(New York) – Syrian security forces are arbitrarily arresting and holding peaceful activists incommunicado, despite the government’s commitment under Kofi Annan’s six point plan to release everyone who has been arbitrarily detained. People being arrested include peaceful protesters and activists involved in organizing, filming, and reporting on protests and humanitarian assistance providers and doctors, Human Rights Watch said after interviewing dozens of activists, witnesses, and family members.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to order security forces to stop detaining peaceful activists and aid providers. The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Annan plan, should insist on repeat visits of all detention facilities and should make the release of peaceful activists a priority.
“Syria is breaking its promises to Annan left and right, scooping up more people to throw in its jails, and refusing to free the people it promised to release,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless Syria’s leaders keep their promises, and quickly, the Security Council needs to show them that there will be consequences.”
Under the Annan plan, the Syrian government committed to “intensify[ing] the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities…” and to “respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.”
Since the Syrian government promised to carry out the Annan plan on March 25, 2012, Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of detentions of peaceful protesters and activists involved in organizing protests, filming them, or providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced. The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian monitoring group has reported that security forces have detained at least 780 people since the government committed to the plan.
SANA, Syrian state media, reported on May 6, 2012, that 265 men who had been detained in connection with protests but “whose hands are clear of the Syrian blood” had been released. SANA did not publish the names of those released. A large number of political activists remain in incommunicado detention, some for almost a year, while others are facing trial for exercising their right to demonstrate peacefully.
In some instances activists reported that security forces detained their family members, including children, to pressure the activists to turn themselves in. The wife of Mohamad Yassine Hamawi, a 66 year old teacher from Daraya, said a security officer told her that her husband, arrested on May 4, would be released if their sons turned themselves in. He remains in detention.
Security forces detained 15 people who were peacefully protesting in front of the Syrian Parliament on April 9, two participants told Human Rights Watch. While most were released within a few days, Assem Hamcho, one of those arrested, remains in incommunicado detention, two of his friends told Human Rights Watch.
On April 17, Air Force Intelligence detained Mohammad Diab Seireh, Mohammad Zreik, Dr. Muhanad Darkhabani, and Ahmad Zaghloul, in the Kfar Souseh neighborhood of Damascus, for their alleged involvement in distributing humanitarian assistance to people displaced inside Syria. Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer working on behalf of the detainees, said the four remain in incommunicado detention.
Doctors providing assistance to the wounded have not been spared. Al-Bunni, who is following up on the cases of many detainees, told Human Rights Watch that Air Force Intelligence detained Dr. Ahmed Taleb Kurdi and Dr. Ahmad al Khansa from Salamiya, in the governorate of Hama, on May 5, and that security forces arrested Dr. Jalal Noful, a psychiatrist, at his clinic at the Red Crescent in Damascus on April 22. Both arrests appear to be related to providing help to wounded people. Dr. Kurdi and Dr. al Khansa were released on May 10, while Dr. Noful remains in detention.
Family members of detainees have raised concerns to Human Rights Watch about the health of their relatives in detention, particularly elderly detainees with chronic medical conditions.
Human Rights Watch called on the U.N. Security Council to ensure that the Syrian government fully cooperates with UNSMIS to implement the six-point plan, including the release of arbitrarily detained people.
The UN mission should deploy professional human rights monitors who are trained to organize random and regular visits to all places of detention, including suspected secret detention centers, Human Rights Watch said. These experts should be in a position to recognize people who are arbitrarily detained, protect interviewees from retaliation, ensure the confidentiality and safekeeping of interviews, and interview women who have been sexually abused and children who have been tortured.
“The international community needs to put muscle behind its rhetoric, and impose targeted sanctions on the Assad government until it abides by all its commitments under the Annan plan, including the release of the thousands of prisoners held merely for their peaceful activism,” Whitson said.
Incommunicado Detention and Enforced Disappearances
Some of the worst human rights abuses in Syria take place outside of public view, behind the cell walls of detention facilities, where thousands of Syrians, including many women and children, are arbitrarily detained and often brutally tortured.
On May 14, 2011, Military Intelligence detained Anas al-Shoghari, a 24-year-old university student who was active in organizing peaceful protests in the city of Banias. He had filmed videos of events and appeared on international news channels using his real name. A relative recently told Human Rights Watch:
Anas was first detained at the Military Intelligence branch in Tartous and then transferred to the Palestinian Branch in Damascus but now we don’t know anything about him. The family asked for him several times but with no luck. At the beginning the Syrian government denied their involvement in his arrest but later they admitted they have him in their custody without saying where he is being held. A couple of weeks ago a person I know was released from the central prison in Homs and told me that he saw Anas at Sednaya prison and that he has lost a lot of weight, but we couldn’t verify if it was true or not … Three times the president issued amnesties for prisoners but he was not released.
Islam al-Debbas, an activist from Daraya, was detained on July 22, 2011 by security forces while he was protesting near al-Mustafa mosque in his town. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown. In an interview on May 8, a friend of Islam’s who was at the protest told Human Rights Watch:
The purpose of the protest was to distribute flowers and water to the security forces and soldiers. Islam went to give flowers to one of the soldiers when other security forces attacked him and started beating him before arresting him. Since then we do not know anything about him. His family went to ask about him at the Air Force Intelligence branch at Mezze Airport but the Security Forces refused to cooperate with them and asked them to leave.
Yahya al-Sharabji, his brother Mohammed al-Sharabji (often referred to as Ma`en), and others were arrested on September 6, 2011 by Air Force Intelligence. The al-Sharabjis’ brother Ahmed, a member of the Human Rights Studies Center in Damascus, told Human Rights Watch: “During the revolution Yahya was a member of the Local Coordinating Committee. He was active in organizing peaceful protests and talking to the media and Ma`en was a field activist basically filming incidents on the ground.”
