Since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian security forces have killed more than 3,100 protesters and bystanders in their violent efforts to stop the protests. They have maimed and injured many more and arbitrarily arrested thousands across the country, subjecting many of them to torture in detention. Local activists have reported more than 105 deaths in custody.
This report focuses on violations by Syrian security forces in the central governorate of Homs from mid-April to end of August 2011, where during that time security forces killed at least 587 civilians, the highest number of casualties for any single governorate, according to lists compiled by local activists. Most of these killings took place in Homs city, the capital of the governorate, and in the towns of Tal Kalakh, Rastan, and Talbiseh. At the time of writing, the crackdown on Homs had intensified with the killing of 207 civilians in the month of September alone, the bloodiest month to date. Human Rights Watch’s June 1 report “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” documented abuses by Syrian security forces in the Daraa governorate, where the protest movement first erupted.
Obtaining accurate information about events in Syria is challenging as the authorities put enormous efforts into preventing the truth from getting out. This report is based on interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch staff with more than 114 residents of Homs as well as a review of 29 interviews videotaped by Syrian activists. The government has refused Human Rights Watch access to Syria, so we conducted interviews with residents who had escaped to neighboring countries and over the Internet with witnesses inside Syria. Human Rights Watch also reviewed dozens of videos, filmed by witnesses, which corroborate their accounts. Additional information was provided by Syrian activists who have documented the events. To ensure the reliability of the cases reported, this report only includes events corroborated by multiple sources.
Human Rights Watch believes that the nature and scale of abuses committed by the Syrian security forces across the country indicate that crimes against humanity may have been committed. The similarities in the cases of apparent unlawful killings, including evidence of security forces shooting at protestors without warning in repeated instances, arbitrary detention, disappearances, and torture, indicate the existence of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population which has the backing of the state.
Despite the high death toll extracted by the Syrian crackdown, the international response to this human rights crisis has been gruelingly slow and ultimately inadequate. While the European Union and United States have taken a number of strong measures – imposing travel bans and asset freezes on Syrian officials and key businessmen close to the authorities, prohibiting the purchase of Syrian oil, freezing the assets of key state and private entities – and while Turkey and some Arab states have strongly condemned Syria’s crackdown, Russia and China have successfully shielded Syria from further criticism or action at the level of the UN Security Council. The expected Russian and Chinese reticence for action has found support in the three influential southern democracies currently members of the Security Council, India, Brazil and South Africa (commonly referred to as IBSA), which have preferred a policy of soft engagement with Syria in the hope that President al-Assad will implement necessary reforms.
The problem with IBSA’s quiet engagement policy is that it has failed in stopping the violent crackdown. After seven months of repeated promises of reforms, security forces continue to shoot protesters, detain political activists, and deny access to independent human rights monitors and journalists. To continue to hope that somehow President al-Assad will enact his reforms without any external pressure is to willfully ignore the record of the Syrian authorities so far. Worse, the inaction and failure of the international community to condemn in unison the violations in Syria is emboldening the Syrian authorities and ensuring impunity for perpetrators of serious human rights violations.
Since anti-government protests spread to Homs Governorate in mid-March, security forces and government-supported militias there (referred to locally as Shabeeha) have killed hundreds of people. While the exact number of killings is impossible to verify due to restrictions on access and reporting, local groups have maintained a list of those killed and have registered 793 killings in Homs Governorate as of the end of September. The actual number of killed is likely higher.
Number of Civilian Deaths in Homs Governorate, March-September 2011
Many of the killings took place during attacks on protesters and funeral processions, such as killings in Homs city of protesters who had attempted to stage a sit-in at New Clock Tower Square on April 19 and the killing of 16 during a funeral near the Khaled Bin al-Waleed mosque on July 29.
While in some cases security forces appear to have initially used teargas or fired in the air to disperse the crowds, Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents when security forces opened fire directly at the protesters without giving advance warning or making any effort to disperse the protesters by non-lethal means. In several cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces chased and continued to shoot at protesters as they were running away.
Since May security forces have conducted several large-scale security operations in Homs Governorate which have resulted in large numbers of deaths and injuries. Security operations in the towns of Tal Kalakh and Rastan, which lasted for several days, killed dozens. In Homs city, security forces have carried out operations in various neighborhoods on a regular basis. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces entered neighborhoods with tanks and armored personnel carriers and fired on civilians, sometimes from weapons mounted on the vehicles. They cut off communications and established checkpoints restricting movement in and out of neighborhoods, including delivery of food and medicine.
Witnesses said that attackers included one or several of Syria’s security agencies often referred to by the umbrella term mukhabarat (intelligence), armed pro-government militias, and sometimes army and police.
Based on witness accounts, it appears that most of the violence was perpetrated by mukhabarat forces or shabeeha militias. On several occasions, at least in the early stages of the protests, army units seemed reluctant to fire on protesters, according to the same accounts. In at least one case, mukhabarat forces appeared to shoot and kill an army officer for refusing to open fire on the protesters.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly claimed that armed terrorist gangs, incited and sponsored from abroad, perpetrated the violence in Homs and elsewhere. Syria’s official news agency, SANA, has published the names of at least 53 persons it identified as members of Syria’s security forces (police, mukhabarat, and army) who died in Syria between May 18 and September 5, 2011. Syrian human rights groups provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 93 security forces members killed in Homs between March and September 30, 2011, but they claim that many were killed by other security forces for refusing to shoot on protesters.
