(New York) - Syrian security forces have intensified their campaign of mass arrests in cities across the country that have had anti-government protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The targeted cities include including Hama, Homs, and various suburbs around Damascus.
Reliable activists and witnesses contacted by Human Rights Watch estimate that since late June, 2011, security forces have arrested more than 2,000 anti-government protesters, medical professionals providing aid to wounded protesters, and those alleged to have provided information to international media and human rights organizations.
"President Assad talks reform but continues to practice repression, not only through the widespread killings of demonstrators but also through mass arrests," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Who does President Assad mean to include in his ‘national dialogue' when his security forces are targeting the very people who might have something to say to him?"
The government has been arresting and holding activists despite the start of its National Dialogue Initiative on July 10 that, government media maintain, is intended to facilitate Syria's transition to a multi-party democratic political system. Opposition figures boycotted the event, saying the government first needs to stop arresting, torturing, and killing activists and protesters.
In one of the most recent arrests of a nationally known activist, a group of about 20 plainclothes security forces went to the home of George Sabra, a senior member of the National Democratic Party and a key opposition figure, at about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of July 20 and took him away. His wife confirmed his arrest to Human Rights Watch by phone:
Security forces came and took him at about 1:30 a.m. There were about 20 people outside with both military and civilian cars, but only about six or seven actually entered the home, all of them in sports clothes and carrying guns. They searched the house and took his computer and his mobile. All they said is, "You are wanted," but nothing about what security branch they were from, where they were taking him, or why he was being arrested. They allowed him to get dressed and didn't vandalize anything, but blocked us at the door and would not let us leave the home as they took him away. Until now, we have heard nothing more about him.
Even though many detainees have been released after a few days or weeks, the Local Coordination Committees, a loose affiliation of groups that both organizes and reports on the democracy protests in Syria, estimates that over 15,000 people arrested since the beginning of the protests remain in detention, most without any contact with the outside world.
Despite presidential amnesties and promises of reform, many detained earlier in March, April, May, June, and the beginning of July on suspicion of being protesters or activists remain in detention, with no confirmation of their whereabouts or the legal grounds for their detention. For those who have been charged, some of the offenses cited are unduly vague and political rather than criminal, such as "spreading false or exaggerated information that weakens national sentiment." Others have been released only after signing forced confessions "admitting" to being terrorists or religious extremists.
People held in incommunicado detention are at risk of torture. Human Rights Watch has already documented widespread torture from the accounts of people who have been released, causing concern that many detainees still in detention are being tortured.
The Syrian authorities continue to bar international observers and most of the international media from the country. Human Rights Watch has collected its information from witnesses who are friends and family members of those detained, or who witnessed the recent wave of arrests, some of them refugees who crossed into neighboring countries.
Targeted Arrests of Activists and Their Families
Since the beginning of the protests in March, the Syrian security forces have arrested known activists and suspected protest organizers, but arrests have intensified in recent weeks. Often, when the security forces are unable to locate the person they were seeking, they detain family members.
On July 15, military and other security forces surrounded the town of Qatana following a protest. The next day, they began a campaign of arrests, detaining more than 500 people, according to a human rights activist and Qatana native Mohammed al-Abdullah, who is living in exile in the United States. Ten soldiers from the 1st and 4th brigades of the Syrian Army stormed al-Abdullah's family's home in Qatana on July 17 at 9 a.m., destroying furniture and arresting his father, Ali al-Abdullah, 61. The soldiers claimed that they were seeking Mohammed's brother, Omar, 26, who is in hiding.
His father was released three days later, said Mohammed, but the authorities released no information about Ali al-Abdullah's whereabouts and did not allowed him to contact his family during his time in detention. He had heart surgery three weeks prior to his arrest; Mohammed was unsure if he received his medication, but said his health had deteriorated. The family does not know if he was picked up as part of the army's sweep of adult males in the city or if he was targeted as an activist.
