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Breaking Down the Amnesty Decrees Issued by the Syrian Regime Between March 2011 and October 2022

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Under the decrees, 7,531 detainees have been released, yet roughly 135,253 are still detained or forcibly disappeared

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Press Release:

Paris – the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) today released its latest report, “Breaking Down the Amnesty Decrees Issued by the Syrian Regime Between March 2011 and October 2022”, noting that although a total of 7,531 detainees who were arbitrarily arrested have been released under the decrees issued by the Syrian regime, roughly 135,253 are still detained and/or forcibly disappeared.

The 47- report notes that arbitrary arrests have been among the most prominent and widespread violations perpetrated by the Syrian regime against participants in the popular uprising since it began in March 2011. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fallen victim to the Syrian regime’s arrest machine, with their cases devoid of any clear charges or evidence. They have been arrested for political reasons, grounded in the Syrian regime’s battle to survive without making any meaningful political changes. Therefore, those are unlawful arbitrary arrests that violate international human rights law, as well as the Syrian constitution and domestic laws. The report draws upon SNHR’s daily and ongoing monitoring of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture since 2011.
The report outlines the findings of the analysis carried out by the SNHR team of legislative amnesty decrees related to pardoning detainees previously held in the Syrian regime’s detention centers, with all this material carefully cross-checked with SNHR’s constantly maintained archive on arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearance, and torture that extends to date from March 2011 to October 2022. The report is concerned solely with arrests we documented that coincided with amnesty decrees and the releases relating to these arrests as documented on SNHR’s database, and is not concerned with any other releases unrelated to amnesty decrees.
The report draws upon interviews we have conducted with former detainees who were released as a result of the amnesty decrees, and with detainees who are still incarcerated in civilian prisons across Syria, most notably Hama Central Prison, Homs Central Prison, and Suwayda Central Prison, as well as with the families of the detainees and forcibly disappeared persons who fell prey to fraud operations related to the amnesty decrees. The report contains eight first-hand accounts from across Syria.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, Director of SNHR, says:
“We have worked tirelessly for months to provide a comprehensive picture of the amnesty decrees issued by the Syrian regime. We have explained the context and effect for each decree by monitoring the subsequent releases. We present this report as a document before decision-makers and UN organs to prove that the cases of arbitrary arrest or enforced disappearance for which the Syrian regime is responsible are infinitely greater in numbers than the cases in which detainees were released. This report also proves that the Syrian regime uses detainees as hostages, as our databases show a harrowing number of nearly 136,000 Syrian citizen who are either still under arrest or disappeared, all of whom must be released.”

The report notes that a total of 21 amnesty decrees have been issued by the Syrian regime since March 2011. The majority of those decrees nullified the entirety, half, or quarter of the pardonees’ sentences for the various crimes and criminal offenses in question. These amnesties were concerned with particular articles and sentences related to individuals who had been detained for expressing political views or taking part in the popular uprising. The pardoned individuals also included military servicemen who had defected and were pardoned on condition that they surrender themselves within a certain period specified by each decree, which usually lasted for several months from the time the decree was issued. Some decrees were extensions of previous decrees, especially those concerning military servicemen or civilians who took up arms, so as to enable them to surrender themselves.
The report also sheds light on the significant difference between general amnesties and special amnesties. To that end, the report clarifies that issuing general amnesties is a rarity, since these undermine the state’s penal policies and capacity to combat crimes. It would appear that this was a deliberate policy by the Syrian regime which released some criminal detainees in order to incorporate many of them into the local militias founded by the regime to defend itself.

The report outlines the amnesty decrees issued by the Syrian regime between March 2011 and October 2022. As the report shows, these are divided by case into general and partial amnesties (11 amnesty decrees) and special amnesty decrees for military crimes which were aimed primarily at military servicemen (10 amnesty decrees).
The report stresses that all the decrees were issued by the President of the Republic, who heads the executive authority, in violation of the Syrian Penal Code. The People’s Assembly, namely the legislative branch with the authority to study and approve general amnesty decrees, has never issued any amnesty laws. This is just one of the many manifestations of the executive authority in Syria co-opting the legislative authority. SNHR suspects that Bashar al-Assad has issued such a large number of amnesties in order to depict himself as a dictator strongman with absolute power over the lives of the Syrian people. He, and only he, gets to dictate who is pardoned whenever he pleases, however he pleases. Those decrees are simply an assertion of the despotic rule that gives him absolute power to dismiss the constitution, and disregard constitutional law, and the very spirit of law to do as he pleases.

