Deadly Detention: Deaths in Custody Amid Popular Protest in SyriaAmnesty International
30 August 2011Since the end of 2010, millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa region have taken to the streets to call for greater rights and freedom and the replacement of authoritarian regimes. In Syria, ruled with an iron hand by Hafez al-Assad from 1971 to 2000 and since then by his son Bashar al-Assad, small demonstrations were held in February but evolved into mass protests only in mid-March. Since then, the protests have spread nationwide on an unprecedented scale and with a momentum that shows no sign of abating despite severe government repression which has seen many hundreds of people killed.
The protests have been largely peaceful, yet the Syrian authorities have responded in the most brutal manner in their efforts to suppress them. The security forces1 have repeatedly used grossly excessive force, using snipers to shoot into crowds of peaceful protesters and deploying army tanks to shell residential areas while seeking to justify such force on the pretext that the government is under attack by armed gangs. Amnesty International has obtained the names of more than 1,800 people reported to have died or been killed during or in connection with the protests since mid-March;2 many are believed to have been shot by security forces using live ammunition while participating in peaceful protests or attending funerals of people killed in earlier protests. Thousands of other people have been arrested, with many held incommunicado at unknown locations at which torture and other ill-treatment are reported to be rife. Some, as this report details, have died in detention in highly suspicious circumstances.
In the face of the protests and growing international condemnation, President al-Assad has lifted the 48-year long state of emergency, approved legislative reforms including a law which allows the creation of other political parties to rival the all-powerful ruling Ba’ath
party, and issued at least three amnesties for certain categories of prisoners. These measures, however, have failed signally to reduce the protests and appear generally to be seen as concessions proffered too little, too late by a government that continues to
use the most hardline methods in its efforts to crush all dissent and popular demands for change.
The sharp rise in the number of reported deaths in custody has been one of the most shocking features of the government’s bloody crackdown on the protests. No less than 88 such deaths have been reported to Amnesty International as occurring during the period from 1 April and 15 August 2011, a figure for four and a half months which is already many times higher than the yearly average over recent years.6 In at least 52 of these cases, there is evidence that torture caused or contributed to the deaths, a concern exacerbated by reports of widespread torture in detention centres in recent months. Some of the dead, who include children, were also mutilated either before or after death in particularly grotesque ways apparently intended to strike terror into the families to whom their corpses were returned. The victims in all cases appear to have been detained in the context of the protests, though the circumstances of their arrest are often hazy, and to have died while held in the custody of the security forces in prisons or other places of detention, both recognized and unrecognized, or after being removed to hospitals while they remained in custody. Some clearly suffered gunshot wounds suggesting that they may have been victims of extrajudicial executions. Many of the deaths became known only when the victims’ bodies were handed to their families by the authorities or families were contacted and told to collect their relatives’ bodies from the morgue. Syria has a history of high levels of deaths in custody, including many cases where torture or other ill-treatment is alleged to have caused or contributed to the deaths.
Read the full report