The Syrian Regime’s Arbitrary Arrests Target Citizens Who Criticize the Theft of Relief Aid by Regime Security Apparatuses
Press release: (Download the full report below)
Paris – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) revealed in a report released today, that it documented at least 137 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in February 2023, including six children and three women. The group added that Syrian regime forces’ arbitrary arrests targeted citizens who spoke about the theft of relief aid by the regime security apparatus.
The 21-page report explains that most of the arrests in Syria are carried out without any judicial warrant being presented 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.
The report summarizes the cases of arbitrary arrest/detention documented by SNHR in February 2023 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 SNHR’s team was able to document 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 kidnappings and abductions in which SNHR has been unable to identify the responsible party. The report also documents arbitrary arrests that subsequently turned into enforced disappearances.
As the report notes, the laws and legal texts related to torture in the current Syrian constitution and law have not ended or reduced the frequency of torture in the Syrian regime’s detention centers. As the report further explains, the state’s heavily centralized control of its detention centers means that it is highly unlikely that deaths due to torture could take place without the ruling regime’s knowledge. The report further notes that the Syrian regime bears responsibility for proving its claims that the deaths that occurred were not due to torture. The report emphasizes that this systematic torture and the many associated deaths involve not just one of the Syrian regime’s organs, but require the participation of several state institutions, the most prominent of which are: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, the security services, civil prisons, military hospitals, the judiciary, the Ministry of Awqaf, and the Office of Burial Services; this too indicates a high level of coordination and harmony between these institutions, which can only be achieved through senior management-level officials in the Syrian regime controlling all of these institutions.
On a related note, the report refers to Law No. 16 for 2022, issued by the Syrian regime’s President on March 30, 2022, criminalizing torture. The new legislation claims that the regime considers torture to be a felony requiring severe punishment for its perpetrator, or for those who participated in it, as well as those who provoked it. The report provides six key points demonstrating fundamental flaws in the text of the law itself, adding that this law will remain meaningless ink on paper and will not contribute in any way to deterring the security services from practicing torture as long as the regime’s other repressive laws are in force, which are the ones on which the regime’s power is based, including the texts that grant impunity from prosecution to members of the security services, which conflict with many articles of the General Penal Code and the current constitution; the survival of the exceptional criminal courts (military field court and counter-terrorism court) in Damascus; the authorization of regime security services to investigate citizens for a period that often exceeds two months; the failure to reform the prison system or subject it to judicial supervision; and the Executive Authority’s encroachment on the judiciary.
The report explains that the Syrian regime issues laws which blatantly contravene fundamental legal principles and violate the determinants of arrest and investigation in accordance with local legislation. The Anti-Terrorism Law, the General Penal Code, and the Military Penal Code are among the most prominent laws under which detainees are tried, and in most cases, the exceptional courts to which the detainees are subject impose a range of charges. Thus, each detainee does not simply face one charge, but rather a number of charges, which are not based on evidence or facts. The 2012 constitution affirmed that the rule of law is considered to be the basis of governance in the state, that every accused person is innocent until convicted by a court ruling in a fair trial, and that the punishment is limited to the individual, so it is not permissible for family members of a perpetrator of criminal acts such as his wife, forebears or descendants to be detained for his crime, and held as hostages until his arrest. The Constitution prohibits the search or arrest of a person except by virtue of an order or decision issued by the competent judiciary. When a person is arrested, he must be informed of the reasons for his arrest and his rights, with the constitution also forbidding his continuing detention by the administrative authority except by order of the competent judiciary. Likewise, the Code of Criminal Procedure clarifies in Article 17/1 that the Public Prosecutor is the only entity charged with investigating crimes and tracking down their perpetrators, with the security services having no authority in this matter, and that Legislative Decree No. 55 issued on April 21, 2011, which allows the judicial police or its delegates (the security services) to detain suspects for seven days, is subject to renewal by the District Attorney, provided that this period does not exceed sixty days, with security services not completely bound by this legislation; this confirms that the principle of the supremacy of constitutional law in Syria remains theoretical and without any real value, and is completely undermined by official government institutions and a judiciary incapable of oversight and accountability due to the loss of its independence and the meddling of the executive and legislative authority.