As the report reveals, a total of 7,531 arbitrarily arrested individuals (6,086 civilians and 1,265 military servicemen) were released from the regime’s various civilian and military prisons and security branches across Syria in accordance with 21 amnesty decrees issued between March 2011 and October 2022. Of the 6,086 civilians released, 349 were women, while 159 were children at the time of their arrest. The report notes that 2012 saw the highest number of civilians documented as being released, through Decree No. 10/2012, followed by 2014 with Decree No. 22/2014, and then 2013 with Decree No. 23/2013. Meanwhile, the highest number of military servicemen released was recorded in 2015 through Decree No. 32/2015, followed by 2013 with Decree No. 70/2013, and then 2012 with Decree No. 30/2012.

The report stresses that the Syrian regime is still carrying out arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances irrespective of the amnesty decrees, which only result in a very limited number of releases, while arbitrary arrests continue in a widespread manner. The report outlines the large numbers of arbitrary arrests between every two amnesty decrees. In this aspect, the period of time between Legislative Decree No. 10, issued on January 2012, and Decree No. 71, issued on October 23, 2012, saw the highest number of arbitrary arrests documented. The report also compares between the releases resulting from the 21 amnesty decrees and the individuals who are still under arrest or enforced disappearance tandem with or after the issuance of those decrees between March 2011 and October 2022. The report finds that the number of people arrested or disappeared by Syrian regime forces following the issuing of amnesty decrees is 17 times greater than the number released in accordance with the 21 decrees.
According to the report, no fewer than 135,253 individuals, including 3,684 children, and 8,469 women (adult female), are still under arrest or enforced disappearance. Of those, 95,696 individuals, including 2,316 children, and 5,734 women (adult female) have been forcibly disappeared at the hands of Syrian regime between March 2011 and August 2022 despite the 21 amnesty decrees. It is important to note that the highest number of individuals detained or forcibly disappeared in the Syrian regime’s detention centers was documented in the year 2012, followed by 2013, 2011, and then 2014; these are also the years that saw the highest number of amnesty decrees, with a total of 10 amnesty decrees, or almost half of all the amnesty decrees issued to date since 2011 being issued during these years. As such, it’s clear that amnesty decrees are usually issued in parallel with rising arbitrary arrest campaigns.

As the report further reveals, most amnesty decrees insisted that any wanted/fugitive individuals must surrender themselves as a precondition for being included in the amnesty, especially for special amnesty decrees for military crimes. Still, some special decrees were issued for fugitives such as Decree No. 15/2016 that granted a pardon to anyone who had escaped ‘justice’ for taking up arms. Amid the dire living conditions facing Syrians in light of displacement, persecution, inability to work or travel and other problems, hundreds chose to surrender themselves in the hope of being pardoned. However, many of them were detained for months or years, and a large proportion were subjected to torture and enforced disappearance, with the majority being referred to extraordinary courts, effectively breaching the amnesty decrees issued by the Syrian regime itself. On this issue, the report records that of the 1,867 individuals who surrendered themselves to the regime in line with the amnesty decrees issued between March 2011 and October 2022 -with 1,013 of these being military servicemen and the remaining 854 civilians – a total of 1,833 went on to be classified as forcibly disappeared, while no fewer than 34 died due to torture or medical negligence, or receiving death sentences at the regime’s Field Military Court. Most of those individuals surrendered themselves following the issuance of Legislative Decree No. 15/2016; Legislative Decree No. 22, issued on June 9, 2014; Legislative Decree No. 18, issued on October 9, 2018; and Legislative Decree No. 20, issued on September 14, 2019, and after the majority of them had rectified their security situation with security apparatuses.

