Arrests of Activists, Suppression of Political and Cultural Expression Intensify
November 26, 2009
"At a time when other countries in the region, from Iraq to Turkey, are improving the treatment of their Kurdish minority, Syria remains resistant to change...In fact, Syria has been especially hostile to any Kurdish political or cultural expression."
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

(New York) - Syrian authorities should end their unlawful and unjustified practices of attacking peaceful Kurdish gatherings and detaining Kurdish political and cultural activists, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 63-page report, "Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria," documents the Syrian authorities' efforts to ban and disperse gatherings calling for Kurdish minority rights or celebrating Kurdish culture, as well as the detention of leading Kurdish political activists and their ill-treatment in custody. The repression of Kurds in Syria has greatly intensified following large-scale Kurdish demonstrations in March 2004. The report is based on interviews with 30 Kurdish activists recently released from prison, as well as 15 relatives of Kurdish activists still in jail. The Syrian government refused to reply to requests for information or meetings with Human Rights Watch.

"At a time when other countries in the region, from Iraq to Turkey, are improving the treatment of their Kurdish minority, Syria remains resistant to change," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "In fact, Syria has been especially hostile to any Kurdish political or cultural expression."

Kurds, an estimated 10 percent of Syria's population of 20 million, live primarily in the country's northern and eastern regions. Human Rights Watch found that since 2005, Syrian security forces have repressed at least 14 Kurdish political and cultural public gatherings, overwhelmingly peaceful, and often resorted to violence to disperse the crowds. Not only have the security forces prevented political meetings in support of Kurds' minority rights, but also gatherings to celebrate Nowruz (the Kurdish new year) and other cultural celebrations. In at least two instances, the security services fired on the crowds and caused deaths.

"The Syrian government sees threats everywhere, even in village new year celebrations," Whitson said. "If the government wants better relations with its Kurdish minority, it should address their legitimate grievances instead of trying to silence them."

Syria has obligations under several international treaties to uphold freedom of expression and association, and the associated right to freedom of assembly. In addition, international law requires Syria to protect the identity of minorities and to guarantee them the right to participate actively in public and cultural life, including practicing their language and celebrating their culture in private and public.

Human Rights Watch also documented the arrests and trials of at least 15 prominent Syrian Kurdish political leaders since 2005. Since there is no political parties law in Syria, none of the political parties - let alone the Kurdish ones - are licensed. Accordingly, any member of a party, including all of the Kurdish parties, is vulnerable to arrest for membership in an unlicensed organization, a crime under Syria's penal code. Most recently, on November 15, 2009, the Damascus Criminal Court sentenced three leading members of the Kurdish Azadi Party, which advocates an end to discrimination against the Kurdish minority, to three years in jail for "weakening national sentiment" and "inciting sectarian or racial strife or provoking conflict between sects and various members of the nation."

Of the 30 former Kurdish detainees interviewed by Human Rights watch, 12 said that security forces tortured them. Most of those detained are referred to military courts, where they can be convicted of vaguely defined, overbroad "security charges," most typically the charge of "spreading false or exaggerated information that weakens national sentiment" or committing an act or speech that advocates "cutting off part of Syrian land to join it to another country."

A Kurdish political activist detained in October 2008 for three months at the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence described the way the investigators treated him:

If the investigator was not convinced by what I said, the guards would take me to the "torture square," where they would make me stand on my feet for long days with my hands tied behind my back and my eyes covered with a black cloth. I was made to stand for 11 days with only brief periods of rest for 10 minutes to eat. If I would fall due to lack of sleep...they would throw cold water on me and beat me with cables. I developed many illnesses because of this torture. Tests I had done after my release showed that I had inflamed joints as well as infections in the stomach, kidneys, and chest.

(For more testimonials, see below)

Harassment of these activists continues even after their release; security forces continue to call them in for interrogation and frequently bar them from traveling outside the country.

The European Union and the United States have been eager to engage with Syria recently. Human Rights Watch urged these governments to communicate their strong disapproval of Syria's treatment of its Kurdish minority and to emphasize that further progress in their relations with Syria will depend on concrete improvements in Syria's human rights situation.

"Ignoring the treatment of Kurds in Syria will not make the problem go away." Whitson said. "The international community has played an important role in improving the treatment of Kurds in Iraq and Turkey and it needs to do the same for Syria's Kurds."

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to:

  • Free people being detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association, or assembly;
  • Amend or abolish the vague security provisions under the Syrian penal code that unlawfully restrict free speech;
  • Investigate officials alleged to have tortured or mistreated detainees;
  • Enact a law recognizing the right of political parties to organize, and establish an independent electoral commission to register new political parties; and
  • Form a commission to address the grievances of the Kurdish minority in Syria.

Accounts from "Group Denial":

A participant in a musical event to celebrate women's role in society organized on March 9, 2009 by a Kurdish party in the town of Qamishli described how the security forces dispersed the crowd:

Fifteen minutes after the celebrations had started, the security forces circled the room. They were carrying guns and sticks, and they scared the women and children. They quickly confiscated the [sound system] speakers and the chairs.

An activist who was at a private home attending a talk on the history of the Kurds described the arrest of participants by Military Intelligence on January 29, 2007:

We were 12 people gathered at Yasha's house to attend a cultural talk on Kurds. Suddenly, members of Aleppo's Military Intelligence came in and took all of us to their branch. They kept us for 10 days in Aleppo, and then they transferred us to the Palestine Branch [of Military Intelligence] in Damascus. They released seven of us and kept five in

detention. The five had confessed that they were members in the Yekiti Party.

A member of the Kurdish Future Movement, a political party, described his arrest while he was waiting to board a bus:

The civilian police detained me in the town of `Amuda and immediately transferred me to Political Security in al-Hasakeh. They charged me with belonging to the Kurdish Future Movement. They interrogated me for 12 days. During the investigation I was deprived of everything. Their questions focused on the political program of the party, its internal rules, my role in the party, especially after they had kidnapped Mr. Mesh`al Temmo, the official spokesperson for the party. After the interrogation they referred me on September 1 to a military judge in Qamishli, who ordered my detention for belonging to an unlicensed political party and inciting sectarian strife.

A member of the PYD party, a Kurdish political party, described the torture he endured while detained by Political Security in `Ain `Arab in May 2006:

They tortured me physically and emotionally. The physical torture began from the moment I arrived at the branch. The officer who heads the branch beat me personally. His men tied my legs to a Russian rifle, and the officer beat me on my feet with a whip. The beating covered various parts of my body. He would insult and threaten me and insult the Kurds. He found a notebook in my pocket where I had written the name of the town by its Kurdish name, Kobani, which the regime had changed to `Ain `Arab, so he hit me with more than 100 lashes saying, "Damn you and damn Kobani. Why don't you write `Ain `Arab?" The torture lasted for almost six hours of on-off beatings.