Syrian Regime Forces Primarily Target Returning IDPs and Refugees, Citizens Expressing Dissent, and Individuals Arrested in Relation to the Conflict
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 2,317 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in 2023, including of 129 children and 87 women, with 232 cases documented in December. The report stresses that Syrian regime forces primarily target returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, citizens expressing dissent, and individuals who have been arrested in relation to the conflict.
The 42-page report explains that most arrests in Syria are carried out without any judicial warrant 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 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 2023, including December, by the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria, in addition to 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, as well as categorizing cases and incidents of arrest according to the location of the 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 explains, for a case to be categorized as an enforced disappearance, 20 days must have passed from the day on which the individual in question was arrested, during which time their family were unable to obtain information from the official authorities on their arrest or whereabouts, while the authorities that made the arrest refused to acknowledge holding them.
As the report notes, the laws 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 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 knowledge of the ruling regime, 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 by senior-level management officials in the Syrian regime controlling all of these institutions.
On a related note, the report refers to Law No. 16 of 2022, issued by the Syrian regime’s President on March 30, 2022, criminalizing torture. According to the new legislation, the regime considers torture to be a felony requiring severe punishment of the perpetrator and any other who participated in inflicting it, as well as of 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 are in force, which are those on which the regime’s power is based, including the texts granting impunity from prosecution to members of the security services, which conflict with many articles of the General Penal Code and the current constitution; other key points include the survival of the exceptional criminal courts (military field court, 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 organization 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 violate the principles of the law, as well as violating 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 used to try detainees, and in most cases, the exceptional courts to which the detainees are subjected impose a range of charges. Thus, the detainee does not face one charge, but rather a number of charges, none of which are based on evidence or real facts. The 2012 constitution affirmed that the rule of law is the basis of governance in the state, and 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, 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 charged with investigating crimes and tracking down their perpetrators, with the security services having no authority in this matter, and that 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 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 7,351 arbitrarily arrested detainees, while the Syrian regime continues to hold roughly 135,253 detainee/forcibly disappeared persons. As such, 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 arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearance regardless of any amnesty decrees it may issue.
In 2023, the report notes, Syrian regime forces continued to hunt down and arrest individuals who had agreed to settle their security situation with the regime in areas that saw settlements with the regime. These arrests involved civilians that previously worked with armed opposition factions, defectors from the regime military, and former activists in the medical and relief fields. Most of these arrests, which have been concentrated in the governorates of Rural Damascus (Rif Dimshaq), Daraa, Deir Ez-Zour, and Raqqa in 2023, took place during campaigns of mass raids and arrests, and at checkpoints. In total, SNHR documented no fewer than 386 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in 2023 of individuals who had agreed to settle their security situation with the regime. Moreover, the report documents the targeting of civilians in connection with their involvement in the anti-regime movement that took various forms in regime-held areas, including posting videos criticizing the policies of the Syrian regime, writing anti-regime slogans on the walls, distributing pamphlets, and burning photos of Bashar Assad. These arrests were concentrated in the governorates of Latakia, Tartus, Damascus, Rural Damascus, Aleppo, and Deir Ez-Zour. Additionally, there have been widespread arrests carried out by the Syrian regime’s criminal security and general security departments of civilians who expressed their demands and voiced criticism of the worsening living situation or rampant corruption in regime-held areas on social media. Those arrested include pro-regime media figures, university students, and government employees. These detainees face charges connected to the Counter-Cybercrime Law. SNHR has documented the arrest of 114 individuals, including eight women, on the grounds of the Counter-Cybercrime Law in 2023.
The report also documents arrests targeting returning refugees and IDPs which were intensified in the month of May, in tandem with Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security and the Lebanese military cracking down on and arresting Syrian refugees in Lebanon and forcibly repatriating them to Syria, leading to widespread arrests by the Syrian regime’s security authorities of those repatriated, including women and children. In addition, returning refugees and IDPs have been arrested while attempting to return to their original areas which are under the control of regime forces. These arrests have specifically targeted refugees who returned via crossings with Lebanon and Türkiye, such as the Kassab Crossing, as well as those returning by plane, who’ve been detained at Damascus International Airport. In total, the SNHR documented no fewer than 156 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention by regime forces of individuals returning to their original regime-held areas in 2023, with those detained including of two children and five women (adult female). These cases are divided between 37 IDPs and 119 refugees, most of whom returned from Lebanon. Meanwhile, the report documented the arrest of 97 of the individuals who were forcibly repatriated from Lebanon, including of two children and five women, most of whom were arrested by the Syrian regime’s Military Security Intelligence Directorate in al-Masna border area.
