(New York) - Syrian security forces in at least two towns prevented medical personnel and others from reaching wounded protesters on April 8, 2011, and prevented injured protesters from accessing hospitals, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch, which interviewed 20 witnesses from three Syrian towns, urged Syrian authorities to allow injured protesters unimpeded access to medical treatment and to stop using unjustified lethal force against anti-government protesters.
"To deprive wounded people of critical and perhaps life-saving medical treatment is both inhumane and illegal," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Barring people from needed medical care causes grave suffering and perhaps irreparable harm."
Blocking access to necessary medical treatment for people who have been injured violates the government's obligations to respect and protect the right to life and not to subject anyone to inhuman treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six witnesses from the town of Daraa, ten from Harasta, and four from Douma, towns where protests took place on Friday April 8. Those interviewed included four doctors, four injured protesters, formerly detained protesters, and families of wounded protesters.
Human Rights Watch confirmed that at least 28 people were killed in protests in the three towns on that day. Syrian human rights groups provided a list of 27 protesters killed in Daraa on April 8, and Human Rights Watch confirmed the death of at least one additional protester in Douma. Protests also took place in Qamishli, Derbassiye, Banyas, Amuda, Homs, Latakia, Tartous, and Arbeen, but Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain reliable information about any casualties in these towns.
"Syria's leaders talk about political reform, but they meet their people's legitimate demands for reform with bullets," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "They accuse the protesters of inciting divisions in Syria's society, but the violence of their security forces is what is harming Syria the most."
Two large protests took place in Daraa after midday prayer on April 8. One departed from Daraa al-Balad and the other from Daraa al-Mahatta, districts separated by a bridge. Several thousand protesters marched from Sheikh Abd al Aziz mosque in Daraa al-Mahatta toward the bridge, two protesters told Human Rights Watch. One of them, "Ahmad" (not his real name), said people were carrying olive branches to symbolize their peaceful intentions.
The security forces set up a roadblock near the bridge to prevent the protesters from crossing to the other part of town. Ahmad said that about 50 soldiers were in front, surrounded by several thousand members of security services, some in uniforms and others in civilian clothes, as well as snipers on nearby rooftops. When the protesters approached the bridge, Ahmad said, the army told them to stop. They continued moving, though, and security servicemen opened fire with live ammunition. Another witness said that the security forces also fired teargas into the crowd.
The security forces fired straight into the crowd with Kalashnikovs, and snipers opened fire at the same time, Ahmad said. He said he personally saw about 35 people fall immediately, hit by bullets, although he was not sure whether they were injured or killed:
I saw one man - he was hit by three bullets, and fell on the ground, he was clearly dead. The security forces ran toward him, and, although he was already dead, started beating him with sticks on the face. Nobody could stop them, and when we finally managed to retrieve the body, it was unrecognizable - we could only identify him because he had his civil ID in his pocket.
Another witness, who was on the same street, told Human Rights Watch that he saw about 10 people with bullet injuries around him.
Ahmad said that the security forces did not allow the ambulances to approach the road to pick up the wounded, and kept shooting when other protesters tried to carry the wounded away. Footage posted anonymously on YouTube showed protesters, apparently in Daraa, trying to retrieve the wounded and coming under fire. Ahmad said that he later saw the bodies of a doctor, a nurse, and an ambulance driver who, other witnesses told him, were shot when their ambulance tried to reach the wounded protesters.
Two protesters told Human Rights Watch that some of the protesters seized weapons from a checkpoint abandoned by soldiers and shot at the security services, killing about a dozen security personnel, and setting two cars belonging to the military and the security services on fire. An unnamed Syrian official in the Interior Ministry told SANA, the Syrian state news agency, that "armed groups" shot at security services in Daraa on April 8, killing 19 people. SANA only reported the names of three of the security forces killed in Daraa.
"Death and violence is deplorable regardless of who initiates it," Whitson said. "The best way to stop the killings is for security forces to immediately stop using live fire and allow protesters to gather peacefully."
Around the same time, after the midday prayers, another group of protesters marched from Omari mosque in Daraa al-Balad toward the bridge, intending to join the other protesters, three protesters told Human Rights Watch. As they tried to cross the bridge, security forces from the same roadblock first fired tear gas, and then opened fire with live ammunition as well. "Muhammad" (not his real name), one of the protesters, said he saw three people hit by bullets and carried into the Omari mosque. He said that he followed them to the mosque where he saw about ten wounded protesters, three of whom died from their wounds while he was still in the mosque. Another protester who also went to the Omari mosque told Human Rights Watch:
People were lying on the floor [of the Omari mosque], all over the place, and there were a couple of doctors and nurses, and also local women struggling to help the injured. But they could not do much - they only had the basic supplies brought from the local pharmacies; the hospitals were blocked by the security forces and it was impossible to bring the necessary equipment or supplies into the mosque. Several people with serious injuries were dying, and there was nothing we could do to help them.
A doctor from Daraa told Human Rights Watch that he counted 18 corpses at the Daraa national hospital, and that five of them were returned to their families while the other thirteen remained in the hospital's morgue.