On July 12, two months after his arrest on May 11, Wael Hamadeh, a detained Damascus-based political activist and husband of the prominent rights advocate Razan Zeitouneh, was finally brought before a judge and allowed to see a lawyer and family members. On that date, authorities transferred Hamadeh from the air force branch of the security services to Adra prison. He was charged with undermining state authority, belonging to secret organizations, and harming national unity. Zeitouneh is in hiding to avoid arrest.
The security forces had initially sought Hamadeh and Zeitouneh on April 30 at their home. When they did not locate the couple, the security forces seized Hamadeh's younger brother, `Abd al-Rahman, 20, who was finally brought before a court two weeks before his brother and also remains in detention.
On May 12, Mohammed Najati Tayyara, a human rights activist from Homs who had spoken with the international media about the government's crackdown, was detained on a street in Homs, a friend told Human Rights Watch. He is being held in a basement storage room in Homs' central prison, along with others arrested during protests, his lawyer, Omar Bundaqji, told Human Rights Watch. Tayyara has been able to see his family and lawyer once a week for 15 and 30 minutes, respectively, Bundaqji said. He said that a court in Damascus is examining possible charges against Tayyara of "spreading false or exaggerated information that weakens national sentiment while Syria is at war or is expecting a war" or "spreading lies harmful to the prestige of the nation."
The brother of another activist was arrested in the Damascus suburb of Dumeir in May while authorities were apparently looking for the activist himself. Approximately 50 security men broke down the door and raided the family's house, said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous. When they did not find him, they instead arrested his brother, although he had not filmed or organized any protests, according to the activist, who said:
They first found out my name when they checked my ID in one of the early protests. I was not arrested then. However, they have since arrested four of my brothers and told them in prison that they only arrested them because they wanted me. They have released three of them from prison, but kept one in order to pressure me. A family friend knows a mid-level security official in Dumeir who told him that they want me "dead or alive," so he advised that I not give in to the pressure to turn myself in.
Detainees released on July 14 who saw the brother, in his 30s, at a detention facility in Damascus told the activist that his brother has suffered serious injuries as a result of torture in custody, including internal bleeding, and had undergone two operations on his leg.
On July 5, Ahmad Toma, a dentist who previously spent two-and-a-half years in prison for his involvement with the pro-reform Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC), was arrested at his clinic in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, Zeitouneh, the human rights activist who is in hiding, told Human Rights Watch. Toma has not been heard from since.
The Syrian security forces also appear to be closely monitoring the call records of known activists to determine whether they are talking to the foreign media and international human rights groups. On July 7, an activist from Hama received a phone call from someone who identified himself as "security" and demanded that he come into the local security branch. He told Human Rights Watch he had gone into hiding to avoid arrest:
The caller accused me of receiving phone calls from foreign numbers. I denied it, but it is true that I have been speaking to foreign news agencies and to Human Rights Watch. When I refused to come into his office, the caller insulted me and threatened to kill me. So I am afraid now. In 1982 my grandfather and uncle were killed, though they were not political. Now five of my friends and one family member are in detention. I wear different clothes from before. I shaved my beard and cut my hair short. But still, I have given up thinking that I can avoid being caught.
In Homs, security agents arrested two doctors, Eyad Rifaee, an orthopedic surgeon, and Jalal Hasoun al-Najar, a neurologist, on July 7 and July 9 respectively. They accused both men of providing medical assistance to wounded protesters and providing information to foreign reporters about the government crackdown, friends told Human Rights Watch. Rifaee drove himself to the air force branch of security after receiving an order by phone to come in, said a friend. Agents from the military security branch arrested al-Najar at his clinic in Homs, and the next day went to his house and took his laptop and phone.
Activists told Human Rights Watch that on July 13, both a city official and the medical association in Homs petitioned the military security branch for his release, saying that treating the wounded is not a crime. However, one activist said that security authorities had replied to the city official that al-Najar had been arrested not for his medical activities, but for alleged political activities.
