The Syrian Regime Has Killed Hundreds of Forcibly Disappeared Persons in its Prisons, Including Prominent Activists from the Uprising against its Rule
Paris – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has released a report entitled, ‘SNHR Obtains Hundreds of Death Certificates for Forcibly Disappeared Persons by the Syrian Regime, Their Families Have Not been Notified of Their Deaths, and Civil Register Offices Have Not Announced Them’, in which it reveals that the Syrian regime has registered thousands of forcibly disappeared persons as dead, including prominent activists from the popular uprising against its rule.
The 29-page report explains that in early 2018, SNHR noticed that many families with forcibly disappeared relatives held in regime detention centers had begun receiving death certificates issued for their missing relatives. The documents in question were issued without any regime organ issuing any official notification. Instead, the families simply learnt of the existence of these death certificates when visiting civil register offices to conduct regular transactions and file paperwork. As the news spread, hundreds of other families of forcibly disappeared persons flocked to civil register offices to obtain family statements in the hope that these might contain information about the fate of their own missing loved ones.
Since the beginning of 2022, the report adds, SNHR has been receiving death certificates issued by regime authorities for individuals whose cases had not been revealed before, and whose families were unaware of their status. Those death certificates were not obtained through the civil register offices either. Some of these death certificates were issued for very prominent activists from the popular uprising against the Syrian regime, as well as for women and children. SNHR, consequently, utilized its own network of relationships and sources in Syria, which we have built up over the past 11 years, to obtain hundreds of new death certificates. At this point, SNHR’s team has accrued great experience with respect to reviewing and verifying certificates.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of SNHR says:
“We have stressed previously that the Syrian regime may have recorded the deaths of hundreds of detainees who were forcibly disappeared in its detention centers at the civil registry. We also noted that such practices may even date back to before 2018, but were only revealed by the Syrian regime at the beginning of 2018, yet we never had proof of this before now. After obtaining hundreds of death certificates that have never been made public before, we can now confirm as a fact what we have long suspected, namely that the families of these dead people were never notified that their loved ones had been registered as dead at the civil registry. We are referring here to people who were arrested by the Syrian regime and who then went on to become forcibly disappeared, with no-one knowing anything about their fate. We seriously fear that the tens of thousands of other people still classified as forcibly disappeared in the Syrian regime’s detention centers have also met their demise.”
As the report reveals, between 2018 and 2021, SNHR received and stored approximately 1,062 death certificates. Since the beginning of 2022, we have obtained 547 new death certificates that were not issued by civil register offices. Additionally, the families of the persons named in those documents had not been made aware of their loved ones’ deaths. As such, SNHR holds the Syrian regime responsible for the killing of 547 Syrian citizens who were forcibly disappeared in its prisons.
A total of 1,609 of the individuals forcibly disappeared in regime detention centers between the start of 2018 and November 2022 have now been registered as dead, including 24 children, 21 women (adult female), and 16 medics. Nonetheless, these documents do not specify any cause of death. Furthermore, the Syrian regime has failed to return the bodies of those certified as dead to their families or even to inform them of their loved ones’ grave location, as well as failing to notify any of the families of their loved ones’ deaths at the time when they occurred. Among these cases are four that were previously identified in leaked photos from the Syrian regime’s military hospitals.
On analyzing the data, one finds that the largest percentage of the 1,609 cases recorded were arrested by Syrian regime forces in 2012, followed by 2013, then 2014. Notably, those three years also recorded the highest rates of enforced disappearances into regime detention centers as documented on SNHR’s database.
Furthermore, 2014 saw the largest percentage of the 1,609 cases documented according to the death certificates issued by the civil register offices, followed by 2013, and then 2015. Notably, those years also saw the highest documented toll of deaths due to torture at the hand of Syrian regime forces according to SNHR’s database. Additionally, Damascus suburbs governorate saw the highest figures of all Syrian governorate in terms of the number of victims of enforced disappearance recorded, with at least 15,703 persons from that governorate documented as being forcibly disappeared. Damascus suburbs has the sixth largest toll of deaths due to torture across Syria with no fewer than 1,692 of the victims who died due to torture coming from that area.
