Killings, Torture in a Locked-Down City Under Siege
June 1, 2011
For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity. They need to stop – and if they don’t, it is the Security Council’s responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces in the city of Daraa since protests began there on March 18, 2011, strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 54-page report, "‘We've Never Seen Such Horror': Crimes against Humanity in Daraa," is based on more than 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuses. The report focuses on violations in Daraa governorate, where some of the worst violence took place after protests seeking greater freedoms began in various parts of the country. The specifics went largely unreported due to the information blockade imposed by the Syrian authorities. Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described systematic killings, beatings, torture using electroshock devices, and detention of people seeking medical care.

"For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "They need to stop - and if they don't, it is the Security Council's responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice."

The Syrian government should take immediate steps to halt the excessive use of lethal force by security forces, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Security Council should impose sanctions and press Syria for accountability and, if it doesn't respond adequately, refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

The protests first broke out in Daraa in response to the detention and torture of 15 children accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the government's downfall. In response and since then, security forces have repeatedly and systematically opened fire on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators. The security forces have killed at least 418 people in the Daraa governorate alone, and more than 887 across Syria, according to local activists who have been maintaining a list of those killed. Exact numbers are impossible to verify.

Witnesses from Daraa interviewed by Human Rights Watch provided consistent accounts of security forces using lethal force against protesters and bystanders, in most cases without advance warning or any effort to disperse the protesters by nonviolent means. Members of various branches of the mukhabarat (security services) and numerous snipers positioned on rooftops deliberately targeted the protesters, and many of the victims had lethal head, neck, and chest wounds. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which security forces participating in the operations against protesters in Daraa and other cities had received "shoot-to-kill" orders from their commanders.

Some of the deadliest incidents Human Rights Watch documented include:

  • An attack on al-Omari mosque, which served as a rallying point for protesters and a makeshift hospital for the wounded protesters, and attacks on ensuing protests from March 23 to 25, killing more than 30 protesters;
  • Attacks on demonstrators during two protests on April 8, resulting in at least 25 deaths;
  • Attacks during a protest and a funeral procession in the town of Izraa on April 22 and 23, resulting in at least 34 deaths;
  • Killings during the blockade of Daraa and neighboring villages beginning on April 25, and during an effort by residents of neighboring towns to break the siege on April 29, which left up to 200 dead.

Nine witnesses from the towns of Tafas, Tseel, and Sahem al-Golan described to Human Rights Watch one of these attacks which happened on April 29, when thousands or people from towns surrounding Daraa attempted to break the blockade on the city. Witnesses said that the security forces stopped the protesters who were trying to approach Daraa at a checkpoint near the Western entrance of Daraa city. One of the witnesses from the town of Tseel who participated in the protest said:

"We stopped there, waiting for more people to arrive. We held olive branches, and posters saying we want to bring food and water to Daraa. We had canisters with water and food parcels with us. Eventually thousands of people gathered on the road - the crowd stretched for some six kilometers.

"Then we started moving closer to the checkpoint. We shouted 'peaceful, peaceful,' and in response they opened fire. Security forces were everywhere, in the fields nearby, on a water tank behind the checkpoint, on the roof of a nearby factory, and in the trees, and the fire came from all sides. People started running, falling, trying to carry the wounded away. Nine people from Tseel were wounded there and one of them died."

Another witness, from Tafas, said:

"There was no warning, no firing in the air. It was simply an ambush. There was gunfire from all sides, from automatic guns. Security forces were positioned in the fields along the road, and on the roofs of the buildings. They were deliberately targeting people. Most injuries were in the head and chest.

"Two men from Tafas were killed there: 22-year-old Muhammad Aiman Baradan and 38-year-old Ziad Hreidin. Ziad stood next to me when a sniper bullet hit him in the head. He died on the spot. Altogether, 62 people were killed and more than a hundred wounded, I assisted with their transportation to Tafas hospital."

Syrian authorities repeatedly blamed the protesters in Daraa for initiating the violence and accused them of attacking security forces. All of the testimony collected by Human Rights Watch indicates, however, that the protests were in most cases peaceful.

Human Rights Watch documented several incidents in which, in response to the killings of protesters, Daraa residents resorted to violence, setting cars and buildings on fire, and killing members of the security forces. Human Rights Watch said that such incidents should be further investigated, but that they by no means justify the massive and systematic use of lethal force against the demonstrators.

Syrian authorities also routinely denied wounded protesters access to medical assistance by preventing ambulances from reaching the wounded, and on several occasions opening fire on medical personnel or rescuers who tried to carry the wounded away. Security forces took control of most of the hospitals in Daraa and detained the wounded who were brought in. As a result, many wounded people avoided the hospitals and were treated in makeshift hospitals with limited facilities. In at least two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, people died because they were denied needed medical care.

Witnesses from Daraa and neighboring towns described to Human Rights Watch large-scale sweep operations by the security forces, who detained hundreds of people daily, as well as the targeted arrests of activists and their family members. The detainees, many of them children, were held in appalling conditions. All ex-detainees interviewed said that they, as well as hundreds of others they saw in detention, had been subjected to torture, including prolonged beatings with sticks, twisted wires, other devices, and electric shocks. Some were tortured on improvised metal and wooden "racks" and, in at least one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a male detainee was raped with a baton.

Two witnesses independently reported to Human Rights Watch the extrajudicial execution of detainees on May 1 at an ad hoc detention facility at a football field in Daraa. One of the detainees said the security forces had executed 26 detainees; the other described a group of "more than 20." Human Rights Watch has not been able to further corroborate these accounts. However, the detailed information provided by two independent witnesses and the fact that other parts of their statements were fully corroborated by other witnesses supports the credibility of the allegations.

On April 25, security forces began a large-scale military operation in Daraa, imposing a blockade that lasted at least 11 days and was then extended to neighboring towns. Under the cover of heavy gunfire, security forces occupied every neighborhood in the city, ordered people to remain indoors, and opened fire on those who defied the ban. Witnesses said that Daraa residents experienced acute shortages of food, water, medicine, and other necessary supplies during the siege. The security forces shot out water tanks. Electricity and all communications were cut off. Unable to bury or properly store the growing number of dead bodies, Daraa residents stored many of them in mobile vegetable refrigerators that could run on diesel fuel.

Syrian authorities also imposed an information blockade on Daraa. They prevented any independent observers from entering the town, and shut down all means of communication. Security forces searched for and confiscated cellphones that contained footage of events in Daraa, and arrested and tortured those whom they suspected of trying to get images or other information out, including some foreign nationals. In some areas, electricity and communications remain cut off.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to halt immediately the use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against demonstrators and activists, release all arbitrarily arrested detainees, and provide human rights groups and journalists with immediate and unhindered access to Daraa. It also called on the Security Council to adopt targeted financial and travel sanctions on officials responsible for continuing human rights violations, as well as to push for and support efforts to investigate and prosecute the grave, widespread and systemic human rights violations committed in Syria.

"Syrian authorities did everything they could to conceal their bloody repression in Daraa," Whitson said. "But horrendous crimes like these are impossible to hide, and sooner or later those responsible will have to answer for their actions."