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An Instrument of Death and Disappearance: How the Syrian Regime Uses Military Field Courts Against Activists and Dissidents


A Total of 7,872 Death Sentences Carried Out and 24,047 Cases of Enforced Disappearance in Connection With the Military Field Courts Were Recorded Between March 2011 and August 2023

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Press release: (Download the full report below)

The Hague – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) today released a report entitled, ‘An Instrument of Death and Disappearance: How the Syrian Regime Uses Military Field Courts Against Activists and Dissidents’ in which it revealed that the Syrian regime has executed 7,872 of the individuals sentenced to death by its Military Field Courts between March 2011 and August 2023, including 114 children and 26 women. The report also reveals that at least 24,047 of the people arrested by regime forces and subsequently classified as forcibly disappeared, including 98 children and 39 women, have been referred to the Military Field Court in the same period, with their fate remaining unknown.

The 57-page report stresses that the Military Field Court is one of the worst exceptional criminal courts ever created in Syria’s history for two key reasons. First: its monstrous operations made it one of the main apparatuses founded by the Syrian regime to effectively streamline crimes of enforced disappearance and provide a chillingly efficient instrument to eliminate and crush dissent, terrorizing dissidents and civilian activists, including children and women, through the power of its sentences. Second: The sheer, harrowing number of the victims who have been lost to these courts, as confirmed by SNHR’s data. The report further notes that SNHR’s data indicates a strong correlation between enforced disappearances and trials at Military Field Courts, which strongly suggests that many of the 96,000-plus individuals classified as forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime have been tried by Military Field Courts, given the systematic nature of enforced disappearances in regime detention centers, with these ‘disappearances’ being wholly non-random but resulting from deliberate and calculated decisions and directives issued by a highly sophisticated security, military, and judicial hierarchy which includes all the echelons and apparatuses of the regime’s power structure associated with detention centers, from the President of the Republic and the Vice-President on Security Matters, to the National Security Council, Ministry of Defense, the various security directorates, exceptional judicial institutions, the Command of the Military Police, the Command of the Military, the Ministry of the Interior and other regime agencies down through the chain of command. That is to say that the massive number of victims of enforced disappearance at the hands of the Syrian regime have been fed to the lethal machinery of this security, military, and judicial hierarchy, the most notable of which are the exceptional judicial institutions. Moreover, the Syrian regime has resorted to referring detainees and forcibly disappeared persons to the Military Field Court since March 2011, i.e., since the very early days of the popular uprising for democracy, long before the establishment of the Counterterrorism Court in July 2012. Needless to say, the Military Field Court has also continued to try detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in subsequent years. Additionally, analysis of the data shows a clear correlation between the number of victims forcibly disappeared at the hands of the Syrian regime and the victims referred to the Military Field Court. Meanwhile, there is a large disparity between the number of people who survived trial by the Military Field Court and those who survived trial by the Counterterrorism Court.

The report notes that, on September 3, 2023, the Syrian regime promulgated Legislative Decree No. 32 of 2023, which revoked Legislative Decree No. 109 of August 17, 1968, and its subsequent amendments, including the establishment of Military Field Courts. According to Legislative Decree 32/2023, all cases currently handled by Military Field Courts are henceforth to be referred to the military judiciary and to be processed in accordance with the Military Penal Code (Legislative Decree No. 61/1950 and its subsequent amendments). Nonetheless, SNHR believes that this dissolution was part of a range of policies and procedures adopted by the Syrian regime in its efforts to sweep the enforced disappearance issue under the rug, as this move came after the regime issued its ostensible amnesty decrees and registered forcibly disappeared persons as dead in the civil registry records, and may well presage other similar regime decisions in the future.

The report explains the history of the founding of Military Field Courts in Syria, their historical evolution, structure, jurisdiction, procedural laws, and legitimacy from constitutional and human rights standpoints, as well as how they serve as instruments fully controlled by the head of state and the Minister of Defense. The report also details how Military Field Courts fail to adhere to the most basic guarantees of a fair trial, such as the right to attorney, the right to a public trial, and the right to appeal, as well as revealing that their judges do not report to the judiciary with regard to various functions such as appointments, transfers, inspection and disciplinary matters. That is to say that the Military Field Court is, in reality, an instrument wielded by the head of the state, the Ministry of Defense, and the state security apparatus to perpetuate the regime’s tyrannical rule and crush anyone who dares to involve themselves in any dissident action. In light of the nature of the complexities of the Military Field Court in Syria and the Syrian regime’s enforced disappearance practices and the intersection between these, the report draws upon multiple analytical tools in analyzing the data in the hopes of arriving at accurate findings based on the contents of SNHR’s regularly updated database on detainees and forcibly disappeared persons which has been built up through daily monitoring and documentation since 2011. In addition, the findings of the report draw upon the tracking and monitoring of the court’s procedures and mechanisms. Having monitored those trials for approximately 12 years, SNHR can say with some confidence that we have managed to gain expert insight into the Military Field Court in terms of its legal, structural, and operational aspects, attaining an excellent understanding of its mechanisms and procedures despite the infamously shadowy and secretive nature of the Military Field Courts’ operations. SNHR has also been in contact with hundreds of families of detainees referred to these courts, as well as liaising with cooperative lawyers, and a number of former officers from the regime’s Military Police and various security agencies, who defected. SNHR has also spoken with many former and current detainees tried in the Military Field Court, whether they have been released or are still held in the central prisons across Syria. It should be noted that a total of 156 interviews were conducted by SNHR’s team for this report alone.

