Map of Daraa Governorate
Since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian security forces have killed hundreds of protesters and arbitrarily arrested thousands, subjecting many of them to brutal torture in detention. The security forces routinely prevented the wounded from getting medical assistance, and imposed a siege on several towns, depriving the population of basic services. Some of the worst abuses took place in Daraa governorate in southwestern Syria.
The nature and scale of abuses, which Human Rights Watch research indicates were not only systematic, but implemented as part of a state policy, strongly suggest these abuses qualify as crimes against humanity.
This report focuses primarily on violations by Syrian security forces in Daraa governorate from March 18 to May 22, 2011. Since the beginning of the protests in Syria, Human Rights Watch has issued numerous press releases documenting the crackdown on protesters in different parts of Syria. Obtaining information from Daraa proved most challenging as Syrian authorities put enormous efforts into ensuring that such information did not get out.
The report is based on more than 50 interviews with residents of Daraa and several Jordanian nationals who were in Daraa during the protests. Human Rights Watch also reviewed dozens of videos, filmed by the witnesses, which corroborate their accounts. Additional information was provided by Syrian activists who have been documenting the events.
The Daraa protests, which eventually spread all over Syria, were sparked by the detention and torture of 15 young boys accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the downfall of the regime. On March 18, following Friday prayer, several thousand protesters marched from al-Omari Mosque in Daraa calling for the release of the children and greater political freedom, and accusing government officials of corruption. Security forces initially used water cannons and teargas against the protesters and then opened live fire, killing at least four.
The release of the children—bruised and bloodied after severe torture in detention—fanned the flames of popular anger. Protests continued, every week growing bigger with people from towns and villages outside Daraa city joining the demonstrations.
The Syrian authorities promised to investigate the killings, but at the same time denied any responsibility and blamed the violence on “terrorist groups,” “armed gangs,” and “foreign elements.” In the meantime, security forces responded to the continuing protests with unprecedented brutality, killing, at this writing, at least 418 people in the governorate of Daraa alone, and more than 887 across Syria. Exact numbers are impossible to verify given the information blockade imposed by the Syrian government.
Some of the deadliest incidents that Human Rights Watch has documented in this report include:
- An attack on al-Omari mosque (which had become a rallying point for protesters and served as a makeshift hospital for the wounded protesters) and ensuing protests from March 23 to 25, 2011, which resulted in the killing of more than 30 protesters;
- Killings during two protests on April 8, 2011, which resulted in the deaths of at least 25 victims;
- Killings during a protest and a funeral procession in Izraa on April 22 and 23, 2011, which claimed the lives of at least 34 protesters;
- Killings during the siege of Daraa and neighboring villages (starting on April 25 and ongoing in certain towns) and killings at an April 29, 2011 protest, during which residents of neighboring towns tried to break the siege, which claimed up to 200 lives.
Witnesses from Daraa interviewed by Human Rights Watch provided consistent accounts of security forces using lethal force against peaceful protesters. In some cases, security forces first used teargas or fired in the air, but when protesters refused to disperse, they fired live ammunition from automatic weapons into the crowds. In most cases, especially as demonstrations in Daraa grew bigger, security forces opened fire without giving advance warning or making any effort to disperse the protesters by nonlethal means.
Security forces deliberately targeted protesters, who were, in the vast majority of cases, unarmed and posed no threat to the forces; rescuers who were trying to take the wounded and the dead away; medical personnel trying to reach the wounded; and, during the siege, people who dared to go out of their houses or to gain access to supplies. In some cases they also shot bystanders, including women and children.
From the end of March, witnesses consistently reported the presence of snipers on government buildings near the protests, targeting and killing protesters. Many of the victims sustained head, neck and chest wounds, suggesting that they were deliberately targeted.
Other evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch also suggests that security forces participating in the operations against the protesters (in Daraa and other cities) had received, at least in a number of cases, “shoot-to-kill” orders from their commanders.
Security forces who participated in the crackdown in Daraa included several army units, as well as various branches of Syria’s mukhabarat (intelligence services). Several witnesses noted that most of the violence was perpetrated by mukhabarat forces and elite army units such as the 4th Division which reports directly to Maher al-Asad, the younger brother of President Bashar al-Asad. On several occasions army units deployed to quell the protests seemed reluctant to shoot at protesters, allowed them to pass through checkpoints, and, in at least two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, refused orders to shoot and either surrendered to the protesters or handed over their weapons to the protesters.
Syrian authorities repeatedly blamed the protesters in Daraa for initiating the violence and attacking security forces. On several occasions, starting in late March, after security forces first used lethal force against the demonstrators, Daraa residents resorted to violence. For example, they set several building on fire, including the governor’s house, and the political security building, as well as vehicles belonging to the security forces, and on several occasions killed members of the security forces.
At the same time, all witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the protests started peacefully, with demonstrators often carrying olive branches, unbuttoning their shirts to show that they had no weapons, and chanting “peaceful, peaceful” to indicate that they posed no threat to the security forces. Dozens of videos of the Daraa protests that witnesses provided to Human Rights Watch as well as those posted online corroborate these accounts. Witnesses said that protesters only used violence against the security forces and government property in response to killings by the security forces or, in some cases, as a last resort to secure the release of wounded demonstrators captured by the security forces.
