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(New York, March 19, 2004) -- The Syrian government should take immediate steps to curb excessive use of force and halt mass arrests in its response to unrest in Kurdish areas of the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

At least 30 people were killed and more than 160 were injured in days of clashes that began March 12 at a stadium in Qamishli, a largely Kurdish city in northeastern Syria, according to accounts from Syrian Kurdish sources and press reports. Kurdish sources have stated that security forces used live ammunition against unarmed Kurdish civilians almost immediately after clashes erupted in Qamishli at a soccer match between Kurdish fans of the local team and Arab supporters of a visiting team from the city of Deir al-Zor. The international press reported that nine people were killed on March 12. The unrest spread to other Kurdish towns along the northern border with Turkey, and then to Damascus and Aleppo.

"Syria's Kurds have endured decades of severe discrimination under Ba'ath party rule," said Joe Stork, acting executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "They have legitimate human rights grievances that the government should urgently address. Repression will only fuel resentment and political tension."

Press reports have also noted that Kurdish attacks on state property following the initial clashes have prompted additional harsh responses from security forces. The Syrian government has an obligation to respond to such attacks, but must use means that are proportionate to the threat.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two Kurdish residents of Qamishli who said that they were eyewitnesses on March 13 to the use of live ammunition by government security forces during a large funeral procession in the city for Kurds killed the day before. One eyewitness, affiliated with a Kurdish political party, said that some marchers had stoned the government water authority’s building in the city center, and then set fire to the customs office and an agricultural supplies building.

In separate interviews, both men said they saw armed security forces in uniforms and plainclothes open fire into the long funeral march. These forces, they said, were traveling in approximately 10 roofless, military-style jeeps. The jeeps sped past without slowing
down while the occupants indiscriminately raked the mourners with fire from automatic rifles. One of the men said that he saw a man shot in the leg, and that when he visited hospitals later in the day he learned that a number of Kurds were killed and scores injured.

Human Rights Watch urged that independent monitors be granted unimpeded access to the areas where demonstrations and clashes have occurred. Journalists, diplomats and human rights investigators should not be turned away.

Security forces have reportedly rounded up hundreds of Kurds since the unrest began. Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni on March 16 said that his group, the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Syria, had the names of 300 people who were arrested in Dummar, a predominantly Kurdish suburb of Damascus. Following the violence at the March 13 funeral march in Qamishli, one Kurdish source there told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of young Kurdish men in the city had been randomly arrested and detained.

"There are good reasons to fear for the treatment of these detainees, given the practices of Syria's internal security forces," Stork said. "This is a government that routinely throws detainees into incommunicado detention and tortures them during interrogation."

Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to ensure that persons arrested not be subjected to torture or incommunicado detention. Family members and lawyers should be informed immediately of the detainees' whereabouts and given prompt access to them, Human Rights Watch said. Individuals suspected of having committed recognizably criminal offenses under international law should be tried in fair proceedings in civilian courts—not in the supreme state security court.

"Any detainee who is charged before the state security court will have no chance of getting a fair trial," Stork said.

Since the early 1990’s, Syria's security court has handed down harsh sentences to hundreds of political prisoners following trials that did not meet minimal international due process standards. Security court judgments cannot be appealed to a higher tribunal as is required under international law.

Human Rights Watch has documented systematic discrimination against the Kurdish minority in Syria, including the arbitrary denial of citizenship to generations of Syria-born Kurds. (See Human Rights Watch’s report, Syria: Silenced Kurds, October 1996 )

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