a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports the government and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.).
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the conflict had killed at least 222,000 civilians from 2011 until September, including almost 6,400 civilians from January through October. The government continued its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling. The government continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that the government assault on eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killed hundreds of persons, with the SNHR reporting that more than 2,600 civilians died in eastern Ghouta in February and March. In June government and progovernment forces attacked the southwest Daraa governorate, with multiple sources reporting more than 230 civilian deaths.
Government and progovernment forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugee camps; these attacks included bombardment with improvised explosive devices, commonly referred to as “barrel bombs,” in addition to the use of chemical weapons. It used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.
Other actors in the conflict also were implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).
On November 23, unidentified gunmen assassinated activists and journalists, Raed Faris and Hamud Junaid, in Idlib Province. Faris and Junaid were prominent civilian leaders of the peaceful revolution that began in 2011. They spoke out against the abuses of the government and of the extremist elements of the opposition. As of late November, no group had taken responsibility for the assassinations, although media reports suggested an extremist group was responsible.
There were numerous reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. The UN COI reported the number of forced disappearances remained high. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. In August the SNHR attributed 86 percent of the estimated 95,000 forced disappearances from 2011 until August to the government. The government reportedly targeted critics, specifically journalists, medical personnel, antigovernment protesters, their families, and associates. The majority of disappearances reported by activists, human rights observers, and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).
In July the government began publishing notifications of thousands of deaths of detainees in government detention facilities. The SNHR reported the number of detainees certified as dead was unknown but estimated it to be in the thousands. The government did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers. According to media reports, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and discovered relatives they believed to be alive had died months or years earlier.
For example, in 2011 the Air Force Security Branch detained Yahya Shurbaji, an activist known for his promotion of nonviolent protest. Shurbaji’s health and whereabouts remained unknown until July when his family received confirmation that he died at Sednaya Prison in 2013. The government claimed Shurbaji died of natural causes, but he shared the same date of death with at least three other detainees at Sednaya Prison, the subject of numerous reports of torture and extrajudicial killings since 2011.
The COI reported that fears of arbitrary arrests and detention prevented IDPs from returning to their homes in areas retaken by government forces. The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared to approach 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.
Armed groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).
The government 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, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local NGOs, however, reported thousands of credible cases of government authorities engaging in frequent torture and abuse to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations. Observers reported most cases of torture or mistreatment occurred in detention centers operated by each of the government’s security service branches. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the COI reported regular use of torture against perceived government opponents at checkpoints and government facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. They identified specific detention facilities where torture occurred, including: the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra and Sednaya Prisons; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and Tishreen Military Hospital.
The COI also reported that the Counterterrorism Court (CTC) and courts-martial relied on forced confessions and information acquired through torture to obtain convictions. A large number of torture victims reportedly died in custody. The SNHR reported that more than 14,000 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and September and attributed approximately 99 percent of these cases to government forces (see section 1.a.). The SNHR attributed to the government more than 930 deaths due to torture in the first nine months of 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 government reprisal.
The COI noted torture methods remained consistent. These included beatings on the head, bodies, and soles of feet (falaqua) with wooden and metal sticks, hoses, cables, belts, whips, and wires. Authorities also reportedly sexually assaulted detainees; administered electric shocks, including to their genitals; burned detainees with cigarettes; and placed them in stress positions for prolonged periods of time. A substantial number of detainees reported being handcuffed and then suspended from the ceiling or a wall by their wrists for hours.
Other reported methods of physical torture included removing nails and hair, stabbings, and cutting off body parts, including ears and genitals. Numerous human rights organizations reported other 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. Additionally, officers reportedly continued the practice of shabeh, in which they stripped detainees naked, hung them for prolonged periods from the ceiling, and administered electrical shocks. In August Deutsche Welle reported the experiences of Mizyed Khalid Tahad, a regime prisoner who detailed his torture during detention at Sednaya during 2012-13, including electric shock, shabeh, beatings, lashings with a pipe, being squeezed into a tire, and malnourishment. During the year NGOs, including (Amnesty International) AI, Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights (Urnammu), and Save the Rest continued to report that large numbers of detainees at Sednaya Military Prison died after repeated torture and deprivation of food, water, ventilation, medicine, and medical care.
There is no indication government use of psychological torture decreased. One commonly reported practice was detention of victims overnight in cells with corpses of previous victims. The SNHR reported psychological torture methods included forcing prisoners to witness the rape of other prisoners, threatening the rape of family members (in particular female family members), forcing prisoners to undress, and insulting prisoners’ beliefs. For example, in March the COI reported a 2014 incident in which a government officer in Damascus took two girls, held their faces down on the desk, and raped them in turn. The girls reportedly tried to resist. The officer then reportedly told a male detainee, “You see what I am doing to them? I will do this to your wife and daughter.”
The COI and various NGOs, including HRW, AI, and the SNHR, continued to report widespread instances of rape and sexual abuse, including of minors. In March the COI reported government forces and affiliated militias raped and sexually abused women and girls, as well as men occasionally, during ground operations, house raids, and at checkpoints. One such example in the March COI report is that of a survivor of the al-Houla (Homs) massacre in 2012, who described how government forces entered her home and raped her daughter in front of her and her husband before shooting both her daughter and husband. Two soldiers then reportedly raped the mother.
The COI stated that government authorities subjected women and girls in detention to rape and gang rape in 20 government political and military institutions, while authorities raped men and boys and sometimes mutilated their genitals in 15 such branches. The March COI report detailed how in one such case at Branch 215 in 2012, an 18-year-old man from Daraa was severely beaten, threatened with the rape of his sisters, and then gang raped by five officers. One of the officers reportedly raped the detainee five more times over a month before authorities transferred the detainee to another detention facility. In another case the March COI report detailed how, over 10 consecutive days at the Hama State Security Branch in 2012, two officers, one of whom was a lieutenant colonel, raped two female detainees next to one another. On one occasion the same two officers reportedly raped the women in front of two naked male detainees whose hands and feet were tied in the shabeh position. In March the COI reported cases in 2012 in which perpetrators exploited blood relations by forcing male relatives to have intercourse with one another at the Damascus Political Intelligence Branch.
There were widespread reports that government security forces engaged in abuse and inhuman treatment of prisoners. According to the COI, most were civilians initially held at checkpoints or taken prisoner during military incursions. While the majority of accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in government custody. The COI assessed in March that the frequency, duration, and severity of the reported abuse suggested victims’ sustained long-term psychological and physical damage.
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 in abuse and interrogation. There were numerous reports of deaths in custody at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison. Authorities consistently directed families of detainees seeking information to the Qaboun Military Police and Tishreen Military Hospital. In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families. In July the government confirmed the death of activist Islam Dabbas in 2013 in Sednaya Prison, but they did not return his body.
There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the government. The COI noted regular reports of detention and torture of children younger than age 13, in some cases as young as 11, in government detention facilities. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relations, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. In March the UN Human Rights Council held a high-level panel discussion on human rights violations against children in Syria at which NGOs presented evidence of such abuses. The UN special representative for children and armed conflict reported that child detainees, largely boys, suffered similar or identical methods of torture practiced on adults. A May report from Urnammu, a NGO that focuses on the Syrian conflict, on abuses against children described usage of a torture wheel, shabeh, lynchings, beatings, rape, and forced sexual acts among children, among other abuses. For example, a May report from Urnammu detailed the experiences of Hamed, who was 15 years old when detained in 2014 in the Political Security branch in Latakia. Hamed described being tied to a torture wheel and being forced to confess to hiding weapons and tunneling, then being transferred to the Criminal Security branch where he reportedly was beaten and threatened with being shot. 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.
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.
Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. The COI reported in March that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults. In a report released in May, Urnammu documented the detention of more than 2,400 children, while the SNHR reported the regime detained more than 7,000 children from the start of the conflict in 2011 until March and more than 200 children during the first half of the year.
According to the COI, government detention facilities lacked food, water, space, hygiene, and medical care. Poor conditions were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy.
According to local and international NGOs, the government held prisoners and detainees in severely cramped quarters with little or no access to toilets, hygiene, medical supplies, or adequate food. In March the COI reported detainees in government detention facilities subsisted in severely inhuman conditions. A February COI report stated that authorities kept detainees in government facilities in overcrowded cells, lacking adequate sanitation, and suffering from lice infestations. In August CNN reported that malnourishment and denial of medical treatment continued to lead to the deaths of detainees.
Reports from multiple international NGO sources continued to suggest there were also 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 government also 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 denied pregnant women any medical care. Authorities retaliated against prisoners who requested attention for the sick. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. The May report from Urnammu included the example of Ali, a 14-year-old from Aleppo, who was arrested in 2014 and held incommunicado for 10 months. Ali described the abuse of a fellow child detainee, “B.K.” from Kafer Yabos, who authorities tortured until he could no longer control his bodily functions. Ali said B.K.’s entire body was infected and that the other young detainees cared for him, fed him, and cleaned him and his wounds until he died.
Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable.
Conditions in detention centers operated by various opposition groups were not well known, but the COI and local NGOs reported accounts of arbitrary detention, torture, inhuman treatment, and abuse. According to the COI, conditions in detention center run by nonstate actors such as HTS and ISIS 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 some families waiting years to see relatives. The government continued to detain thousands of prisoners without charge and incommunicado in unknown locations.
In areas where government 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 understand due process and lacked sufficient training to run facilities.
Independent Monitoring: The government prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. AI, for example, has attempted with little success to engage Syrian authorities on human rights concerns, including torture and other mistreatment, enforced disappearances, and deaths in custody, through various means since 2011. For example, in January 2017 AI sent a letter to authorities requesting clarifications regarding the numerous allegations documented in their report “Human Slaughter House,” and in February 2017 the government denied the claims.
Some opposition forces invited the COI to visit facilities they administered and allowed some international human rights groups, including HRW, to visit. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties, except ISIS, to gain access to detention centers across the country but was unable to gain access to any government-controlled facilities during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the government to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not observe this requirement.
Arbitrary arrests continued according to local news sources, and several human rights organizations reported arbitrary detentions in the tens of thousands. The SNHR reported government forces and progovernment militias were responsible for more than 3,200 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported almost 119,000 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed almost 90 percent of such cases to the government. A March COI report stated that government forces and affiliated militias continued to detain tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. Government authorities held the vast majority without due process or access to legal representation or to their families. Victims endured brutal torture, and many died in detention or authorities summarily executed them. The COI report also concluded, “acts amounted to the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, and imprisonment in the context of its widespread and systematic detentions. They have also amounted to the war crimes of murder, cruel treatment, torture, rape, sexual violence, and outrages upon personal dignity.”
HRW reported the government continued to use counterterrorism law to arrest and convict nonviolent activists on charges of aiding terrorists in trials that violated basic due process rights. Although authorities reportedly brought charges under the guise of countering violent militancy, allegations included peaceful acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.
Government security forces failed to respond to or protect large regions of the country from violence. In February the COI reported some armed opposition groups maintained makeshift detention sites to hold civilians. The COI reported the SDF claimed to have detained nearly 1,400 terrorist fighters, the majority of whom were ISIS members but also included women and children associated with ISIS (see section 1.g.).
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The government’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence reported to the Ministry of Defense, the Political Security Directorate reported to the Ministry of Interior, and the General Intelligence Directorate reported directly to the Office of the President. The Interior Ministry controlled the four separate divisions of police: emergency police, traffic police, neighborhood police, and riot police. Government-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces (NDF), integrated with other government-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces, but did not maintain effective control over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations. These included Russian armed forces, Hizballah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and nonuniformed progovernment militias, such as the NDF. Impunity continued to be a widespread problem. The General Command of the Army and Armed Forces may issue arrest warrants for crimes committed by military officers, members of the internal security forces, or customs police during their normal duties; military courts must try such cases. Nevertheless, security forces operated independently and generally outside the control of the legal system. There were no known prosecutions or convictions of security force personnel for abuse or corruption and no reported government actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
Opposition forces established irregularly constituted courts and detention facilities in areas under their control, which varied greatly in organization and adherence to the rule of law. Some groups upheld the country’s law, while others followed a 1996 draft Arab League Unified Penal Code based on sharia or implemented a mix of customary law and sharia. The experience, expertise, and credentialing of opposition judges and religious scholars also varied widely, and dominant armed militias in the area often subjected them to their orders.
ISIS claimed that it based administration of justice in the territory it controlled on sharia. As detailed by the New York Times, ISIS reportedly authorized its police forces, known as “Hisbah,” to administer summary punishment for violations of ISIS’ morality code.
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. Police usually brought arrested individuals to a police station for processing and detention until a trial date was set. The law limits the length of time authorities may hold a person without charge to 60 days, but according to various NGOs, activists, and former detainees, police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the government applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which can 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 assure lawyers access to their clients before trial. According to local human rights organizations, denial of access to a lawyer was common.
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 CTC, courts-martial, or criminal courts. The government 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 inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Security detainees did not have access to lawyers before or during questioning, or throughout preparation and presentation of their defense.
The government often reportedly 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 government 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.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces continued previous practices of arbitrary arrests, and detainees had inconsistent legal redress. Reports continued of security services arresting relatives of wanted persons to pressure individuals to surrender. Police rarely issued or presented warrants or court orders before an arrest. According to reports, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that government forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests. In areas under government control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. For example, the SNHR reported that on June 21, government forces raided a residence in the Jaloub al Mal’ab neighborhood of Hama, arrested 11 civilians, including two women and three children, and took them to an undisclosed location. The COI reported in March that authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at some checkpoints. Often authorities cited no reason for arresting civilians.
