Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the regime and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.). No internal governmental bodies meaningfully investigated whether security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), more than 227,180 civilians were killed in the conflict from 2011 to December. Other groups estimated this number exceeded 550,000. This discrepancy was due in part to the vast number of disappeared, many of whom remained missing.
During the year the SNHR reported 1,462 civilians were killed, including at least 200 women and 218 children. The majority of these deaths occurred at the beginning of the year, during a military operation led by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies against the areas in and around Idlib.
The regime continued to commit extrajudicial killings and to cause the death of large numbers of civilians throughout regime-controlled territories. For example, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reported that the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Assault Corps of the Syrian Arab Army entered al-Quraya on March 27, killed six armed residents in the fighting, and later summarily executed five men and detained others.
The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) and numerous human rights groups reported the regime continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. According to the SNHR, more than 14,500 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and December, including 179 children and 91 women; the SNHR attributed approximately 99 percent of all cases to regime forces, including 115 deaths during the year (see section 1.c.).
Despite a ceasefire established in March, the regime maintained its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling, killing hundreds of civilians during the year. In 2019 the UN secretary-general established a Board of Inquiry (BOI) to investigate attacks on civilian sites shared between humanitarian groups and military actors for the purpose of deconfliction from September 2018 through 2019 in northwest Syria. In April the BOI concluded that, in four of the seven incidents investigated, it “was highly probable” the Assad regime and its allies were responsible for attacks on UN deconflicted hospitals. In March the COI reporting on Idlib determined there were reasonable grounds to believe Russian forces were guilty of the war crime of “launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas” and that “progovernment forces repeatedly committed the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects and intentionally attacking medical personnel. In attacking hospitals, medical units, and health-care personnel, progovernment forces violated binding international humanitarian law to care for the sick and wounded and committed the war crime of attacking protected objects.”
Other actors in the conflict were also implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).
There were numerous reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of regime authorities, and the vast majority of those disappeared since the start of the conflict remained missing. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. The SNHR reported approximately 1,185 forced disappearances during the year and documented at least 149,360 Syrians were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions. The regime targeted medical personnel and critics, including journalists and protesters, as well as their families and associates. Most disappearances reported by Syrian and international human rights documentation groups appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).
In July, Syrian journalist Wafa Ali Mustafa told the UN Security Council the number of detained and disappeared was still growing as the regime continued to use detention “as a weapon to terrorize civilians.” As of December the regime issued nearly 17 amnesty decrees, the last of which was in March and included only a small number of cases heard by the Counter-Terrorism Court and military field courts. The decree excluded the vast majority of detainees who were never formally convicted of a crime in any court of law and were classified by the international community as unacknowledged detainees or forcibly disappeared.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) reported in August that it had requested information from the regime on 113 individuals whom the regime reportedly subjected to enforced disappearance between May 2019 and May 2020. The UNWGEID received no response from the regime on these or other outstanding cases. The UNWGEID also received reports of disappearances, including women and children, perpetrated by various armed groups, including those affiliated with the Turkish armed forces.
According to the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, in February the regime released the bodies of Maher Suleiman al-Dali and Ahmad Ali al-Awad, who were arresting after defecting from the Syrian army. Both had signed reconciliation agreements.
Throughout the year the regime continued publishing notifications of detainees’ deaths in regime detention facilities. According to Families for Freedom, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and learned that relatives they believed to be alive had died months or even years earlier. In many cases the regime had denied the presence of these individuals in its detention centers until it released death notifications. The SNHR recorded at least 970 of these notifications but estimated that the number of detainees certified as dead was in the thousands. The regime did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers, return bodies to families, or disclose locations where remains were interred.
For example, the SNHR received information in June that Wesam Fawwaz Mer’i al-Haj Ali, a college student detained and forcibly disappeared by regime forces in 2013, had died in regime custody. As was frequently the case, the regime did not provide Wesam’s body to the family or officially inform the family of the timing or manner of his death, although the SNHR reported it was likely due to torture.
The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared approaching authorities to inquire about the locations of their relatives; those who did so had to pay large bribes to learn the locations of relatives or faced systematic refusal by authorities to disclose information about the fate of disappeared individuals.
Some terrorist groups and armed opposition groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).