The report notes that all the amnesty decrees issued by the Syrian regime have led to the release of no more than 7,531 arbitrarily arrested detainees, while the Syrian regime is still holding roughly 135,253 detainee/forcibly disappeared persons. As such, amnesty decrees only lead to the release of a very limited number of detainees, while arbitrary arrests continue to be carried out in a systematic and widespread manner, with the regime still carrying out these arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances regardless of any amnesty decrees it may issue.
The report also explains 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 once again proves a crucial and inescapable truth – no Syrian citizen can feel safe from arrest since these are carried out by the regime’s security services without any legal grounds or any oversight by any independent judiciary. Following these arrests, detainees are routinely classified as forcibly disappeared persons, showing once again that the areas under the Syrian regime’s control cannot be considered even remotely to be safe havens, and more importantly, are certainly wholly unsafe places for the return of refugees. The report stresses that there will be no stability or safety as long as the same security apparatus exists, adding that the Syrian regime’s security authorities have been committing crimes against humanity since 2011.
The report also highlights certain patterns that marked the month of February. First, Syrian regime forces continued to pursue and arrest individuals who had previously agreed to security settlements. This month’s arrests were primarily concentrated in the two governorates of Damascus suburbs and Daraa, with most occurring at checkpoints and during campaigns of mass raids and arrests. Furthermore, the report documents other random, widespread arrests against citizens in the governorates of Damascus suburbs, Damascus, and Daraa, most of which again took place at checkpoints and as part of mass raid and arrest campaigns. We believe these arrests were made as a result of malicious security reports. Some of those arrests were made on the pretext of the detainees’ failure to enlist in the regime’s reserve forces as part of the mandatory military service. Moreover, the report documents multiple arrests/detentions targeting civilians, including women, over their contact with relatives currently living in non-Syrian regime areas to check on their loved ones’ situation following the February 6 earthquake, with these arrests concentrated in Damascus city. The report also documents arrests of civilians by regime security agencies in retaliation for these citizens’ voicing criticism of and objection to the methods used by the Syrian regime to distribute the relief aid designated for those affected in the February 6 earthquake to people who were not affected, or in regard to regime-affiliated forces and militias pillaging the aid donated. Some civilians published and shared photos on social media showing some of these acts taking place.
As the report further reveals, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in February, with the number of people detained and forcibly disappeared increasing this month as SDF personnel continued carrying out campaigns of mass raids and detentions, targeting civilians on the pretext of fighting ISIS, with some of these campaigns backed by US-led coalition helicopters. We also documented detentions targeting a number of civilians, including even children and women, at checkpoints and during campaigns of mass raids and detentions, over their criticism of the living conditions and services in SDF-held areas. The report also documents detentions by the SDF targeting a number of civilians who returned from Turkey to SDF-held areas after their places of residence in Turkey were destroyed or devastated in the earthquake on February 6, 2023. The SDF also continued to abduct children with the intention of conscripting them for military training and sending them to military training camps. With the children being subjected to conscription, their families have not been allowed to contact them, while the SDF refuses to disclose their fate.
As the report additionally notes, February also saw Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) detaining more civilians, including media activists and politicians, with these arrests concentrated in Idlib governorate; most of these arrests occurred due to the detainees expressing opinions critical of HTS’s management of areas under its control. These detentions were carried out arbitrarily in the form of raids in which HTS members stormed their victims’ homes, often breaking down the doors, or by abducting their victims while they were traveling or passing through temporary checkpoints. Those arrested were taken to undisclosed locations.
