(New York) - Syria's security forces continue their nationwide campaign of arbitrary arrests and intimidation against political and human rights activists, holding them incommunicado, forcing them to sign undertakings to stop protesting, and in some cases torturing them, Human Rights Watch said today.
"Syria's leaders talk about a war against terrorists, but what we see on the ground is a war against ordinary Syrians - lawyers, human rights activists, and university students - who are calling for democratic changes in their country," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Syria's emergency law may have been lifted on paper, but repression is still the rule on Syria's streets."
Human Rights Watch urged Syria's authorities to immediately reveal the whereabouts of the targeted activists, to ensure that no harm is done to them in detention, and to release all those held for exercising their basic rights to free expression and association.
In some cases, the security forces have resorted to detaining relatives and neighbors of the government critics, in an effort to obtain information on their whereabouts or force them to stop their activism, prompting many activists to send their families into hiding.
On May 13, security forces detained human rights lawyer Catherine al-Talli, 32, in the Damascus suburb of Berze, at around 6 p.m. She was in a shared minivan taxi, when security forces stopped the vehicle, came on board and detained her, a family member told Human Rights Watch. The security services are holding her incommunicado and have not provided any information on her whereabouts.
On May 12, security forces in Homs detained Mohammad 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.
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. The couple had been staying with different friends to avoid being caught. To date, there is still no information about Abdel Rahman Hamadeh's whereabouts. Zeitouneh told Human Rights Watch:
I don't know what made Wael go to work. He had stopped going lately. We don't know which security service picked him up. We just know that they showed up at his office and took him.
Security forces also detained nine people after a peaceful sit-in at Arnous Square, in central Damascus, on May 10, and released only two, dermatologist Dr. Mazen al-Sayyid and student Ahmad al-Qattan. Syrian authorities have sought to try Jalal Nofal, a psychologist, and Ammar Ayruka in court on charges of provoking a riot, for their role in the demonstration. According to an activist, their lawyer reported seeing signs of torture, including beatings, on their faces. The remaining five - Ammar Dayoub, Malak al-Shanawani, Mohannad Amin Hussein, Ali Omar, and Omar al-Katib - have not been heard from since their arrests.
This is the second arrest in a month for Malak al-Shanawani, a women's rights activist, first detained at her workplace on April 10 for participating in anti-government protests.
"The Syrian government is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to detain and punish every last voice for civil society reform in the country," said Whitson.
Activists have told Human Rights Watch that the security forces are exerting enormous pressure on their families and neighbors, forcing many to send their own families into hiding. A prominent opposition activist, who preferred not to publish his name for fear of further reprisals against his family, told Human Rights Watch:
They went to my home and broke the door; when they couldn't find anyone there, they went to my neighbor. They asked him if he could tell them where they could find me, my wife, or one of my children. He refused, so they arrested him. But he is a known Ba`ath supporter, so they released him after 10 hours. They then went to my wife's shop and did the same thing with two men who own a grocery store and electronics shop near her workplace. One was in prison for two days, and the other is still in prison now. My wife and small child are now living in one place, and my other two children in another. I am in hiding in Damascus, changing my location every two days.
Razan Zeitouneh told Human Rights Watch that she had asked her elderly parents to go into hiding because she could not bear the thought of the security forces detaining them to exert pressure on her.
A veteran 67-year-old human rights activist from Salamiyeh, a city in central Syria that is home to the Middle East's largest group of Isma`ili Muslims, told Human Rights Watch that a group of 30 young men, many on motorcycles, drove up to his house on May 13 at around 3pm:
They drove up and started throwing stones on my house. I was out, and only female members of the family were inside. They had to rush to close the shutters. They kept throwing rocks for 15 minutes. They want to terrorize us. I am worried for my family. We were able to recognize some of the attackers. Some work as bodyguards for the head of local branch of the Ba`ath party.
The Salamiyeh activist, whom security services had detained for 24 hours on May 10 along with another 69 protesters and activists from the town, told Human Rights Watch that the aim of the arrest and intimidation campaign was to force activists to sign undertakings to stop protesting.
Another Damascus-based activist who was recently detained and released concurred:
They are obsessed with the protests. They just want them to stop and are willing to do anything to make them stop. Those refusing to sign the undertakings get referred to criminal trials for inciting riots or risk seeing security forces showing up at their home, office, or even their spouse's office.
"When families and neighbors of wanted activists are fair game for the security services and their Ba`ath thug agents, you know that the government is morally bankrupt," said Whitson "Behind the empty rhetoric of promises and national dialogue, there is a systematic campaign to rebuild Syria's wall of fear with only one purpose: allowing Asad and his cronies to maintain their absolute grip on power."
Human Rights Watch has called for sanctions against Syrian officials who bear responsibility for the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and the arbitrary detention and torture of hundreds of protesters and for an international investigation into the grave human rights violations in Syria.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on certain high-ranking officials in the regime but have so far avoided imposing sanctions on President Bashar al-Asad. On April 29, the UN Human Rights Council called for an urgent investigation by the UN high commissioner for human rights into killings and other human rights violations in Syria.