Checkpoints operated by the government were a commonly reported location for arbitrary arrests, sometimes resulting in transfer to a long-term detention facility or disappearance. Government military and security forces reportedly arrested men at checkpoints solely for being of military age. According to the COI, there continued to be frequent accounts of enforced disappearances following arrest at checkpoints.
Multiple reports from local and international NGOs stated that the government prevented the majority of those detained from contacting their relatives or obtaining a lawyer. When authorities occasionally released detainees, it was often without any formal judicial procedures. Hundreds of detainees interviewed by human rights groups stated they had been arrested, detained, questioned, often tortured, and released after months or years of detention without seeing a judge or being sentenced.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.).
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. A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. In previous years there were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for prison/detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available during the year. 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 or 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.
Amnesty: In October the government granted amnesty to army deserters and civilians who avoided military duty, provided they reported for duty within four months if inside Syria and within six months if outside the country. The amnesty does not cover fighting against the government or joining the opposition, regarded by the government as terrorists. Media reported that refugees were skeptical, fearing forced conscription and imprisonment. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the government. During the year there were increasing reports of government forces violating prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns concentrated against civilians and former affiliates of armed opposition factions in areas that previously signed settlement agreements with the government. For example, the SNHR reported that on August 14, government forces arrested 80 civilians in the al Lajat suburbs of Daraa.
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 with political context appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. Government authorities detained without access to fair public trial tens of thousands of individuals, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial but not necessarily a public trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the government did not respect judicial independence.
The constitution presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated that the CTC or courts-martial did not respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them with interpretation as necessary, although authorities did not verifiably enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported that the accused were unaware of the charges against them. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held in camera. The law entitles defendants representation of their choice, but it does not permit legal representation for defendants accused of spying; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents. Defense attorneys often lacked adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, as the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) and other NGOs reported authorities arbitrarily assigned defense attorneys to many defendants at the courthouse on the day of trial. Human rights lawyers reported that in some politically charged cases, the government provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. Defendants may present witnesses and evidence and confront the prosecution or plaintiff witnesses, but authorities often did not respect this right. Defendants may not legally be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but family members and NGOs routinely reported that judges accepted confessions of guilt elicited through torture or intimidation, as described in a March report by the COI and a May report by Urnammu. Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation.
The COI, AI, ILAC, and others have reported the lack of due process in the CTC and courts-martial. In trials reportedly lasting between one and three minutes, judges reportedly used coerced confessions obtained through torture as often the only evidence to sentence prisoners to summary execution. Multiple sources alleged the government killed as many as 50 detainees per day at Sednaya Prison, since 2011. AI reported in 2017 that at Sednaya Prison an execution panel including the director of Sednaya, the military prosecutor of the court-martial, and a representative from the intelligence agencies met prisoners sentenced to death by one of two courts-martial in the al-Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus, and then prison guards immediately hanged the prisoners. Although the government denied using a crematorium to dispose of prisoners, the government failed to return the bodies of thousands of deceased prisoners after releasing death notices during the year.
Not all citizens enjoyed these rights equally, in part because interpretations of religious law provide the basis for elements of family and criminal law and discriminate against women. Some personal status laws apply sharia regardless of the religion of those involved. Additionally, media and NGO reports suggested the government denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the government, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-held areas. Sentences for persons accused of antigovernment activity tended to be harsh, if they reached trial, with violent and nonviolent offenders receiving similar punishments. For example, the government arrested internet activist Bassel Khartabil in March 2012. He was held for nine months of incommunicado detention, then subsequently moved to Adra Prison in Damascus, where his family was allowed to visit him. In October 2015 authorities moved Bassel to an unknown destination where he was later sentenced to death. According to the SNHR, the majority of those tried received five- to 20-year prison sentences. The government did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. Although activists reported individuals charged under the counterterrorism law could retain attorneys to move their trial date, according to the ILAC, authorities did not allow them to speak during proceedings or retain copies of documents on the court’s file.
In opposition-controlled areas, legal or trial procedures varied by locale and the armed group in control. Local human rights organizations reported that local governing structures assumed these responsibilities. HRW reported that civilians administered these processes employing customary sharia laws in some cases and national laws in others. Sentencing by opposition sharia councils sometimes resulted in public executions, without an appeals process or visits by family members.
According to local NGOs, opposition-run sharia councils continued to discriminate against women, not allowing them to serve as judges or lawyers or to visit detainees.
In the territories they controlled, Kurdish authorities created a legal code based on the “Social Charter.” Reports described the Social Charter as a mix of Syrian criminal and civil law with laws concerning divorce, marriage, weapons ownership, and tax evasion drawn from EU law, but without certain fair trial standards–such as the prohibition on arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer–that are customary in western judicial systems. The justice system consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies. In May Urnammu reported arbitrary arrests increased and that some opponents of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their families were forcibly disappeared (see section 1.g.).
In March and August, the COI reported that HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in its sharia courts the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
In the decreasing amount of territory it controlled, ISIS reportedly established courts to preside over its interpretation of sharia headed by judges with varied credentials. In February the COI reported that ISIS detained civilians in areas under its control accused of violating its rules or suspected of cooperating with enemy forces, members of minority religious groups, journalists, and activists accused of reporting on violations by the group, and frequently conducted public executions without proper judicial proceedings.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees.
AI and other NGOs reported the systematic arrest of tens of thousands of citizens since 2011. At greatest risk were those perceived to oppose the government, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies–Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Political Security, and General Intelligence–were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.
AI reported that the total number of political prisoners and detainees was difficult to determine in view of the lack of government information and absence of government transparency. Authorities continued to refuse to divulge information regarding numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges, but they did release thousands of death notices of detainees during the year.
According to the Washington Post, lawyers familiar with the process said the Defense Ministry sent the names of detainees to civil registry offices across the country throughout the year and instructed that these prisoners be registered as dead. The deaths were registered across the provinces of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Latakia.
The civil registry offices issued notices that were essentially executive summaries, reportedly listing few details about the deceased. Military hospitals issued other death notices, formal certificates, and medical reports. These routinely listed the cause of death as heart attack or stroke.
In March the SNHR reported that more than 104,000 persons remained in detention for reasons related to the conflict, including women and children, as well as doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Prison conditions for political or national security prisoners, especially accused opposition members, reportedly continued to be much worse than those for common criminals. According to local NGOs, authorities deliberately placed political prisoners in crowded cells with convicted and alleged felons and subjected them to verbal and physical threats and abuse. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, particularly the Families for Freedom collective, authorities refused many political prisoners access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the government denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells.
Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. While the government released thousands of detainee death notices during the year, there were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by government forces: nonviolent protester Abdel Aziz Kamal al-Rihawi; Alawite opposition figure Abdel Aziz al-Khair; Kurdish activist Berazani Karro; Yassin Ziadeh, brother of dissident Radwan Ziadeh; human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza; human rights activist Adel Barazi; and peace activist and theater director Zaki Kordillo and his son, Mihyar Kordillo.
HRW reported that courts continued to detain activists under the counterterrorism law, referring detainees arbitrarily to the CTC, courts-martial, or criminal courts, if at all. Authorities continued to re-arrest many of those released under earlier amnesties and those who previously signed settlement agreements with the government.
There were few updates in the kidnappings of many persons believed abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups. As of March 2017, the SNHR attributed several thousand arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances to armed opposition groups (see section 1.g.).
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Government civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. ISIS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.
In the Kurdish-administered parts of northeastern Syria, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a court.
Government security forces routinely seized detainees’ property, personal items, and electronics. The law also provides for the confiscation of movable and immovable property of persons convicted of terrorism, a common charge for political opponents and other detainees since 2012. Security forces did not catalog these items in accordance with the law and, although detained individuals had the right to retrieve their confiscated belongings after release, authorities often did not return the property. According to media reports and activists, government forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs. The CTC can try to convict cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of such property left by refugees and IDPs. The situation was further complicated due to the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.
Law No. 10, passed on April 2, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state. If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government. An individual can prove ownership in person or through designated proxies.
In May HRW reported that the government’s adoption of Law No. 10 will lead to confiscation of property without due process or compensation and will create a major obstacle for refugees and IDPs to return home. HRW said that it will be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property and that the procedural requirement of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population. Subsequently, in an October report, HRW detailed how the government began preventing displaced residents from former antigovernment-held areas in Darayya and Qaboun from returning to their properties, including by demolishing their properties with no warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation. The government amended the law on November 7 to add an appeals process, but NGOs continued to express serious concern the law would be implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary searches, but the government routinely failed to respect these prohibitions. Police and other security services frequently bypassed search warrant requirements in criminal cases by citing security reasons or emergency grounds for entry into private property. Arbitrary home raids occurred in large cities and towns of most governorates where the government maintained a presence, usually following antigovernment protests, opposition attacks against government targets, or resumption of government control.
The government continued to open mail addressed to both citizens and foreign residents and routinely monitored internet communications, including email (see section 2.a.).
As described in the February and March COI reports and the May Urnammu report, the government employed informer systems against political opponents and perceived national security threats.
The government continued to bar membership in some political organizations, including Islamist parties and often arrested their members (see section 3).
The government reportedly punished large numbers of family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives, as indicated in the March COI report. In May a report by Urnammu included the example of a fighter from Idlib; government forces arrested his mother (Bahia) in 2012, as well as his sister (Misa) and 15-year-old nephew (Salim) in 2015, to pressure him to surrender; the three family members remained in detention as of May.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
The government, nongovernment militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, and extremist groups such as HTS and ISIS continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The government of Turkey participated in armed combat in the northwest of the country. The governments of Russia and Iran, as well as Hizballah, supported government forces across the country. The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the government’s systemic disregard for the safety and well-being of its people. These abuses manifested themselves in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, a breakdown in the ability of law enforcement authorities to protect the majority of individuals from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Numerous reports such as those by the COI in February and March indicated that the government arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and detained persons on a large scale. Attacks against schools, hospitals, places of worship, water and electrical stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, densely populated residential areas, and houses were common throughout the country. In May the COI concluded that the methods employed in Syria to carry out sieges, as documented by the COI since 2012, amounted to egregious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law and, in some instances, to war crimes.
As of October there were more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 5.9 million IDPs. The government frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups.
Media sources and human rights groups varied in their estimates of how many persons have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented almost 365,000 conflict-related deaths and estimated 522,000 total conflict-related deaths from 2011 until September, while the SNHR estimated more than 220,000 civilians were killed during the same time. The SNHR attributed 89 percent of civilian deaths to government forces and Iranian militias.
Killings: The government reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
Reports from NGOs, including reports cited by the United Nations, indicated that the government siege and recapture of eastern Ghouta resulted in mass civilian casualties. The SNHR compiled a list of almost 1,500 civilians killed in the offensive. The COI reported in February, May, and August that government and progovernment forces attacked civilian infrastructure, including temporary shelters, and both makeshift and formal hospitals. Media and NGOs widely reported aerial bombardments that they characterized as indiscriminate, including with “barrel bombs.”
The COI concluded in an August report that progovernment militias committed war crimes on April 8 and 23 by launching attacks killing six civilians near Makramiyah village and the Dhahabiyah IDP site.
The COI also reported in February and August that armed rebel groups launched counterattacks from eastern Ghouta; these counterattacks, in the view of the COI, were not directed against military objectives. For example, in February the COI concluded that Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq ar-Rahman committed a war crime by launching what it described as indiscriminate attacks against Damascus city with unguided mortars that killed dozens of civilians. The SNHR attributed 30 civilian deaths to armed opposition groups in the first half of the year.
In August the COI concluded that on January 18, Kurdish forces committed a war crime by launching an attack it characterized as indiscriminate by shelling a psychiatric hospital in Azaz and killing a woman. The SNHR attributed more than 110 civilian deaths to the Kurdish forces (mainly YPG) in the first half of the year.
Lebanese Hezbollah (LHZ) reportedly committed numerous abuses and violations throughout the conflict. For example, according to multiple news outlets, during government-led military operations to capture Daraa, LHZ field officer Major Wassim Hourur executed 23 soldiers from the Ninth Armored Division in the Zanamin area after they refused his order to board vehicles and deploy to Daraa.
Violent extremist and terrorist groups HTS and ISIS reportedly committed abuses and violations.
The SNHR attributed 23 civilian deaths to the HTS in the first half of the year. The COI concluded in August that Faylaq ar-Rahman and/or the HTS and Ahrar al-Sham were responsible for war crimes as well as intending to spread terror among civilians with mortar attacks it characterized as indiscriminate and which killed civilians in Damascus on January 22, February 1, and February 6.
Media outlets reported that ISIS killed more than 250 persons in July in Sweida Province, killing persons in their homes and killing others with two suicide-bombing attacks in the Druze-majority Sweida city. Media and HRW reported ISIS kidnapped at least 27 persons during these attacks and cited reports from local media that two of those kidnapped died, including one by beheading. In November government forces negotiated the release of the remaining 19 hostages in Palmyra.
Foreign powers also were implicated in deaths reportedly resulting from indiscriminate use of force.