Meanwhile, the report continues, all armed opposition factions/Syrian National Army (SNA) brigades also continued carrying out arbitrary detentions and kidnappings in February, with most of these being carried out on a mass scale, targeting individuals travelling from areas controlled by the Syrian regime. In addition, SNHR also documented detentions that exhibited an ethnic character, with these incidents being concentrated in areas under the control of the armed opposition factions/SNA in Aleppo governorate. Most of these arrests occurred without judicial authorization and without the participation of the police force, which is the sole legitimate administrative authority responsible for arrests and detentions through the judiciary, with these arrests also being carried out without presenting any clear charges against those being detained. In addition to these cases, we also documented raids and detentions carried out by SNA servicemen, targeting civilians, on charges of collaborating with the SDF. Further, an armed opposition faction carried out arrests and raids targeting a number of civilians in al-Rukban Camp on the Syrian-Jordanian borders in eastern Homs governorate. Those arrested were taken to an undisclosed location.
On the subject of detainee releases, the report reveals that the Syrian regime released approximately four individuals in relation to the amnesty decree 7/2022, issued by the Syrian regime on April 30, 2022. The report also notes that six other detainees, most of them from the governorates of Damascus suburbs and Homs, were released in Damascus governorate by the Syrian regime, after serving their arbitrary sentences. As such, these releases were not related to amnesty decree 7/2022. Those released had been held for an average period of one to three years. In addition, the report notes that 12 individuals were released after being held without trial for a few days. Most of those released were from Damascus suburbs governorate, and all of them spent the entirety of their detention in security branches. Finally, the report notes that no releases related to the amnesty decree issued by the Syrian regime on December 21, 2022 (Legislative Decree No. 24 of 2022) were documented.
The report further reveals that 17 individuals were released from SDF detention centers where they had been held for periods ranging from a few days or a month to four years, with most of those released originating from the two governorates of Hasaka and Deir Ez-Zour. Those releases were the result of mediation by tribal intermediaries or came after the detainees had served their arbitrary sentences. Meanwhile, HTS released three civilians from its detention centers in Idlib governorate after detaining them without any clear charges for a number of days. Similarly, all armed opposition factions/SNA released six civilians after detaining them for a number of days without bringing any clear charges against them or trying them. They were released only after their families were extorted into paying sums of money.
The report documents at least 137 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in February 2023, including six children and three women, with 107 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. Of the 137 cases, 64 were carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces, and included one child and two women, while the SDF arrested 43 individuals, including four children. The report also reveals that all armed opposition factions/SNA arrested 23 individuals, including one child and one woman, while HTS arrested seven individuals.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions for February across Syria. Analysis of the data for this period shows that Aleppo governorate saw the highest number of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions documented this month, followed by the governorates of Damascus suburbs, then Hasaka, Damascus, Raqqa, Daraa, Homs, and lastly Deir Ez-Zour.
As the report notes, the vast majority of those detained for their involvement in the popular uprising for democracy in Syria, including political and human rights activists, media workers, relief activists, and similar prisoners of conscience, have been accused by the regime’s security branches of several charges based on testimonies extracted from detainees by regime personnel 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 conditions in these courts fail to meet even the most fundamental standards of fair courts, and they are in reality closer to regime military-security branches in nature.
The report emphasizes 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.
The report further stresses that the Syrian regime has not fulfilled any of its obligations on 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 imprisoned without any arrest warrant for many years, without charges, and prevented from appointing a lawyer and from receiving family visits. Sixty-eight percent of all detentions documented have subsequently been categorized as enforced disappearance cases.
The report additionally notes that the other parties (Syrian Democratic Forces, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, and all Armed Opposition factions/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.
In the report, SNHR again calls on the UN Security Council to follow through with the implementation of Resolution 2042, Resolution 2043, and Resolution 2139.
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 to reveal the fate of the 102,000 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 immediately be released from captivity, and that the families and friends of detainees or wanted individuals should not be detained as prisoners of war, concluding by providing a number of additional recommendations.