Most Missing Person Cases in Syria Are the Result of Arbitrary Arrest Practices: The Newly Founded UN Mechanism Must Categorically Acknowledge this Fact
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 1,047 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in the first half of 2023, including 43 children and 37 women, with 184 cases documented in June alone. The group added that most missing persons cases in Syria are the result of arbitrary arrest practices, and that the newly founded UN mechanism must categorically acknowledge this fact.
The 38-page report explains that most of the arrests taking place 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 the first half of 2023 up to, and including June 2032 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 any information on 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.
The Syrian regime promulgated laws that blatantly contravene fundamental legal principles and violate the determinants of arrest set in local regulations
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, further noting 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 inciting 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 should be limited to the individual, meaning 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. Legislative Decree No. 55 issued on April 21, 2011, which allows the judicial police or their 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.
Most notable developments related to the detainees issues that occurred in June and the first half of 2023
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 confirms 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. In this context, the report outlines a number of observations on the contexts and causes of arrest/detention recorded in the first half of 2023. For one, the report notes that Syrian regime forces continued to hunt down and arrest individuals who had agreed to security settlements in areas that saw settlements with the regime, some of those being hunted and detained are former fighters who were affiliated with armed opposition factions. These arrests have been concentrated in the governorates of Damascus suburbs, Daraa, Deir Ez-Zour, and Raqqa, with most occurring during campaigns of mass raids and arrests, and at checkpoints.
Furthermore, the report notes that multiple arrests/detentions targeting civilians were carried out for the purpose of extorting ransom money from detainees’ families. Such arrests were recorded in several Syrian governorates – most notably Damascus suburbs, Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama. Some of those arrests targeted civilians who had been previously released from regime detention centers.
The report also documents arrests carried out by Syrian regime forces on the Syrian-Lebanese border, particularly at al-Masna Border Crossing and at the security branches in Damascus city, targeting forcibly repatriated Syrian refugees, who were sent to the crossing following the Lebanese army’s carrying out widespread raids and arrest campaigns targeting Syrian refugees in Lebanon. There have also been random widespread arrests of citizens, including women and children, in the governorates of Damascus suburbs, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, most of which took place at checkpoints and as part of mass raid and arrest campaigns, which SNHR believes were carried out as a result of malicious security reports, and for the purpose of blackmailing detainees’ families. Some of those arrested were detained on the pretext of failing to join reserve forces as part of their mandatory military service. Furthermore, the report records arrests by regime security agencies of civilians at the immigration and passports centers in regime-held governorates, where these civilians were trying to obtain passports to leave Syria, as well as arrests carried out by groups with ties to regime security agencies (in the sense that these groups are unofficial but are affiliated and working with the regime security apparatus). These arrests, which primarily targeted medical personnel and former humanitarian workers, including individuals from the same families, were concentrated in Daraa governorate. Also, the report records that Syrian regime forces arrested local dignitaries in multiple areas in connection with the role they played in providing services in their areas in light of the worsening service and living situation, as well as over their voicing criticism of the policies adopted by regime institutions. Those arrests were concentrated in Homs governorate.
Moreover, the report records arrests of civilians by regime security agencies in retaliation for these citizens’ voicing criticism of and objections to the methods used by the Syrian regime to distribute relief aid designated for those affected in the February 6 earthquake which devastated several areas of Syria, causing a humanitarian catastrophe, instead giving this aid to people who were not affected, or over their condemnation of 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, namely the theft and unjust distribution of aid designated for earthquake victims, as well as arrests by the Syrian regime’s Criminal Security branch in Latakia governorate, targeting civilians and media workers over their voicing criticism of the corruption and poor living conditions in regime-held areas. These media workers face charges related to the Counter-Cybercrime Law, which is used by the Syrian regime to justify the arrest of state employees and other citizens for expressing criticism of the poor living conditions in regime-controlled areas. Lastly, the report records multiple arrests/detentions against civilians, including women, over calling their relatives in non-regime areas. Those arrests are concentrated in the two cities of Damascus and Hama.
In June, the report records arrests carried out by pro-regime militias/informal groups affiliated with Syrian regime forces, which targeted civilians at checkpoints. Such arrests were concentrated in Damascus suburbs governorate, along with sporadic arrests of civilians for receiving money transfers in a foreign currency (U.S. dollars) in a number of Syrian governorates, most notably Damascus and Hama.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in June and the first half of 2023, resulting in increasing numbers of cases of detention and enforced disappearance. 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 documented detentions targeting a number of civilians carried out at checkpoints and during campaigns of mass raids and detentions, which included women and children, with those arrested being targeted over having voiced criticism of the poor living conditions and services in SDF-held areas. Such arrests, which were concentrated in the governorates of Hasaka, Deir Ez-Zour, and Raqqa, also involved seizing sums of money and mobile phones owned by the detainees. Furthermore, the report documents detentions involving civilians who returned to their homes in SDF-controlled areas after their residences in Turkey were affected in the February 6 Earthquake. Additionally, a number of teachers were detained for their involvement in a strike demanding improved wages and rejecting the conscription policies enforced by SDF in areas under their control. 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 further reveals, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) also detained more civilians in the first half of 2023. These arrests, which were concentrated in Idlib governorate, targeted media activists and politicians. Most of these arrests occurred due to the detainees expressing opinions critical of the HTS’s management of areas under its control. These detentions are routinely carried out arbitrarily in the form of raids in which HTS forces storm their victims’ homes, often breaking down the doors, or abducting their victims while they’re traveling or passing through temporary checkpoints. SNHR also documented a number of arrests targeting civilians over accusations of being affiliated with the Hurras al-Din (Guardians of the Faith) group. These arrests, which were concentrated in Arab Said village in the suburbs of Idlib governorate,involved HTS enclosing the village and imposing a curfew there for multiple hours. The report also recorded widespread arrests targeting individuals who are either members or supporters of the anti-HTS Tahrir Party, which mostly took place in the form of raids and mass arrests, or at checkpoints. These arrests were concentrated in the two governorates of Idlib and Aleppo.