The SNHR attributed almost 400 civilian deaths to Russia in the first half of the year and more than 6,200 since entry into the conflict. In its February report, the COI implicated Russian forces in a continued pattern of attacks affecting crowded marketplaces. For example, the February COI report detailed how in November 2017, minutes after 2 p.m., a series of airstrikes hit the main market, surrounding houses, and the Free Syrian police station in a densely civilian-populated area of Atarib, Aleppo, killing at least 84 persons, including six women and five children. The COI reported that all information available indicated that a Russian fixed-wing aircraft conducted the strikes and concluded that the attack may amount to a war crime.
There were reports Turkish armed forces killed civilians during the capture of Afrin. For example, in August the COI reported that on March 16, the Turkish air force and affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) units continued to escalate bombardments over Afrin city. Witnesses observed fighter jets circling above the Al-Mahmoudiyah neighborhood and described an attack launched opposite a cattle market, where dozens of civilians reportedly had queued in vehicles, waiting to leave the city. The strike reportedly killed at least 20 civilians, including women, children, and elderly persons. The COI assessed that, in conducting airstrikes beginning on January 20, the Turkish air force may have failed to take all feasible precautions prior to launching certain attacks, which it asserted was a violation of international humanitarian law.
Abductions: Government and progovernment forces reportedly were responsible for the vast majority of disappearances during the year (see section 1.b.). In August the SNHR reported approximately 95,000 forcibly disappeared since 2011, asserting that the government disappeared 86 percent of them.
Armed groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists. As of March the SNHR attributed more than 2,400 ongoing arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances to Kurdish forces (mainly YPG), more than 2,500 to other armed opposition groups, almost 1,700 to HTS, and more than 8,100 to ISIS.
In March the COI reported that members of armed groups detained women and girls belonging to minority religious groups to use them as bargaining chips for initiating prisoner swaps with commanders detained by government forces. The March COI report described a 2013 raid in which Jaysh al-Islam, Ainad al-Sham, and other armed groups took hostage numerous Alawite families and some Ismaili, Shia, Druze, and Christian families from Adra al-Omaliyah, Damascus, and moved them to Douma. The Atlantic reported that government forces secured the release of 200 Alawite hostages from Jaysh al-Islam during the recapture of Douma in April. The COI relayed in August that residents in Afrin reported patterns of arbitrary arrests and detention, beatings, and kidnappings by armed groups affiliated with the FSA beginning with their takeover of certain areas. For example, the COI reported the arrest and disappearance of 29 young men in the villages of Maidanu and Sotio by armed groups. According to the COI, hundreds of members of religious minority groups, primarily women and girls, remained in the captivity of armed groups as of March, waiting to be exchanged for government prisoners.
Local media sources and human rights groups such as Syrians for Truth and Justice reported isolated instances of fighters associated with the YPG detaining some journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members, and persons who refused to cooperate with Kurdish armed groups. In some instances the location of the detainees remained unknown. In February the COI reported that elements associated with the SDF detained several relatives of wanted activists in territories under its control for periods of up to six weeks to obtain information about their whereabouts and pressure the activists to surrender. The SDF also arrested relatives of members of the FSA and ISIS for interrogation and alleged links to terrorist activity. According to the COI, several of those detained were women and children, including a 16-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. In March the COI reported that elements associated with the SDF and Asayish (Kurdish internal security forces) increased detentions of men for attempting to evade conscription. The COI also reported that some Kurdish forces continued to detain civilians supporting competing political parties or individuals perceived to be insufficiently loyal. The COI reported instances of torture of political opponents by elements associated with the SDF and YPG. In May Urnammu reported detentions in Kurdish-controlled territories increased and that at least two opponents of the PYD and their families had been abducted–a trend also noted by a September HRW report.
The location and status of Khalil Arfu and Sukfan Amin Hamza from Derek, al-Hasakah Governorate, and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party reportedly abducted by Asayish associated with the rival PYD party in 2014, remained unknown.
According to the COI and NGOs, the HTS detained political opponents, perceived government supporters and their families, journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers critical of HTS or perceived as affiliated with other rebel groups at odds with the HTS in Idlib. For example, the March COI report described how in July 2017 HTS forces dragged two women from their apartment and down the stairs of their building in Atareb, Aleppo, because they were the mother and wife of a man wanted by the HTS for stealing one of their vehicles; the women remained in an HTS prison as of March.
Terrorist groups conducted kidnappings, particularly in the southwest where ISIS continued to target members of the Druze community and other religious minority groups. According to multiple media reports, in July ISIS kidnapped at least 20 women and 16 children, mostly belonging to the Druze community, one of whom ISIS later executed. The abductions came after a series of suicide bombings that reportedly killed nearly 200 Druze.
In 2014 ISIS abducted an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, during attacks against northern Iraq and reportedly brought thousands of them to Syria, where they were sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or given as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. NGOs and activists, such as Yazda and the Free Yezidi Foundation, reported that while more than 2,000 Yezidi women and children have since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, such returns dwindled during the year, and an estimated 3,000 remained missing. In March the COI reported that in 2016 ISIS began to allow its members who “owned” Yezidis to sell the Yezidi children separately, resulting in the separation of children from their mothers and subsequent sale of young boys as house servants and girls, as young as nine years old, as sex slaves. ISIS reportedly then gave such children Muslim names; consequently, identifying their ancestry remains difficult. Thousands of abducted girls and women, however, remained missing.
There were no updates in the kidnappings of the following persons believed to have been abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups: activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi; religious leaders Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim; and peace activist Paulo Dall’Oglio. Terrorist group HTS released Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda in October after three years’ captivity. These individuals were among the estimated thousands of disappearances reported by activists and media.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the United Nations and reliable NGO reports, the government and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of opposition fighters and civilians (see sections 1.c. and 1.d.). The SNHR reported more than 14,000 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and September and that approximately 99 percent of these deaths were attributable to government forces. The SNHR attributed to the government more than 930 deaths due to torture in the first nine months of the year.
With regard to sexual and gender-based violence, such as rape or assault, as a tactic of war, the COI explained in its March report that during the earlier stages of the conflict, ground operations and house raids gave a greater range of scenarios for government forces to commit sexual and gender-based abuses. As armed groups proliferated and acquired heavy weaponry, government forces began to prioritize airstrikes, thus decreasing interaction between government forces and the wider population. As the conflict progressed, most sexual and gender-based abuses by government forces, therefore, occurred at checkpoints or in detention. When the number of former detainees crossing into neighboring countries decreased, so did the opportunity to establish a comprehensive picture of sexual and gender-based abuses occurring in government detention in 2016 and 2017. The COI added that persons in areas retaken by government forces, often using Shia militias, remained reluctant to discuss events occurring in these areas due to fear of reprisals.