The report also records arrests of civilians by regime security agencies in retaliation for these citizens’ voicing criticism of and objection to the methods used by the Syrian regime to distribute the relief aid designated for those affected by the February 6 earthquake which devastated several areas of Syria, causing a humanitarian catastrophe. These criticisms concerned 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 intended for earthquake victims. While these arrests took place in a number of Syrian governorates, they were concentrated particularly in Latakia and Aleppo.
The report also highlights multiple arrests/detentions carried out by personnel from regime security branches for the purpose of extorting detainees’ families, some of which targeted civilians receiving money transfers from abroad on the pretext of dealing in a foreign currency. While these arrests took place in various Syrian governorates, they were particularly concentrated in Rural Damascus, Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama, as well as targeting civilian former detainees who had been released some time ago from regime detention centers.
In terms of releases, the report documents that the Syrian regime released approximately 284 individuals, including four children and two women, who were detained in 2023 for periods ranging from several weeks to a number of months, most of whom never faced trial. These cases occurred in various security branches across Syria. Meanwhile, the report stresses that 2023 saw no releases in the context of the reconciliation settlements that the Syrian regime has been conducting in various areas in Idlib, Daraa, Rural Damascus, and Aleppo.
As the report reveals, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued enforcing the group’s policies of arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance in an increasing and extensive manner. Most of the raids and arrests carried out by the SDF were conducted on a mass scale and involved SDF personnel indiscriminately opening fire at and beating civilians, as well as wrecking and pillaging homes. Those targeted in the SDF’s crackdowns include civilians, political activists, and people working at SDF institutions. These crackdowns were carried out on the pretext of fighting ISIS, with US-led International Coalition forces being involved in some of the operations. The report also recorded a number of detentions of civilians, including women and children, which were carried out on a mass scale during raids or at checkpoints, for voicing criticism of the living conditions and services in SDF-held areas. These arrests, which were concentrated in the governorates of Hasaka, Deir Ez-Zour, and Raqqa, involved seizing the detainees’ money and mobile phones. Additionally, we recorded that the SDF detained a number of civilians returning from Türkiye to their original homes in SDF-held areas following the February 6 earthquakes. Furthermore, the SDF arrested a number of teachers who took part in widespread protests and strikes that began in early-September of this year and continued up to the end of 2023, with the protestors calling for improved wages and an end to the conscription policies enforced by the SDF in areas under its control. The SDF also carried out arrests of members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (PDK-S), with these detentions being concentrated in the governorate of Hasaka. Other civilians were arrested on the grounds of their alleged involvement in the ongoing clashes between the group and the Arab tribes in Deir Ez-Zour governorate, while others were arrested and taken to SDF military training and recruitment camps. These arrests were concentrated in Manbij city and the surrounding villages in Aleppo governorate. The SDF has also continued abducting children with the objective of conscripting them for military training and sending them to military training camps, with the parents and families of these conscripted children forbidden to contact them, while the SDF refuses to disclose their fate.
As the report further reveals, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) also continued to target activists, humanitarian workers, local dignitaries, and lawyers through detentions, which mostly took place after these individuals voiced criticism of the group’s policies in its areas of control. These detainees faced various charges including treason or having suspicious links with HTS’ adversaries. These detentions were carried out in arbitrary ways, including raiding and entering homes by force, wrecking these houses’ contents, and seizing phones and laptops, or by abducting detainees from the street, or at temporary checkpoints that separate the different territories, especially those separating HTS’s areas of control from those under the Syrian National Army (SNA). The report further notes that HTS personnel arrested a number of civilians over accusations of being affiliated with the ‘Hurras al-Din’ (Guardians of the Faith) group. Those arrests, which were concentrated in the village of Arab Saed in rural Idlib governorate, involved HTS personnel surrounding the village and enforcing an hours-long curfew there. Similarly, the group carried out widespread arrests targeting individuals accused of being members or supporters of the extremist Tahrir Party, which mostly took place in the form of raids and mass arrests, or at checkpoints. Those arrests were concentrated in the governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. There were also detentions of many individuals, including women, who objected to the arrest crackdowns and tried to move from HTS-held areas to the SNA-held areas in Aleppo governorate.
Additionally, there have been numerous cases in which the HTS ‘Salvation’s Government’s’ Media Directorate summoned male and female media activists over posts they published on their personal social media pages, or over their participation in discussions in virtual groups on various social networking apps in which they’d expressed criticism of the group’s policies.
