Many thousands of people have been arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge or trial in Syria since the country’s state of emergency came into force more than twenty years ago. There have also been reports of torture, “disappearances,” and extrajudicial executions carried out by the security forces.
The targets of these human rights abuses have come from a wide range of backgrounds and have included a former president, former government ministers, trade unionists, traders, doctors, lawyers, and students—and even a number of children.
On April 26 this year Amnesty International submitted a memorandum on its concerns to the Syrian government and subsequently offered to publish any comments it had. No response was received. A seventy-two-page Report from Amnesty International to the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic based on the memorandum was published on November 16. The following material is based on the report.
John G. Healey
Amnesty International, USA
Syrian security forces have practiced systematic violations of human rights, including torture and political killings, and have been operating with impunity under the country’s emergency laws.
There is overwhelming evidence that thousands of Syrians not involved in violence have been harassed and wrongfully detained without chance of appeal and in some cases have been tortured; others are reported to have “disappeared” or to have been the victims of extrajudicial killings carried out by the security forces.
Pattern of arrests
Amnesty International’s new report on Syria describes a pattern of arbitrary arrests by the security forces using the State of Emergency Law which has been in force throughout the country for more than twenty years. Syrian citizens are liable to arbitrary arrest or abduction and no one can depend on the protection of the law, the report says.
Amnesty International has collected the names of over 3,500 people reported arrested and detained without trial in a two-year period up to December 1981. Arrests on this scale result from the power security forces have to seize any suspect at any time without immediate reference to a central authority. The organization has received reports of relatives being held hostage while security forces sought political suspects. Such hostages have included wives and young children—and in one case three relatives were held hostage in detention for six years before being released in 1980.
Those arrested may be held without charge or trial for years—at the end of October, Amnesty International was working for the release of seventeen people held in preventive detention for over twelve years and another three hundred held for between two and nine years. Once arrested, political suspects face indefinite incommunicado detention and possible torture. Even their whereabouts may remain secret.
Amnesty International’s report lists twenty-three methods of ill-treatment and torture reported by former detainees, including electric shocks, burnings, whippings with braided steel cable, sexual violations, and the forcing of detainees to watch relatives being tortured or sexually assaulted.
Extracts from testimony by twelve former detainees who made charges of torture are cited in the report. They include a fifteen-year-old schoolboy who said he had been whipped and that his interrogator had threatened to gouge out his eyes if he did not reveal his father’s whereabouts. Another former detainee describes a soundproofed torture chamber in Aleppo equipped with “torture tools,” including electrical apparatus, pincers, scissors, a machine used for sexual violation, and an implement for “ripping out fingernails.”
The extent, consistency, and detail of the allegations which Amnesty International has received persistently over the years—some supported by medical evidence—leads the organization to conclude that torture is frequently inflicted in the course of interrogating arrested individuals, both in order to extract a confession and as a punishment.
Amnesty International is concerned also about reported “disappearances” in Syria as well as about political killing of selected individuals or groups by the security forces which have also reportedly been responsible for the killing abroad of several opponents of the Syrian government. The report cites six cases of alleged mass political killings said to have been carried out by the authorities between March 1980 and February 1982.
Amnesty International believes there is an urgent need for the Syrian authorities to control, supervise, and monitor the activities of the security forces, whose powers under the country’s emergency legislation have been used for widespread violations of human rights.
Security force networks
There are several security force networks in Syria, each with its own branches, detention cells, and interrogation centers throughout the country, and each possessing its own intelligence service. These networks operate independently and there appear to be no clear boundaries to their areas of jurisdiction.
For example, the activities of al-Mukhabarat al-‘Askariyya (Military Intelligence) have not been limited to matters affecting the armed forces but have included the arrest and interrogation of members of prohibited political parties and, after April 1980, of members of medical and engineers’ associations.
The Saraya al Difa’ ‘an al Thawra (Brigades for the Defense of the Revolution), headed by the president’s brother, Rif’at al-Assad, and said to have between fifteen thousand and twenty-five thousand members, are based in Damascus primarily to protect the president—but they were reportedly active in Aleppo during house-to-house searches in March 1980 and are also alleged to have taken part in a massacre of prisoners at Palmyra (Tadmur) prison in June 1980. The Saraya al Difa‘ are described by a number of Syrians as being above the law of the land and answerable only to Rif’at al-Assad.
