Syria Is Neither Stable nor Safe for the Return of Refugees or IDPs, Especially in Areas Controlled by the Syrian Regime and Its Brutal Security Services
(Link below to download full report)
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) announced in its report released today that it documented at least at least 1,882 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention in Syria in 2020, 149 of them in December; detainees include 52 children and 39 women, the report notes, emphasizing that Syria is neither stable nor safe for the return of refugees or IDPs, especially in areas controlled by the Syrian regime and its brutal security services
The 72-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 arrest/ detention it recorded both in the past month of December and in the whole of 2020 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 in 2020 particularly targeted individuals who have concluded settlements of their security status with the Syrian regime in areas that previously concluded conciliation/ settlement agreements with the regime for persecution and arrest; these arrests have been concentrated in Damascus Suburbs and Daraa governorates, with most occurring during campaigns of mass raids and arrests, targeting civilians, former workers in humanitarian organizations, popular uprising activists, and defectors from Syrian Regime forces. The report has documented at least 307 cases of arrest against individuals who have concluded settlements of their security status.
The report adds that the areas that Syrian Regime forces took control of as a result of their military operations during 2020 in the suburbs of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama governorates saw arrests, targeting civilians who had remained in their homes and refused to be displaced. The highest rate of arrests documented this year took place, according to the report, in February 2020, due to Syrian Regime forces carrying out large-scale arrests in the areas where they had regained control.
The report refers to the Syrian regime’s being subjected to some pressure from several international bodies and organizations in order to reveal the fate of and release tens of thousands of detainees with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, for fear of the spread of the virus among them; the Syrian regime, however, circumvented these pressures, and issued an amnesty decree on March 22, 2020, with the report adding that the Syrian regime has manipulated the texts of its decrees and their implementation, noting that it would it take 325 years for the regime to release the detainees imprisoned in connection with the political uprising against it if the regime continued with the proposed pace of releases. The report outlines the record of the documented cases within two months following the last amnesty decree, noting that the number of arrests carried out by the regime was higher than the number of those it released. The report also recorded the deaths of 30 detained Syrian citizens due to torture.
As the report notes, from the start of 2020, , the Syrian regime targeted citizens returning from the areas of their displacement to their original areas, which are controlled by Syrian Regime forces, for arrest, as well as carrying out arrests targeting those who illegally returned from Lebanon to their home towns, who have been charged with ‘terrorism’. In this context, the report recommends that refugees or IDPs should not return to Syrian regime-controlled areas because there are no real guarantees that the regime will not subject them to arrest, torture, enforced disappearance, or compulsory military conscription there. The report has documented at least 156 cases of arrest against returnees, including 89 cases of arrest targeting returnees from outside Syria in 2020.
The report further notes that in 2020, Syrian Regime forces continued 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 are a number of Syrian citizens detained solely because they criticized the deteriorating living and economic conditions in the regime-controlled areas, including lawyers and teachers, who were detained by Syrian Regime forces in raids on their homes and workplaces. 2020 also saw arrests and persecution of citizens in connection with their participation in anti-Syrian regime protests and activities in Suwayda governorate, including college students, with most of these arrests taking place while they were passing through regime checkpoints in Damascus and Suwayda cities. Past year also saw arrests targeting civilians in connection with their kinship with participants in the popular uprising for democracy.
Syrian Regime forces also carried out arrests against persons in connection with their movement between and travel to the areas outside the control of the Syrian regime, while they were passing through regime checkpoints. The report also documents arrests of individuals for making phone calls to areas outside the Syrian regime’s control, with those detained including children, women and elderly people.
2020 also saw some arrests against workers involved in the field of currency exchange; the aim of these detentions is to extort ransom money from the detainees’ families, with these victims being released in exchange for huge sums of money. Amongst those subjected to arbitrary arrest are a number of former detainees released in recent months, who have been rearrested under various pretexts, such as claiming that they have destroyed their personal documents, that their arrest warrants are still outstanding, or in order to conscript them for military service.
In the context of cases in which individuals have been released, 2020 saw that Syrian Regime forces released 545 detainees from civilian prisons in various Syrian governorates, with most of these being released after the end of their arbitrary sentences, with the duration of their detention ranging from four to nine years.
The report reveals that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance throughout 2020, targeting activists and members of civil society groups who oppose their policies. The report also records SDF carrying out mass raids and arrests of civilians who took part in anti-SDF demonstrations in areas under its control, as well as targeting civilians for their kinship relationships with individuals in the Armed Opposition/ the Syrian National Army. Syrian Democratic Forces also carried out campaigns of mass raids and arrests, targeting many civilians, including children and persons with special needs, on the pretext of fighting ISIS cells, with some of these campaigns backed by US-led coalition helicopters. Also in 2020, Syrian Democratic Forces carried out arrests of civilians, including children, with the aim of forcibly conscripting them. SDF also targeted several families for arrest, as well as targeting several members of the same families, including elderly people, without providing clear charges, taking these detained individuals to undisclosed locations.
In the context of cases in which individuals have been released, the report documents in 2020 that Syrian Democratic Forces released 221 civilians from SDF detention centers. The duration of detention for those released ranged from eight months to two years, with most being released as a result of tribal mediation.
Hay’at Tahrir al Sham in 2020 also carried out detentions of civilians, with arrests concentrated in Idlib city, including activists working with civil society groups, media workers, lawyers and clerics; most of these arrests occurred due to the detainees expressing opinions critical of the HTS’s management of areas under its control or because of their work in institutions affiliated with the Interim Government in areas controlled by the Armed Opposition/ the Syrian National Army. Most of these detentions were carried out through summons issued by the Public Prosecution Service of the Salvation Government, which is affiliated with Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, and took place 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/ the Syrian National Army also continued carrying out arbitrary arrests and kidnappings in 2020, most of which occurred on a mass scale, in many cases targeting several members of the same families, as well as persecuting civilians who protested against its policies in the areas under its control and against the poor living conditions there, and targeting media activists, with the report also documenting mass arrests that targeted those coming from the areas under the control of Syrian Regime forces. The report also records detentions carried out within an ethnic context, with these incidents being concentrated in areas under the Armed Opposition/ the 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 1,881 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention in 2020, including 52 children and 39 women, 1,303 of whom 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 908 of these, including 13 children and 23 women, carried out at the hands of Syrian Regime forces. It also documents 481 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention at the hands of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, including 32 children and one woman. The report also documents 347 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention, including six children and 11 women, at the hands of the Armed Opposition and the Syrian National Army, in addition to 146 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention, including one child and four women, at the hands of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrest in 2020 by governorate, with Aleppo seeing the largest number of arbitrary arrests documented during this period, due to the multiplicity of parties to the conflict that have controlled the areas in the governorate, followed by the governorates of Deir Ez-Zour then Raqqa.
In December 2020, the report documents at least 149 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention, including nine children and two women, 119 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 78 of these, including two women, carried out at the hands of Syrian Regime forces, 62 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance. It also documents 31 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention at the hands of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, including three children, 27 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance.
The report also documents 26 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention, including six children, at the hands of the Armed Opposition/ the Syrian National Army, 19 of whom have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance. In addition, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham arrested 14 individuals, 11 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/ The 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 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.