The incidents of violence by the protesters should be further investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. However, these incidents by no means justify the massive and systematic use of lethal force against the demonstrators, which was clearly disproportionate to the threat presented by the overwhelmingly unarmed crowds.
Syrian authorities also routinely denied wounded protesters access to medical assistance. In at least two cases documented by Human Rights Watch (and reportedly in many others), this denial of medical assistance led to the deaths of wounded persons who might otherwise have survived.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces regularly prevented ambulances from reaching the wounded and, on several occasions, opened fire as medical personnel were trying to reach the injured. They also prevented people from carrying away the wounded and, in several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, shot at and killed the rescuers. Security forces took control of most of the hospitals in Daraa and detained the wounded who were brought in. As a result, many wounded avoided the hospitals and were treated in makeshift hospitals with limited access to proper care.
Since late March, and particularly after Daraa came under siege on April 25, security forces launched a massive campaign of arrests in the governorate. Witnesses from Daraa city and neighboring towns described to Human Rights Watch large-scale sweep operations conducted by security forces who daily detained hundreds arbitrarily, as well as targeted arrests of activists and their family members. Some detainees, many of whom were children, were released several days or weeks later, while others have not reappeared. In most cases their families have no information on their fate or whereabouts.
The majority, if not all, of the arrests seemed entirely arbitrary with no formal charges ever brought against the detainees. People arrested in Daraa were initially held in various ad hoc detention facilities before being transferred for interrogation in military intelligence or political security departments in Daraa. Many were then sent to Damascus.
Released detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they, as well as hundreds of others they saw in detention, were subjected to various forms of torture and degrading treatment. The methods of torture included prolonged beatings with sticks, twisted wires, and other devices; electric shocks administered with tasers and electric batons; use of improvised metal and wooden “racks”; and, in at least one case documented by Human Rights Watch, the rape of a male detainee with a baton. Interrogators and guards also subjected detainees to various forms of humiliating treatment, such as urinating on the detainees, stepping on their faces, and making them kiss the officers’ shoes. Several detainees said they were repeatedly threatened with imminent execution.
All of the former detainees described appalling detention conditions, with grossly overcrowded cells, where at times detainees could only sleep in turns, and lack of food.
Two witnesses (both former detainees) independently reported to Human Rights Watch a case of an extrajudicial execution of detainees on May 1, 2011 at an ad hoc detention facility at the football field in Daraa. One of the two witnesses said the security forces executed 26 detainees; the other one described a group of “more than 20.”
The majority of witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch also referred to the existence of mass graves in Daraa. On May 16, Daraa residents discovered at least seven bodies in one such grave about 1.5 kilometers from Daraa al-Balad. Five bodies were identified as members of the Abazeid family. Syrian government officials denied the existence of a mass grave, but al-Watan, a Syrian newspaper closely affiliated with the government, acknowledged that five bodies had been found.
On April 25, 2011, Syrian security forces launched a large-scale military operation in Daraa and imposed a siege which lasted at least 11 days and was then extended to neighboring towns. Daraa residents told Human Rights Watch that security forces moved into the city in military vehicles, including numerous tanks and armored personnel carriers. Under the cover of heavy gunfire they occupied all neighborhoods in Daraa, imposed checkpoints, and placed snipers on roofs of buildings in many parts of the city. They prevented any movement of residents in the streets. The security forces opened fire on those who tried to defy the ban on movement and gatherings, or simply went out of their homes in search of food or medication.
Witnesses said that Daraa residents experienced acute shortages of food, water (because security forces shot and damaged water tanks), medicine, and other necessary supplies during the siege. Electricity and all communications were cut off for at least 15 days, and, at the time of this writing, remained cut off in several neighborhoods in the city.
From April 25, 2011 until at least May 22, 2011, Daraa residents were not allowed to pray in mosques and all calls for prayer were banned. Security forces occupied all of the mosques in the city and, according to witnesses who saw the mosques after they reopened, desecrated them by writing graffiti on the walls.
As the killings continued during the Daraa siege, residents also struggled with the growing number of dead bodies. Due to the lack of electricity, the bodies could not be stored in morgues, and restrictions on movement and communications placed obstacles to identification and burials. As a result, Daraa residents stored dozens of bodies in mobile vegetable refrigerators that could run on diesel fuel. These were subsequently confiscated by the security forces who then returned at least some of the bodies to the families.
Syrian authorities also imposed an information blockade on Daraa to ensure that abuses were not exposed. No independent observers could enter the city and one international journalist who managed to report from Daraa during the first two weeks of protests in March was arrested upon his return to Damascus. During the siege all means of communication were shut down, including Syrian cell phone networks. Many witnesses told Human Rights Watch that cell phones were the first thing authorities confiscated during searches in their houses or at checkpoints. They were specifically looking for footage of the events and arrested and tortured those whom they suspected of trying to send out images or other information out, including some foreign nationals.
Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to immediately halt the use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against demonstrators and activists, release unconditionally all detainees held merely for participating in peaceful protests or for criticizing the Syrian authorities, and provide immediate and unhindered access to human rights groups and journalists to the governorate of Daraa, as well as hospitals, places of detention, and prisons. It also called on the Security Council to push for and support efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the grave, widespread, and systematic human rights violations committed in Syria since mid-March 2011, and adopt targeted financial and travel sanctions on those officials responsible for continuing human rights violations.