July 16, 2010

V. Legacy of Enforced Disappearances

Bashar al-Asad inherited a country with a legacy of abusive practices, but to date he has not taken any concrete steps to acknowledge and address these abuses or shed light on the fate of thousands of people who have disappeared since the 1980s.

Syria’s security forces were involved in gross human rights violations in the late 1970s and 1980s in an effort to quell opposition to Hafez al-Asad’s regime, including armed opposition by certain segments of the Muslim Brotherhood. The security forces detained and tortured thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, communist and other leftist parties, the Iraqi Ba`ath party, Nasserite parties, and different Palestinian groups—many of whom subsequently disappeared. While no exact figures exist, various researchers estimate the number of the disappeared to be 17,000 persons.[58] Syria’s armed forces and security services also detained and abducted Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Arab nationals during Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, hundreds of whom are still unaccounted for.

On June 27, 1980, commandos from the Defense Brigades under the command of Rif`at al-Asad, Hafez al-Asad’s brother, killed an estimated 1,000 unarmed inmates, mostly Islamists, at Tadmor military prison, in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt against Hafez al-Asad.[59] The names of those killed were never made public. Less than two years later, from February to March 1982, commandos from the Defense Brigades and units of the Special Forces circled the city of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest town and an opposition stronghold, and engaged in heavy fighting against Islamists opposed to the regime. The Syrian security troops committed large scale human rights violations during the fighting, including the killing of hundreds of people in a series of mass executions near the municipal stadium and other sites. While estimates of the number killed in Hama vary widely, the most credible reports put the number at between five and ten thousand people.[60]

Table 2. Major Incidents of Human Rights Violations in the early 1980s[61]

Disappearances in Deir al-Zor on April 15, 1980

After teenage demonstrators set fire to the local Ba`ath party headquarters, police rounded up 38 youths in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor. Though none were charged with a crime, they soon disappeared from the local jail. Parents have never learned their fate.

Tadmur Prison, June 27, 1980

When Islamists were blamed for a failed assassination attempt on Hafez al-Asad, government troops entered communal cells at the notorious prison and fired indiscriminately on the prisoners inside. More than a thousand prisoners were killed.

Sarmada, July 25, 1980

For reasons that remain unclear, security forces rounded up hundreds of residents from the northern village of Sarmada for interrogation and beating. Some 40 villagers were killed or disappeared.

Hama, 1981

After a government checkpoint was attacked outside the city of Hama, soldiers sealed off the city and began house to house searches. Without so much as an identity check, hundreds of men and boys were dragged outside and shot. At least 350 people were killed.

Hama Uprising and Repression (February 2 to March 5, 1982)

When government commandos entered Hama to round-up opposition members, Islamist fighters resisted, barricading themselves in the old city and killing 100 government and party representatives. The government responded with a fierce bombardment that destroyed much of the city. Troops rounded up and executed hundreds of civilians. In total, between 5,000 and 10,000 people were killed.

While many political detainees from the 1980s were released pursuant to various amnesties, some under Hafez al-Asad and others under Bashar, the fate of thousands of disappeared remains unknown, and it is still dangerous to raise these issues inside Syria.

Lebanese groups have lobbied hard to shed light on the fate of the disappeared from Lebanon. In May 2005, a joint Lebanese-Syrian committee was finally formed to address the issue. However, five years after beginning its work, it has yet to produce any concrete results or publish any findings.

Accordingly, we urge President Bashar al-Asad to:

  • Set up an independent national commission for truth and justice that includes representatives of the victims’ families, independent civil society activists, and international organizations with experience working on the issue of disappearances such as the ICRC. The commission’s mandate will be to resolve the issue of the missing and the disappeared in Syria, and those abducted from Lebanon and suspected of being detained in Syria.
  • Support the ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.


[58] For more details about the disappeared in Syria, see for example, Radwan Ziadeh, ed., Years of Fear: The Forcibly Disappeared in Syria, http://www.shril-sy.info/enshril/modules/tinycontent/content/Years%20of%20Fear%20-%20English%20Draft.pdf (accessed July 5, 2010); Human Rights Watch, Syria Unmasked, pp. 8-21.

[59] For more information on events in Tadmor, see Human Rights Watch, Syria's Tadmor Prison: Dissent Still Hostage to a Legacy of Terror; Human Rights Watch, Syria Unmasked, pp. 15-16; Radwan Ziadeh, Years of Fear, pp. 23-24.

[60] For more information about the killings of Hama see Human Rights Watch, Syria Unmasked, pp. 19-21; Syrian Committee for Human Rights, The Massacre of Hama in February 1982: a Genocide and Crime against Humanity, February, 2, 2006, http://www.shrc.org/data/aspx/d5/2535.aspx (accessed June 10, 2010).

[61] Source of the information is Human Rights Watch, Syria Unmasked, pp. 14-21.