Three witnesses said that between 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., security services arrested large numbers of people, putting them in civilian cars, white cars with no official markings. Around 5:30 p.m., an estimated 500 protesters went to the Political Security building in Daraa - one of Syria's main security services - to request the release of the protesters arrested earlier that day. But snipers on the roofs of the nearby White Rose hotel and several governmental buildings opened fire, and the crowd had to disperse, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch. A Human Rights Watch researcher could hear continuous gunfire in the background when speaking to witnesses in Daraa at around 6 p.m.
The April 8 shootings brought the total of protesters killed in Daraa and surrounding villages since March 18 to at least 130, according to lists compiled by Syrian human rights groups and information received by Human Rights Watch.
On April 8, in Harasta, a town near Damascus, about 2,000 protesters left the main mosque after the Friday prayer, several witnesses and protesters told Human Rights Watch. The protesters emphasized that the demonstration was peaceful and provided Human Rights Watch with video footage of the protest showing a large group of men walking along the street with olive branches in their hands.
At around 2 p.m., the protesters reached a large group of security forces blocking the road. The two sides threw rocks at each other, the protesters said, though two of the protesters said security forces had initiated the rock throwing. One of the protesters, "Khalil" (not his real name), who was subsequently injured, told Human Rights Watch that a large group of men in plain clothes emerged suddenly from a side street and immediately opened fire with Kalashnikovs, with no warning. He said:
When they opened fire, everybody started running. The guy next to me was shot in the leg, and fell to the ground. I hid in the nearby building and saw security men come up to him and beat him with sticks. I was among 20 people who were trying to rescue him - we would hide, and then try to run out. I ran out, waving an olive branch and saw four security men aiming at me. They all fired simultaneously, and I was hit by four bullets. One bullet went directly through my chest and the other three ricocheted from the wall and the ground and hit me in the neck and in the hand. I fell, and several people tried to rescue me - security forces continued to shoot, and two or three of the rescuers were injured as well, but others managed to carry me away and put me in the car.
Another injured protester, "Mahmud" (not his real name), provided Human Rights Watch with a similar account of security forces firing on protesters seeking to help the wounded. He said that security forces started beating his father when he tried to rescue a young boy whom the security services were beating with sticks. When Mahmud tried to run toward them to help his father, his brother grabbed him and tried to pull him back. At that moment, security forces, who were some 50 meters away, opened fire, hitting Mahmoud in his right hip. Mahmoud's brother said that at the same time five or six other protesters who were in a group next to him were also hit.
Two doctors told Human Rights Watch that they each treated four wounded protesters in Harasta. They said all had bullet wounds in various parts of their bodies, and that several were children. The doctors explained that it was impossible to bring the injured into the hospital because it was surrounded by the security forces. He said families were afraid to bring the injured there, having heard that security forces arrested wounded protesters in hospitals after previous protests in Douma and Daraa. One of the doctors said:
I was in the hospital in the afternoon, when I started getting calls from people asking for help. I knew people could not bring the wounded in - the hospital was surrounded by the security personnel. We also couldn't send an ambulance, fearing the security forces would open fire, as happened in other places.
I rushed out and went to private homes where the rescuers brought the wounded. I could not take any major supplies or tools; only the most basic things. The injuries were serious and we had nothing to work with - in one case, we had to probe a wound with a metal spoon to see how deep the bullet went.
Another doctor said that five protesters with bullet wounds came to the house he was in, and that he knew of at least six other houses where doctors treated wounded people. He added that one of his patients was 17, and he knew of several other patients under 18.
A family of an injured protester told Human Rights Watch that they tried taking him first to the military hospital, but were told that civilians could not get treatment there, and then to the civilian hospital - but the security personnel at the hospital said that only servicemen could receive treatment, not wounded civilians. A doctor interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that he heard from friends that the government hospital was under the control of security forces, who were turning away injured protesters.
In Douma, another town neighboring Damascus, security forces allowed protests to proceed in the afternoon, but later in the evening killed at least one man and injured at least one other in an incident on the edge of Douma. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that, at about 5:30 p.m., three men on a motorcycle encountered a large group of security forces from the riot control unit (Hafz al-Nizam) at the entrance to the town. The security forces were preventing people from entering or leaving.
As the three men turned around and tried to go back, one of the servicemen fired at them with his pistol. Four bullets hit the man who was on the back of the motorcycle, and two of the bullets went through him and fatally injured the man who was sitting in front of him. The driver, who was unharmed, rushed the two men to a private hospital near Douma, but there was no specialist available to treat them. One of the injured died before he could receive treatment, while the other survived, received treatment in another hospital, but then fled, fearing arrest.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the same night, at least 11 men and boys, were arrested in various parts of Douma by groups of security personnel who first brutally beat them with sticks and then put them in buses and drove them away. The detainees were released on April 10 - all had been subjected to prolonged beatings and other forms of torture while in detention, the people who spoke with Human Rights Watch said.
"The Syrian authorities are responding to protests against repression with more repression: killings, mass arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture," Whitson said. "Syria's security forces should free those arbitrarily detained for participating in public protests and put an end to torture and ill treatment of detained protesters."