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Syria: End Opposition Use of Torture, Executions

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(New York) – Armed opposition groups in Syria have subjected detainees to ill-treatment and torture and committed extrajudicial or summary executions in Aleppo, Latakia, and Idlib, Human Rights Watch said today following a visit to Aleppo governorate. Torture and extrajudicial or summary executions of detainees in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes, and may constitute crimes against humanity if they are widespread and systematic.

Opposition leaders told Human Rights Watch that they will respect human rights and that they have taken measures to curb the abuses, but Human Rights Watch expressed serious concern about statements by some opposition leaders indicating that they tolerate, or even condone, extrajudicial and summary executions. When confronted with evidence of extrajudicial executions, three opposition leaders told Human Rights Watch that those who killed deserved to be killed, and that only the worst criminals were being executed.

“Declarations by opposition groups that they want to respect human rights are important, but the real test is how opposition forces behave,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Those assisting the Syrian opposition have a particular responsibility to condemn abuses.”

Military and civilian Syrian opposition leaders should immediately take all possible measures to end the use of torture and executions by opposition groups, including condemning and prohibiting such practices, Human Rights Watch said. They should investigate the abuses, hold those responsible to account in accordance with international human rights law, and invite recognized international detention monitors to visit all detention facilities under their control. Initiatives to have armed opposition groups adopt and enforce codes of conduct that promote respect for human rights and international humanitarian law should be encouraged.

Human Rights Watch presented its research findings and detailed recommendations in meetings with opposition leaders in northern Aleppo in August and in a letter sent to several opposition leaders on August 21, 2012. In a written response, the Military Council for the Aleppo Governorate said that, in light of the findings, it had reiterated its commitment to humanitarian law and human rights to Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, that it was in the process of establishing special committees to review detention conditions and practices, and that it would hold responsible those who act “contrary to the guidelines.”

Countries financing or supplying arms to opposition groups should send a strong signal to the opposition that they expect it to comply strictly with international human rights and humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch documented more than a dozen extrajudicial and summary executions by opposition forces. Two FSA fighters from the Ansar Mohammed battalion in Latakia told Human Rights Watch, for example, that four people had been executed after the battalion stormed a police station in Haffa in June 2012, two immediately and the others after a trial.

Six of 12 detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in two opposition-run detention facilities said that FSA fighters and officials in charge of detention facilities had tortured and mistreated them, in particular by beating them on the soles of their feet. Abuse appeared to be more prevalent during the initial stages of detention, before the detainees were transferred to civilian opposition authorities.

Because of inconsistencies in their accounts and visible injuries consistent with torture, Human Rights Watch has reason to believe that FSA fighters and prison authorities had also tortured or mistreated at least some of the six detainees who denied during their interviews that they had been abused.

“Sameer,” whom the FSA arrested in the beginning of August, told Human Rights Watch.

The FSA fighters who caught me first brought me to their base. I spent a night there, together with one other prisoner. They beat me a lot, with a wooden stick, on the soles of my feet. It lasted for about two hours. First, I refused to confess, but then I had to. Once I confessed, they stopped beating me.

Human Rights Watch has also reviewed more than 25 videos on YouTube in which people reportedly in the custody of armed opposition groups show signs of physical abuse. Human Rights Watch cannot independently confirm the authenticity of these videos.

The head of the Aleppo Governorate Revolutionary Council told Human Rights Watch that the authorities do not execute or torture detainees, but that beating detainees on the soles of the feet was “permissible” because it did not cause injuries. When Human Rights Watch explained that beating on the soles of the feet constitutes torture and is unlawful according to international law, he said that he would provide new instructions to FSA fighters and those in charge of detention facilities that such beating was not permitted.

“Time and again Syria’s opposition has told us that it is fighting against the government because of its abhorrent human rights violations,” Houry said. “Now is the time for the opposition to show that they really mean what they say.”

Local opposition authorities told Human Rights Watch that they have appointed judicial councils that review accusations against detainees and issue sentences. In some towns, these judicial councils relied exclusively on Sharia law. In other towns, the judicial councils relied on Sharia law for civil matters, but still relied on Syrian criminal law for criminal matters.

Descriptions of the trials by detainees and members of the judicial councils indicate that the trials did not meet international due process standards, including the right to legal representation and the opportunity to prepare one’s defense and challenge all the evidence and witnesses against them.

All armed forces involved in the hostilities, including non-state armed groups, are required to abide by international humanitarian law. The FSA, at least in the areas where Human Rights Watch has conducted its research, appears to be capable of ensuring respect for international humanitarian law by its forces given its level of organization and control. A number of countries are providing armed opposition groups in Syria with financial and military support. Interviews with Syrian opposition activists as well as media reports indicate that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are actively assisting a number of armed groups. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France, have also pledged non-lethal aid to opposition groups. Human Rights Watch urged countries assisting opposition groups to condemn publicly the human rights and humanitarian law abuses by those groups.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented and condemned widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings of civilians, enforced disappearances, use of torture, and arbitrary detentions. Human Rights Watch has concluded that government forces have committed crimes against humanity.

The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would have jurisdiction to investigate violations by both government and opposition forces, Human Rights Watch said. Russia and China should support such a referral.

“An ICC referral would give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed by both the government and the opposition,” Houry said. “This is one measure that all Security Council members, including Russia, should find it easy to agree on if they are truly concerned about the violations committed in Syria.”

For more information on Human Rights Watch findings and the requirements under international law please, click here.