The Syrian Regime is still Carrying Out Arrests Civilians Living in Areas Under Its Control: Forcibly Returning Refugees to Syria is Putting Their Lives Under Risk
Press release: (Download the full report below)
The Hague – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) revealed in a report released today, that it documented at least 158 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in April 2023, including five children and eight women. The group added that the Syrian regime is still carrying out arrests of civilians living in areas under its control, emphasizing that forcibly returning refugees to Syria is putting their lives at risk.
The 25-page report explains that most of the arrests conducted by regime forces 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 these 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 April 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 each 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 legislative articles 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 those on which the regime’s power is based, including the legislative articles granting 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, none of which are 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, according to the constitution, 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 authorized to investigate crimes and track down their perpetrators, with the security services having no authority in this matter, and 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 in total, while the Syrian regime is still holding approximately 135,253 detainee/forcibly disappeared persons. As such, it is clear that 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 April. First, Syrian regime forces continued to hunt down and arrest individuals who had agreed to security settlements, with these arrests concentrating in the governorates of Damascus suburbs and Daraa, most of which took placed during campaigns of mass raids and arrests, and at checkpoints. The report also documents random widespread arrests of citizens, including women in the governorates of Damascus suburbs, Damascus, and Aleppo, in April, most of which took place at checkpoints and as part of mass raid and arrest campaigns. SNHR believes these arrests were carried out as a result of malicious security reports, and for the purpose of blackmailing detainees’ families. Those arrests also involved people who were arrested on the pretext of joining the reserve forces as part of their mandatory military service. Moreover, the report records arrests carried out by Syrian regime forces on the Syrian-Lebanese borders, particularly at al-Masna Border Crossing. Those arrests targeted Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon. Those refugees were sent to the Crossing following the Lebanese army’s carrying out raids and arrest campaigns targeting Syrian refugees who were unable to obtain official documents justifying their legal presence in Lebanon, and as such were forcibly deported to the Syrian-Lebanese borders by the authorities in Lebanon. Additionally, the report records arrests targeting civilians in Damascus city over their participation in anti-regime protests that previously took place in Suwayda governorate, as well as arrests carried out by the Syrian regime’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate, targeting notables and tribal figureheads, which were concentrated in Aleppo governorate. In addition, the report records arrests of civilians carried out by the Syrian regime’s State Security service in retaliation for these civilians voicing criticism of the corruption and dire living conditions in regime-held areas. These civilians face broad, extremely vague charges related to the Counter-Cybercrime Law, which the Syrian regime uses as grounds to arrest citizens and government employees for criticizing the aforementioned corruption and poor living conditions in regime areas.
As the report further reveals, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in April, with the number of those detained and forcibly disappeared by the group 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 arrest campaigns backed by US-led coalition helicopters. The report also documents detentions targeting a number of civilians, including children, at checkpoints and during campaigns of mass raids and detentions, over their having voiced criticism of the living conditions and services in SDF-held areas. Furthermore, the report documents detentions that targeted a number of civilians in Hasaka governorate, which also involved seizing money and mobile phones owned by the detainees.
The SDF also continued to abduct children with the intention of conscripting them for military training and sending them to military training camps; the parents and families of these conscripted children are not allowed to contact them, while the SDF refuses to disclose their fate.
As the report additionally notes, March also saw Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) detaining more civilians, including media activists, politicians, and civilian women, with these arrests concentrated in Idlib governorate. Most of these arrests occurred due to the detainees expressing opinions critical of HTS’ management of areas under its control. These detentions are routinely carried out arbitrarily in the form of raids in which HTS members storm their victims’ homes, often breaking down the doors, or abducting their victims while they’re 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) also continued carrying out arbitrary detentions and kidnappings in April, most of which were conducted on a mass scale, targeting individuals coming from areas controlled by the Syrian regime. In addition, we documented detentions that exhibited an ethnic character, with these incidents 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 carried out without any clear charges being presented 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. Moreover, SNHR recorded raids and arrests during the month carried out by an armed opposition faction targeting civilians who had participated in the sit-in held in front of the home of the four civilians who were shot dead on March 20, 2023, by members of the SNA’s Jaish al-Sharqiya faction (the Army of the East) while they were trying to build a fire as part of the celebrations for the Kurdish New Year, known as Nowruz, in Jendeires town which is administratively a part of Afrin city in the suburbs of Aleppo governorate.
On the subject of detainee releases, the report documented no releases in relation to the amnesty decree 7/2022, issued by the Syrian regime on April 30, 2022. Meanwhile, the report records that four detainees, most of them from the governorates of Damascus suburbs and Idlib, were released in Damascus governorate by the Syrian regime, after completing 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 eight other detainees were released after being held without trial for a period of a few days. Most of those released were from Damascus suburbs governorate, and all had spent the entire period 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 38 individuals were released from SDF detention centers where they had been held for periods ranging from a few days or a few months to four years, with most of those released originating from the governorates of Hasaka and Deir Ez-Zour. Most of these releases came in tandem with the Nowruz celebrations or came after the detainees had completed their arbitrary sentences. Meanwhile, HTS released three civilians, including two women, 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 14 civilians, including four women, after detaining them for a period ranging from a number of days to three years without bringing any clear charges against them without bringing any clear charges against them or putting them on trial. Most of them were released only after their families were extorted into paying sums of money to secure their release.
The report documents at least 158 arbitrary arrests/detentions in April 2023, including five children and eight women, with 133 of these cases subsequently categorized as enforced disappearances, at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria. Of the 158 cases, 87 were carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces, and included one child and three women, while the SDF arrested 39 individuals, including four children. The report also reveals that HTS arrested eight individuals, including three women, while all armed opposition factions/SNA arrested 24 individuals.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions for April 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 Damascus, then Raqqa, then Hasaka, and then Deir Ez-Zour.
As the report further 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, with these testimonies documented within regime security authorities’ reports, which are 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 under 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.