Government forces reportedly continued to use prohibited chemical weapons and cluster munitions in densely populated areas and attacks against civilian and protected objects, including schools and hospitals. In its February and August reports, the COI included evidence that it determined indicated use of weaponized chlorine gas and organophosphorous pesticides. For example, the August COI report and a May report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) described an alleged chemical weapons attack on Saraqeb. On February 4, at approximately 9 p.m., government helicopters reportedly dropped at least two barrels carrying chlorine in the Taleel area of Saraqeb. Victims reportedly described symptoms consistent with the use of chlorine, including shortness of breath, a burning throat, coughing, dilated pupils, and chest pain, and recalled a smell similar to household detergents. The attack reportedly injured at least 11 men, including three first responders. In its August report, the COI stated that documentary and material evidence confirmed the presence of helicopters in the area and the use of two yellow gas cylinders. Examining similar attacks in Douma, eastern Ghouta, on January 22 and February 1, the COI concluded that government forces, affiliated militias, or both committed war crimes by using prohibited weapons and launching attacks, which it characterized as indiscriminate, in civilian populated areas.
Numerous sources, including first responders from the Syria Civil Defense, reported signs of chemical weapons use in Douma on April 7. The COI reported that a gas cylinder containing a chlorine payload delivered by a government helicopter struck a multistory residential apartment building located near the southwest of Shohada Square. The COI, along with various human rights organizations, reported at least 49 confirmed deaths.
In a September report, the BBC determined there was enough evidence to be confident that at least eight chemical attacks occurred in the country during the year (seven in eastern Ghouta) and 106 since September 2013, when the Syrian president signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to destroy the country’s chemical weapons stockpile. The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria and the now-disbanded OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) concluded that 37 incidents between September 2013 and April have involved or were likely to have involved the use of chemical weapons. The COI and other UN-affiliated bodies concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that chemical weapons were used in 18 other cases. The JIM concluded that ISIS carried out two attacks involving sulphur mustard, and the BBC reported that evidence suggested ISIS carried out three other reported attacks. The JIM and OPCW have so far not concluded that any armed opposition groups other than ISIS have carried out a chemical attack, and the BBC’s investigation found no credible evidence to suggest otherwise. Rather, the BBC accused the government of routinely employing chemical weapons as a tactic of war, including in at least 51 air-launched chemical weapon attacks, and likely responsible in the vast majority of the 106 cases since 2013.
In addition to chemical weapons, the government also reportedly employed prohibited cluster munitions. In its February report, the COI stated that progovernment forces continued to use cluster munitions, including in densely populated civilian areas on at least three occasions in November 2017 in eastern Ghouta. For example, in one incident three weapons struck a residential area in Hammourieh, eastern Ghouta. When rescuers were arriving at the hospital with those injured by the first weapon, a second weapon reportedly released numerous bomblets hitting the vicinity of the hospital, which was located in a residential area. The second incident killed one man and injured at least 25 persons, including three children. Images of weapons remnants taken at the scene reportedly show components of cluster bombs that Syrian and Russian forces possess. The COI concluded that, in such cases, the progovernment forces committed a war crime by launching attacks in a civilian populated area that it characterized as indiscriminate.
There were also instances of armed opposition groups reportedly engaging in unlawful detention, physical abuse, punishment, and treatment equivalent to torture, primarily targeting suspected government agents and collaborators, progovernment militias, and rival armed groups. Between 2011 and September, the SNHR attributed more than 40 deaths due to torture to armed opposition groups, more than 20 to HTS, and more than 30 to ISIS, including a child and 13 women. The SNHR attributed 35 deaths from torture to Kurdish forces. The COI, SNHR, and other NGOs acknowledged difficulties in obtaining accurate reporting on abuses committed by ISIS, creating an artificial reduction in ISIS abuses. In an August report, the COI stated that significant challenges continued to arise, including: how ISIS prevented civilians from documenting attacks as a matter of policy; how chaos often left victims and witnesses unable to identify whether a given attack was carried out by aerial or ground operations; and how ISIS terrorists embedded themselves and their military installations in numerous civilian infrastructures, including hospitals, thus significantly complicating investigations. In a May report, Urnammu stated that due to the severe restrictions imposed by ISIS on the use of the internet and telephones and the killing of anyone suspected of opposing the organization, it was very difficult to document the number of children kidnapped. Urnammu ceased communicating with activists in their areas after ISIS killed Samer (Abu Jaafar al-Diri), reportedly one of the most important activists interested in documenting detainees and exposing violations.
The COI reported in February that in November 2017 the Nour al-Din al-Zenki armed group detained three civilians, including a member of the Free Education Directorate, in Darat Izza. The detentions took place during clashes with HTS in Aleppo Governorate. During a month of detention, at least two of the detainees reportedly were beaten, kept in solitary confinement, and forced to fingerprint a false confession. Two of the detainees were released in December 2017 after being brought before a “military” judge of the armed group, but the fate of the third detainee was unclear.
Unspecified elements of Kurdish forces also were implicated in at least one instance of abuse. For example, the SNHR reported that Kurdish forces arrested Saleh Ahmad al Yasin from the pharmacy where he worked in Jazrat al Bo Hamid, Deir al-Zour, in April, and that on June 7, his family received his body after he reportedly died of torture and negligent health care inside a detention center.
In March the COI reported deaths in detention centers run by terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS. There were numerous reports of torture as well as reports the detainees received inadequate food and, in cases of religious minorities, were forced to pray or convert to Islam or both. The COI also noted instances in which the HTS and ISIS detained and tortured individuals passing through checkpoints.
In the territory it controlled, HTS imposed its interpretation of sharia, which the COI reported in March had negatively affected women and religious minorities. Employing sharia courts, the HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families. For example, in March the COI reported that in 2016 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham stoned to death a woman from Heish village in Idlib after members of the terrorist group accused her of having engaged in extramarital relations. Authorities reportedly apprehended the woman in the home of the unmarried man with whom she was involved and immediately executed her as an honor killing. The unmarried male reportedly was summarily shot and killed immediately upon being detained.
The March COI report also detailed instances of what it described as torture by the HTS and its constituent armed groups. For example, in 2013 in Zabdean Deir al-Asafir, south of Damascus, a male detainee reportedly was tortured and interrogated for more than 10 days, after which he was stripped naked and a man with a Libyan accent made the detainee kneel on all fours and sodomized him with a stick.
In May a Urnammu report detailed the experiences of Shadi, who reportedly was 15 years old when he was accused by the HTS of working for the Coalition. Shadi was arrested, held incommunicado, and transferred to three different prisons, including Al-Aqab prison, during four months’ detention. The Urnammu report described Al-Aqab as small caves at a depth of approximately six feet and height of four and a half feet, from which detainees only emerged for interrogation and torture. Shadi reported being tortured and interrogated for several days at Al-Aqab, including by a method reportedly unique to Jabhat al-Nusra called “the coffin.”
