By William Fisher
At least 88 people are believed to have died in Syria prisons – with evidence that at least 52 of them were tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment -- during five months of pro-reform protests, according to a new report from Amnesty International. The dead included 10 children, some as young as 13.
The report, “Deadly detention: Deaths in custody amid popular protest in Syria,” documents reported deaths in custody between April and mid-August in the wake of sweeping arrests.
The report says the 88 deaths represent a significant escalation in the number of deaths following arrest in Syria. In recent years Amnesty International has typically recorded around five deaths in custody per year in Syria.
“These deaths behind bars are reaching massive proportions, and appear to be an extension of the same brutal disdain for life that we are seeing daily on the streets of Syria,” said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s researcher on Syria.
“The accounts of torture we have received are horrific. We believe the Syrian government to be systematically persecuting its own people on a vast scale,” he said.
The victims recorded in the report were all swept up in arrests after Syrians
took to the streets en masse from March this year. All the victims are believed to have been detained because they were involved, or suspected of being involved, in the pro-reform protests, Amnesty said.
Amnesty clams it has seen video clips of 45 of the cases – taken by
relatives, activists or other individuals – and has asked independent forensic
pathologists to review a number of these.
Injuries on many of the victims’ corpses indicate that they may have suffered horrendous beatings and other abuses. Signs indicating torture include burns, blunt force injuries, whipping marks and slashes.
Most of the cases in the report occurred in Homs and Dera’a governorates, which have seen major protests. Deaths in detention have also been reported in five other governorates, namely Damascus and Rif Damashq, Idlib, Hama and Aleppo.
Thirteen-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb disappeared on 29 April during protests against the siege of Dera’a, and was later found dead with apparent blunt force injuries and a severed penis.
One video clip seen by Amnesty International shows the body of Tariq Ziad Abd al-Qadr from Homs, which was returned to his family on 16 June. His injuries included pulled-out hair, marks to the neck and penis possibly caused by electric shocks, an apparent cigarette burn, whipping marks, stab wounds and burns.
The body of Dr. Sakher Hallak, who ran an eating disorders clinic in Aleppo, was discovered by the side of a road a few days after his arrest on 25 May. Sources told Amnesty International that his injuries included broken ribs, arms and fingers, gouged eyes and mutilated genitals.
Amnesty International is not aware of any independent investigation having been carried out into the causes of death in any of the cases in the report.
The organization has compiled the names of more than 1,800 people reported to have died in Syria since pro-reform protests began. Thousands of others have been arrested, with many held incommunicado at unknown locations at risk of torture or death.
Amnesty International has called on the UN Security Council to refer the
situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, to impose an arms
embargo on Syria and to implement an asset freeze against President Bashar
al-Assad and his senior associates.
“Taken in the context of the widespread and systematic violations taking place in Syria, we believe that these deaths in custody may include crimes against humanity,” said Amnesty’s Sammonds.
“The response from the Security Council has been utterly inadequate so far, but it is not too late for them to take firm and legally binding action,” he added.
Peaceful demonstrations have been growing in Syria since March. The regime of Basher el Assad has taken an unforgiving hard line, deploying snipers from his security forces on rooftops to kill protesters in the streets. He has moved heavy weapons into a number of cities and towns, attacked the people there, and left many of these communities ghost-towns. Thousands have been arrested. Thousands more have fled over the border to refuges camps in Turkey.
Basher al-Assad is a son of Syria’s long-time strongman, Hafez al-Assad, who is responsible for the deaths of approximately 10-40,000 Syrians who attempted a peaceful uprising in 1982.
The Assad family are Alowites, a branch of Shia Islam. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Since the start of the demonstrations, there have been credible reports that Shia Iran is providing assistance to the Assad regime. Iran has blamed the current problems in Syria on the Americans and pro-Israel Zionists.