(New York) - President Bashar al-Asad should immediately order Syrian security forces to stop using unjustified lethal force against anti-government protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should investigate each shooting, and hold accountable anyone responsible for the unlawful use of force, Human Rights Watch said.
At least eight demonstrators and possibly as many as fifteen were killed on April 1, 2011, when men dressed as civilians opened fire at a largely peaceful anti-government protest in Douma, a suburb of Damascus. Two Douma protesters told Human Rights Watch that they believed the gunmen were from security services because they were standing with their weapons behind the riot police. Some of the protesters threw rocks at the police, but none carried any firearms, the two protesters said. "I saw a man that looked like mukhabarat [security services] use a Rusiye - with my own eyes," one of the protesters told Human Rights Watch. Rusiye, Arabic for Russian, is commonly used in Syria to refer to a Kalashnikov.
"For three weeks, Syria's security forces have been firing on largely peaceful protesters in various parts of Syria," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of investigating those responsible for shootings, Syria's officials try to deflect responsibility by accusing unknown ‘armed groups.'"
An unnamed official told the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on April 3 that an unknown "armed group" shot at both protesters and security forces from rooftops. The official did not provide any details about injuries to security forces.
The United Nations Human Rights Council should schedule a special session to address human rights violations in Syria, including the unlawful use of force against demonstrators, Human Rights Watch said.
In Douma, after Friday prayer on April 1, protesters emerged from the Great Mosque and found hundreds of riot police and men dressed in civilian clothes, probably from the security services, waiting for them, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch. "The police and the mukhabarat started beating us and launched teargas canisters to force us to disperse," one of them said. Security services detained many protesters as they emerged from the mosque.
Other groups of Douma protesters gathered in neighboring areas and marched toward the main square. The two protesters who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that the protest was peaceful and people were chanting "salmiyya, salmiyya" ("peaceful, peaceful"). One of them said:
At 300 meters from the square, at the level of the women's prison in Douma, the security forces started firing teargas canisters directly at us, and some of their units would rush forward and try to beat us with sticks. Some of us started throwing rocks at the police.
The protesters said they saw anti-riot police in full gear and behind them men dressed in civilian clothes and armed with Kalashnikov firearms, whom they believe were part of the security services.
After almost an hour of clashes in which security forces fired teargas canisters and beat protesters, some of the men in civilian clothes opened fire, the two protesters told Human Rights Watch. One said:
Suddenly, at around 3 p.m., we heard live bullets being shot. I saw one protester die and I started running away and found shelter in the stairwell of a neighboring building. For the next two hours, I heard shots being fired. It sounded like they were firing their Kalashnikovs. At around 5:30 p.m., the situation calmed down.
Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, security forces may use lethal force only when strictly necessary to protect life, and force must be exercised with restraint and in proportion to an imminent threat. Protesters throwing rocks cannot justify such deadly force, Human Rights Watch said.
At least eight protesters from the town of Douma were killed and were buried in a large funeral in the town on April 3. They are: Fouad Ben Ahmad Eid Baleleh, 27; Khaled Mahmoud al-Baghdadi, 37; Orfan Abdel Majid al-Durrah, 19; Haydar Ben Ali Izzeldeen, 39; Ibrahim Ben Muhammad al-Mubayyed, 39; Naim Muhammad al-Mukaddem, 33; Yasser Jamal Abu Aisha, 37; Ahmad Ben Abdel Raheem Rajab Fawwaz, 27. According to Syrian human rights activists, seven additional protesters died on April 1 in Douma but were buried outside the town. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm their deaths independently.
These deaths bring the total number of demonstrators and bystanders killed since anti-government protests began in Syria on March 16 to at least 100, according to lists compiled by Syrian human rights groups.
In a speech on March 30, prior to the events in Douma, President al-Asad set up a committee to investigate the killings of protesters in the cities of Daraa and Latakia. Human Rights Watch urged al-Asad to open independent and transparent investigations into the shootings in Douma and to hold those responsible for any unlawful killings or injuries accountable.
"Syria's judicial authorities need to show that they are independent and able to investigate the responsibility of senior security officials who allegedly sent men with firearms to police the protests," Whitson said.