There were numerous reports that the HTS and its constituent armed groups forced members of religious minorities to convert to Islam and adopt Sunni customs, contributing to minority flight from HTS territories. The March COI report described how in 2015 HTS predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra: stormed Druze villages in Idlib; forced community members to convert to Islam; forced all men to shave their mustaches and abandon their religious dress code; forced the women to wear the niqab; urged Druze women to marry the groups’ fighters; and urged Druze men to marry non-Druze women; all of which were forbidden under the Druze religion and customs.
There were widespread reports that ISIS also engaged in abuses and brutality against those it captured in or near the shrinking territories it controlled. ISIS frequently punished victims publicly and forced residents, including children, to watch unlawful killings and amputations, as detailed by the New York Times, a March report by the COI, and a May report by Urnammu. The March COI report described how males, including boys raped by older men, were killed for allegedly engaging in sodomy, and videos of the killings were widely circulated to terrorize populations under ISIS control.
Activists, NGOs, and media reported numerous accounts of women in ISIS-held territory facing severe punishments, including killing by stoning. For example, the March COI report includes an eyewitness account of a 2013 stoning in Deir al-Zour in which Hisbah police made a woman kneel on the ground, threw a cement block at the woman’s head, then threw a succession of smaller stones until she collapsed and her brain matter was visible on the floor.
ISIS also regularly committed abuses against captured FSA and YPG fighters. ISIS fighters reportedly beat captives (including with cables) during interrogations and tortured and killed those held in its detention centers.
ISIS also beat persons because of their dress; several sources reported ISIS members beat women for not covering their faces. One example in the March COI report was that of a woman seven months’ pregnant who, in 2015, Hisbah arrested in Raqqa for talking to a seller while buying gloves. She was interrogated and beaten with a wooden stick while in detention. ISIS justified its use of corporal punishment, including amputations and lashings, under its interpretation of sharia. Because ISIS perceived unmarried women and girls older than the age of puberty as a threat to its ideology and enforced social order, the March COI report detailed a trend beginning in 2014 to marry forcibly Sunni girls and women living in areas under its control. Many Sunni women reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years.
The May Urnammu report detailed the experiences of Akram, a 16-year-old who, according to his mother, ISIS detained three times on charges such as smoking or not being in the mosque at the time of prayer. Akram reportedly was detained for four months at Jarablis Prison and subsequently at al-Bab Prison outside Aleppo, where he was tortured, indoctrinated in a sharia course, and was not heard from again.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat. The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report to the secretary-general reported a 13 percent increase in the recruitment of child soldiers in Syria in 2017 compared with 2016, with almost 1,000 cases verified. According to the report, 90 percent of the children served in combat roles and 26 percent were below the age of 15. The report attributed almost 300 verified cases to ISIS; almost 250 to FSA-affiliated groups; almost 225 to SDF-affiliated groups; almost 75 to government forces and progovernment militias; more than 50 to Ahrar al-Sham; more than 40 to HTS; and almost 40 to Jaysh al-Islam.
The COI reported that progovernment militias enlisted children as young as age 13. The COI reported the government sometimes paid children between the ages of six and 13 to be informants, exposing them to danger. In the earlier years of the conflict, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys ages 15 to 17 and served primarily in support roles away from the front lines.
HRW reported armed opposition forces used children younger than age 18 as fighters. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while elements affiliated with the SDF, as well as ISIS and HTS actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups, “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.”
In February the COI reported that elements of the SDF continued to conscript and train children as young as age 13 for military service. The COI report referenced reporting that elements of the SDF forcibly conscripted men in IDP camps and arrested some men for refusing to join the SDF. For example, the February COI report detailed that in July 2017 two boys, 15 and 16 years old, enlisted with the SDF in Tabaqah, Raqqa, with the younger subsequently sustaining an arm injury in combat. Although a less frequent occurrence, girls reportedly were also recruited; the February COI report included a teenage girl who was recruited by elements of the SDF in Raqqa in October 2017. In May Urnammu similarly reported the SDF detained and recruited 200 children younger than age 15 since the beginning of 2017. In August HRW reported that elements of the YPG have been recruiting children and using some in hostilities despite pledging to stop the practice.
In September the SDF issued an order banning the recruitment and use in combat of anyone younger than age 18, ordering the military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted, requiring the release of any conscripted children to their families or to educational authorities in northeast Syria, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibits using children for spying, to act as guards, or to deliver supplies to combatants. The order makes military commanders responsible for appointing ombudsmen to receive complaints of child recruitment, and ordered punitive measures against commanders who failed to comply with the ban on child recruitment. This action followed a June report by the NGO Geneva Call that the Kurdish YPG/YPJ took measures to address infringements of the Deed of Commitment they signed in 2014 protecting children in armed conflict. The Kurdish forces reportedly admitted their conduct, reiterated their full commitment to the Deed of Commitment, and announced implementation of new measures to their internal code of conduct. These included a new internal investigations mechanism and opening a special office to receive complaints about child recruitment or use in combat. In October Geneva Call trained more than 200 SDF officers in their military academy on the prohibition to recruit children and on the law of armed conflict, and agreed to extend the training to all new groups of officers coming to the academy. In early December the SDF and Geneva Call reported the SDF had released 56 boys younger than age 18 to their families.
According to the COI and Urnammu, ISIS recruited and enlisted children as young as age 10. ISIS propaganda videos depict juvenile executioners from its “Cubs of the Caliphate” unit shooting prisoners at close range. A May Urnammu report describes how ISIS: abducted 153 Kurdish children in 2014; detained the children at a school in Manbai, Aleppo; showed them videos of beheadings and attacks; subjected them to five months of training on ISIS combat ideology; and informed them they would be released if they completed religious training and spread the ISIS vision among their Kurdish communities.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: The COI stated in February that siege warfare affected civilians more than any other tactic employed by the warring parties. In a May report, the COI stated that Syrian civilians in besieged areas countrywide were encircled, trapped, and prevented from leaving; indiscriminately bombed and killed; starved, and routinely denied medical evacuations, the delivery of vital foodstuffs, health items, and other essential supplies–in an effort to compel the surrender of those in control of the areas in which they lived. Acute restrictions on food and medicine reportedly caused malnutrition-related deaths, increased maternal-fetal complications, as well as outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniosis, typhoid, and dysentery. According to reports by the COI, AI, and other NGOs such as PAX, government and progovernment forces were responsible for most siege activity.