Amnesty International has received reports that members of these forces are regularly sent abroad to monitor the activities of Syrian political exiles and to impede such activities through harassment and even violence.
Ill-treatment and torture
Detained security suspects are not brought to court and there appears to be no established procedure whereby a detainee can appeal to an outside authority against ill-treatment during detention. Allegations of torture or ill-treatment are therefore made only after the detainee has been released, which is often months or several years after the event.
Ever since its 1978 mission to Syria, when it expressed concern in detail about allegations of torture to the Syrian authorities, Amnesty International has continued to receive reports of torture or ill-treatment of prisoners by the security forces.
The following are extracts taken from separate statements made to Amnesty International by twelve former detainees, arrested and detained at various times since July 1979.
They tied my hands behind my back and put me in the dullab [a suspended tire through which the prisoner is forced]. They beat my legs until I passed out. I could not walk. On the second day they tied my feet and hung me upside down from a tree for about two hours. One of them then came back and whipped me all over my body, my head, and my legs with a braided copper cable until I passed out. He threw water on me to revive me and continued to beat me. They carried me back to the cell as I could not move. On the third day they applied electricity. They tied me down on a piece of wood cut into the shape of a human and used electricity to torture me.
(Student from Aleppo detained from August 7 to September 3, 1980.)
They raised my feet and caned them until they bled…kicked me, strapped and blindfolded, from the top of the stairs to the bottom…applied electricity to the sensitive parts of my body.
(Shopkeeper from Aleppo detained from May 5 to May 26, 1980.)
My hands and feet were tied and my feet whipped until they became swollen. My torturer threatened to gouge out my eyes if I did not tell them where my father was.
(Fifteen-year-old schoolboy held for two days in August 1979.)
I was stripped naked. I was put in the dullab and caned. My wrists were then tied and I was hung up and whipped on my back and all over my body…. Next day I was strapped to a wooden apparatus nicknamed Bisat al-Rih (flying carpet) and caned and whipped. I was beaten on the toes until my nails fell out.
(A trader detained from January to April 1980.)
The torture room is square and is situated inside another room which is soundproofed…. Inside there is an electrical apparatus, a Russian tool for ripping out fingernails, pincers and scissors for plucking flesh, and an apparatus called al-‘Abd al-Aswad (the black slave) on which they forced the torture victim to sit. When switched on, a very hot and sharp metal skewer enters the rear.
(Student from Aleppo detained from July 28, 1979, to March 8, 1980.)
Denial of rights during detention
In most cases brought to Amnesty International’s attention, people arrested by the security forces have not been told, on arrest, the offical reason for the arrest. At first, while still in custody of the arresting authority, the detainee is kept incommunicado, often in solitary confinement.
There appears to be no clear limit under the procedures followed during the state of emergency to the length of time detainees may be held incommunicado—this may last days, several months, or even years.
By October this year, Riad al-Turk, first secretary of the prohibited Communist Party Political Bureau, had been held incommunicado without charge or trial for three years, since his arrest on October 28, 1980. He is alleged to have been tortured and twice taken to intensive care units in Damascus hospitals for treatment. At press time, his family did not know his whereabouts.
Former detainees have reported that it was during the early stage of their incommunicado detention that they were ill-treated or tortured.
Since early 1980, Amnesty International has received reports about the “disappearances” of detainees following their arrest by the security forces, in many instances following the sealing off of whole areas of towns, house-to-house searches, and widespread arrests of the inhabitants.
Detainees have frequently been taken away in lorries to unknown destinations, and their families and lawyers have in many cases remained ignorant of their whereabouts for weeks, months, and sometimes years. This has given rise to fears that they may have been ill-treated or tortured or that they may be dead.
Attempts by relatives or lawyers to discover the whereabouts of newly arrested detainees are often hindered by the fact that prisoners are held incommunicado for prolonged periods and that they are regularly transferred from one place to another. Officials have also frequently denied that the person concerned had been apprehended or was in custody, and have refused either to investigate such cases of “apparent kidnapping” or to report fully the results of an investigation.
Amnesty International has the names of thirty-eight youths who are reported to have “disappeared” after their transfer from a prison in the town of Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria, to an unknown destination three months after their arrest in March 1980. Their whereabouts have been unknown to their families for the past three years.