The report also draws attention to the extortion and fraud networks sponsored by the regime’s security apparatus itself, not to mention other networks composed of individuals who are professional scammers and have ties with the regime’s security services. Those networks usually see a significant increase in activity in the wake of each amnesty decrees and use various means, such as their ability to access information about detainees or forcibly disappeared persons, either through their ties with the security services or by accessing the data available via open sources. These criminal networks, which use this information to deceive and extort detainees’ families, include officers, lawyers, judges, and civilians with influence who have gained great experience over the past 12 years in detecting and gauging the reactions of the families who increasingly fall into their trap. On the other hand, some families deal with those networks, despite being fully aware they are part of a fraudulent scam operation, in the faint hope of obtaining some information about their loved ones. In this context, the report has recorded no fewer than 1,574 incidents of extortion and fraud since Amnesty Decree No. 7/2022 was issued (between the start of May 2022 and October 2022), including families who had received information about the death of their relatives and even extracted official death certificates from the relevant authorities, but who were still lured and cheated under a tremendous burden of desperate grief and uncertainty.
According to the report, such extortion and fraud have not been limited to the families of the forcibly-disappeared, but have also targeted detainees at civil prisons and security branches across Syria, including detainees included in the amnesty decrees, due to the Ministry of Justice’s failure to publish lists of names included in amnesty decrees. Instead, the ministry adopts an unclear. misleading, and painfully slow manner in implementing the decrees, with uncertainty increased by the fact that release decisions ultimately rest in the hands of the security services, rather than being based on considerations of the detainees’ legal status. Because of these points, detainees at central prisons often choose to deal with fraudsters and corrupt networks, and with individuals with ties with judges in the hopes that this can ensure a review of their cases, get them included in an amnesty, or accelerate the process of their release.

The report adds that the overwhelming majority of the sentences issued in the Counterterrorism Court and the Field Military Court included seizure of detainees’ movable and immovable properties and deprivation of civil rights as an additional punishment to imprisonment. As the report reveals, hundreds of those released due to amnesty decrees were unable to retrieve their seized properties. On one hand, the amnesty laws were ambiguous regarding this issue and did not clarify seizure or asset-freezing decisions, while on the other, the released individuals opted to steer away from attempting to retrieve their properties in fear of again being persecuted by the security branches. The report stresses that, theoretically at least, the defendant’s movable and immovable properties and their revenues, or more particularly the properties owned by the defendant prior to the commitment of the crime they’re charged with that were not used in the commission of the crime, were not prepared to be used in the commission of the crime, and which were unrelated to the crime, should not be seized and must be restored to the individuals included in the amnesty. In reality, nonetheless, the executive authority (government, ministry of finance and other regime bodies) delays any restoration of properties and funds, with a released individual needing to resort to the civilian or administrative court to lift the seizure, which is a process that comes with its own exhausting procedures, delays, and costs in litigation and lawyer fees.

The report stresses that no legal grounds exist for criminalizing political detainees and leveling criminal charges against them. Neither does the Counterterrorism Law provide any such grounds, especially considering its vague phrasing which completely contradicts what a sound legislative criminal text should be, and nor does the Public Penal Code. Those charges are usually based on ‘confessions’ extracted under torture and coercion, especially in the cases of the Field Military Courts. These ‘courts’ are not actual courts in any recognized legal and judicial sense, but are military entities affiliated with the regime’s security apparatus, as is clear from their denying defendants the most basic guarantees of a due and just legal process, such as the right to a lawyer, to public trial, and to appeal.

The report warns the Security Council and the UN against being duped by the Syrian regime’s amnesty decrees, which, it stresses, lack any sense of credibility or plausibility, both in structure and in implementation. The report additionally calls on the Security Council and the UN to demand that unjustly incarcerated detainees be released since they were arrested based on no evidence, solely because they demanded their rights to political change and freedom of expression. Furthermore, the report calls on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to issue a statement condemning the Syrian regime’s toying with the issue of political detainees and its continued detention of tens of thousands of Syrian citizens without a fair trial or actual evidence, as well as making a number of other recommendations.

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