June 1, 2011

I. Timeline of Protest and Repression in Syria

Syria, a repressive police state ruled under an emergency law since 1963, at first seemed immune to the popular uprisings that swept the Arab world starting December 2010. Protests began in February, but failed to attract crowds large enough to outnumber the ever present security forces.

The situation changed in mid-March, when thousands of people took part in anti-government demonstrations in the city of Daraa, located in the southern Hauran region near the Jordanian border.[1]Protests broke out on March 18 in response to the arrest and torture by political security, a branch of Syria’s notorious mukhabarat, or security services, of 15 school children (see below). Security forces opened fire, killing at least four protesters and within days the protests grew into rallies that gathered thousands of people.

On March 19 the state news agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that the Ministry of the Interior would form a committee to investigate the “unfortunate incidents” in Daraa, and would respond with “all measures deemed necessary” after the committee's investigation.[2] On March 20, the government sent a delegation of high-ranking officials to Daraa, including General Rustum Ghazali, a leading figure in Syrian security services, stating they would try to assure tribal leaders that those who had opened fire on protesters would be brought to justice.[3]

Yet, as the protests continued over the following days and spread to nearby towns of Jassem, Da`el, Sanamein, and Inkhil, the security forces demonstrated increasing brutality in their efforts to quell the demonstrations, killing and wounding more and more protesters (see below). 

The Syrian government-controlled media denied the security forces’ role in the violence, blaming it on “instigators,” “armed gangs,” and “foreign elements.”[4]As the death toll mounted in Daraa, protests spread across Syria. On March 26, protesters and security forces clashed in the port city of Latakia in northwestern Syria, resulting in at least 12 deaths.[5]

On March 30, President Bashar al-Asad addressed the nation. Speaking before parliament, al-Asad pledged to enact ill-defined “reforms,” but did not provide any specific details and continued to blame the unrest on foreign conspirators.[6] The next day, he launched a probe into deaths in Daraa and Latakia and established a committee to study the lifting of emergency law. However, in what would become a familiar pattern, reform promises by President al-Asad were accompanied by more repression, as security forces carried out mass arrests of activists and journalists, including two journalists working for Reuters international news agency.[7]

On April 1, a Friday, protesters turned out by the thousands in several towns and cities including the capital, Damascus.  At least eight demonstrators and possibly as many as fifteen were killed that day when men dressed in civilian clothes opened fire at a largely peaceful anti-government protest in the Damascus suburb of Douma.[8] Meanwhile in Daraa, people from neighboring villages attempted to enter the city, but were met with heavy fire at military blockades, especially on the roads from Sanamein and Inkhil.

This was the first of what became weekly mass anti-government demonstrations across Syria.[9] The following week, on April 8, protests continued in Daraa, Baniyas, Homs, Latakia, Tartus, Idlib, the Damascus suburb of Harasta, and the largely Kurdish northeastern city of Qamishli. In Daraa, residents of neighboring villages passed through the blockades at the city's entrances, burned posters and statues of Syria’s leaders, and converged on the offices of political security. Security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 27 people. Another protester died in Douma. Human Rights Watch documented that Syrian security forces prevented medical personnel and others from reaching wounded protesters that day in Douma and in Harasta.[10]

On April 15, thousands of protesters tried to enter Damascus from Douma and other outlying suburbs, but security personnel fired on them and forced them back.

In addition to shooting protesters, security forces continued their campaign of mass arrests, arbitrarily detaining hundreds of protesters across the country, and subjecting them to torture and ill-treatment. The security and intelligence services also arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists who endorsed or reported on the protests.

By April 15, Human Rights Watch had interviewed 19 people who had been detained in Daraa, Damascus, Douma, al-Tal, Homs, and Banyas. All but two of the detainees arrested during the protests told Human Rights Watch that members of the mukhabarat (security services) beat them while arresting them and in detention, and that they witnessed dozens of other detainees being beaten or heard screams of people being beaten. Three of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch were children who reported that they were beaten. Other former detainees also reported seeing children detained and beaten in the facilities where they were held.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they and other detainees were subjected to various forms of torture, including torture with electro-shock devices, cables, and whips. Most also said they were held in overcrowded cells and many said they were deprived of sleep, food, and water, in some cases, for several days. Some said they were blindfolded and handcuffed the entire time.[11]

