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SYRIA: New Report Details Arbitrary Detention and Torture of 947 People Amidst Calls for Accountability

A report published on 2 July 2020 by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) details the arbitrary detention of at least 947 people in the first six months of 2020. At least 152 of those individuals were detained in June alone.

The report

The report notes that arbitrary arrests and detentions have been one of the most widespread human rights violations by the regime since the 2011 uprising. Arbitrary detentions affect thousands of Syrians, with 89% being carried out by the Syrian regime’s security service and army forces and its affiliated militias. They are,

“part of a deliberate and planned strategy, often in a sweeping indiscriminate manner, in order to instil terror and fear into the largest possible number of Syrian people.”

The majority of those detained face arrest without any legal warrant. They are tortured while in custody, are not given access to a lawyer nor allowed to contact family and most are then forcibly disappeared. Many detainees subsequently face multiple charges after giving false confessions that were often extorted by torture. A previous SNHR report recorded at least 72 methods of torture were practiced by the Syrian regime in detention centres and military hospitals. In addition to the threat of torture, prisoners face squalid conditions with unsanitary and hugely overcrowded detention centres. The threat of COVID-19 looms large for detainees in such detrimental conditions.

The use of new research methods also enabled SNHR to find new methods of torture that caused a number of deaths amongst detainees. One such case is that of Wesam Fawwaz Mer’i al Haj Ali, a college student at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in al Ba’ath University in Homs city. Sources say Wesam was in good health at the time of his arrest, leading SNHR to believe this indicates that his death was tragically due to torture.

Legal framework

Despite several resolutions of the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, the Syrian regime has not fulfilled any of its obligations under any of the international treaties and conventions it has ratified.

Within its domestic law, the regime has continued to bend legislation to suit its aims. Detainees are charged with: “provoking sectarian strife, threatening the system of governance, weakening national sentiment, collusion with external agents and the enemy, supporting and financing terrorism and weakening the nation’s morale.” Once charged, detainees are forced to give their fingerprint on a report that is used as a forced admission of guilt and their cases are then referred to the Counter-Terrorism Court or the Military Field Court. The SNHR found however that just these steps alone could take months, and possibly even years to happen.

“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…have been accused by the security branches of several charges based on testimonies taken from detainees by the regime under coercion, intimidation and torture.”

Syria rights violations

Accountability for these crimes still remains elusive. However, a court in Koblenz Germany began a landmark criminal trial on state-sponsored torture in Syria demonstrating a window of opportunity for justice. As a result of this trial, two suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence services were charged with crimes against humanity. Another such trial in Germany accused nine high-ranking Syrian officials of crimes against humanity, including various sexual and gender-based crimes. Such trials can take place because Germany’s sweeping universal jurisdiction law allows for the prosecution of grave crimes committed in another country regardless of whether a German national was involved.

The UN OCHA projected that 11.7 million people in Syria would require humanitarian and protection assistance in 2019. However, despite the dire need of its people, the Syrian government developed a legal and policy framework to appropriate millions of dollars of humanitarian funding to advance its own interests. As well as abuses faced at the hands of the regime, the people of Syria also face relentless rights abuses from non-state armed groups opposing the government. Human Rights Watch concluded that the continuous onslaught of rights violations meant that,

“the atrocities and rights violations that have characterized the conflict continued to be the rule, not the exception.”

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