Meanwhile, all armed opposition factions/Syrian National Army (SNA) also continued carrying out arbitrary detentions and kidnappings. Most of these detentions were conducted on a mass scale, targeting individuals coming from areas controlled by the Syrian regime. In addition, the report 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. Furthermore, we documented raids and arrests by SNA personnel targeting civilians who were accused of working with the SDF, as well as raids and arrests by an armed opposition faction in al-Rukban Camp on the Syrian-Jordanian borders in eastern Homs. We also recorded other raids and arrests carried out by an armed opposition faction targeting civilians who were on their way to participate in a sit-in held in front of the home of the four civilians shot dead on March 20, 2023, by members of the SNA’s Jaish al-Sharqiya (the Army of the East) faction while 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. The report also documented arrests by the SNA’s Military Police targeting members of the ‘Independent Syrian Kurds Association’ (KKS), as well as arrests targeting civilians returning from Lebanon to areas under the SNA’s control after being forcibly deported by Lebanese authorities.
Releases from detention centers
In terms of releases, the report recorded that Syrian regime forces released 20 individuals, including one woman, in the first half of 2023 from its various civilian prisons, military prisons, and security branches across Syria in connection with Amnesty Decree 7/2022, which was promulgated by the regime on April 30, 2022. In addition, the regime released 61 individuals, including a woman, in Damascus governorate who originally came from the governorates of Damascus suburbs, Damascus, Aleppo and Daraa, after they had served their arbitrary sentences. As such, those releases were not related to amnesty decree 7/2022, with these released detainees having been imprisoned for an average of one to three years. The report also records the release of 83 detainees, including two children, who had been held without trial for brief periods of time, ranging from a few days to a few months. Most of these released detainees came from the governorates of Damascus suburbs, Daraa, Homs, and Hama, and all had spent the entire period of their detention in security branches. Lastly, the report documented no releases related to the amnesty decree issued by the Syrian regime on December 21, 2022 (Legislative Decree No. 24 of 2022).
In June, the report recorded that Syrian regime forces released three detainees, including one woman, in relation to Amnesty Decree 7/2022, which was promulgated by the Syrian regime on April 30, 2022. The detainees in question were released from the various civilian prisons, military prisons, and security branches across Syria. Furthermore, in Damascus governorate, the regime released of four individuals, including a woman, in the month of June, with most of the released detainees being from the governorates of Damascus suburbs and Daraa, after having served their arbitrary sentences. As such, those releases were not related to amnesty decree 7/2022, with these detainees having been imprisoned for an average of one to four years. The report also recorded the release of eight detainees who had been held without trial for relatively brief periods, ranging from a few days to a few months. Most of these released detainees came from the governorates of Daraa and Hama, and all had spent the entire period of their detention in security branches. Lastly, the report documented no releases related to the amnesty decree issued by the Syrian regime on December 21, 2022 (Legislative Decree No. 24 of 2022).
The report also reveals that the SDF released 167 individuals from its detention centers where they had been held for various periods ranging from a few days or months to four years, with most of these detainees originating from the governorates of Hasaka and Deir Ez-Zour. Most of these releases took place in celebration of Nowruz, or a result of meditation by tribal intermediaries or came after the detainees had served their arbitrary sentences. In June alone, the group released 46 individuals.
Meanwhile, HTS released 36 civilians from its detention centers in Idlib governorate, including two women, with the released detainees having been detained for periods ranging from a few days to one year without any clear charges being brought against them. In June alone, the group released 12 civilians.
All armed opposition factions/SNA released 65 civilians, including seven children and nine women, after detaining them for periods ranging from a few days to three years 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. In June alone, the SNA released eight civilians.
Most notable incidents and case of arbitrary arrest/detention in the first half of 2023
The report documents at least 1,047 arbitrary arrests/detentions in the first half of 2023, including 43 children and 37 women, with 869 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 1,047 cases, 501 were carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces, and included 10 children and 16 women, while the SDF arrested 257 individuals, including 26 children and four women. The report also reveals that HTS arrested 128 individuals, including three women and two children, while all armed opposition factions/SNA arrested 161 individuals, including five children and 14 women.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions for the first half of 2023 across Syria. Analysis of the data for this period shows that Aleppo governorate saw the highest number of arrests in the first half of 2023, followed by Damascus suburbs, then Damascus, Idlib, Deir Ez-Zour, Hasaka, Raqqa, and finally Daraa.
Most notable incidents and case of arbitrary arrest/detention in June 2023
The report documents at least 184 arbitrary arrests/detentions in June 2023, including three children and five women, at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria with 163 of these cases subsequently categorized as enforced disappearances. Of the 184 cases, 79 were carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces, and included two women, while the SDF arrested 37 individuals, including three children and one woman. The report also reveals that HTS arrested 41 individuals, while all armed opposition factions/SNA arrested 27 individuals, including two women.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions for June 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 Idlib, then Damascus suburbs and Deir Ez-Zour, then Damascus, Daraa, and finally Raqqa and Hasaka.
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 on 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, non-regime 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 also 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 set timetable, and to immediately make detainees’ whereabouts public, and allow humanitarian organizations and the International Committee of the 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.