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Fighters of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (also called the Syrian National Army) enter the town of Tal Abyad. © 2019 AP Images

(Beirut) – Turkey and the Syrian National Army have arrested and illegally transferred at least 63 Syrian nationals from northeast Syria to Turkey to face trial on serious charges that could lead to life in prison, Human Rights Watch said today.

Documents obtained by Human Rights Watch show that the detainees were arrested in Syria and transferred to Turkey in violation of Turkey’s obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention as an occupying power in northeast Syria.

“Turkish authorities, as an occupying power, are required to respect people’s rights under the law of occupation in northeastern Syria, including the prohibition on arbitrary detention and on the transfer of people to their territory” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, they are violating their obligations by arresting these Syrian men and carting them off to Turkey to face the most dubious and vaguest of charges connected to alleged activity in Syria.”

Turkish authorities and an armed group affiliated with the Turkish-backed anti-government group, the Syrian National Army, arrested the Syrian nationals, both Arabs and Kurds, between October and December 2019 in Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye), in northeast Syria, after Turkey took effective control of the area following its incursion into northern Syria. The men were transferred to detention facilities in Turkey, where prosecutorial authorities have charged them with offenses under the Turkish Penal Code, even though the alleged crimes took place in Syria.

Human Rights Watch was able to obtain and review about 4,700 pages of official Turkish case file documents pertaining to the arrest of the 63 Syrian nationals in Syria. The documents include transfer and interrogation records, bills of indictment, and police and medical reports obtained from lawyers and the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights-Observer, a group helping the detainees. Human Rights Watch also interviewed six immediate relatives of eight of the detainees – five of whose papers were included among the case files – as well as two of the detainees’ lawyers.

Other evidence and published reports from other groups suggest that the actual number of Syrians illegally transferred to Turkey could be almost 200. Reports in pro-government Turkish news sources refer to recently detained Syrian nationals who have been transferred to Turkey, indicating that the practice persists.

The official Turkish files in these cases show that the charges include undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state, membership in a terrorist organization, and murder. The charges are based mainly on unsubstantiated claims that the detainees have links with the People’s Protection Units, (known by its abbreviation YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northeast Syria. The Turkish government and courts regard the PYD and YPG as one and the same, and closely linked to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with which Turkey has been in a decades’ long conflict in Turkey.

A Human Rights Watch review of the documents shows that in most cases, the Turkish authorities have not produced evidence that the detainees were active fighters with the Kurdish-led authorities or that they committed crimes. Family members and relatives said that those detained held administrative or low-level roles within the party.

Family members who witnessed their relatives’ arrests said that at around 1 p.m. on October 14, 2019, an armed group affiliated with the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army raided the homes of 15 men, detained them, and took them to the Syrian town of Mabrouka. Detainees’ families said that they then lost contact with the men and it was at least a month and a half before they found out that the detainees had been transferred to a prison in Şanlıurfa province, Turkey. Under Turkish regulations, family members need a phone number registered in Turkey to contact their detained relatives, but as of December 2020, two families still had not been able to make direct contact with their loved ones.

In the pro-forma indictments reviewed by Human Rights Watch, Turkish prosecutorial authorities cite the location of the crime as Şanlıurfa, Turkey, but the detailed reporting, including some transfer documents, reveal that any alleged misconduct would have taken place in Syria. The records, including several detainees’ statements to the prosecutor, show that detainees were arrested in Syria and then transferred to Turkey.

Turkey is an occupying power in parts of Northeast Syria that it invaded in October 2019, as it exercises effective control in the area without the consent of the Syrian government in Damascus. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power … are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” The prohibition applies irrespective of whether those subject to forcible transfer or deportation are civilians or fighters.

While the indictments claim that everyone captured was a fighter with the People’s Protection Units (the YPG), in most cases, the case documents provide no evidence to back this claim. In the few cases in which evidence was provided, it consists of the discovery of videos supportive of the armed group on one of the detainees’ phones and in just two cases, the group’s uniforms.

