June 4, 2013

(London) - At least 147 people whose bodies were found in the city of Aleppo’s river between January and March, 2013, were probably executed in government-controlled areas. 

Human Rights Watch visited the site where the bodies were discovered; interviewed local residents and activists who found the bodies, a forensic expert who examined the bodies, and 18 families of the victims; and reviewed more than 350 photographs and videos of the victims. Based on photographs, video footage, and witness statements, many of the victims bore signs of having been detained and then executed, such as hands tied behind their back, gunshot wounds to their head, and tape across their mouth.

“The bodies floating down Aleppo’s river tell a grisly tale,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. ”It’s hard to see how 147 people could have been executed and their bodies flung in the river in government-controlled territory, as the evidence indicates, without the knowledge of government forces operating in the area.”

While Human Rights Watch’s investigation is not definitive in terms of who is responsible for the executions or their motivation, the location where the bodies were discovered and information about the victims’ last known whereabouts indicate that the executions most likely took place in government-controlled areas.

Local activists told Human Rights Watch that they had discovered more than 230 bodies in the Queiq river in Aleppo city between January 29 and March 14. Using incomplete photographs and video footage of bodies recovered from the river, Human Rights Watch was able to count 147 victims, all males, ranging in age from at least 11 to 64. Some bodies were claimed by families before they could be photographed or found further downstream, activists told Human Rights Watch.

The river, flowing from north to south, crosses the line that divides the city into a northwestern part controlled by government forces and a southeastern part controlled by opposition forces. According to local residents, the dividing line has been relatively fixed since opposition forces took control of significant parts of the city in July 2012.

Local residents and activists collected the bodies, which were floating down the river, by a bridge in the opposition-controlled area just south of the dividing line. While it is theoretically possible that the bodies were dumped in the river on the opposition-side of the dividing line, Human Rights Watch’s investigation found this to be unlikely. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that the area north of the bridge was not accessible because it was within range of government snipers.

Local activists said that they had spotted bodies in the river north of the bridge, even closer to the dividing line, on several occasions, but that they had not been able to recover the bodies until they floated further downstream because of government snipers. The persistent threat from government snipers in the area north of the bridge on the opposition-controlled side makes it unlikely that somebody could regularly dump bodies in the river there, Human Rights Watch said.

Since early March, the water level in the river has been too low for it to carry any bodies, local residents told Human Rights Watch. It is unclear whether the executions continued after March 14.

Through interviews with the victims’ families, reports by local opposition authorities, and casualty databases, Human Rights Watch has compiled a list of 61 names of people who have been identified. The remaining victims were not identified by the time of their burial. Local activists have collected and stored hair samples of the victims for future DNA identification.

Syria’s state-run news agency reported  on January 30, the day after the first bodies were found in the river, that Syria’s Foreign and Expatriates Ministry had sent letters to the United Nations Security Council and Secretary General, accusing Jabhat al-Nusra, an opposition group, of the executions. The news report did not provide any explanation other than that the bodies were found in opposition-controlled areas.

“These executions underline the urgent need for objective and impartial investigations,” Solvang said. “The UN Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and demand that the Syrian government provides the UN Commission of Inquiry access to the country.”

The Families’ Accounts

Interviews with 18 families of the victims about their last known whereabouts further support the conclusion that the executions likely took place in the government-held area, Human Rights Watch said. Of the 18 cases investigated, 17 families told Human Rights Watch that their relatives had last been seen in a government-controlled area or after they set out to cross into the area through two checkpoints, one manned by opposition forces and the other by government forces.

When the victims did not return, the families often searched for them, including at government hospitals, checkpoints, and security service offices, without results. Some victims were missing for several weeks before their bodies were found in the river, while others were found the next day. Local activists brought the bodies that they discovered in the river to a nearby school so that families could try to identify missing relatives.    

“Mohammed,” 26, a shop owner in the opposition-controlled area, disappeared on March 5. A relative who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that government forces had briefly detained and beaten Mohammed at the main government checkpoint 10 days earlier. Even though the government soldiers had warned him to not use the checkpoint again, he decided to accompany his mother-in-law through the checkpoint to the government-controlled area so that she could take a bus to her home in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood. Mohammed never returned after he left his mother-in-law at the bus station. His relative told Human Rights Watch:

We started searching for him. We asked in the government hospitals and at the checkpoints, including the Karaj al Hajez checkpoint. They said that they hadn’t seen him. Every day we went to the school to look at the bodies. They found him stuck in the mud in the river four days after he disappeared. At first, I couldn’t recognize him because half of his face was blown away. I eventually recognized him because he had lost three fingers on one hand a long time ago. His wrists had marks as if his hands had been tied together.

Most of the families interviewed by Human Rights Watch insisted that the victims had not been involved with the armed opposition or actively participated in demonstrations. They said, in many cases, that the victims were merchants. Some had shops in the government-controlled area but lived in the opposition-controlled area, and others regularly crossed into the government-controlled area to buy supplies that they sold in markets in the opposition-controlled area. 

On January 7, “Ahmed,” a 27-year-old merchant, and his nephew crossed the dividing line, as they had done before, to buy goods in the government-controlled area for their shop. After they arrived in the government-controlled area, Ahmed and his nephew separated. Ahmed did not return, and his body was found in the river on January 29. 

In a similar case, “Mahmoud,” 30, disappeared on March 9 when he left his home in the opposition-controlled area for a market in the government-controlled area where he was planning to buy supplies for his business. His father, who does not know whether he reached his destination, became worried when he didn’t come back as usual around 2 p.m.. He told Human Rights Watch:

I searched for him everywhere. The next morning somebody told me to go to the Yarmouk school to look at the bodies there. When I saw my son with a huge wound in his head I fainted. My son didn’t do any harm to anybody. He was friendly to everybody. He didn’t even smoke. Why did he deserve to die like this? 

In two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, victims’ relatives said that former prisoners or contacts at local security service branches had told them that government forces had detained and held the victims in custody before their bodies showed up in the river. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify these accounts.

The Evidence 

A retired forensic expert working with the opposition told Human Rights Watch that he had examined more than 120 of the bodies and that the vast majority of the victims had been killed by gunshot wounds to their head, which in some cases had significantly disfigured the victims’ faces, making identification difficult. The expert said that the significant damage caused by the gunshots indicated that the victims had been shot at close range.

Nearly all the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs with wire or tape, or marks on their wrists indicating that their wrists had been tied, he said. In some cases, the victims’ feet were tied together as well. Most victims’ mouths were sealed with tape. Some bore small burn marks that could have stemmed from an electric shock or cigarette, he said.

A Human Rights Watch examination of more than 350 photographs of the bodies supported the forensic expert’s findings. Many of the photographs show victims with their hands tied behind their back, gunshot wounds to their head, and tape across their mouth.    

The dates for which the photos and videos show the highest number of victims were January 29 (57 bodies), January 30 (27), March 10 (21) and March 11 (10).

Human Rights Watch was not able to independently confirm the 230 figure provided by local activists, but found it plausible. Local activists explained that they do not possess photographs and video footage of all the bodies because families sometimes removed the bodies before they could be photographed. Activists also said that they started to systematically take photos of each victim only after many of the victims had been buried.

In addition, bodies sometimes floated unnoticed further down the river during the night, further complicating the count. Yousef Houran, a lawyer with the Aleppo-based al-Shams Center for Human Rights and Forensic Investigation, told Human Rights Watch that local farmers had buried at least 40 bodies they had retrieved from the river further downstream. Houran’s organization is preparing a detailed report about the bodies.

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