In 2023, the report continues, all armed opposition factions/SNA also carried out arbitrary and widespread detentions and abductions whose targets included women and children, which were carried out on a mass scale. These detentions and abductions primarily targeted individuals coming from regime-controlled areas to visit their relatives or to cross into Türkiye, with the SNA claiming that it was arresting these individuals to check their backgrounds. Those detained in this way were held for periods ranging from weeks to months in brutal detention conditions without being charged with any offence or put on trial. The report also documented detentions of an ethnic character, which were concentrated in the areas under the control of the armed opposition factions/SNA in Aleppo governorate. Most of these arrests occurred without judicial authorization, without the participation of the police force, which is the sole legitimate administrative authority responsible for arrests and detentions through the judiciary, and without any clear charges being brought against the detainees. These arrests were carried out by various armed opposition factions as a means of pressurizing or intimidating civilians, or to seize their properties. Additionally, the report documented raids and arrests carried out by the armed opposition factions/SNA targeting civilians who were on their way to participate in a sit-in held in front of the home of civilians shot dead on March 20, 2023, by members of the SNA’s Jaish al-Sharqiya [Army of the East] faction, as the demonstrators were trying to build a fire in celebration of the Kurdish New Year, known as Nowruz, in Jendeires town which is administratively a part of Afrin city Aleppo governorate.
With regard to December, the report documents that Syrian regime forces continued to hunt down and arrest individuals who had agreed to settle their security situation with the regime in areas where it imposed settlements. Most of these arrests, which have been concentrated in Rural Damascus governorate, have taken place during campaigns of mass raids and arrests, and at checkpoints. The report also records sporadic arrests involving civilians for receiving money transfers in a foreign currency (US dollars) across various Syrian governorates, but most notably in Damascus and Homs. Additionally, the report recorded arrests carried out by pro-regime militias/informal regime forces targeting civilians at checkpoints for the purpose of extortion. These arrests were concentrated in Rural Damascus governorate, as well as arrests targeting civilians over their failure to enlist in the regime army’s reserve forces for their mandatory military service. These arrests, which took place in the governorates of Rural Damascus and Hama, were mostly carried out at checkpoints and in the form of raids and mass arrests.
In terms of releases, the report notes that, on November 16, 2023, the Syrian regime promulgated Legislative Decree No. 36 of 2023, providing a general amnesty for all crimes committed before the date of the decree. The decree excludes all prisoners of conscience and detainees arrested in the context of the conflict. As such, no releases of political prisoners or of detainees arrested in the context of the conflict were recorded in connection with this legislative decree. Meanwhile, the report documents the regime’s release of 12 individuals in Damascus governorate, who were mostly originally from the governorates of Rural Damascus, Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and Idlib in December. Those 12 were released after they had served their arbitrary sentences. As such, these releases were not related to amnesty decrees 7/2022 or 36/2023, with these detainees having been imprisoned for an average of one to five years. Moreover, the report documents the release of 18 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 Rural Damascus, Daraa, and Homs, and all of them had spent the duration of their detention in security branches.
The report documents at least 2,317 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention in 2023, including of 127 children and 87 women, with 1,923 of these cases subsequently categorized as cases of enforced disappearance, all at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria. Of the 2,317 cases, 1,063 were carried out by Syrian regime forces, including of 24 children and 49 women, while the SDF arrested 641 individuals, including 91 children and six women. The report also notes that all armed opposition factions/SNA arrested 365 individuals, including 10 children and 25 women, while HTS detained 248 individuals, including four children and seven women.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions in 2023 across Syria. The analysis of the data for this period shows that Aleppo governorate saw the highest number of arbitrary arrests/detentions, followed by Rural Damascus, and then in descending order, Deir Ez-Zour, Idlib, Damascus, Hasaka, Raqqa, and then Daraa.
In December, the report documents at least 232 cases of arbitrary arrest/detention, including of 17 children and six women, with 193 of these cases subsequently categorized as cases of enforced disappearance, all at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria. Of the 232 arbitrary arrests and detentions, 94 were carried out by Syrian regime forces, including of two children and three women, while the SDF arrested 79 individuals, including 14 children. The report also notes that all armed opposition factions/SNA arrested 43 civilians, including three women, while HTS arrested 16 civilians, including one child.
The report also shows the distribution of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions in December across Syria. The analysis of the data for this period shows that Aleppo governorate saw the highest number of cases of arbitrary arrests/detentions documented in December, followed by the governorates of Deir Ez-Zour, then, in descending order Rural Damascus, Damascus, Raqqa, Idlib, Hama, and Hasaka and Daraa.
As the report reveals, the vast majority of detainees involved 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 taken from detainees by regime personnel under coercion, intimidation and torture, which are documented within regime security authorities’ reports, with these security reports being 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 notes 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 stresses that the Syrian regime has not fulfilled any of its obligations in 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 detained 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 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 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 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 families and friends of detainees or wanted individuals should not be detained as prisoners of war, as well as providing a number of additional recommendations.