The regime made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such actions.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, reported thousands of credible cases of regime authorities engaging in systematic torture, abuse, and mistreatment to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations, a systematic regime practice documented throughout the conflict and even prior to 2011. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights assessed that, while individuals were often tortured in order to obtain information, the primary purpose of the regime’s use of torture during interrogations was to terrorize and humiliate detainees.
While most accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in regime custody during the year. Activists maintained that many instances of abuse went unreported. Some declined to allow reporting of their names or details of their cases due to fear of regime reprisal. Many torture victims reportedly died in custody (see section 1.a.).
A military defector, nicknamed “Caesar,” testified outside the country in April that he had been ordered to take photographs of the bodies of victims–including thousands of photographs he later smuggled out of the country–who had been detained, tortured, and extrajudicially killed in regime detention centers between 2011 and 2013. Caesar said the bodies had signs of burning, strangulation, and whipping with cables. NGOs continued to report various forms of torture, including forcing objects into the rectum and vagina, hyperextending the spine, and putting the victim onto the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts. The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison described the testimonies of 14 former detainees held by the regime in Sednaya Prison and reported prison officials subjected detainees to a wide range of torture as an interrogation tactic and, at times, for no reason at all. The SNHR documented the deaths of at least 33 individuals between March and June, including one woman, due to torture and medical negligence in regime detention centers. For example, the State Security Force arrested Mahmoud Abdul Majid al-Rahil from Daraa on May 4, returning his body to his family three days later. Al-Rahil, whose body bore signs of torture, had previously settled his legal and security status with the regime via a reconciliation agreement and was not engaged in military activity at the time of his arrest. In May the SNHR interviewed 96 individuals released under the March amnesty decree, all of whom had been arrested for their connection to protests. Many reported being subjected to torture by regime security forces as a method for extracting confessions to “terrorism” related crimes.
The COI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported regular use of torture against perceived regime opponents at checkpoints and regime facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. Human rights groups identified numerous detention facilities where torture occurred, including the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra Prison; Sednaya Prison; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and the Tishreen Military Hospital.
The SNHR estimated that parties of the conflict committed at least 11,520 acts of sexual violence between 2011 and December. Regime forces were responsible for at least 8,020 cases of sexual violence between 2011 and December, including 879 cases inside detention centers and 443 violations against girls younger than age 18. American University’s Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence stated that regime authorities subjected men, women, and children in detention to sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, sexual torture and abuse, and other forms of humiliating and degrading treatment.
In July, HRW reported the regime and, to a lesser extent, nonstate actors subjected men, boys, transgender women, and nonbinary persons to sexual violence during detention, and that this violence was perpetrated with the intent to torture and terrorize detainees. Those interviewed by HRW described being subjected to rape, threat of rape, genital violence, forced nudity, and sexual harassment. One interviewee, 28-year-old Yousef, stated he was detained by regime intelligence agencies and, once his sexual orientation was revealed, the interrogations increased drastically, accompanied by torture and sexual violence designed to humiliate detainees, particularly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) assessed in June that the regime perpetrated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including the detention and torture of medical workers, intending to “make delivery of health care a crime and to criminalize doctors for treating people.”
There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the regime. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relationships, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. According to reliable witnesses, authorities continued to hold a number of children to compel parents and other relatives associated with opposition fighters to surrender to authorities. According to the SNHR’s database, at least 4,815 children were still detained or forcibly disappeared as of September, with at least 100 of those detentions having taken place during the year. In January the COI issued a special report on abuses against children throughout the conflict in Syria. The report noted that regime coerces detained boys as young as 12, subjecting them to severe beatings and torture and denying them access to food, water, sanitation, and medical care. The COI also noted the presence of male and female detainees as young as age 11 recorded in Security Branches 215, 227, 235, and 248 in Damascus. The COI reported that children were made to witness the torture and other abuses inflicted on family members and, on occasions, were forced to inflict torture on other detainees. One COI interviewee described how a 16-year-old boy was forced to electrocute the genitals of another detainee.
The COI reported that, beginning in 2011 and continuing throughout the conflict, security forces subjected detainees to mistreatment in military hospitals, often obstructing medical care or exacerbating existing injuries as a technique of abuse and interrogation.