The report reveals that no fewer than 14,843 death sentences were handed down by Military Field Courts in Syria since March 2011 up until August 2023. Of those sentences, no fewer than 6,971 were subsequently reduced to timed/life imprisonment with hard labor, with most of the detainees receiving those reduced sentences still imprisoned. Meanwhile, at least 7,872 of the detainees sentenced to death by these courts have been executed, including 114 children, 26 women, and 2,021 military servicemen. None of these victims’ bodies were returned to their families following their execution, with the families also receiving no official notification of their loved ones’ deaths. It also must be emphasized that this figure is very much a minimum estimate of the actual number of executions carried out against detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in regime detention centers. Furthermore, the report documents that, as of August 2023, no fewer than 96,103 of the people arrested since March 2011, including 2,327 children and 5,739 women, are still forcibly disappeared in regime detention centers. Of these forcibly disappeared persons, the families of approximately 24,047, including 98 children and 39 women, learned through mediators or detention survivors that their loved ones had been referred to the Military Field Court, although the families have been unable to obtain any official information about their loved ones’ fate or even the most basic information about their status or whereabouts since their disappearance. It should be noted that this figure does not include detainees still facing trial by the Military Field Courts who are being held in central and civilian prisons scattered across Syria.

The report stresses that the mechanism of holding and referring detainees to Military Field Courts rests upon the resolutions adopted by the regime’s security agencies that have been accorded unbridled powers regarding the treatment of those detained in connection with the popular uprising that began in 2011. These powers included practices of torture, enforced disappearance, and bringing charges against detainees and forcibly disappeared persons based on information extracted under torture. It should also be noted that the Syrian regime has put in place various parameters and procedures to regulate these expansive powers, in order to maintain the organizational structure of its security apparatus, as opposed to having it operate in a disordered fashion. The report provides a summary of the most serious and notable crimes punishable by death, which are the ones potentially handled by the Military Field Court based on Article 47 of the Military Penal Code and the Syrian Penal Code. The report also stresses that SNHR has acquired many documents which show that Military Field Courts also handle case related to the Counterterrorism Law of 2012.

As the report notes, no fewer than 20 criminal acts are classified as being death penalty offences according to the Military Penal Code and the Syrian Penal Code which have been heavily used as grounds for bringing charges against detainees and forcibly disappeared persons. However, these 20 criminal acts were excluded by the amnesty decrees issued by the regime, except in the cases of a very limited number of detainees, and only in one or two amnesty decrees in the past 12 years. The report adds that, given the secretive nature of the regime’s operations, it was not possible to access any data clearly showing which crimes the defense minister refers to Military Field Courts. As such, the report believes there are other charges used besides those identified in this report.

The report also stresses that the monstrous character of the Military Field Courts is not limited to their sentences, but also applies to the conditions suffered by detainees referred to these courts in the course of their trials, as well as the mechanism through which victims are informed of their sentences. The report identifies at least 10 methods of intimidation and torture practiced by the Court during sessions against detainees, which exhibit a strategic and continuous manner.

The report outlines the most notable figures involved in ordering executions based on summary trials by the Syrian Regime’s Military Field Courts between March 2011 and August 2023, from the President of the Republic Bashar Assad and the officers who have held the position of minister of defense during that period, to officers who’ve held positions and served as functionaries in the Military Field Courts, the administration of the Military Police, and the Military Judiciary, as well as the management of the Sednaya Military Prison and others.

The report concludes by noting that the Syrian regime has clearly violated international customary law and Article 3 of the Geneva Convention by carrying out those trials in the context of an internal armed conflict, since these courts were not established in accordance with the law, nor are they even remotely independent, impartial, and fair in nature. The denial to any person of their right to a fair trial qualifies as a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the ICC. The report adds that the Syrian regime has disposed of many of the people who called for a political change through this court by imprisoning them for many years, sentencing them to death, and seizing their properties.

The report calls on the UN Security Council and the UN to find ways and mechanisms to implement Security Council resolutions 2041, 2042, 2139, and Paragraph 12 of resolution 2254 that concern detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in Syria, to work on putting an end to the crimes against humanity (torture and enforced disappearance) and the war crimes (execution) committed against the detainees in Syria, and to take urgent action under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.

The report also calls on the Syrian regime’s allies, most notably Russia, to apply pressure on the Syrian regime to repeal all laws that contravene international human rights law and are phrased in such a vague, broad way that they can be used in any number of ways against political opponents, and to end the support for a regime responsible for organizing these political trials that can be described as the most horrendous and horrific in modern history since supporting a regime that commits such acts is effectively being an accomplice to the crimes against humanity and war crimes that the Syrian regime is perpetrating against detainees and their properties The regime also makes a number of other recommendations.

Download the full report

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