All remaining sieges ended during the year, including the government and progovernment sieges in eastern Ghouta (under siege from 2013 until April) and Yarmouk Camp, Damascus (under siege from 2013 until May), as well as the much smaller HTS sieges of Foua and Kefraya villages in Idlib (under siege from 2015 until July). According to PAX the devastation of eastern Ghouta played a decisive role in the surrender of the remaining besieged enclaves in northern Homs and southern Damascus to government and progovernment forces. As with many other government sieges, the COI reported in August that the aerial and ground operations against Yarmouk Camp were carried out by the Syrian army, affiliated militias, including Palestinian militias and the National Defense Forces, and the Russian Air Force.
De-escalation zone agreements reached under the auspices of Iran, Russia, and Turkey called for improved humanitarian access, but as of September government and progovernment forces had retaken all but one de-escalation zone (Idlib). Government and progovernment forces remained prepared for an assault on Idlib, occupied by three million civilians and the last armed opposition forces and HTS, should a Russian and Turkish-monitored demilitarization agreement fail.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, half of all health facilities were closed or partially functioning and the conflict has killed hundreds of health-care workers. NGO observers and international aid organizations reported that government and progovernment forces specifically targeted health-care workers, medical facilities, ambulances, and patients, and restricted access to medical facilities and services to civilians and prisoners, particularly in Russian-backed government assaults on eastern Ghouta, Daraa, and Idlib. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported that, from 2011 to September, combatants attacked almost 500 medical facilities, killing almost 850 medical personnel throughout the country. For example, in September PHR reported that government forces attacked three hospitals, two civil defense centers, and an ambulance system in Idlib as government and progovernment forces increased shelling of the last opposition-controlled governorate. The COI reported in August that on April 29, at approximately 10:25 a.m. and again at 10:30 a.m., progovernment forces launched airstrikes against the surgical hospital in Zafarana, Homs. The COI concluded the attacks by progovernment forces constituted a war crime.
February, May, and August reports by the COI, as well as a July report by AI, reported the government deliberately obstructed the efforts of sick and injured persons to obtain help, and many such individuals elected not to seek medical assistance in hospitals due to fear of arrest, detention, torture, or death. The COI found that the government detained many Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) volunteers and medical staff on the pretext of “having supported terrorists.” According to the COI, the law effectively criminalized medical aid to the opposition, and the COI reported in May that government intelligence and law enforcement agencies forcibly disappeared medical personnel providing treatment to perceived opposition supporters.
In May the COI reported that in some instances between 2013 and this year, besieged armed groups allegedly prevented civilians from leaving besieged areas and used them as human shields against assault by government forces, the Russian Air Force, and other progovernment forces.
In its February report, the COI assessed that ISIS used civilians as human shields in 2017 in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour. The COI reported that in Raqqa ISIS ordered the civilians to move to areas it controlled and actively prevented them from leaving by sniping those who fled and by laying landmines. The COI determined that ISIS deliberately placed civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations to render those areas immune from SDF and Coalition attack. Similarly, the COI described how ISIS employed Hisbah street patrols, checkpoints, fines, and corporal punishment to prevent civilians from leaving Deir al-Zour. ISIS reportedly took these actions to render the areas immune to attack from government forces, the Russian Air Force, and other progovernment forces. The COI concluded that ISIS thereby committed a war crime by what it characterized as the use of human shields.
The government and its allies continued forcibly displacing civilians for reasons other than military necessity (see section 2.d.). As detailed by the COI in its May and August reports, government and progovernment forces reportedly offered to evacuate suffering civilian residents from besieged areas only after armed groups surrendered. For example, after reaching local truces in eastern Ghouta in April, evacuations were carried out from the largest remaining opposition-held pocket of Douma. The COI reported that more than 40,000 of those displaced were relocated to overcrowded IDP sites in the Damascus suburbs, while up to 50,000 others were evacuated to Idlib and Aleppo Governorates, where humanitarian response remained critically insufficient. Similarly, a majority of the 10,000 civilians who remained trapped inside Yarmouk Camp until its recapture in May reportedly were forcibly displaced pursuant to an “evacuation agreement.” The August COI report detailed how Russian military police supervised the transportation of approximately 35,000 men, women, and children, on government buses and vehicles from villages in northern Homs primarily to Idlib and Jarablus, Aleppo, in May.
The May COI report further detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required certain individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to health-care personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government and served as a government strategy for punishing those individuals. Additionally, various sources reported cases in which the government targeted Syrians who agreed to reconciliation agreements. For example, upon returning to Da’el, Daraa, pursuant to a reconciliation agreement, a former opposition police commander was reportedly arrested by air force security and later found dead with multiple gunshot wounds.
The COI and NGOs such as the Arab Center for Human Rights indicated that–taken together with steps such as the enactment of Presidential Decree No. 10 on the confiscation of unregistered properties–the forcible displacements may fit into a wider plan to strip the displaced of their property rights, transfer populations, and enrich the government and its closest allies (see section 1.e.).
Turkish-backed opposition armed groups reportedly engaged in forcible displacement of civilians and related abuses in Afrin. According to the August COI report, a June HRW report, and NGOs such as the Free Yezidi Foundation and Yazda, numerous residents of Afrin reported widespread looting and appropriation of civilian homes, hospitals, churches, and a Yezidi shrine by members of armed opposition groups and citizens when the armed opposition groups entered Afrin city in March. Witnesses stated that Turkish troops were on occasion present in the vicinity where lootings took place but had not acted to prevent them. Residents reported having to purchase back cars stolen by the armed groups for between one million and 2.5 million Syrian pounds ($2,000 and $5,000).
The COI noted the destruction of Yazidi religious sites appeared to have sectarian undertones, while house appropriations targeted mainly Kurdish owners who had fled clashes. Victims reported cases of looting to a newly established “military police,” which mainly consisted of former FSA fighters, or to committees established by armed groups, both of which reportedly failed to offer any tangible restitution. Turkish-backed armed opposition groups reportedly barred returnees from their properties and informed them that their real or presumed support for the YPG precluded them from living in the area; confiscated homes were marked with graffiti and then used by armed groups for military purposes or as housing for fighters and their families, who arrived from eastern Ghouta via Idlib after its evacuation. If any armed group members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, the COI assessed that violations committed may be attributable to Turkish military commanders who knew or should have known about the violations (see section 2.d.).
International media reported widely on government and nongovernment forces attacking and destroying religious as well as UNESCO-listed world heritage sites. The American Academy for the Advancement of Science noted many instances of visible damage to cultural heritage sites. Government and nongovernment forces also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.
According to AI and other human rights NGOs, there were instances of property confiscation by the YPG in Kurdish-controlled territories.
According to humanitarian aid workers, ISIS seized property from international and local aid workers at checkpoints that ISIS controlled throughout the country. An ISIS fatwa functioning as law in ISIS-held territories validated expropriation of agricultural businesses from persons ISIS deemed as apostates and laid out rules for distributing the confiscated property to recruits. ISIS and HTS were widely reported to have interfered with the enjoyment of privacy, family, home, and correspondence.