Numerous human rights organizations concluded that regime forces continued to inflict systematic, officially sanctioned torture on civilians in detention with impunity. There were no known prosecutions or convictions in the country of security force personnel for abuses and no reported regime actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
In April the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, initiated the first trial for state-sponsored torture in Syria, charging former regime officials Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib. Raslan was charged with crimes against humanity, rape, aggravated sexual assault, and 58 murders at Branch 251, where he allegedly oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 individuals between April 2011 and September 2012. Al-Gharib was charged with aiding and abetting in crimes against humanity and complicity in some 30 cases of torture.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and in many instances were life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical and psychological abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) assessed in April the conditions in regime prisons were alarming and presented unique risks of a COVID-19 outbreak. The SNHR estimated at least 149,360 Syrians were in detention centers or forcibly disappeared, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions.
Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. Poor conditions in detention centers were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy. Human rights groups reported that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults.
Reports from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) suggested that there continued to be many informal detention sites and that authorities held thousands of prisoners in converted military bases and in civilian infrastructure, such as schools and stadiums, and in unknown locations. Activists asserted the regime housed arrested protesters in factories and vacant warehouses that were overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitary facilities.
In some cases authorities transferred detainees from unofficial holding areas to intelligence services facilities. Detention conditions at security and intelligence service facilities continued to be the harshest, especially for political or national security prisoners. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water or adequate food, medical staff and equipment, and sufficient sleeping quarters.
Inside prisons and detention centers, the prevalence of death from disease remained high due to unsanitary conditions and the withholding of food, medical care, and medication. Local NGOs and medical professionals reported authorities denied medical care to prisoners with pre-existing health needs, such as diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, and often denied pregnant women any medical care. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. One former detainee, Omar Alshogre, testified the regime detained him as a minor in 2012 and subjected him to extensive torture, including at Branch 215 where he was held in an underground prison cell with hundreds of other detainees. He said malnutrition and disease, including tuberculosis, was prevalent among the detainees.
Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable. The OHCHR reported in April that Syrian detainees with disabilities and underlying health conditions were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
According to the COI, conditions in detention centers run by nonstate actors, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked HTS, violated international law (see section 1.g.).
Administration: There were no credible mechanisms or avenues for prisoners to complain or submit grievances, and authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations or document complaints or grievances. Activists reported there was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. The law provides for prompt access to family members, but NGOs and families reported inconsistent application of the law, with most families waiting years to see relatives and, in many cases, never being able to visit them at all without bribing regime officials.
In areas where regime control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration. Former police forces or members of armed opposition groups operated facilities in areas under the control of opposition forces. Nonstate actors often did not respect due process and lacked training to run facilities.
Independent Monitoring: The regime prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended its visits to formal prisons in 2016 and reported making limited progress on restoring family links to relatives in detention. The ICRC was unable to visit intelligence and military detention centers during the year.
The ICRC and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties to gain access to detention centers across the country but were unable to gain access to any regime-controlled facilities during the year. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided the ICRC and UN-supported NGOs access to SDF prisons during the year.
Reportedly, the regime often failed to notify foreign governments when it arrested, detained, released, or deported their citizens, especially when the case involved political or national security charges. The regime also failed to provide consular access to foreign citizens known to be in its prisons and, on numerous occasions, claimed these individuals were not in its custody or even in the country.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the regime to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The COI and various NGOs, activists, and former detainees reported police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the regime did not observe this requirement. Arbitrary arrests continued during the year, according to the COI, local news sources, and various human rights organizations.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law generally requires a warrant for arrest in criminal cases, but police often cited emergency or national security justifications for acting without a warrant, which was permitted under the law. Under the constitution and code of criminal procedure, for example, defendants must be informed of the reasons for their arrest, and they are entitled to legal aid and are presumed innocent until convicted by a court in a fair trial. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the regime applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which could be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or the court may appoint an attorney, although authorities did not ensure lawyers’ access to their clients before trial. The ICTJ reported the accused were generally tried without a lawyer and denied the right to present a defense. Judges usually followed the intelligence director’s sentence recommendations, even though it was widely known many confessions were made under torture.