Family members said that some of those arrested were members of the Democratic Union Party (the PYD) but held administrative positions and did not fight with the armed YPG or carry arms.

Four of the relatives said that the Syrian National Army contacted them soon after the arrests and asked for money to return their relatives. Only one of the detainees’ families was able to negotiate and pay a US$10,000 fee to secure his release. That person was not transferred to Turkey.

The documents include photos of some detainees that show bruises, split lips, and other signs consistent with ill-treatment. The brother of one detainee said that his brother told him on the phone that he was beaten by the Syrian National Army when he was arrested and later by the Turkish security forces.

Both Turkish forces and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army are obligated to abide by international humanitarian and human rights laws, including the obligation to treat detainees humanely and ensure that they are provided with the full spectrum of their rights. International law prohibits arbitrary detention and requires the authorities to record all detentions properly and to provide anyone seeking information about a detained person with information about their status and whereabouts. Detainees should be allowed to contact their families.

In October 2020, Şanlıurfa assize courts convicted five of the 63 Syrians and sentenced them to life in prison. “My son was sentenced for 36 years,” the father of one of them said. “They sent the sentence to [the local appeal court in] Gaziantep to reduce it, but it came back the same. The judge’s sentence was a black sentence … with such sentences there’s no mercy.”

The men’s lawyers said that some of the cases are currently under further appeal.

“Not only have these Syrians been illegally transferred to Turkey for abusive prosecutions, but in an extraordinarily cruel move, the courts have imposed the highest sentence possible in Turkey – life without parole,” Page said.

The Arrests

Human Rights Watch interviewed five relatives of seven detainees who were among those arrested in October 2019 in one of the villages shortly after Turkey and the Syrian National Army occupied the area.

The relatives, who witnessed the arrests, said that at about 1 p.m. on October 14, 2019, two or three vehicles carrying 20 armed men entered the village. They raided the homes of 15 men and arrested them. In at least two cases, they beat and harassed relatives who tried to stop them.

Village residents identified the armed group as a faction of the Syrian National Army, a coalition of armed opposition groups, backed by Turkey. One man said that their vehicles carried the name and emblem of Squad 20 of the Syrian National Army. Four residents said the leader of the squad was called Abu Barzan.

Three of the relatives said they asked where the armed group was taking the detained men and they responded that the detainees were being taken to nearby Mabrouka, which had been under the control of the Syrian National Army and Turkey since October 9, 2019. The armed group claimed that those arrested were fighting for the Kurdish-led administration and told relatives who asked that they were taking them for a few hours to interrogate them.

Five of the relatives said they lost contact with their relatives a few days after their arrest and learned a month and a half later that their relatives had been transferred to Hilvan T-type Prison in Şanlıurfa, Turkey. Documents show that the transfers to Turkey took place between October 19 and 21.

The Documents

Human Rights Watch was able to obtain 4,700 pages of official Turkish government documents that detail the names, indictments, medical reports, and alleged evidence against 63 Syrian nationals who were detained in Syria and transferred to Turkey between October 11, 2019 and December 6, 2019. Human Rights Watch received these documents from the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights-Observer and two of the detainees’ lawyers.

Human Rights Watch was able to establish that these documents are authentic Turkish court and police records. They include bills of indictment, transfer papers, and medical and police reports. While not all of the 63 individuals had indictments, the bills of indictment appear to be largely identical pro-forma copies. Many pages in the indictments describe the history of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkish courts link with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria. The files include news reports, but do not link the information in the news to the people indicted. The indictments have some short paragraphs about the individuals but without any credible evidence that they committed crimes.

Illegal Transfers to Turkey

The documents confirm the arrest and transfer of seven of the eight people whose relatives were interviewed. The indictments against them nominally cite Şanlıurfa as the location of both their arrest and the alleged crime despite indicating that the individuals’ alleged activities took place only in Syria, and including supporting documentation recording their arrest on Syrian territory and transfer to Turkey.

Several family members were able to contact detainees directly and confirmed that the detainees were in Turkey. Others used intermediaries such as lawyers who were able to track down their relatives and identify their location.

