(New York) - Government security forces and their allies have killed at least 21 people in Homs since June 17, 2011, as they crack down on Syria's third-largest city, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces and pro-government armed groups, known locally as shabeeha, shot and killed at least three protesters on July 1, witnesses and local human rights groups told Human Rights Watch.
During the city's ongoing protests, security forces have beaten protesters with clubs, vandalized private property, and broken into homes where they suspected protesters had sought refuge. Security forces dressed in civilian clothes have detained protesters repeatedly, often travelling in taxis to approach and detain people.
"President Bashar al-Asad's promises of new laws allowing more political participation ring hollow when security forces are still above the most basic laws," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The Syrian government should immediately halt the excessive use of force by security forces and free everyone detained for exercising their rights to free expression and association, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch spoke to seven witnesses who witnessed the security forces' most recent crackdown in Homs, including a doctor at al-Barr hospital who treated some of the wounded. Syria's authorities restrict access to Syria to human rights groups, forcing Human Rights Watch to collect information by phone or by speaking to Syrian refugees who cross into neighboring countries.
A witness described the death of Diya' al-Najjar on July 1, when security forces opened fire on protesters gathered in al-Qarabis neighborhood. "I saw Diya' al-Najjar shot by a sniper in his head right in front of me," the witness said. "The sniper was in a Land Cruiser car four or five meters away from protesters."
Al-Najjar's body was taken to al-Barr hospital in Homs, where a doctor confirmed to Human Rights Watch that he died from a bullet to the head. According to the doctor, 10 protesters wounded by bullets had arrived at his hospital by 6 p.m. on July 1.
Local activists reported that two other protesters, Waleed al-Sayyed and Nader Sa`id, died in the neighborhood of Bab al-Sba` on the same day.
Security forces and pro-government armed groups also shot and killed protesters on June 17, 20, 21, and 24, killing at least 18 people, witnesses and local rights groups told Human Rights Watch.
Since protests erupted in Syria in mid-March, Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous instances of torture in detention throughout the country, which in some cases may have led to the detainees' deaths. On June 16, Syria's security forces returned the body of Tarek Ziad Abdul Qader, detained at a protest in Homs on May 6. Video footage posted on YouTube purports to show marks of beatings and torture on his body.
Anti-government protests in Homs have been ongoing since late March. After security forces violently dispersed an all-night peaceful sit-in in the city center at New Clock Tower Square (Sahat al-Sa`a) on April 19, killing at least 17 protesters, demonstrators have mostly gathered in neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city.
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.
"Syria's authorities accuse protesters of being ‘armed gangs,' but it is their security forces who terrorize people," Whitson said.
There was a big protest starting from al-Nour mosque in al-Khalidiyah neighborhood. Security forces blocked off major roads and set up checkpoints all over the place, so that protesters from different neighborhoods couldn't convene in one place and march together. When the protesters tried to pass the blockades, that's when security forces started shooting at them. Some of the security forces were carrying machine guns.
Local activists provided Human Rights Watch with the names of six protesters who died that day: Yousef Muhammad Ghazoul, Khalid Askar, Ammar Ahmed Dabous, and three men from the Za`rour, Sheikh al-Souq, and al-Sba`i families. A seventh, `Oday al-Khaled was fatally wounded that day, and died on June 24, the doctor who treated him told Human Rights Watch.
On June 20, security forces used teargas, beatings, and then live ammunition to disperse protesters who had gathered in al-Khalidiyah neighborhood to express dissatisfaction over President al-Asad's speech earlier that day. One resident told Human Rights Watch:
There were two protests in the neighborhood on that day [June 20]. First a pro-regime rally, then about an hour later an opposition protest. For the pro-regime demonstration, they [officials] brought in public employees and army and security men all dressed in civilian clothes. It dispersed fairly quickly.
Then, when the anti-regime protest started, a white van drove up with about 14 people in police uniforms inside with Kalashnikovs. At first they fired teargas, then they started shooting. I was on the rooftop of a neighboring building. Security forces were arresting anybody they could catch on the streets. There were nine people killed in total that day. I didn't see any of the deaths myself, but I have two friends who took bodies off the street, one of whom is a medic.
Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain the names of those killed on June 20.
A witness from the al-Ghouta neighborhood, where another anti-government protest also took place on June 20, described how security forces vandalized property, even after demonstrators had dispersed:
Civilian cars closed off the streets to prevent security forces from entering. When security forces showed up, protesters - who numbered around 500 - dispersed. No teargas or anything, everyone just ran away. The security forces were wearing green khaki and civilian clothes. I saw about 100 personally, but there was another bus or two of them waiting outside the neighborhood. The ones in civilian clothes came first. They knocked over garbage cans and spilled garbage all over the street, yelling, "You clean up your garbage, you germs," referencing the president's speech [in which he referred to some anti-government opponents as "germs"].
