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(New York) – A peaceful activist who had been helping local committees deliver aid died in detention in Syria on February 16, 2013. A second detainee died in detention in November, a released detainee recently told his family. The reported deaths highlight the urgent need for the UN Security Council to require the authorities in Syria to grant international monitors immediate and unhindered access to all detention facilities.

Omar Aziz, 64, the peaceful activist, died on February 16 in Harasta military hospital, a relative told Human Rights Watch. A released detainee provided information about the possible second death of Ayham Ghazzoul, 26, a human rights activist in Military Intelligence branch 215 in Kafr Suseh, Damascus in November 2012. Security Forces had detained both activists in November.

“Aziz’s death, and Ghazzoul’s feared death are yet another reminder of the need to immediately lift the veil of secrecy over Syria’s prisons,” said Sarah Leah Whitson Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How many more deaths in custody before the Security Council requires Syria to open up its detention centers?”

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the well-being of other activists, on the basis of evidence from fellow detainees and relatives, and the fact that in some cases they have been held by security forces incommunicado for months. Many of those being held are feared to have been subjected to torture.

They include Mazen Darwish, president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), who was detained by the Mezze branch of Air Force intelligence on February 16, 2012; Bassel Khartabil (also known as Bassel Safadi),a Syrian-Palestinian software engineer active in developing open source programs for accessible internet, detained by Military Intelligence on March 15, 2012; and Khalil Maatouk a prominent human rights lawyer abducted on October 2 while driving to his office, and believed to be in the custody of State Security in Kafr Suseh, Damascus.

A relative of Aziz told Human Rights Watch that on February 16 he was transported from ‘Adra Central Prison to the Harasta military hospital in the Damascus suburbs where he died. The cause of death was heart complications caused by high blood pressure, from which Aziz suffered before he was detained, and for which he was taking medication.

However, a witness who saw Aziz in ‘Adra, said that his physical condition had deteriorated significantly since Air Force Intelligence arrested him at his home on November 20. Air Force Intelligence held Aziz incommunicado at their facility in Mezze, Damascus until February 12, when they transferred him to ‘Adra.

The witness said that Aziz was incredibly thin, having lost more than 30 pounds, and that Aziz had said that while he was held in the Air Force Intelligence facility, he had suffered severe ill treatment, including being kept incommunicado in a 4-by-4-meter cell with 85 other people without adequate room to sleep, subjected to cold temperatures, fed poor quality and insufficient food, and told that his family was being detained with him. Aziz told the witness that he had not been physically tortured, and that he had been seen by a doctor and regularly given his blood pressure medication. Aziz’s relative told Human Rights Watch that the family learned he had died on February 16 from one of his co-detainees in ‘Adra. The detainee told them that Aziz was transported to the Harasta military hospital at 1:00 a.m. that morning. Hospital personnel told Aziz’s family that he died shortly after arrival. No representative of the Syrian government contacted Aziz’s family to inform them that he died in custody. Instead, relatives visited Harasta military hospital and searched for Aziz before confirming that he was dead.

Aziz, a 64-year-old husband and father of three, moved back to Syria in 2011 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was working for a computer company. A relative told Human Rights Watch that after the uprising began, in March 2011, Aziz began working with an informal group of activists to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Damascus suburbs. He was detained at his home on November 20 by armed Air Force Intelligence agents wearing civilian clothing.

A recently released inmate told Ghazzoul’s family that he saw him die in the Military Intelligence branch 215 facility in Kafr Suseh, Damascus, on November 9. The inmate said the death was from wounds sustained on November 5, when Ghazzoul was detained and beaten by members of the National Students Union (NSU), a pro-government student body, and two shabiha who were transporting him to the Military Intelligence detention facility. Despite repeated requests for information from his family, the Syrian government failed to provide any information about Ghazzoul’s well-being or whereabouts.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including enforced disappearances, use of torture, and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions of, among others, peaceful protesters, activists, humanitarian assistance providers, and doctors. In particular, Human Rights Watch documented widespread ill-treatment and torture at the Air Force Intelligence facility in Mezze headed by Major General Jamil Hassan and the director of its investigative branch, Brig. Gen. Abdul Salam Fajr Mahmoud and in Military Intelligence branch 215 headed by Brig. Gen. Sha’afiq.

