Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, civilians, activists and human- rights groups have consistently reported that government authorities and non-state armed groups have subjected tens of thousands of people – including aid workers, doctors, lawyers and journalists – to arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, unlawful detention and torture. The latest report from the U.N.’s Syria Commission of Inquiry has duly accused the Assad regime of crimes against humanity.
While the majority of detainees are men, security forces have also detained women and children. Despite the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2139 demanding the release of Syria’s arbitrarily detained civilians, they often languish in detention centers for months, even years.
The exact number of missing and detained is unknown, but photographic evidence and witness testimony have put estimates at 11,000 detainees killed since 2011. The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), an independent watchdog group cataloguing such offenses, puts the number of arrests at 200,000.
Last week, Amnesty International and 44 other international organizations joined together to raise awareness about Razan Zaitouneh, Wa’el Hamada, Nazem Hamadi and Samira Khalil, four human rights activists who were abducted in the Damascus suburb of Douma on December 9, 2013. Zaitouneh, one of the country’s most prominent female activists, worked in the VDC’s office there. She was taken along with her husband, and has not been heard from since.
It is rumored that the Zaitounehs were abducted not by regime forces but by an armed extremist group, pointing to an new trend of civilian and activist detentions by Islamist rebels.
Here, Lama Fakih, Syria-Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Bassam al-Ahmad, the VDC’s Istanbul-based spokesman, weigh in about the increasing numbers of missing and detained, and who exactly is carrying them out.
Syria Deeply: Three years into this conflict, who are the people being targeted?
Lama Fakih: We have seen targeted arrests and abductions by government and non-government groups since the uprising began in 2011. The government began to target individuals that were organizing protests, sharing information and video online showing government abuses.
As the conflict became militarized, we saw government increasingly targeting humanitarian assistance providers, as well as medics and other medical personnel that were trying to treat war wounded. Unfortunately, these individuals are also now being subject to targeting by non-state armed groups.
The Douma four – Razan Zaitouneh, Wa’el Hamada, Nazem Hamadi and Samira Khalil – were abducted from an area that is under the control of different armed opposition groups, including one of the most influential groups controlling the Douma area, Jaysh al-Islam. Appeals have gone out to Jaysh al-Islam’s commander, Zahran Alloush, to secure the safe release of these four activists.
Bassam al-Ahmad: The regime forces didn’t allow us to cover [abuses] that were taking place inside Syria, so every human rights activist became a journalist and a documenter because we wanted people around the world to see what was happening in Syria.
In 2012, I spent 87 days in [a regime] prison. After they released me, I spent two months in Damascus but decided to leave Syria because they wanted to transfer my case to the military court and I was afraid. I continue to work as a spokesperson for VDC from Turkey, and now I am able to use my real name.
Syria Deeply: How many people are currently being held in detention?
Fakih: It’s very difficult for us to estimate how many people are held, particularly because the government doesn’t allow human rights monitors inside its detention centers. However, we have documented evidence that the government has established a widespread process of detention facilities across the country.
al-Ahmad: No one is exactly sure how many people are currently in prisons, but at VDC we think that more than 200,000 people – civilians, activists, human rights defenders – from the beginning of the revolution to the present day have been arrested by regime forces.
By mid-2012, the Syrian authorities had established the anti-terrorism court. From then until now, they’ve transferred more than 70,000 people just to this court alone.
Syria Deeply: What are the conditions like in detention?
Fakih: We’ve documented torture and ill treatment on a widespread scale that amount to crimes against humanity in government detention facilities. In non-state armed groups we’ve also documented widespread torture, but not to the same degree as in government facilities.
Ill treatment ranges from inadequate access to food and water, to cells that are so overcrowded that detainees lack oxygen, a lack of blankets in the winter, and extremely unsanitary conditions that result in illness.
Detainees don’t have access to family members or attorneys, often don’t know the reason behind their confinement, and in many cases aren’t brought before judges.