On April 21, President al-Asad issued decrees to lift the state of emergency (decree no. 161), to abolish the state security court (decree no. 53), and to recognize and regulate the right to peaceful protest (decree no. 54).[12]

But government forces continued to violently suppress protests, killing at least 110 other protesters who participated in mass gatherings across the country on April 22, in what was the deadliest day of protests. Those killed included at least 30 in the town of Izraa, 23 in the Homs area, and 29 in the Damascus area. Three boys, aged 7, 10, and 12, were among those killed in Izraa, as was a 70-year-old man. Video footage posted on YouTube shows a number of the wounded and killed protesters, including one of the dead children, right after they came under heavy gunfire.[13]

The next day, on April 23, security forces fired on funeral processions in Barza, Douma, and Izraa, killing at least 12 mourners.

As protests continued, security forces launched large-scale military operations on towns and neighborhoods identified as hubs of protests. On April 25, security forces and military vehicles moved into the city of Daraa using military vehicles, including numerous tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs), under a cover of heavy gunfire that lasted unabated for about 16 hours (see below for more details). The security forces occupied all neighborhoods in Daraa, imposed checkpoints, and placed snipers on the roofs of buildings in many parts of the city. They imposed a siege on the city, cut off electricity and all means of communications, and prevented any movement by opening fire on anyone who tried to leave their house. Once they had established full control of the city, the security forces then proceeded to arrest hundreds of men from their homes (see below). 

This pattern would be repeated in a number of places, with varying degrees of military involvement. Security forces surrounded Douma, a suburb of Damascus that was the scene of large anti-government protests, in the early hours of April 25, deployed a heavy security presence in each neighborhood, set-up checkpoints, and proceeded to raid homes, arresting dozens of men.[14] On May 1, the army surrounded Zabadani, a town of approximately 40,000 residents near Damascus, a day after thousands of protesters had marched to the neighboring town of Madaya. The army posted snipers on rooftops and proceeded to arrest many of those who had participated in anti-government protests. A Zabadani activist told Human Rights Watch that the security forces detained 98 men from the town that day, releasing 28 of them on May 3. Most of those released reported being beaten during detention at a security facility on Baghdad Street in Damascus.[15] 

 On May 6, the army and the security services, using armored vehicles and tanks, surrounded the coastal town of Banyas and the neighborhoods of Bab al-Sba` and Baba Amr in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. A Banyas resident said that the army used 57 armored vehicles to surround the town, and entered under cover of heavy gunfire. Over the next few days the security forces would detain hundreds of boys and men from Banyas.[16] In the early hours of May 7, the security forces stormed the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs, destroying a number of shops and homes, and killing several residents, including a mother and her two children, local activists reported.

By May 12, army and security forces had deployed military vehicles, including tanks, in Da`al, Tafas, Inkhil, al-Hara, and Jasem, all towns neighboring Daraa, and proceeded to carry out mass arbitrary arrests of suspected protesters. On May 19, the army also entered the nearby towns of Sanamain, al-Harak, and Kfar Shams.

Meanwhile the arrest and intimidation of political and human rights activists continued.[17]  For example, on May 12, security forces in Homs detained Muhammad Najati Tayyara, a prominent human rights activist who frequently appeared in the media to provide information on Syria's crackdown on protests. Security forces picked him up off the streets of Homs, a friend of Tayyara told Human Rights Watch, and have not provided any information on his whereabouts since then.

In some cases the security forces resorted to detaining relatives and neighbors of government critics, in an effort to obtain information on their whereabouts or force them to stop their activism. For example, on May 11, security forces detained Wael Hamadeh, a political activist and husband of prominent rights advocate Razan Zeitouneh, from his office. The security forces had gone to the couple's house on April 30 searching for them but detained instead Hamadeh's younger brother Abdel Rahman, 20, when they could not find them.[18]

As this report went to print on May 31, Syrian protesters were still demonstrating and security forces continued their violent crackdown. On May 25, security forces returned the body of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khatib to his family in Jeeza, near Daraa, bearing what appeared to be signs of torture. He had been injured and detained weeks earlier while attempting to bring food to Daraa.[19]  His death and reported torture rallied protesters across Syria on Friday May 27.[20] The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria reported that security forces shot and killed 11 protesters that day, including a 15-year-old child in Idlib.[21]

Security forces killed five people on May 28 in Da`el, near Daraa, and conducted raids in the nearby town of al-Harek, arresting hundreds of young men.[22] At dawn on May 29, military forces with tanks stormed the Homs-area towns of Rastan, Talbiseh, Deir Ba`albeh, and Teir Ma`alleh, shelling and firing machine guns at homes and residents, killing 11 people, according to human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh.[23]

[1] “Syria: Government Crackdown Leads to Protester Deaths,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 21, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/03/21/syria-government-crackdown-leads-protester-deaths.