According to witnesses and local activists, some protesters and army defectors have used force, including lethal force, against Syrian security forces. For example, armed defectors from the army operating out of Homs and Rastan intervened in a few cases after security forces had attacked or opened fire on protestors. Many anti-government protesters who spoke to Human Rights Watch justified these attacks by arguing that they were in defense of protestors subject to unlawful attacks by the security forces. One local activist told Human Rights Watch that since July army defections had increased and that some neighborhoods in Homs had about 15-20 defectors who would sometimes intervene when they heard gunfire against protesters.
In the majority of cases documented in this report by Human Rights Watch, however, witnesses insisted that those killed and wounded were unarmed, or in some cases were throwing stones, and posed no serious threat to security forces. Statements to Human Rights Watch from security force members who defected lend credibility to this claim.
Alleged violence by protesters and army defectors requires further investigation, and those responsible for criminal acts may be held accountable and subject to lawful prosecution. However, these incidents by no means justify the massive and systematic use of lethal force against mainly peaceful demonstrators or the extensive military operations against neighborhoods or towns that have seen large anti-government protests, operations that were clearly disproportionate to any threat presented by the overwhelmingly unarmed crowds.
The decision of some protesters and defectors to arm themselves and fight back, shooting at security forces, shows that the strategy adopted by Syria’s authorities has dangerously provoked escalation in the level of violence, and highlights the need for an immediate cessation of lethal force against peaceful protests lest the country slip into bloodier conflict. As one protester who lost a cousin told Human Rights Watch:
They [the security services] shot at us for months and we kept chanting “peaceful.” They killed our families and friends, detained us, tortured us, and we kept chanting. But things cannot remain this way. How many funerals can any one person go to before deciding to fight back?
Arbitrary Detention, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances
As in the rest of Syria, security forces in Homs Governorate subjected thousands of people to arbitrary arrests and systematic torture in detention. Some of those arrested were subjected to enforced disappearance.
Witnesses from Homs, Tal Kalakh, Talbiseh, and Rastan described to Human Rights Watch operations during which security forces detained dozens of people at a time, targeted arrests of activists and their family members, and arrests at checkpoints and by street patrols.
Exact numbers are impossible to verify but information collected by Human Rights Watch indicates that security forces detained up to 1,500 individuals from Tal Kalakh alone. Activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that thousands of people were detained in Homs city from April to August, 2011. While most were released after several days or weeks, several hundred remain missing, their fate and whereabouts unknown to their families. When anyone is detained by or with the support of the state and their detention is either unacknowledged, or their fate or whereabouts is concealed so that they are denied the protection of the law, this constitutes an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law.
Over 25 former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported seeing hundreds of others while in detention, and said detention facilities were unbearably overcrowded with guards packing dozens of detainees into cells intended for a few and holding detainees in corridors outside the cells.
Almost without exception, all former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they themselves were subjected to various forms of humiliation, ill-treatment, and often torture while in detention, and witnessed the abuse of other detainees. Interrogators and guards beat detainees with batons and cables whilst they were being arrested, transported, and transferred from one facility to another, and routinely during interrogation. Witnesses also reported security forces’ use of heated metal rods to burn different parts of the body, use of electric shocks, use of stress positions for hours or even days at a time, and the use of improvised devices, such as car tires (locally known as the dulab), to force the bodies of detainees into positions that make it easier to beat them on sensitive parts of the body, like the soles of the feet and head.
Deaths in Custody
One of the most worrisome features of the intensifying crackdown against protesters in Syria has been the growing number of custodial deaths that have been reported in various parts of the country, including in Homs Governorate.
Data collected by local activists indicates that more than 40 people detained from Homs Governorate had died in custody by the end of August. Human Rights Watch has independently collected information on 17 cases of deaths in detention in Homs Governorate since March 2011.
In the vast majority of custodial deaths documented by Human Rights Watch, the detainees had been victims of enforced disappearances. Families of victims told Human Rights Watch that they had no information of their relatives’ fate or whereabouts after security forces detained them at a protest or checkpoint until the day they received a call, usually from a local public hospital, asking them to pick up the body of their relative. In some cases, the bodies were found dumped in the street.
In all cases where such information was made available to Human Rights Watch, the bodies bore marks consistent with infliction of torture, including bruises, cuts, and burns. The authorities provided families with no information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones and, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, have launched no investigations. In many cases, families of those killed in custody had to sign documents indicating that “armed gangs” had killed their relatives and promise not to hold a public funeral as a condition to receive the body.
Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government immediately to halt the use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against unarmed demonstrators and activists; to release unconditionally all detainees held merely for participating in peaceful protests or for criticizing the authorities; to account for all those who have been detained and forcibly disappeared; and to provide immediate and unhindered access to human rights groups and journalists to the governorate of Homs, including hospitals, places of detention, and prisons.
Human Rights Watch also called on all the members of the United Nations Security Council to take action, separately and jointly, to protect civilians by pushing for international civilian observers to deploy inside Syria, including in Homs Governorate in order to monitor human rights violations; to secure access to Syria for independent journalists, human rights monitors, and investigators; and to support investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for grave, widespread, and systematic human rights violations committed in Syria since mid-March 2011.
In the absence of collective action by the Security Council, Human Rights Watch called on all UN member states to act through the General Assembly to initiate measures to protect the Syrian people and for those states and regional bodies which have not yet done so to adopt unilateral targeted financial and travel sanctions on those officials responsible for continuing human rights violations.
 Human Rights Watch interview, Beirut, October 5, 2011.