Local Pro-Regime Militias Target & Hunt Down Civilians in the Hopes of Extorting Them
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 193 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in October 2023, including of 13 children and four women. The group added that local pro-regime militias have been targeting and hunting down civilians in the hopes of extorting them.
The 28-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 usually 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 October 2023 as being carried out 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.
As the report further notes, the legislative articles and legal texts related to torture contained in the current Syrian constitution and law have not ended or reduced the frequency of torture in the Syrian regime’s detention centers. In addition, the report 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 detainee deaths that occurred in its custody 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 harmonization between these institutions, which can only be achieved through senior management-level officials in the Syrian regime controlling all of them.
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. This 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 incited it. The report lists 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 remain 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 further 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 subjected impose a range of charges. Thus, each detainee does not simply face one charge, but rather a range 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 considered 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 someone accused of criminal acts, such as his wife, forebears or descendants to be detained for his alleged 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 of 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 onlyfigure 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 exercising 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 7,351 arbitrarily arrested detainees in total, while the Syrian regime is still holding approximately 135,253 detainees/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 stresses 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 of violations that marked the month of October. Firstly, in October, regime forces continued to hunt down and arrest individuals who had agreed to security settlements in areas that saw settlements with the regime. Most of these arrests, which have been concentrated in the governorates of Rural Damascus (Rif Dimshaq), Daraa, and Deir Ez-Zour, took place during campaigns of mass raids and arrests, and at checkpoints. Moreover, we recorded arrests by Syrian regime forces targeting internally displaced persons (IDPs) returning from the eastern rural Deir Ez-Zour governorate, which is under the control of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to Deir Ez-Zour city on the grounds of their involvement in the ongoing clashes between the SDF and local Arab tribes in rural Deir Ez-Zour governorate. Most of these arrests were carried out during raids or in the form of mass arrests at checkpoints. Additionally, the report records arrests by pro-regime/unofficial regime forces at regime checkpoints. These arrests, which were concentrated in Rural Damascus governorate, were carried out for the purpose of extortion. Furthermore, the report records random widespread arrests of citizens in the governorates of Rural Damascus and Hama, most of which took place at checkpoints and as part of mass raid and arrest campaigns on the pretext of the detainees failing to join reserve forces as part of their mandatory military service.
As the report further reveals, the SDF also continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in October, resulting in increasing numbers of detentions and enforced disappearances. 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 in connection with the ongoing clashes between the SDF and Arab tribes in Deir Ez-Zour governorate. Moreover, the report records detentions involving civilians in relation to an attack on an SDF military vehicle, with these arrest operations, which were concentrated in eastern Deir Ez-Zour governorate involving the complete demolition of some of the detainees’ homes. The SDF also continued abducting 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, October also saw Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) detaining more civilians. These arrests, which were concentrated in Idlib governorate, targeted media activists and politicians. Most of these arrests were carried out in relation to the detainees expressing opinions critical of HTS’s 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 in the street or while they’re passing through temporary checkpoints. The report also documented HTS’ arrest of a number of individuals over accusations of working with Syrian regime forces, with these arrests occurring during raids or in the form of mass raids at checkpoints. Meanwhile, the report continues, all armed opposition factions/Syrian National Army (SNA) also continued carrying out arbitrary detentions and kidnappings in October, including of women and children. Most of these detentions were conducted on a mass scale, targeting individuals coming from areas controlled by the Syrian regime or the SDF. 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. Furthermore, we documented raids and arrests by SNA personnel targeting civilians who were accused of working with the SDF.
On the subject of detainee releases, the report documented four releases in Damascus governorate of individuals originally from the governorates of Hama and Damascus in October, who were released after serving their arbitrary sentences. As such, these releases were not related to amnesty decree 7/2022, with these detainees having been imprisoned for an average of one to four years. Additionally, the report recorded the release of 13 detainees who had been held without trial for brief periods of time, ranging from a few days to a few months, without appearing before a court. Most of these detainees came from the governorates of Latakia, Tartus, and Deir Ez-Zour, and all of them had spent the duration of their detention in security branches. 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 further reveals that 19 individuals were released from SDF detention centers where they had been held for periods ranging from a few days to two months, with most of those released originating from the governorate of Deir Ez-Zour. Most of these releases were a result of meditation by tribal intermediaries or came after the detainees had served their arbitrary sentences. Meanwhile, HTS released six civilians from its detention centers in Idlib governorate after detaining them without any clear charges for periods ranging from a few days to four months. Similarly, all armed opposition factions/SNA released nine civilians in October, after detaining for periods ranging from a few days to three months 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 193 arbitrary arrests/detentions in October 2023, including of 13 children and four women (adult female), with 163 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 193 cases, 78 were carried out at the hands of Syrian regime forces, and included three children and one woman, while the SDF arrested 61 individuals, including nine children. The report also reveals that HTS arrested 17 individuals, while all armed opposition factions/SNA arrested 33 individuals, including one child and three women.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions for October across Syria. Aleppo governorate saw the highest number of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions documented in October, followed by the governorates of Deir Ez-Zour, then, in descending order Rural Damascus, Damascus, Hasaka, Idlib, and then both Raqqa and Daraa.
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, 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 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.