(New York) – Kurdish authorities running three enclaves in northern Syria have committed arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, has effectively ruled the three predominantly-Kurdish enclaves since Syrian government forces withdrew from the areas in 2012, running a local administration with courts, prisons, and police.
The 107-page report, “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-Run Enclaves of Syria,” documents arbitrary arrests of the PYD’s political opponents, abuse in detention, and unsolved abductions and murders. It also documents the use of children in the PYD’s police force and armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“The Kurdish-run areas of Syria are quieter than war-torn parts of the country, but serious abuses are still taking place,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The PYD is firmly in charge, and can halt the abuse.”
In January 2014, the PYD and allied parties established a transitional administration in the three northern regions: `Afrin (Êfrîn in Kurdish), Ain al-`Arab (Kobani), and Jazira (Cezire). They have formed councils akin to ministries and introduced a new constitutional law.
The PYD allowed Human Rights Watch to visit the three areas they control, but because of security concerns only a visit to Jazira was possible. There Human Rights Watch visited two prisons in February 2014 and had unrestricted access to officials, prisoners, and others.
Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which the PYD-run police, known as the Asayish, appear to have arrested members of Kurdish opposition parties due to their political activity. In some cases, Kurdish opposition members have been convicted in apparently unfair trials, usually for alleged involvement in a bomb attack.
People detained for common crimes said they had been arrested without a warrant, were denied access to a lawyer and were held for long periods in detention before seeing a judge.
At least nine political opponents of the PYD have been killed or disappeared over the past two and half years in areas the party partially or fully controlled. The PYD has denied responsibility for these incidents but has apparently failed to conduct genuine investigations. By contrast, the party-run security forces have carried out rapid mass arrests after most bomb attacks, presumably carried out by extremist Islamist militant groups.
The YPG maintains external security in the three PYD-run areas, and is fighting Islamist non-state armed groups, primarily Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS).
On May 29, ISIS forces entered the village of al-Taliliya near Ras al ‘Ayn in Jazira and executed at least 15 civilians, including six children, village residents and first responders told Human Rights Watch. In recent months, ISIS has also reportedly abducted hundreds of Kurdish civilians in Aleppo province and executed several Kurdish civilians they suspected of belonging to the YPG.
The PYD and local administration officials say that the local judiciary and newly established “People’s Courts” are independent, but lawyers and human rights activists described political interference in investigations and trials. In some cases, judges have apparently convicted people based only on their confessions, and disregarded complaints of abuse during interrogation.
Some detainees told Human Rights Watch that the security forces had beaten them in custody and were never held to account. In two recent cases involving the Asayish, the beatings victims died. In one case the force member who beat the prisoner was punished. In the other, the Asayish said the victim had killed himself by striking his head against a wall. But a person who saw the body said the victim’s wounds – including deep bruises around the eyes and a laceration on the back of the neck – were inconsistent with self-inflicted blows to the head.
The two prisons that Human Rights Watch visited – in Qamishli (Qamishlo) and Malikiyah (Dêrik) – appeared to meet basic international standards. Prisoners said they got food three times a day and exercise at least once a day, and were able to see a doctor if needed. The two women in Malikiyah prison at the time were held together in a separate cell. The men in both prisons were held in group cells, regardless of whether they were accused of minor or serious crimes.
A PYD-led effort to reform Syria’s law in the Kurdish-run areas is complicating the justice system, Human Rights Watch found. Some Syrian laws need amending because they violate international human rights standards, but the haphazard and non-transparent reform process has left lawyers, detainees and even officials confused about the laws currently in effect.
In a positive development, the new constitution introduced in January, called the Social Contract, upholds some important human rights standards and bans use of the death penalty.
Human Rights Watch found that, despite promises from the Asayish and YPG in 2013 to stop using children under age 18 for military purposes, the problem persists in both forces. On June 5, the YPG publicly pledged to demobilize all fighters under age 18 within one month.
The internal regulations for both forces forbid the use of children under age 18. International law applicable in Syria for non-state armed groups sets 18 as the minimum age for recruitment and participation in direct hostilities, which includes using children as scouts, couriers, and at checkpoints.
Human Rights Watch also investigated the violent incidents in Amuda (Amûdê) on June 27, 2013, when YPG forces used excessive force against anti-PYD demonstrators, shooting and killing three men. The security forces killed two more men that night in unclear circumstances, and a third the next day. On the night of June 27, YPG arbitrarily detained around 50 members or supporters of the opposition Yekiti Party in Amuda, and beat them at a military base.
The PYD-led administration, as the de facto authority in `Afrin, Ain al-`Arab and Jazira, is required to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law. These include prohibitions on torture, arbitrary detention, and the use of child soldiers, and obligations to hold fair trials before regularly constituted courts.
To address the shortcomings, Human Rights Watch recommends steps that include forming an independent commission to review the cases of alleged political prisoners, and releasing anyone found to have been detained arbitrarily. A clear mechanism should be established for detainees to report abuse during arrest, interrogation or detention, followed by legal action against those responsible in regularly constituted courts.
The newly established courts should apply Syrian law, amended where needed to comply with international human rights standards. All changes to Syrian laws should be promptly published and distributed.
The Asayish and YPG should cease their recruitment of anyone under age 18 and decommission the children currently in their forces.
“The Kurdish leadership in northern Syria can do much more to protect the human rights of everyone in the areas it controls – Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, and others,” Houry said. “Even in an interim administration it should govern inclusively with respect for critical views.”