[2] “Official Source: Committee Set up to Investigate Daraa Incidents,” SANA, March 19, 2011, http://www.sana.sy/eng/21/2011/03/19/337559.htm (accessed May 29, 2011).

[3] Hugh Macleod and a reporter in Syria, “Inside Daraa,” Al Jazeera, April 19, 2011, http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/04/201141918352728300.html (accessed May 27, 2011).

[4]“Instigators Mingle with Crowds of Prayers Trying to Cause Chaos in Daraa & Banias,” SANA, March 18 2011,  http://www.sana.sy/eng/21/2011/03/18/337436.htm (accessed May 29, 2011) (“a number of instigators tried to create chaos and unrest damaging public and private properties and setting fire to cars and shops”); “Official Source: Armed Gang Attacks Medical Team in Daraa Killing Doctor, Paramedic, Driver, Security Member ,” SANA, March 24 2011, http://www.sana.sy/eng/21/2011/03/24/338048.htm (accessed May 29, 2011); “Shaaban: Forming Committee to Punish Perpetrators of Daraa Events, increasing employees' salaries,” SANA, March 24, 2011, http://www.sana.sy/eng/21/2011/03/24/338411.htm (accessed May 27, 2011).

[5] “Death of 10 security forces and citizens in attacks by armed members on residents of Latakia, and killing of two of the attackers,” SANA, March 27, 2011, http://www.sana.sy/ara/2/2011/03/27/338721.htm  (accessed on May 28, 2011).

[6] “Syria: President Asad Fails to Deliver Reform,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 30, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/03/30/syria-president-asad-fails-deliver-reform.

[7] “Jordanians call for release of Reuters journalist,” Reuters, March 31, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/31/jordan-syria-reuters-idUSLDE72U19S20110331 (accessed May 28, 2011).

[8] “Syria: Stop Shooting Protesters,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 5, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/04/05/syria-stop-shooting-protesters.

[9] “Syrian Protesters Clash With Security Forces,” The New York Times, April 1, 2011,  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/02/world/middleeast/02syria.html?ref=world (accessed on May 28, 2011).

[10] “Syria: Security Forces Barring Protesters from Medical Care,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 12, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/04/12/syria-security-forces-barring-protesters-medical-care; “Protesters killed in southern Syria,” al-Jazeera English, April 9, 2011, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/04/201148131548860250.html (accessed May 28, 2011).

[11] “Syria: Rampant Torture of Protesters,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/04/15/syria-rampant-torture-protesters.

[12] “Syria: Rein in Security Services,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 21, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/04/21/syria-rein-security-services.

[13] The footage (extremely graphic) can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4w2-z9vs8g&skipcontrinter=1 (accessed May 30, 2011).

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with Douma resident, April 27, 2011.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with Zabadani activist, May 2, 2011. See also “Syria: Lift the Siege of Daraa,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 5, 2011,  http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/05/05/syria-lift-siege-daraa.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Banyas resident, May 26, 2011.

[17] “Syria: Targeted Arrests of Activists Across Country,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 15, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/05/15/syria-targeted-arrests-activists-across-country.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Human Rights watch interview with relative of Hamza al-Khatib, May 29, 2011.

[20] Liz Sly, “Apparent torture of boy reinvigorates Syria's protest movement,” Washington Post, May 30, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/torture-of-boy-reinvigorates-syrias-protest-movement/2011/05/29/AGPwIREH_story.html (accessed May 30, 2011).

[21]Email communication from Dr. Ammar Qurabi, Head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria to Human Rights Watch, May 28, 2011.

[22] Email communication from Syrian activist (name withheld) to Human Rights Watch, May 28, 2011.

[23] Nada Bakri, “Syrian Forces Struck Northern Villages, Activists Say,” New York Times, May 29, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/30/world/middleeast/30syria.html (accessed May 30, 2011); Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Eleven killed in wider Syria military push: lawyer,” Reuters, May 29, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/29/us-syria-idUSLDE73N02P20110529 (accessed May 30, 2011).