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Images provided by families of their relatives who went missing in ISIS custody. © 2019 Human Rights Watch

(Paris) – Families whose relatives disappeared in the custody of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) while the group controlled parts of Syria are struggling to learn what happened to their relatives, Human Rights Watch said. The Coalition of Families of Kidnapped by ISIS, a new organization of Syrian families with missing relatives, and Human Rights Watch are holding a joint news conference on May 14, 2019, in Paris.

The international coalition against ISIS should make information-sharing with families a priority and help create a formal mechanism to address the issue of the missing and to allow families to register their cases, Human Rights Watch said. This mechanism should maintain a database of information on the missing, help under-resourced local authorities in northeast Syria exhume mass graves, and process appropriately obtained information on the status of those ISIS held.

“Now that the territorial battle against ISIS is over, the anti-ISIS coalition should address the terrible ISIS legacy,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “A critical issue for thousands of families is uncovering what happened to those ISIS abducted.”

While the full scale of the missing is not known, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 8,143 cases of individuals detained by ISIS whose fate remains unknown. Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous cases of activists, humanitarian workers, journalists, and anti-ISIS fighters, as well as residents who had a dispute with local ISIS members, whom the group detained and whose fate remains unknown. In some cases, family members saw ISIS taking their relatives into custody, while in other cases former prisoners said they had seen the missing person in ISIS detention centers.

Families of those missing told Human Rights Watch that they had been hopeful that the battlefield defeat of ISIS would quickly lead to information about their loved ones. However, neither the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) nor the US-led international coalition has created a mechanism or entity to handle queries from family members.

Families still living in northeast Syria told Human Rights Watch that they sought information from security stations staffed by Kurdish Asayish forces, local civilian councils, individuals in positions of authority, hospitals, and first responders responsible for excavating mass graves, but that their queries often produced no results. Families that ISIS or the fighting in Syria had forced into exile are finding it even harder to obtain information about missing relatives.

The SDF told Human Rights Watch that they found no detainees when they captured prisons and detention facilities from ISIS forces. It is not clear if the Asayish, SDF, and the international coalition have undertaken serious efforts to find out what happened to those who had been in ISIS custody.

While a number of mass graves have been found in Syria’s Raqqa and Deir al-Zor governorates, local authorities are struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of properly collecting and organizing information about the bodies recovered, and greatly need further support.

In June 2018, Human Rights Watch observed the First Responders’ Team in Raqqa, responsible for recovering bodies across the governorate, as they uncovered a mass grave at the al-Rashid playing field in Raqqa city. While the team worked diligently and carefully, their rudimentary methods and existing protocol for collecting information on the dead did not match best practices. The team needed substantial training and technical assistance to exhume the bodies and collect data without losing information crucial to identifying them, Human Rights Watch said.

Governments and others now providing recovery and stabilization support to northeast Syria should help local authorities develop and maintain a more precise system for storing information on missing persons and identifying exhumed remains. International organizations with forensic expertise should provide technical support, including by sending in forensic experts to support the identification and exhumation processes, and local authorities should facilitate the process to the extent possible.

Many of the parties to the Syrian conflict, most notably the Syrian government, have contributed to the prolonged arbitrary detention or enforced disappearance of tens of thousands of people. But the end of ISIS territorial control provides a fleeting opportunity to provide answers to some families whose relatives went missing in Syria and to set the principle that the right of families to know what happened to their loved ones will be respected, Human Rights Watch said.

“Those forces now controlling former ISIS territory and their international backers can provide answers to families if they make this issue a priority,” Houry said. “This is a crucial step for the victims’ families and for broader efforts for justice in Syria.”

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