The report stresses that the Syrian regime began registering forcibly disappeared persons as dead in 2013, but this information was not made publicly available until early 2018. In this, the report outlines the process adopted by the Syrian regime to register those deaths, describing it as a ‘a complex bureaucratic process’ that implicates multiple government institutions, the most important of which are the state security apparatuses. The process starts at the National Security Office, Syria’s highest military and security authority, which is headed by the President of the Republic, at the request of the heads of the security agencies and military prisons. The National Security Office sends special reports on those who died in detention centers, together with their personal information and cause of death, to the Military Police. These reports and data are submitted to the Military Police, as well as to the National Security Office, in a phased fashion over time. From there, the office organizes the data and sends it to the Ministry of Interior, again in batches, with the interior ministry in turn resending it to the secretaries of the civil register offices according to which the civil registry stores the information on each of the dead detainees in question. Thereafter, civil register office employees enter the incidents of death into their records in line with the instructions received.
The report notes that there are two types of death data in the civil register offices: The first type are those death certificates issued to the families of the deceased by the civil register offices upon the families filing the paperwork requesting a death certificate. In most of these documents the place of death is given as Damascus, which houses the largest number of detention centers where deaths of forcibly disappeared persons take place. However, the death certificates issued do not specify in which detention center the victims’ death took place. The second type are the death certificates that are not accessible to families, with this data remaining stored at the civil register offices. Notably, these certificates include the place of death. SNHR has been able to obtain a number of those death certificates, with most giving Tishreen Military Hospital or the Field Military Court as the place of death. We believe this indicates that the victims in question received a death sentence.
The report stresses that the system adopted by the Syrian regime to register forcibly disappeared persons dead without notifying their families is a damning demonstration of the regime’s fascism and its chilling contempt for the lives of its citizens who are subjected to a level of barbarism that blatantly violates every norm and law. It seems that these strategies are deliberately designed and calculated, so as to cause the greatest psychological trauma to the families of the missing to continue the regime’s policy of collective punishment against everyone who was involved in or supportive of the popular uprising for democracy since March 2011. In many cases, families are terrified to reveal the death of their forcibly disappeared loved ones, or to arrange a funeral for them, fearing that doing so may put themselves and other family members at risk of being questioned or persecuted by the regime’s security agencies.
The report concludes that the Syrian regime has failed to uphold the legal protocols and procedures of registering deaths at its detention centers, which should be done through the public attorney or their deputy who, according to the law, is supposed to deal with incidents of death in custody and submit their findings to the secretary of the civil record within the legally specified time. In this, the Syrian regime has violated Articles 38 and 39 of Law No. 13 of 2012 which includes the new Syrian Civil State Law. Additionally, the Syrian regime has violated the legal protocols and regulations related to graves. According to the Syrian Penal Code, burying the dead is a crime if it is done for the purpose of hiding the death.
The report proves that, through the strategy of enforced disappearance, the Syrian regime is further terrorizing and collectively punishing anyone and everyone connected with or supportive of the popular uprising against the Assad family’s dictatorial rule. On analysis of this data, one can clearly see that such strategies are common regime practice, particularly in the areas of Syria that famously joined the uprising, in a way that demonstrates a consistent and deliberate policy and system. Enforced disappearance is prohibited according to customary international law; Rule 98 prohibits enforced disappearance in international and non-international armed conflicts.
The report recommends that the UN Security Council and the United Nations hold an emergency meeting to discuss the Syrian regime’s registering tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared persons as dead, while failing to notify the victims’ families of those deaths. Additionally, the report calls on the United Nations and the Security Council to issue a Resolution under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter condemning the Syrian regime’s killing of forcibly disappeared persons in regime detention centers, and demanding that the regime reveals their fate.
Furthermore, the report calls on the international community to act urgently and decisively to save the remaining detainees before they meet the fate of death due to torture and abysmal imprisonment conditions, as well as to take serious steps towards helping achieve political change to save the Syrian people from dictatorship and despotism, in addition to making a number of other recommendations.