GENEVA (19 February 2015) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Thursday urged Syrian authorities to release all those who have been held by Government forces and its militias, without due process, in some cases for years on end. This is particularly worrying, given reports of widespread and systematic torture and other ill-treatment as well as terrible conditions of detention.
Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders, who were already vulnerable prior to the outbreak of the conflict, have been particularly targeted. In one emblematic case, three prominent members of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, Mazen Darwish, Hani Al-Zaitani and Hussein Ghrer, have now been held for three years on terrorism charges. During the first nine months after their detention by Government security forces on 16 February 2012, they were unaccounted for. Last month, their trial was postponed for the sixth time with no new hearing date set.
“Estimates of the number of people in Syria who have been held at some point or other in Government and intelligence detention facilities since the first protests began in Daraa in March 2011 range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands,” the High Commissioner said. “Security forces are known to detain people at checkpoints, during raids, military incursions and even when individuals appear at Government facilities for administrative reasons, like registering a birth or accessing social services. Detention can all too often lead to enforced disappearance or to prolonged and arbitrary detention.”
“In many cases, people are held incommunicado for weeks or months, in particular by Political Security, State Security, Military Security and Air Force Intelligence branches. This is particularly worrying given the Syrian Government’s record of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, which has been well-documented prior to, and during, the conflict,” Zeid added.
Militias affiliated with Government forces have also reportedly set up their own checkpoints in different parts of Syria and have been involved in the abduction of activists and human rights defenders. Some of these militias are known to run facilities where those abducted are held and reportedly face torture and ill-treatment.
Various UN human rights reports also reveal a broad pattern of torture and ill-treatment in detention facilities at intelligence agencies, in prisons and military hospitals. Torture is most common during the first days or weeks of detention and is used to obtain information, intimidate detainees or to force them to sign false confessions. There are also accounts of deaths in detention due to torture and atrocious living conditions.
“Recent interviews with released detainees reveal a grim situation at the Political Security Branch, where the detainees were reportedly kept in cells measuring no more than 6 x 7 meters, containing up to 55 detainees each, without adequate food or medical care,” High Commissioner Zeid said. “They described the use of torture rooms and equipment as well as the extreme cruelty of interrogators.”
Many of these individuals have been detained under the anti-terrorism law of 2012. A general presidential amnesty was issued in June 2014 pardoning, among others, all individuals charged under article 8 of this law, but Mazen Darwish and his colleagues, along with an unknown number of others, were excluded from the pardon.
Earlier this month, Darwish was transferred to the central prison of Hama and al-Zaitani to the central prison of al-Sweida. The location of these prisons makes it extremely difficult for their families to visit them.
“I urge the Syrian Government to immediately release all those who have been jailed for peaceful expression of their views and to ensure that all those detained are accorded their full due process rights,” Zeid said.
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