The indictments indicate that the Turkish prosecutorial authorities made a de facto decision to extend the authority of the Turkish governorate of Şanlıurfa to designated areas in Syria.

The transfers also have a direct impact on the detainees’ families, who cannot contact or visit their loved ones in prison. As the wife of one detainee who has been in detention for over a year said:

My biggest worry is the kids. Every day they ask me about their father. And when they ask these questions, I feel sorry for them. I don’t know what to say because I honestly don’t know when their father will come back. I’m worried about these long sentences. And if they come back the children would be all grown up. The household is a responsibility, and I can’t [manage it] on my own without my husband by my side supporting me – one hand can’t clap.

Prosecutions and Trials in Turkey

According to the documents, all but 10 of the detained men were members of or linked with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish-led political party that formed part of the Kurdish Self-Administration, which previously controlled the areas in northeast Syria now under the control of Turkey and the opposition Syrian National Army. The PYD maintains control of other areas in the region.

The documents indicate the men are accused of engaging in “actions to fully or partially bring state territory under a foreign state’s hegemony or to undermine the independence of the state or its unity or territorial integrity”, “membership of a terrorist organization,” and “intentional killing.”

Under Turkish law, undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state carries with it the highest sentence under Turkish criminal law – life in prison without parole. Membership of a terrorist organization carries a sentence of five to ten years. Documents in only two cases claim that an individual actively fought with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PYD.

The documents also fail to provide specific information that could constitute evidence of criminal activity on the part of any of the accused. In two cases, the discovery of YPG uniforms is listed as evidence of criminal activity. In another, a video clip of a Kurdish song about the Syrian city Kobane that showed photos of people in YPG uniforms, found on the phone of one of the detainees, was accepted by the Turkish courts as sufficient to sentence him for armed separatism.

While DNA samples and swabs were taken from all the suspects to establish traces of firearm discharge residue or match with an unsolved crime, the Turkish authorities have not produced evidence that the samples taken matched any existing crime.

Relatives of four detainees said that those arrested did not carry arms and had not fought with the YPG. Some, however, had connections with the PYD and held administrative positions such as acting as traffic officers or guards of a facility. The relatives said that, at the time of their arrest, none were wearing military uniforms, and none were fighting. Their relatives said that the men did not even have weapons.

“They’re with the party, but they don’t hold arms, they’re guard facilities, they’re workers, they’re administrative employees,” one relative said. “All of them [are] like that. There’s nothing to add, there’s nothing to hide.”

In October 2020, five of the 63 Syrians, including one whose relatives Human Rights Watch interviewed, were sentenced to life in prison without parole for “undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state,” their lawyers said. The lawyers said that the convictions are under appeal. A sixth man was acquitted. The trials of the others are ongoing and they remain in detention in Turkey, more than a year after their arrest.

The indictment documents also indicate that all but two detainees have availed themselves of Turkey’s “effective repentance law” (article 221 of the Turkish Penal Code). Under that law, in exchange for full disclosure of any important knowledge and full cooperation with the authorities, a suspect accused of membership in a terrorist organization can receive a reduced sentence or no sentence at all.

That may account for information in the documents that some of the detainees allegedly identified others as having links to the Democratic Union Party or as being in the Asayish (the local police units of the Democratic Union Party). One lawyer said that Turkish security forces told his clients that if they cooperated, they would go free. However, according to case law from Turkey’s Court of Cassation, charges such as “undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state” against the detainees would not enable them to benefit from the “effective repentance law.”

Shedding further doubt on the credibility of the charges, relatives said that the Syrian National Army had contacted them by phone and in public to request payment in return for releasing the detainees. One relative said his family negotiated a fee of US$10,000 for the release of his brother who was detained in December 2019. The man was released in February 2020 after the family paid the fee, and was not transferred to Turkey.

Three others said they were unable to pay for their relatives’ release. One man whose brother remains in detention said:

Kasim’s financial situation, [and] their life, is below zero. [He] had to resort to administrative work with this Kurdish organization. When the Free Syrian Army (FSA) came, they arrested them. [His family] could not pay to be released. How could they, and they can’t even find food to eat? To spend on their children? [The Syrian National Army] took them and wrote reports that they were fighting on the battlegrounds.

