Geneva, 8 February 2016 – Over the past four and a half years, thousands of detainees have been killed while in the custody of warring parties, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
The latest report, “Out of sight, out of mind: Deaths in detention in the Syrian Arab Republic”, released today, is based on 621 interviews, as well as extensive documentary material, and examines the killing of detainees by all parties to the armed conflict between 10 March 2011 and 30 November 2015.
The Commission details how Syrian civilians have been arbitrarily arrested, unlawfully detained, taken hostage, or kidnapped, since the conflict erupted nearly five years ago. Eyewitness accounts and documentary evidence strongly suggest that tens of thousands of people are detained by the Syrian Government at any one time. Thousands more have disappeared after initial arrest by State forces or while moving through Government-held territory.
“Nearly every surviving detainee has emerged from custody having suffered unimaginable abuses”, said Commission chair, Paulo Pinheiro. “For ordinary Syrians, the spectre of arrest or abduction, and the near-inevitable horrors that follow, have paralysed communities across the country”.
The report describes, sometimes in gruesome depictions, how thousands of detainees held by the Syrian Government have been beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries sustained due to torture. Many other detainees perished as a consequence of inhuman living conditions and deprivation of medical care. These killings and deaths, the report stresses, occurred with high frequency, over a protracted period of time and in multiple locations controlled by the Syrian State apparatus, with significant logistical support involving vast State resources.
Government officials intentionally maintained such poor conditions of detention for prisoners as to have been life-threatening, and were aware that mass deaths of detainees would result. These actions, in the pursuance of a State policy, amount to extermination as a crime against humanity.
The Commission determines that the Government of Syria has further committed the crimes against humanity of murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts. These violations constitute war crimes, where the acts were committed after the start of the armed conflict.
As anti-Government armed groups and terrorist groups have come in control of territory, they too have held prisoners under brutal conditions. Some anti-Government armed groups established makeshift places of detention where captured Government soldiers were ill-treated, and executed.
“We have heard shocking evidence of how people have been summarily executed following illicit trials, while some individuals taken hostage died in the custody of armed groups”, said Commissioner Vitit Muntarbhorn.
Jabhat Al-Nusra and anti-Government armed groups control places of detention, holding Government soldiers as well as civilians. The torture and deaths of detainees have been recorded in some of these facilities. Both the terrorist group Jabhat Al-Nusra and some anti-Government armed groups committed the war crimes of murder, cruel treatment, and torture, the report finds.
In areas of the Syrian Arab Republic under the control of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the terrorist group subjected detainees to serious abuses, including torture and summary executions. Detainees were frequently executed after unauthorised courts issued death sentences. ISIS has committed the crimes against humanity of murder and torture, and war crimes.
Through this report, the Commission hopes that efforts will be strengthened to find a path to justice for Syrian civilians, as well to assist prosecutorial and judicial authorities seeking to bring cases, whether at a national or international level. “Accountability for these and other crimes must form part of any political solution,” said Commissioner Carla del Ponte. “Instead, these violations are being committed with total impunity”.
Among the paper’s recommendations was a call to the UN Security Council to adopt targeted sanctions against persons, agencies, and groups suspected of being responsible for or complicit in custodial deaths, torture, and enforced disappearance.
“The situation of detainees in Syria is critical, and represents an urgent and large-scale crisis of human rights protection,” stated Commissioner Vitit Muntarbhorn. “With thousands of persons still in custody, urgent steps need to be taken by the Syrian Government, armed groups, the external backers of various belligerents, and the wider international community to prevent further deaths”.
The Commission of Inquiry on Syria was established by the Human Rights Council in August 2011 to investigate and record all violations of international human rights law and allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Commission is also tasked to identify, where possible, those responsible for these violations with a view to ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable.
The Commission comprises of Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Ms. Karen Koning AbuZayd, Ms. Carla del Ponte, and Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn.
The Commission of Inquiry on Syria will publish its eleventh comprehensive report in February 2016 and present that to the Human Rights Council in Geneva during an interactive dialogue at its 31st session in March.
Additional information about the Commission of Inquiry and links to all available reports can be found on their website: