Approximately 146 Arbitrary Arrests and One Death due to Torture Documented in Connection to Law No. 20 Since it Was Promulgated
The Hague – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) today released a report entitled, ‘Law No. 20 of 2022 Promulgated by the Syrian Regime Further Perpetuates the Oppression of Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and Has Been Used as Grounds for Dozens of Cases of Arbitrary Arrest and Torture’, in which the group noted that it has documented approximately 146 arbitrary arrests and one death due to torture in connection with Law No. 20 since the legislation was promulgated.
The 24-page report notes that the Syrian regime operates through only one branch of authority, namely the executive in the form of the regime’s security apparatus, which exercises power with no judicial or legislative checks, balances, or oversight since no genuine independent judicial or legislative authority can truthfully be said to exist. As such, the Syrian regime has enacted whatever laws the leader pleases, with one such article of legislation being Law No. 20 of 2022 that was passed on April 18, 2022.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, Executvie Director of SNHR, says:
“The Syrian regime has passed many laws that serve its mission of oppressing any movement, activism, or criticism against it. We have detailed this policy in our report on the laws employed to seize properties. We have noticed that Law No. 20 of 2022, which aims to further restrict freedom of opinion and expression, was issued in tandem with a rising wave of popular criticism against government institutions and popular discontent with the poor conditions or lack of provision of basic services such as water and electricity. We believe the main reason was the fact that some of this criticism was directed against Bashar Assad himself and was not limited to his puppet governments.”
The report stresses that Law No. 20 and 2022 have three crucial new characteristics that are not found in the preceding and now-repealed Legislative Decree 17/2012, which are: a much wider scope, new additions, and greater severity in the associated penalties. The report adds that the most crucial fact to know about this legislation is that it identifies and criminalizes some acts in a way that limits and restricts freedom of opinion and expression. It seems that these acts are identified in an especially broad, vague and non-specific way, with no precise criteria, definitions, or elements of a crime present in a material or moral sense. This applies to the texts of the Counter-Cybercrime Law, or the same acts when identified in the Syrian Penal Code (Law No, 148 of 1949) and its most recent amendments introduced in Law No. 15 of 2022. As such, these texts can be used as grounds to level charges against anyone detained by the police or security forces over their activities in cyberspace. The executive directives issued on May 10, 2022, by the Ministry of Communication and Technology in resolution no. 207 only affirm these conclusions.
As the report further reveals, the Counter-Cybercrime Law violates the right to access the internet and information. In doing so, it aims to restrict access to and block any and all websites accused of expressing views different to those of the Syrian regime’s or of publishing anti-regime discourse. The Syrian regime is actively seeking to enforce its control over what civilians can access and talk about. This is by no means a new policy; this new law only aims to update and legalize the existing policy in a more contemporary way that keeps pace with technological developments, and at the same time to punish and incriminate more civilians, while giving authorities more power to inspect and monitor people with no need for judicial permission, as part of an overarching regime policy that seeks to place more restrictions on information access and information transmission, and on taking part in any online discourse.
With over a year having now gone by since Law No. 20 of 2022 was passed, the report notes that Syrian regime forces have failed to follow the associated procedural rules, whether from the standpoint of the police forces charged with investigating cybercrimes, or that of jurisdiction and filing a public interest lawsuit. The report pinpoints three types of applied procedures adopted by the Syrian regime in relation to this law: First, The Criminal Security Directorate’s Counter-Cybercrime Division usually starts investigating potential cybercrimes after a personal complaint/request has been filed with the public prosecution service, which is the authority that refers cases to the Counter-Cybercrime division at the Criminal Security branch of each governorate. All of this so far is standard procedure commonly followed by the judiciary. However, the second procedure is more common – the Counter-Cybercrime Division investigates any act deemed to be of a criminal character as soon as it has come to the division’s attention. This process involves monitoring social media, websites, and any content published by posters, commentors, and followers in relation to the ‘crimes against the security of the state’ as specified in the Counter-Cybercrime Law or Articles 285, 286 or 287 of the General Penal Code. Thereafter, the purported offenders are detained, and judicial authorities are notified in order to obtain official permission to launch an investigation, after which the suspects are referred to the criminal or extraordinary courts depending on the nature of the alleged crime. The third and main procedures are carried out in regime security branches across Syrian governorates, especially the Political Security Intelligence and Military Security Intelligence Directorates, to which civilians, media workers, government employees, and well-known content creators on social media in regime-held areas are summoned for interrogation over their voicing criticism of living conditions there or of the performance of government institutions. In some cases, these summons target people who explicitly mention the presidency, the work of the security and military apparatuses, or the violations they are committing, and in other cases these individuals are summoned because of alleged contact with foreign media or human rights groups. Those summoned are subjected to torture and are often not referred to the judiciary. Instead, they are forcibly disappeared for months as the summoning security agency sees fit, although some are released after being threatened or forced to end their social media activities and ordered to never speak about public affairs again, whether positively or negatively. Those who are referred to the judiciary are usually referred to extraordinary courts such as the Counterterrorism Court and face multiple charges related to the Counter-Cybercrime Law, Counterterrorism Law, or the General Penal Code.
The report documents the arrest/detention of no fewer than 146 individuals, including 19 women, on the grounds of the Counter-Cybercrime Law, since the legislation was promulgated by the Syrian regime on May 18, 2022, up until August 18, 2023. Of these, the Syrian regime has released 59, and one died due to torture, while the remaining 86 are still under arrest/detention in regime detention centers. The report notes that 2023 saw the highest percentage of arrests in connection with the Counter-Cybercrime Law documented to date, which suggests that Syrian regime forces have been hunting down civilians on a wider scale since the law went into effect. Moreover, most of the civilians arrested on the grounds of the Counter-Cybercrime Law were lawyers, engineers, and university students, followed by state employees, media workers, and content creators on social media. This confirms that the Counter-Cybercrime Law was established by the Syrian regime to target all groups of people, especially those with no influence, such as ordinary civilians.
The report concludes that Law No. 20 of 2022 violates many peremptory norms and justifies the silencing of freedom of opinion and expression, and the dozens of cases of arbitrary arrest and torture at the hands of the Syrian regime. As a law that violates human rights, Law No. of 2022 is wholly illegitimate. Furthermore, Law No. 20 of 2022 is another opportunity for the regime’s security apparatus to extort and gain more money at the expense of citizens. This is achieved through submitting malicious security reports, the aim of which is to intimidate and hunt down citizens, and which also gives government officials a pretext to hunt down and prosecute anyone who voices criticism or expresses their opinion and indicates discontent with the policies pursued by the state institutions, describing such criticism as defamation, contempt, slander, etc…
The report calls on the UN Security Council and the UN to find ways and mechanisms to implement Security Council resolutions 2041, 2042 and 2139, and paragraph 12 of resolution 2254 on detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in Syria, and to act under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations to protect detainees from death in detention centers. Additionally, the report calls on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) to shed light on the unlawfulness of Law No. 20 of 2022, and document the cases of arbitrary arrest and torture, and the silencing of freedom of opinion and expression rationalized by using this law.
Finally, the report calls on the Syrian regime and its allies to abolish all extraordinary courts and all rulings and sentences issued by those courts, abolish Legislative Decree No. 55 of 2022 which authorizes security agencies to arrest and interrogate citizens for over two months, and abolish the Counterterrorism Law (Law No. 19 of 2012), in addition to making other recommendations.