Amnesty International’s report cites six cases of alleged mass political killings said to have been carried out by the security forces between March 1980 and February 1982. They include the reported killing on June 27, 1980, of between six hundred and one thousand inmates of Palmyra prison suspected of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The force responsible for the alleged massacre is said to have included 350 commandos of the Saraya al Difa‘.
The report refers also to thousands of killings in February 1982, when the authorities announced that their forces had crushed an uprising in the town of Hama. According to various estimates, between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand people died before order was restored. The four other cases refer to reported killings in the towns of Jisr al-Shughur in March 1980; Sarmada in July 1980; Aleppo in August 1980; and Hama in April 1981.
Amnesty International has not been able to investigate fully the precise circumstances of the killings alleged to have been carried out by the security forces in these cases—but it is deeply concerned about the pattern and increasing number of such reports. In earlier years, the organization asked the Syrian government to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the facts and make public their findings, but the government did not respond to such requests.
THE HAMA MASSACRE
Following is the text of the Amnesty International report on the massacre in Hama:
According to news reports and information received by Amnesty International, shortly after dark on February 2, 1982, regular Syrian soldiers tried to raid a house in the ancient, western part of the city of Hama. Ninety soldiers led by a lieutenant surrounded a house believed to contain a large cache of arms belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. As they started their raid, the troops were ambushed by armed Mujahideen. They were captured or killed and their uniforms were removed. The insurgents then posted themselves on the roofs and turrets of the city.
The next morning, the citizens of Hama were apparently informed from the minarets of several mosques that the city had been “liberated” and that the “liberation” of the rest of the country would follow. The insurgents occupied government and security forces’ buildings, ransacked the local armory, and began executing government officials and “collaborators.” At least fifty people are reported to have been killed by antigovernment demonstrators on this first day of protest.
The government responded by sealing off the city. Some six thousand to eight thousand soldiers, including units from the 21st Mechanized Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division, the 47th Independent Armored Brigade, the Saraya al-Difa‘ and al-Wahdat al-Khassa, were reportedly dispatched to the city. On February 11, Syrian television showed a film of what it claimed was a cache of arms found in Hama, comprising five hundred United States M16 rifles, forty shoulder-fired rocket launchers with armor-piercing rockets, and a huge arsenal of ammunition and small firearms.
According to some observers, old parts of the city were bombarded from the air and shelled in order to facilitate the entry of troops and tanks along the narrow streets. The ancient quarter of Hadra was apparently bombarded and razed to the ground by tanks during the first four days of fighting. On February 15, after several days of heavy bombardment, Major-General Mustapha Tlas, the Syrian defense minister, stated that the uprising in Hama had been suppressed. However, the city remained surrounded and cut off. Two weeks of house-to-house searches and mass arrests followed, with conflicting reports of atrocities and collective killings of unarmed, innocent inhabitants by the security forces.
It is difficult to establish for certain what happened, but Amnesty International has heard that there was, among other things, a collective execution of seventy people outside the municipal hospital on February 19; that Hadra quarter residents were executed by Saraya al-Difa‘ troops the same day; that cyanide gas containers were alleged to have been brought into the city, connected by rubber pipes to the entrances of buildings believed to house insurgents, and turned on, killing all the buildings’ occupants; that people were assembled at the military airfield, at the sports stadium, and at the military barracks, and left out in the open for days without food or shelter.
On February 22 the Syrian authorities broadcast a telegram of support addressed to President Assad from the Hama branch of the Ba’th party. The message referred to Muslim Brotherhood fighters killing party activists and their families and leaving their mutilated bodies in the streets. It said the security forces had taken fierce reprisals against the Brotherhood and their sympathizers “which stopped them breathing for ever.”
When order was restored, estimates of the number dead on all sides ranged from ten thousand to twenty-five thousand. Whether or not these killings were the consequence of the lack of control and supervision at present exercised by the central authorities over the activities of the security forces or of a systematic policy of counteracting violent opposition in Syria is difficult to establish. Amnesty International knows that, according to a number of these reports, including the one about events in Hama in February 1982, opposition groups have themselves committed abuses, including killings. Amnesty International states categorically that the killings of prisoners by anyone, including opposition groups, can never be condoned. The organization considers it the responsibility of governments to bring those who commit such abuses to trial.
The Syrian Government has both a national and an international obligation to investigate such incidents thoroughly, to make public the facts, and to punish those responsible.