of students to vote for Bashar al Assad; after they finished voting, they were taken, along with state employees, to participate in pro-Bashar al Assad rallies.
In addition, the report documents at least 34 incidents of arrest/ detention that targeted civilians over their non-participation in the sham election or failure to vote for Bashar al Assad. These detentions were accompanied by confiscation of personal IDs, in addition to threatening to detain them permanently unless they go to vote for Bashar al Assad.
The report documents at least 162 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention in May 2021, including five children, with 111 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; 97 of these, including three children, were carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces. Meanwhile, Syrian Democratic Forces detained 48 individuals, including two children. The report also notes that the Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army detained 11 civilians, while Hay’at Tahrir al Sham detained six civilians.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests in May across the governorates, with Deir Ez-Zour seeing the largest number of arrests documented during this period, followed by Tartus governorate.
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 -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 UN Security Council resolutions, as well as in 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 adds that it is impossible to hold elections under the absolute control of the security services working for a presidential candidate such as Bashar al Assad. Before there can be any discussion of a constitution and elections, the conflict must be ended, the killings must be stopped, a political transition must have taken place and a safe environment must have been achieved.
The report notes that the other parties (Syrian Democratic Forces, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham and the Armed Opposition/ Syrian National Army) are also 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, 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 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, 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 humanitarian organizations 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 detained as prisoners of war, with the report also providing additional recommendations.