Ahmed al-Sharabji told Human Rights Watch that their family found out after a couple of months from people who were detained and released that Ma`en was being held in the Air Force Intelligence branch near Mezze Airport and Yahya at the Air Force Intelligence branch on Baghdad Street but the family has not been able to reach either one. Osama Ziyadi and Adel Sattar Khoulami, who were detained with the al-Sharabji brothers, also remain in detention but their whereabouts is also unknown.
The exact number of those being held in incommunicado detention is impossible to ascertain given the lack of access to detention facilities. While the International Committee of the Red Cross has had access to `Adra central prison in Damascus and Aleppo central prison, the organization does not have access to all places of detention and does not have the authority conferred on the monitoring mission by a Security Council mandate, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch’s research shows that Syrian security forces have conducted a widespread and systematic campaign of torture of detainees across Syria since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011. Former detainees and defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported horrific torture including sexual abuse such as rape, forced nudity, and electric shock to the genitalia; beatings with batons and cables, particularly targeting sensitive body areas; and burning and electric shocks.
“The horrors taking place inside Syrian dungeons everyday and the lengthy incommunicado detention of peaceful activists will continue until and unless UN monitors find their way inside these facilities,” Whitson said.
Activists on Trial
In other cases, activists have been charged and are on trial for peaceful activities, such as allegedly reporting or distributing information in opposition to the government. On February 16, Air Force Intelligence raided the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) and arrested 16 people, including seven women.
On April 22, eight members of the group – Bassam Al-Ahmad, Joan Farso, Ayham Ghazzoul, Yara Bader, Razan Ghazzawi, Mayadah Khaleel, Sana Zetani, and Hanadi Zahlout – were charged with “possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them”. The charges and detentions appear to be related to SCM’s role in reporting on and advocacy against Syrian government human rights violations.
Five of the men arrested, including Mazen Darwish, the group’s president, and other SCM staff members – Abdel Rahman Hamada, Hussein Ghareer, Mansour al Omari, and Hani Zetan – remain in incommunicado detention.
On March 7, the Military Intelligence Palestine Branch raided Ninar Cafe in Bab Touma, Damascus, detaining nine people including Yara Chammas, the daughter of Michel Chammas, a Syrian attorney recognized for his work with the opposition. On April 25, he released a statement indicating that the general prosecutor had filed nine charges against his daughter including “weakening national sentiment.”
She was released on bail on April 30 and is awaiting trial. Her father told Human Rights Watch that his daughter was detained for her activism, which included “giving humanitarian assistance to displaced families, without sectarianism, without violence.” The father said that a noted journalist, Jihad al Jamal, who was detained with the same group, remains in detention.
Concerns about Health in Detention and Targeting of Family Members
A number of detainees’ relatives have raised concerns regarding the ability of their family members to obtain adequate medical treatment in detention. Bashar al-Issa, the brother of the prominent Kurdish writer Hussein Ali al-Issa, who has been detained since his arrest on September 12, 2011 in Al Hasaka governorate by Air Force Intelligence, explained his concerns to Human Rights Watch. He said his brother “participated in the protests demanding the overthrow of the regime” and that his arrest in September was his second. Bashar al-Issa said:
Three days after he was detained [for the second time since the start of the protests] my sister found out from the Air Force Intelligence branch that he was transferred to Damascus. We think that he is now at the central branch of the Air Force Intelligence managed by Jamil Hassan in Damascus but we don’t know anything about him and I am worried about his health condition. He is 63 years old and has heart problems. I want to know if he is receiving his medication because when he was arrested he didn’t take his medication with him. Three months ago a person who was detained with him informed us that Hussein is suffering from health issues and is unable to stand on his feet by himself. Another source informed me as well that Hussein was admitted to the military hospital for two days escorted by security officers.
The wife of detained teacher Mohamad Yassine Hamawi, said: “My husband is 66 years old and has heart problems, high blood pressure, and a prostate infection. He needs to take his medicine every day.” She also told Human Rights Watch how the circumstances of his detention indicated that he was taken as a hostage, so that their sons would turn themselves in. Describing her husband’s arrest, she said:
On May 4 at around 3 p.m., eight army soldiers wearing military camouflage uniforms knocked on the door. My husband opened the door and as soon as he did the soldiers grabbed him and took him outside. They then entered the house and started searching every single corner. They said they were searching for weapons but of course they didn’t find any. When they didn’t find anything, they broke a cabinet that was locked to open it and took the military service cards of my three sons, Haitham, Muhammad, and Sa`id, and my husband’s passport that he had renewed the day before. They also took Muhammad and Sa`id’s ID cards. One of the soldiers told me “Do not say we robbed the house” and another said: “let the Prince of Qatar pay your expenses. You failed to raise your sons properly.” They also took a computer, two cameras, and the internet router … Before leaving the soldiers told me that they will release my husband if my sons surrender themselves.
An activist, Mustafa Najjar from Aleppo, told Human Rights Watch that his family was detained on May 9, because of his role in organizing protests and distributing flyers and medical supplies. He said:
Yesterday [on May 9] my parents’ neighbor called me to tell me that security forces had entered my parents’ house. I called Baha`, my younger brother, on his mobile but he didn’t answer. After trying several times a security officer answered his phone and ordered me to surrender myself, threatening that if I didn’t they would detain my mother and sisters … I called my neighbor again after that and he told me that they did detain them.
He said that his mother, Munira Safou, 56, and siblings Khadijet Najjar, 27, Mona Najjar, 26, Amal Najjar, 14, and Baha` Najjar, 19, had all been detained.