Sweeps of Protesters, Home Raids, Random Arrests
Security forces have arrested dozens of people at a time, both during protests and in house-to-house raids in areas where protests have taken place. Based on information compiled by the Local Coordination Committees, cities where security forces have conducted these raids include Daraa, Banyas, Latakia, Qatana, Daraya, Homs, Hama, Dumeir, Zabadani, and Damascus and its suburbs.
On July 14, security forces arrested 40 people near the Hassan mosque in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan who were participating in a peaceful "Intellectuals' Protest." Participants and activists provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 31 people they could confirm were arrested, but other activists and a lawyer working on the detainees' cases said that 29 women and 11 men had been detained. The activists said that all 40 have since been released, but that a prosecutor is still investigating charges against them.
One protester described the arrests:
By 5:45 p.m., police and security forces had closed all the roads to the mosque around Midan. We saw about 300 people, both men and women, near the mosque. They started protesting, prompting plain-clothes thugs and security men to attack. They beat and arrested many people. The rest of the group ran toward the Jazmatia market. Once they cleared out, about 20 of the pro-regime people who had helped attack the anti-government protesters with sticks then started their own protest, holding up a big picture of Assad. I saw May Skaf, Yam Mashhadi, Rima Flehan, and Iyad Shurbaji arrested by policemen and loaded into a bus.
Protesters in Homs have also faced mass arrests. Three protesters described to Human Rights Watch events in the al-Malaab neighborhood on July 8, when about 200 security forces dispersed a protest of about 1,000 people. They detained 10 protesters, including Omar al-Jandali, Ra'fit Atassi, and the brothers Labib Nahhas and Kenan Nahhas, according to two activists present at the protest who are also part of a local information-gathering network. The Nahhas brothers, Omar al-Jandali, and two other protesters ran off and hid in a nearby house after security forces arrived, but were spotted by security men, who came after them, broke the door of the house, and arrested the five of them, along with the doorman, who was not involved. The two activists were unable to establish how Atassi was arrested.
Witnesses have also described to Human Rights Watch episodes in which, since late June, security forces detained men whom the activists said were not involved in political activities, but were simply walking in neighborhoods where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. A resident of al-Ghouta, a central Homs neighborhood, said security forces have arbitrarily detained men in his and other neighborhoods. Describing an incident on June 29, he said:
I saw five security guys in green uniforms get out of a car and arrest a neighbor named Anas, in his 20s. He was on the sidewalk just outside his building watching a demonstration down the block, just wearing his house clothes and flip flops. He wasn't involved in the protests at all.
The security men drove up, got out of the car, and started hitting Anas with their sticks. The car drove off. Hearing his screams, people on the balcony told them to leave him alone, then the security men started swearing and shouting at them. They stopped a microbus in the middle of the street, shoved him inside and drove away. A neighbor later told me that Anas was released the next day.
In a raid similar to the one that occurred on July 4 in Hama, security forces also stormed the Damascus suburb of Dumeir that day, arresting hundreds of men suspected of participating in protests or harboring protesters. Security forces from Air Force Intelligence went house-to-house with a list of names, said a human rights activist and Dumeir resident who was in the city at the time of the raid. Tanks were placed at each of the entrances to the city, preventing residents from entering and leaving. Security forces also searched homes looking for bodies or wounded people, and arrested all male residents over age 16 wherever they found them, the activist said. Over the course of three days, they detained about 530 people, he said.
At least seven of the 530 were released after their families paid bribes to security officials. None of them had participated in protests, the activist said, but had been detained either because they were in the home of someone being sought by security forces, or because they had the same name as someone being sought. One man's family paid a bribe of 100,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $2,100), he said, adding that the man had been arrested because he had been in his uncle's house when security forces stormed in, looking for he uncle. Twenty-two others, all arrested before the citywide sweep that began on July 4, were released on July 14.