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Syria: Detention and Abuse of Female Activists
Human Rights Watch
24 June 2013
Syrian military and pro-government forces known as shabiha have arbitrarily detained female opposition activists as well as female relatives and neighbors of pro-opposition activists and fighters, and in a number of cases, subjected them to torture and sexual abuse.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 Syrian women who were detained, either due to their own engagement in activities related to government opposition, or that of their family members. Eight were themselves activists who had been detained, all of whom said that security forces and shabiha had abused or tortured them in detention. The abuse included electric shocks, keeping them in stress positions, and using metal rods, wires and nightsticks to beat and torture them. The eight women had attended peaceful demonstrations, created posters for opposition groups, provided humanitarian aid and medical care to those affected by the conflict, transported defectors from the Syrian military, and assisted displaced Syrians. All said security forces detained them at checkpoints or during home raids, and held them for periods lasting up to nearly 14 months between February 2012 and April 2013. In two cases, the women said their captors raped them while they were detained at the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous, and the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Mezze, Damascus. (…) 

Human Rights Watch has not received information about opposition forces detaining and mistreating female government supporters or relatives of those associated with government forces. 

“Beyond the daily gun battles, women have been a powerful voice in the opposition in villages and towns across Syria,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “In response, the Syrian government is punishing women for delivering humanitarian assistance, participating in protests, and supporting the opposition by subjecting them to detention, torture, and sexual assault.”(…) 

Human Rights Watch has previously identified the locations, agencies responsible, torture methods, and, in many cases, commanders who were in charge of the 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies where the organization has documented torture. Human Rights Watch has documented systematic patterns that point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment, and therefore constitute a crime against humanity. Human Rights Watch has also previously documented the use of sexual violence by Syrian security forces against male and female detainees in more than 20 incidents. The degree to which sexual violence is used in detention remains unclear, due to lack of access to detention facilities by human rights monitors and the reticence of many victims to come forward for fear of stigma or reprisals.

Human Rights Watch does not have evidence that high-ranking officers commanded their troops to commit sexual violence in detention, or that sexual violence is widespread and systematic in government detention facilities. However, information received by Human Rights Watch indicates that commanding officers in most cases took no action to investigate or punish those committing acts of sexual violence, or to prevent them from committing such acts. This was despite the assaults taking place in circumstances in which commanding officers knew or should have known the crimes were occurring. In the one case documented by Human Rights Watch where officers appeared to punish a perpetrator through physical violence – the case of Maysa – these actions were inadequate in protecting the detainee from abuse. In no case is there evidence to suggest that perpetrators were prosecuted for their crimes.

Human Rights Watch calls for the immediate release of all nonviolent activists and detainees held arbitrarily, including those detained for opposition activity or suspected activity of relatives. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the United Nations Security Council to demand that Syrian authorities grant unrestricted access to all detention facilities for international monitors, including the Commission of Inquiry mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. Internationally recognized, trained human rights monitors must be permitted and equipped to investigate arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual abuse of both men and women. Human Rights Watch reiterates its call to the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and urges other countries to join the calls for accountability by supporting a referral to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria. (…)

“Torture and attacks against female activists have gone on for more than two years, and the Syrian authorities continue to turn a blind eye,” Gerntholtz said. “The Syrian government must immediately stop abusing female activists and put in measures to protect them. Those who have committed these crimes must be held accountable.”
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