November 11, 2011

IV. 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 Homs Governorate.

Data collected by local activists and Amnesty International suggests that more than 40 people detained in Homs Governorate have died in custody.[116]

Human Rights Watch has independently collected information on 17 cases of deaths in detention in Homs Governorate since March 2011.

In almost all cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they had no information concerning 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 and then identified by the families.

In at least 12 cases where Human Rights Watch reviewed photos or video footage of the bodies, these bore unmistakable marks consistent with torture, including bruises, cuts, and burns.

Syria has an obligation to investigate and account for all deaths that occur in custody: this stems from its obligations both to protect the right to life, and to provide an effective remedy in the event of an alleged violation. The UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions state that “there shall be thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions” which includes all cases of deaths in custody.[117]

However, authorities provided families with no information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of loved ones and, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, initiated no investigations, making it impossible to determine the exact cause of death.[118] In some cases, families of dead detainees had to sign documents claiming that “armed gangs” had killed their relatives and promise not to hold a public funeral as a condition to receive the body.

The cases of deaths in detention documented by Human Rights Watch are concentrated in Homs city and Tal Kalakh and include individuals detained by Military Security, Air Force Security, and State Security.

A resident of Bab Sba` neighborhood in Homs told Human Rights Watch that he attended the funeral of Tarek Ziad Abdul Qader,23, whose body was returned to his family on June 16 after he apparently died in detention. He said:

[Tarek] was shot in the leg and detained along with his friend from the Abbara family. Then he died in detention. They were both 23-years-old. About a day after he was taken, his parents started to ask about him in the hospitals, but there was no answer. The National Hospital called his parents on June 16 to tell them to come collect his body. When they asked who delivered the body, the hospital workers said they didn’t know.
They later inferred that he had died after being detained for about 10 days. They inferred this from the length of his beard – he had gone to his barber cousin that Friday, May 6, for a shave before going to the mosque. When his body was delivered his beard had grown in a way that would have taken about 10 days.[119]

In the end of May and beginning of June, the bodies of eight people detained during security operations in Tal Kalakh on May 17 were returned to their families.[120] Human Rights Watch documented the details of the eight cases, including the circumstances of their detention. A witness told Human Rights Watch that he had seen the eight individuals in government custody.[121] Human Rights Watch also received information about the death in custody of Ahmad Hamsho. These cases are also Qusair detail in Amnesty International’s July 2011 report “Crackdown in Syria: Terror in Tell Kalakh.”[122]

On June 17, Military Security detained Obeida A`id Akram, a 23-year old resident of the Bayyada neighborhood in Homs, while he was at a protest in the Khalidiyya neighborhood, according to relatives and local activists.[123] One protester told his family that Akram was unable to run away from the security forces because he was incapacitated by tear gas.[124] His family received no information about his whereabouts until they received a call on June 27 from the National Hospital in Homs asking them to collect his body. A video of the corpse reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows a bullet entry point under his ear and severe bruises on his face.[125]

Fadi (not his real name) from the town of al-Qusair outside of Homs told Human Rights Watch about the death of a family friend, 35-year-old Ahmadal-Masri. He said that al-Masri was mentally disabled and in late May/early June security forces arrested him as he walked around the streets, randomly repeating anti-government slogans he heard at the protests. Fadi said:

A week after he was detained, his body was returned to his parents. I saw the body when it was brought in. It was covered in bruises and oval red and blue marks that seemed to be from electric shocks, mostly on his back. His ribs were broken – some of the ribs were sticking out of his body.
His father said that he had been called into the central facility of the Military Intelligence in Homs and made to sign a statement saying that Ahmad had been killed by “extremists.” He said the security forces threatened to otherwise not only keep the body but also “go after his daughters.” So he had no choice but to sign it.[126]

Fadi provided Human Rights Watch with video footage of al-Masri’s body which appeared to be consistent with his account.

On August 1, members of State Security detained Khaled Mrad, 35, and Jamal al-Fatwa, 29, as they were driving near the Ghouta roundabout in Homs, according to relatives and local activists familiar with the case.[127] The two had been active in mobilizing protesters and were apparently caught with megaphones and cameras in their cars. Someone detained with Mrad informed a relative that Mrad suffered from shortness of breath during his detention after he had been severely beaten and was placed in a three-by-eight meter prison cell with 70 other detainees.[128] On August 9, Mrad’s body was returned to his family. The body of Jamal al-Fatwa was returned to his family on August 12. A witness who saw al-Fatwa’s body before burial described large contusions on various parts of the body.[129] Video footage of the body shows marks consistent with beatings on his back, arms, and legs, as well as wounds on his feet.[130] The exact cause of death in both cases is unknown as no forensic doctor examined the bodies.

Human Rights Watch also received information regarding the death in detention in Homs of Muhammad Mumtaz Halo, 28, Husam al-Sayyid Ali, and Murhaf al-Sayyid, but was unable to interview any family member or direct witness to the death.

Residents of Homs interviewed by Human Rights Watch repeated allegations that mutilated bodies of people who had previously been detained were dumped in public gardens and other areas in the city. One of the witnesses, a resident of the Bayyada neighborhood in Homs, described one such case to Human Rights Watch:

I kept hearing about the bodies being found in the city but until today [July 27] had not seen any. This morning we found the body of our neighbor, 35-year-old Ali, in a garden not far from his house.
He had been detained during a massive protest on Masaken al-Mu`alimeen Street about two-and-a-half months ago. His family has been looking for him everywhere, but every security agency just kept sending them to another one, so they couldn’t find any information about his whereabouts. The body did not have any bullet wounds – it looked like he had been beaten to death. There was no postmortem but it seemed like he died shortly before being dumped in the neighborhood. He had bruises and cuts all over his body.[131]

 

[116] See VDC List, http://www.vdc-sy.org/; “Deadly Detention: Deaths in Custody amid Popular Protest in Syria,” Amnesty International, August 31, 2011, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/report/syria%E2%80%99s-surge-deaths-detention-revealed-2011-08-30 (accessed October 30, 2011).

[117] E.S.C. res. 1989/65, annex, 1989 U.N. ESCOR Supp. (No. 1) at 52, U.N. Doc. E/1989/89 (1989), principle 9.

[118] Syria’s authorities launched an investigation into the death in custody of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year old who died in Daraa in April, after the case triggered domestic and international outrage.

[119] Human Rights Watch Skype interview, June 20, 2011, name withheld.

[120] The names of the eight people detained on May 17 are Majd and So’dat al-Kurdy, Abd al-Rahman, Ahmed Abu Libdeh, Mohamed Abdel Halloum, KifahHaidar, Oqba al-Sha’ar, and Mohamed al-Rajab.

[121] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 28.

[122]Crackdown in Syria: Terror in Tell Kalakh,” Amnesty International, July 2011, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/029/2011/en/71ac0ffa-8415-49c6-b3a9-ff939ff5720b/mde240292011en.pdf (accessed September 2, 2011).

[123] Human Rights Watch Skype interviews, June 29 & 30, 2011.

[124] Human Rights Watch Skype interview, June 30, 2011.

[125] Video footage received by Human Rights Watch on August 26, 2011.

[126] Human Rights Watch interview,name and place withheld, July 29, 2011.

[127] Human Rights Watch interviews, name and place withheld, August 24, 2011; Human Rights Watch Skype interview,name withheld, August 16, 2011

[128] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, August 24, 2011.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Video available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrOlXoSV0Ys&NR=1 (accessed October 22, 2011).

[131] The witness did not want to provide Human Rights Watch with the real name of the killed person out of concern for the safety of the family. Human Rights Watch interview,name and place withheld, July 27, 2011.