On June 21, pro-government supporters clashed with anti-government protesters, and according to two witnesses, the security forces intervened and shot at the protesters. A witness told Human Rights Watch:
We protested again on Tuesday [June 21], since the regime supporters had scheduled a protest and we wanted to have one, too. The opposition protest started from Souq al-Masqouf and al-Kabir mosque downtown, while the pro-regime protest started from Shikri Kuwatli neighborhood. When both sides reached the city center, they started shouting and cursing, then shoving and throwing punches at one another. That's when security intervened; they started shooting, but only at the opposition protesters. I heard that three died, but I didn't see them myself.
According to local activists, five protesters died on June 21 in Homs: Mohammed Rateb al-Droubi, Shaker Sahlool, Abdul al-Ilah Gharbal, Mohammed al-Joudi, and a man from the al-Refa`i family.
A similar pattern of security force violence occurred on June 24, when thousands of protesters again took to the streets in neighborhoods throughout Homs. As one protester in al-Mal`ab neighborhood, near Homs' main stadium, told Human Rights Watch:
I went to the Friday prayer in Omar al-Khatab Mosque in al-Mal`ab. The security buses were about 200 meters in front of us. After we finished prayers, we gathered near one of the entrances of the mosque and started a demonstration. When we got to five meters from the main street, security forces fired three teargas canisters. One went inside the courtyard of the mosque. Next security forces started throwing rocks at us, and demonstrators started throwing rocks back. There was a distance of about 200 meters between us. Security forces then opened fire with their guns.
According to local activists, seven people died in Homs and its suburbs that day: Tamer Zaqarit; Maher Ratib al-`Arabi, age 17; Walid Khalif al-Mu`at; Muhsen Khalid al-Zein; Abdulhamid Idris Idris; Muhsen Khalif, age 16; and Ahmed Khalif, age 58.
Arbitrary Arrests and Death in Detention
On June 24, a resident of al-Inshaat, a neighborhood of Homs close to Bab `Amro, witnessed security forces arresting a man on the street:
I was in my car in front of Abdul Hamed al-Zehrawy High School. I was to the side of the area where demonstrators and security forces were clashing. Security forces were throwing rocks at the demonstrators. They kept doing that for about 10 minutes, then all the demonstrators started running away. I stayed where I was, then suddenly a taxi came out into the street in front of me.
Two men dressed in plain clothes got out of the car and grabbed a man, I would say about 18 to 20 years old, who was walking in front of the school. He wasn't doing anything, just walking down the street. Then seven policemen in uniform came on motorcycles and hit the guy hard. They put him in one of the security buses. I got the license plate number of the "taxi." It was a yellow car with the license plate: Homs 747191.
Around midnight on June 29, security forces entered al-Ghouta neighborhood and arrested a young man. A witness who watched the arrest from his balcony told Human Rights Watch:
I saw five security guys in green uniforms get out of a taxi and arrest a neighbor named Anas Aljen, in his 20's. He was on the street just outside his building watching a demonstration down the block, wearing only his house clothes and flip-flops. He wasn't involved in the protests at all.
The security men drove up in a taxi, which let them out and drove off. They started hitting Anas with their sticks. Hearing his screams, people on the balcony told them to leave him alone, then the security men started swearing and shouting at them. They stood in the middle of the street and tried to stop cars. A microbus stopped first, and they shoved him inside and drove away, with the driver and other passengers still inside. A neighbor told me they arrested two other men in al-Ghouta, as well: Sami Derbas and a man from the Abbas family.
A family friend from Bab al-Sba` attended the funeral of Tarek Ziad Abdul Qader, whose body was returned to his family on June 16 after he apparently died in detention. He told Human Rights Watch:
[Tarek] was shot in the leg and detained, along with his friend from the Abbara family. Then he died in detention. They were both 23-years-old. About a day after he was taken, his parents started to ask about him in the hospitals, but there was no answer. The National Hospital called his parents on June 16 to tell them to come collect his body.
When they asked who delivered the body, the hospital workers said they didn't know. They later inferred that he had died after being detained for about 10 days. They inferred this from the length of his beard - he had gone to his barber cousin that Friday, May 6, for a shave before going to the mosque. When his body was delivered his beard had grown in a way that would have taken about 10 days. One man at the National Hospital told them his body was held in a refrigerator for a month in a military hospital in Homs, but he said he didn't know where he had been before that.