In cases involving political or national security offenses, authorities reportedly often made arrests in secret, with cases assigned in an apparently arbitrary manner to the Counterterrorism Court (CTC), courts-martial, or criminal courts. The CTC, military field courts, and military courts are exempted from following the same procedures as ordinary courts, allowing them to operate outside of the code of criminal procedure and deny basic rights guaranteed to defendants. Numerous human rights organizations asserted that trials before these courts were unfair and summary in nature. The regime reportedly detained suspects incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied them the right to a judicial determination of their pretrial detention. In most cases authorities reportedly did not identify themselves or inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Of the former detainees interviewed by ICTJ, mostly from Sednaya Prison, 99 percent said they were never provided paperwork describing the charges against them during their entire period of detention.
NGOs such as the STJ and the Office of Daraa Martyrs confirmed that reported intelligence branches had arrested at least 500 Syrians who had signed reconciliation agreements with the regime during the last two years. The Office of Daraa Martyrs stated reconciliation agreements did not include amnesty for crimes other than opposing the government; therefore, the regime often fabricated criminal charges against former opposition members. Organizations such as Amnesty International also charged the regime with breaking terms of surrender deals and arresting civilians in Homs, Daraa, and the Damascus countryside.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGO reports and confirmed by regime memoranda secured and released by human rights documentation groups, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. In areas under regime control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that regime forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests.
Estimates varied widely on the number of Syrians remaining in arbitrary detention, as the regime continued to withhold information on the status of the vast majority of detainees. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported at least 149,360 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed 88 percent of these cases to the regime.
In May the ICTJ issued a report stating that the Syrian Arab Army and the four main security services–Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence Directorate, and Air Force Intelligence Directorate–were responsible for the majority of arbitrary arrests and detentions, often on fabricated charges. The SNHR reported that regime forces and proregime militias were responsible for nearly 500 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year, including eight minors and 11 women. The COI stated regime forces and affiliated militias continued to hold tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. It further reported that women with familial ties to opposition fighters or defectors were detained for intelligence-gathering purposes or retribution.
In June, Amnesty International reported regime security forces arrested 11 men for participating in peaceful protests in Sweida. The regime threatened to send eight of them to the “antiterrorism” court in Damascus if protests in Sweida continued. The regime reportedly carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Douma, arresting 12 civilians in June and taking them to an undisclosed location.
The PHR reported that regime forces continued to target specifically health-care workers because of their status as medical professionals and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers. Survivors reported the regime relied on torture to coerce medical workers to confess to crimes they did not commit and gather information on other health workers and healthcare activities. Additionally, human rights activists said the regime was arresting health-care providers who spoke to international media outlets about the COVID-19 crisis or contradicted the tightly controlled narrative on the impact of the pandemic on the country.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) reported authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at checkpoints, often citing no reason for their arrest or solely for being of military age. Some who had previously settled their security status with the regime via reconciliation agreements were then transferred to a long-term detention facility or forcibly disappeared.
The HRW reported regime intelligence branches were arbitrarily detaining and disappearing persons in areas retaken by the regime, in violation of reconciliation agreements. The COI reported fear of such arbitrary arrests and detention deterred internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes in areas retaken by regime forces.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.). The STJ reported that Turkish-supported armed opposition groups (TSOs) detained residents based on their affiliation with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (SNES). For example, the STJ reported that civil police affiliated with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups receiving support from the government of Turkey, arbitrarily arrested Kurdish civilians Samia Alo, Abdulhamid Shaiko, Mustafa Ahmad Ibrahim, Abdulrahamn Mustafa Alo, and Rashid Mustafa Ibo in an April 8 raid, demanding their families pay a fine to secure their release.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Authorities reportedly held thousands of detainees incommunicado for months or years before releasing them without charge or bringing them to trial, while many detainees died in prison (see section 1.a.). A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. There were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for the prison and detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available. Syrian human rights groups continued to highlight the plight of detainees and advocate for their release.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and any delay in obtaining judicial process. If the court finds that authorities detained persons unlawfully, they are entitled to prompt release, compensation, or both. Few detainees, however, had the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or obtain prompt release and compensation for unlawful detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities regularly subjected courts to political influence and prosecutors and defense attorneys to intimidation and abuse. Outcomes of cases where defendants were affiliated with the opposition appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. The SNHR reported regime authorities detained and denied access to fair public trial at least 1,730 individuals during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.