The lack of any credible evidence to support such serious charges, based on a review of the available documents and relatives’ statements in at least three cases, supports Human Rights Watch’s concern that the prosecution of the Syrian nationals is manifestly ill-founded.

Treatment Upon Arrest

In one case, the brother of a released detainee said that his brother had been beaten badly while in custody in Syria. At least 27 written identification records of detainees include photos of detainees that show signs consistent with severe ill-treatment, including bruises on faces, swollen eyes, broken noses, and split lips.

Family members also said that because their detained relatives were transferred to Turkey, they were unable to contact them. Two of the men’s lawyers in Turkey said that while Turkish law requires the authorities to inform the families of detained people’s whereabouts and allow families to contact them, they can only contact detainees if they have a registered phone number in Turkey.

The documents indicate that detainees were only told about these rights by security forces who served as translators, not official translators. While the documents indicate that there were at times lawyers present, nominally to provide legal representation to the men, it is not clear that they could or did provide any effective legal representation. The documents also show that several detainees signed documents waiving their right to contact their families. Detainees’ relatives with whom Human Rights Watch spoke indicated they were unable to contact their detained relatives directly and had to use intermediaries or, in other cases, go without information for over a year.

Turkish Occupation of Northeast Syria

On October 9, 2019, Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army opened an offensive on northeast Syria. By October 12, 2019, UN agencies in the area reported, Turkey and the Syrian National Army had taken control of Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye) and surrounding areas in al-Hasakeh governate, and Tal Abyad (Gire Spi) and Ein Issa in al-Raqqa governorate.

Turkey had previously announced that it would create a 32-kilometer-wide safe zone in Northeast Syria in response to threats from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which the Turkish government describes as a terrorist group linked to the PKK. The Turkish government has been in a decades-long conflict with the PKK on Turkish soil. A second stated objective for the safe zone was to relocate there a million Syrian refugees who are in Turkey.

Territory is considered “occupied” when it is comes under the effective control or authority of foreign armed forces, whether partially or entirely, without the consent of the domestic government. This is a factual determination and once territory comes under the effective control of the foreign armed forces the laws on occupation are applicable.

In administrative terms, Turkey treats the areas it occupies as part of Turkey – specifically in this case, as the Şanlıurfa governorate. Until December 2020, according to public statements in Turkish state news agencies, the Syria Support and Coordination Center, a division of the Şanlıurfa governor’s office, has been providing public services, including water, garbage collection, cleaning, healthcare services, and humanitarian aid in the occupied area.

Turkish government departments coordinate these services, with support and assistance from the Turkish Armed Forces. The Turkish Armed Forces remain in these areas and have developed military bases in at least one of the main cities, Tal Abyad (Gire Spi). The Turkish government is also providing the Syrian National Army and the police forces in the area with training and logistical support, and closely coordinates with them at the highest levels, including with executive orders to the high-level commanders.


The Turkish authorities should stop transferring Syrian nationals from the occupied area and detaining and prosecuting them in Turkey. The Turkish authorities should immediately allow all detainees in their custody to contact their families, whether in Turkey or outside of it, and update families on their status. All Syrian detainees who were transferred to Turkey should be repatriated to the occupied territories in Syria immediately.

In the event that transferred Syrian nationals continue to be prosecuted in Turkish courts, the court should exclude any evidence obtained through coercion or through misrepresentation of the scope and applicability of laws such as the “effective repentance law” or in situations in which detained individuals have been denied due process guarantees.

As the occupying power and a supporter of the local factions operating in areas under their control, Turkish authorities must ensure that their own officials and those under their command do not arbitrarily detain, mistreat, or abuse anyone. The authorities are obliged to investigate alleged violations and ensure that those responsible are appropriately punished. Commanders who knew or should have known about crimes committed by their subordinates but took no action to prevent or punish them can be held criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.

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