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Syria: Investigate Possible State Role in Decapitating Woman

Kidnappings, Deaths of Detainees, Including Woman’s Brother, Widespread in Homs

(New York) – The killing and mutilation of Zaynab al-Hosni, 18, by unknown persons highlights the urgent need for the UN Security Council to demand access to Syria for an international investigation into rampant killings and torture in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Zaynab, whose brothers are active in anti-government protests, had vanished in late July after going out to buy medication for her mother. Syrian authorities returned al-Hosni’s dismembered body to her family on September 17, 2011, without providing any information on the circumstances surrounding her killing, and forced her mother to sign a paper stating that “armed gangs” had killed her.

Security forces shot and wounded Zaynab’s brother, Muhammad, 25, on September 10, in the Bab Sba` neighborhood of Homs and arrested him. They returned his body to his family on September 14 with bullet wounds to his arm, head, and chest. Friends who were with him on September 10 told his family that he had only been shot in the arm at the time of his arrest.

“Syrian security forces either killed and mutilated Zaynab al-Hosni or are turning a blind eye to gangs committing gruesome murders against anti-government activists and their families,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “In either case, the government of Bashar al-Assad is perpetuating a climate of terror in Syria and fanning the flames of sectarian mistrust.”

The deaths in the al-Hosni family are part of a troubling trend of assailants, sometimes unidentified and other times belonging to the security forces, kidnapping people from areas known for their opposition to the government and “disappearing” them until the day their family receives a call, usually from a local public hospital, asking them to pick up the person’s body.

On August 23 the UN Human Rights Council created an independent commission of inquiry to investigate alleged human rights violations in Syria, “including those that may constitute crimes against humanity.” Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil will chair the commission, due to report back to the Council as soon as possible, and no later than the end of November. The Syrian government had previously refused access to the country for an earlier a UN fact-finding mission.

Zaynab al-Hosni’s six brothers have been active in anti-government protests in Bab Sba`, a neighborhood which has emerged as a focal point for anti-government activities in Homs, including in some cases armed resistance to security forces. The men of the family had all left the family residence three months ago for fear that security forces would come to detain them. Zaynab’s mother, who suffers from high blood pressure, told Human Rights Watch that at midday around July 24 – she could not remember the exact date – she sent Zaynab to buy the mother’s medication.

Zaynab never came back. She had been wearing a face-covering headscarf when she left the house. One neighborhood shopkeeper later told one of her brothers that he saw men come out of a car and kidnap a woman wearing a veil from the street, but that he did not know any more details as he was inside his shop when this happened.

Zaynab’s mother and aunt searched for her extensively, visiting hospitals and various security services, and filed an official complaint about her disappearance. On August 17, three weeks later, her brother Tarek received a call from a woman who said that she got his number from Zaynab’s cell phone. Tarek taped the conversation and shared the recording with Human Rights Watch.

The woman told him that his sister had showed up at her door and that she had taken her in out of pity. She said that she wanted Zaynab out of her house because she suspected that her husband had taken a liking to Zaynab. The woman asked to meet privately with Tarek to discuss the matter, but refused to allow him to speak with Zaynab or hear her voice. She asked Tarek to meet her in a part of Homs known for its heavy security presence.

Tarek, fearing a trap, asked her to meet him in the city’s main commercial area, a more neutral area, but she refused. The woman called back a couple of times, each time refusing to allow him to speak to Zaynab and insisting on meeting him alone in a place of her choice. Tarek eventually stopped answering her calls. Zaynab’s mother and her other brothers told Human Rights Watch that it would be completely out of character for Zaynab to escape to someone else’s house and then become romantically involved with a married man. “Another lie from the regime,” one of the brothers commented.

The family received no other information about Zaynab until they went to the Homs Military Hospital on September 14 to receive Muhammad’s body. In addition to the bullet in his arm, which his friends had witnessed, Muhammad had three bullet wounds at chest level as well as an exit wound at the back of his head, said a brother who examined the body before burial, an account confirmed by photos reviewed by Human Rights Watch. The photos did not show any entry wound for the shot in the head and Muhammad’s brothers believe that the reason is that the security forces put a gun in his mouth and shot him.

When the family was at the Homs Military Hospital, one of the hospital staff mentioned to a friend of the family that a body of a woman named Zaynab had been brought to them. On September 17, Zaynab’s mother went to the hospital to identify the body. The head had been cut off as well as the arms at shoulder level, and the head and arms were heavily burned. Human Rights Watch reviewed footage of the body filmed by one of the brothers. Despite the burns, Zaynab’s mother recognized her daughter.

“I could see the features of my daughter under the burns,” she told Human Rights Watch. “Her jaw, her cheek bones, the shape of her legs. I have no doubt it was her.” Hospital officials would not tell the family who brought the body to them or when. Before they would hand over the body, officials at the governorate office forced Zaynab’s mother to sign a document stating that “armed gangs” had killed her daughter. None of Syria’s state media or pro-government outlets reported Zaynab’s death.

“As long as those who killed and mutilated Zaynab al-Hosni operate in total impunity, the horror show that is Syria today will continue unabated.” Stork said. “The UN Security Council needs to throw its weight behind the UN Commission of inquiry, and demand that Syrian officials cooperate, or face sanctions.” 

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