This is in addition to widespread torture methods that we’ve documented in detention facilities across the country, including sexual violence, electrocution, Falaqa [beating with sticks, batons or whips on the soles of the feet], Shabeh [hanging the detainee from the ceiling by the hands so that his toes barely touch the ground or he is completely suspended in the air with his entire weight on his wrists, causing extreme pain], Basat al-reeh [tying the victim down to a flat board so that they can beat them] and not allowing detainees to sleep.
al-Ahmad: When the regime leaves, you’ll see the remains of unbelievable treatment in the detention centers. The degree of torture, killing, disease and ill-treatment is unbelievable.
Most prisoners are victims of torture. The Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that the killing and torture of people is systematic by regime forces, because the number is so large. The Caesar report put the number at 11,000 people killed by torture and poor conditions in the detention facilities.
Conditions in Aleppo Central Prison are particularly bad, people are dying from torture and starvation and disease including the plague and tuberculosis. Prisoners have been used by the regime as human shields when the opposition was firing on the prison, while other prisoners have been killed by opposition shelling.
In all testimonies conducted by the VDC, witnesses and former detainees were asked about the number of those killed by regime forces and where they were buried, and it is clear from their report’s satellite images that there are mass graves on in the prison’s yard.
The VDC also put out a report about the extrajudicial killings and systematic torture taking place in the Raid Brigade in Damascus where hundreds of Syrian citizens are kept and may have died as a result of severe systematic torture carried out by the Military Intelligence in Damascus. Some died due to disease, lack of medical care and poor nutrition.
Syria Deeply: Are women and children being detained?
Fakih: While men in their 20s and 30s have made up the bulk of the detainees, we have documented the detention of female activists and female family members related to individuals who are suspected of anti-government action, and they are subject to the same types of abuses.
We have also documented cases where children are being held alongside adults in detention facilities and are subject to the same ill treatment and torture. Some kids are held for their own actions, and in some cases they are held to lure family members to come in and give themselves up to the government.
al-Ahmad: About 4,000 women have been arrested. The VDC has documented 997 cases of underage boys’ arrests, and 38 others of girls.
We also just recently put out an appeal for the release of a whole family: a women and three of her children, aged four, two and one. This is not the first time an entire family has been detained and forcibly “disappeared.”
Syria Deeply: Is the government legally allowed to detain people?
Fakih: Under domestic law, the government can hold individuals for up to 60 days pretrial without seeing a judge. We have documented many cases of individuals being held for well beyond 60 days without charges being presented against them or judicial review. The government has failed in its own faulty legislation.
In July 2012, the government passed a sweeping counterterrorism law. The definition of terrorism is very broad and basically states that any individuals who act against the state – in violent or nonviolent means – can be subject to terrorism charges and convicted of terrorism.
Mazen Darwish, the former director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom Expression, is being prosecuted for nonviolent activism of documenting human rights abuses by government forces.
The government has also used Field Marshal Courts, military courts that were established well before the uprising, to go after peaceful activists. There are numerous cases of nonviolent and political activists and humanitarians who are now being put on trial in front of these courts.
Syria Deeply: Are detainees being released as part of prisoner exchange initiatives and cease-fires?
Fakih: In the Homs exchange, some male adults were continued to be held in the Andalus collective center, an abandoned school in Homs under U.N. supervision. As part of the agreement they were supposed to be screened and released.
There is a concern that these individuals will be transferred to the military police and will be subject to the same torture and ill-treatment we’ve documented throughout the conflict.
al-Ahmad: Sometimes they release people; sometimes they send them to other military prisons. In Homs, they took down the names of people who still remain in their custody. It’s not a detention center, but it is not free.
There are also more than 50 political prisoners who aren’t accounted for in Aleppo Central Prison. Most of the other prisoners have been transferred to West Aleppo, to makeshift detention centers in what used to be schools.
(Edited by Karen Leigh.)