The government should provide immediate and unhindered access for recognized international detention monitors to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification, Human Rights Watch said. These monitors include the office of the Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States, Lakhdar Brahimi and the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria. The Joint Special Representative’s Office and the COI should deploy professional human rights monitors who are trained to organize random and regular visits to all places of detention, including suspected secret detention centers. These experts should have the capabilities and resources to identify people who are arbitrarily detained, and those who may be suffering from ill-treatment, protect interviewees from retaliation, and ensure the confidentiality and safekeeping of interviews.

“A constellation of abuse surrounds each incident of arbitrary detention in Syria, from the government’s unwillingness to even acknowledge who is in their custody, to widespread torture and chilling reports of deaths in detention.” Whitson said. “The international community, and first and foremost Syria’s allies, needs to bring pressure to bear on the government to stop these rampant abuses.”

For additional information on Ghazzoul and the other detainees, please see below. 

Ayham Ghazzoul
A relative of Ayham Ghazzoul now living outside of Syria told Human Rights Watch that based on what witnesses told the family, members of the NSU, a Baathist student group supporting the government, stopped Ghazzoul and beat him on November 5 at Damascus University. Ghazzoul, 26, a dentist who had been studying for a master’s degree, was a member of the Damascus-based Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), which works to promote freedom of expression.

The relative said that, according to a former detainee who was detained with Ghazzoul, he had a head injury from the NSU members’ blows, including from being beaten with an iron rod. Ghazzoul was then beaten by two shabiha, pro-government armed militiamembers,who transported him to Millitary Intelligence branch 215.

His family made repeated attempts to get information from government officials about Ghazzoul’s fate and whereabouts but were unsuccessful. On January 31, the former detainee held with Ghazzoul informed the family that he saw Ghazzoul die on November 9 while they were at Military Intelligence branch 215. His relative told Human Rights Watch:

[The former detainee]…who was with him said that after four days in Military Intelligence, Ayham was turning blue and that he had only eaten a piece of potato… He and the other detainees asked for medical care but the response was, “when he dies inform us,” or “that’s normal, from the torture.” On the fourth day he was dead. It was November 9, but it wasn’t until Thursday [January 31] that we learned Ayham was killed.

Despite repeated and extensive attempts by the family to take custody of Ghazzoul’s body, they have been unable to do so.

The attack on Ghazzoul and his arrest were almost certainly related to his non-violent opposition to the government. Air Force Intelligence had previously arrested Ghazzoul along with 13 other staff members and two visitors on February 16, 2012, after raiding SCM’s office in Damascus. He was tried for “possession of illegal documents published with the aim of overthrowing the regime,” sentenced to time served, and released in mid-May.

Mazen Darwish

Air Force Intelligence arrested Mazen Darwish at SCM’s office in Damascus on February 16, 2012, and is apparently holding him based on his peaceful activities as a human rights defender. Former detainees who were held with him have reported that Air Force Intelligence officials in the detention facility in Mezze tortured him. He is currently in ‘Adra Central Prison.
Bassel Khartabil
Bassel Khartabil was named one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers for 2012, “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.”

A relative now living outside of Syria who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that Syrian security forces arrested Khartabil in Mezze, Damascus after he left a business meeting on March 15, 2012. Khartabil was held in the Military Intelligence detention facility in Kafr Suseh for nine months, and then for about three weeks in the Sadnaya military prison where, the relative said, prison personnel tortured him.
He is now in ‘Adra Central Prison. The relative expressed concern that Khartabil may be undergoing an unfair trial before a military court, and said that Khartabil has not seen a judge, and had not been informed of the charges against him.
Khalil Maatouk
Khalil Maatouk, who was detained on October 2, had been driving to his office from his home in the Damascus suburb of Sadnaya along with a family friend, Mohamed Zaza, when they were both arrested. He is the executive director of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, and the head of the Syrian Center for the Defense of Detainees. Maatouk has defended numerous activists, including Darwish, before and during the uprising in front of military, state security, and civil courts.

A Syrian lawyer told Human Rights Watch that a released detainee informed him that he saw Maatouk at the State Security detention facility in Kafr Suseh, Damascus. However, on February 12, in response to his lawyer’s petition requesting information about Maatouk’s whereabouts, the general prosecutor denied that Maatouk was being held there and would not provide any other information about his whereabouts, renewing concerns about Maatouk’s well-being.

Maatouk suffers from a chronic disease that requires medical treatment. The Syrian authorities have not given his family or lawyer any information about his fate and whereabouts. Based on information available to the lawyer working on his case, Maatouk has not been charged with any offense. 

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