(Beirut) – Syrian security forces responded to a protest in the city of Sweida on June 15 by beating and arresting protesters demonstrating against the government’s failure to address the country’s economic meltdown, Human Rights Watch said today. The Syrian government should immediately release all those detained for their peaceful protests.
The protests started on June 7, 2020, when between 50 and 100 people congregated in front of the governorate center to protest deteriorating living conditions and corruption. In the last few months, Syria has been in an economic crisis that has resulted in the collapse of the Syrian currency, leaving people unable to get even basic commodities. Sweida governorate is under the control of the Syrian government.
“People are protesting because they can barely afford to eat,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of beating and arresting them, the government should focus on addressing the underlying issues that led people to come out onto the streets again.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to three residents who attended the protests, two activists, and the relative of one of the detainees.
Residents organized additional protests on June 8 and 9. The demands were largely the same, but also included calls for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad as well as an end to foreign intervention by Russia and Iran. Government forces did not impede the protest. But after the protest ended, an armed group in military clothing arrested one of the participants at a bookshop near al-‘Inaya hospital in the city, a close friend of the person told Human Rights Watch. As of June 25, the participant’s whereabouts remained undisclosed.
Another protest was organized around the same issues at 11:15 a.m. on June 15 in an area popularly known as al-Karameh square.
Government supporters organized a pro-government rally on the other side of the square.
One activist who participated in the protests said that uniformed security forces and pro-government militia, commonly known as shabiha, suddenly attacked them from across the square at around 11:30 a.m.. Some also came out of the shops behind the protesters.
“We got surrounded and attacked,” the protester said. “They violently beat us – it was ugly and inhumane. They arrested the protesters after some got injured. I saw the guys getting arrested and I saw them getting beaten in a barbaric manner. They beat us with their batons, their hands, their legs. There were so many of them.”
He said that the protest was peaceful and that the protesters had not engaged the counter-protesters or the police in any way.
He and another person who had been observing from a distance said that in addition to security forces tasked with maintaining public order, who were wearing grey and blue camouflage uniforms with shields and batons, the attackers included pro-government militias including Kata’eb al-Baath, an armed militia that is part of the ruling Baath party. Witnesses confirmed that although they were in civilian clothing, they had a red ribbon around their arms.
On June 15, seven photographs posted by a Facebook account that appears to belong to Kata’eb al-Baath’s Sweida division show people in civilian clothing with red ribbons around their sleeves carrying signs with the Kata’eb logo, as well as security forces in grey and blue camouflage, and some in solid green uniforms with logos, participating in the counterrally.
The sister of a man who took part in the protest said that her brother told her the police beat him with a baton on his legs. He told her he saw three people beat another protester and drag him into a bus that belonged to the security forces.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs and videos that were shared directly by activists with researchers as well as videos posted online by Suwayda 24, an opposition-affiliated media outlet. One video posted on Twitter by Suwayda 24 on June 15, showed people in police uniforms with shields beating at least one protester with batons in the square, consistent with the witness accounts. Human Rights Watch was able to verify the location of the photographs and videos by matching visible landmarks, including the Grand Mosque of Sweida and a store called Georgina, that are seen in photographs posted on Suwayda 24 and on the Kata’eb al-Baath Facebook page.
Relatives and witnesses said that security forces arrested at least nine participants. They provided Human Rights Watch with the names. One participant said he saw the arrested people put in police buses that were known to belong to the security forces.
“Whenever they’d attempt an arrest, we’d try to find a way to get away from them,” the person said. “Shabihas and Kata’eb al-Baath [members] pushed my friend on the ground and started beating him. There were four of them. I tried to get hold of his hand and pull him from under them but failed – they started beating me too. I lost sense of time.”
He said the other protesters broke away and fled the square.
On June 16, activists called for another protest, but it was cancelled after police forces and shabiha were heavily deployed in the protest area, nearby residents said. They said the police arrested a student at the site.
Relatives said that sources inside Sweida civil prison told them that the people who were arrested were taken there. On June 21, a lawyer for one of the families announced that a security committee in Sweida, comprised of key security officials, requested the transfer of all those detained, with one exception, to Damascus. The other person was to be taken before a judge in Sweida. On June 25, a relative of one of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that the detainees had been transferred to Damascus. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the transfers.
Relatives and activists said they were deeply concerned that the transfer of the detained protesters to Damascus would mean that they would be killed or “disappeared.” Human Rights Watch has previously documented the torture, mistreatment, and extrajudicial execution of peaceful protestors in Syria, including in the capital’s security branches.
The Syrian government should immediately release all of those arrested for peacefully participating in the protests, Human Rights Watch said. It should investigate the excessive use of force against protesters on June 15 and hold those responsible accountable.
“Given the Syrian government’s brutal history, it is amazing that people felt desperate enough that they came out to protest,” Kayyali said. “The Syrian government needs to realize that so long as it rules with corruption and repression, there will always be opposition.”