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Briefing note on Syria

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Location: Geneva
Date: 6 March 2012

The following material was stated in response to a question about torture, as shown in the 5 March Channel 4 News story showing video footage of torture victims allegedly taken in the Military Hospital in Homs. Links to the full Fact-Finding Mission and Commission of Inquiry reports can be found at the end of the note.

The pictures shown on Channel 4 last night are truly shocking, and unfortunately very much in accordance with evidence that has been accumulated in the Human Rights Council-mandated Fact-Finding Mission and Commission of Inquiry reports on Syria. The High Commissioner was sent the footage by Channel 4 just before it was broadcast and did an interview on it with them yesterday evening. The following information relating to torture is either directly quoting or a summary of material contained in those reports.

As noted by the Fact-Finding Mission and Commission of Inquiry, gross human rights violations, including torture, under the cloak of emergency legislation, have been documented since 1963 – so four decades. The brutality of the country’s security forces is notorious, and a number of the security and intelligence agencies act as independent entities and are involved in matters beyond their official functions. They enjoy immunity from prosecution by law. In 2010, the Committee against Torture reported widespread, routine and consistent torture of prisoners in detention in Syria.

Methods of torture, most of which are known to have been used in Syria over many years, include severe beatings, electric shocks, suspension for long periods by the limbs, psychological torture and routine humiliation.

The November 2011 Commission of Inquiry report documented cases of injured people taken to military hospitals, where they were beaten and tortured during interrogation. Torture and killings reportedly took place in the Homs Military Hospital -- the hospital shown in the Channel 4 film -- by security forces dressed as doctors and allegedly acting with the complicity of medical personnel (so almost exactly what was shown and described in the Channel 4 film last night) . As people became afraid of going to public hospitals, makeshift clinics were set up in mosques and private houses, which also became targets. One of the earliest examples of this was the Omari Mosque in Dar’a, which was raided on 23 March. Several of the injured and some medical personnel were killed there.

Numerous testimonies were received by the Fact-Finding Mission and the Commission of Inquiry regarding the obstruction and denial of medical assistance to the injured and sick. Many of the injured were prevented from receiving treatment in public hospitals in several locations, including Al Ladhiqiyah (Latakia), Baniyas, Homs and Idlib. Consistent testimonies described how members of the security forces tracked down wounded protesters in both public and private hospitals. In early June and late July, security forces allegedly conducted raids in hospitals in Hama, and injured demonstrators were arrested and taken to military hospitals, where they were reportedly interrogated and tortured.

Individuals suspected by the Government of being involved in setting up and operating alternative medical facilities or providing medical supplies or treatments were also subjected to arrest and torture by the security forces, according to the Commission of Inquiry reports. According to testimonies, security forces warned the staff of private hospitals and ambulance drivers not to treat or provide assistance to injured protestors, but to transfer them to public or military hospitals.

The February 2012 Commission of Inquiry report: describes how security agencies continued to systematically arrest wounded patients in State hospitals and to interrogate them, often using torture. The Commission documented evidence that sections of Homs Military Hospital and Al Ladhiqiyah (Latakia) State Hospital had been transformed into torture centres. Security agents, in some cases joined by medical staff, chained seriously injured patients to their beds, electrocuted them, beat wounded parts of their body or denied them medical attention and water. Medical personnel who did not collaborate faced reprisals.

Article 2(2) of the Convention against Torture states that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” When widespread and systematic, torture amounts to a crime against humanity.

In response to a further question comparing torture in Bahrain to Syria

Torture was documented in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report (also known as the Bassiouni report). The Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, was due to visit Bahrain this week, but his visit has been postponed. He issued a statement about this.

However, it is important to note that the scale of torture in Syria is of another order. The February 2012 Commission of Inquiry report contains an annex listing 38 detention locations in 12 cities, where the Commission documented cases of torture since March 2011.

Report of the Fact-Finding Mission on Syria (September 2011): http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/countries/SY/Syria_Report_2011-08-17.pdf

First report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (November 2011): http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/SY/A.HRC.S-17.2.Add.1_en.pdf

Second report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (February 2012):

For more information or media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or Ravina Shamdasani (+ 41 22 917 9310 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org) or Xabier Celaya (+41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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