19 Dec 2011

Abuse of ordinary Syrians ‘rampant’, says report

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

As Syria agrees to let foreign observers into its conflict-torn country, a Channel 4 documentary includes allegations of widespread abuse of ordinary people by security forces.

The UN now believes 5,000 Syrian civilians have been killed since March. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and pushed through a detention system where torture is endemic. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is in denial.

But thousands of videos showing violent repression have been uploaded to the internet and circulated by online opposition television channels. The government says these videos are fake.

But just last week the UN accused the Syrian regime of committing crimes against humanity.

Channel 4’s investigation forensically examines video footage and witness testimony to determine whether there is prima facie evidence of widespread and systematic repression and torture, carried out by the Syrian state against the Syrian people.

Production line torture

But the more they cracked down, the more the protests spread. And the trickle of such footage making its way onto the internet soon became a flood.

There are thousands of videos, filmed by soldiers and depicting the first stage in the production line of torture. Some of it has been sold, some of it circulated as trophy pictures, some uploaded simply to intimidate.

Dr Juliet Cohen, a forensic physician who was examined more than 1,000 torture victims, was shown footage of the interrogation of a man from the coastal city of Lattakia.

“When you see these clips, you see actually what is the reality in a country, where torture is carried out by state agents, with apparently complete impunity,” she said. “And people are made to suffer inordinately, for no apparent purpose than simply to terrify and intimidate a population, and that’s what really happens with torture.”

‘I’ve never seen anything this bad’

Well over 10,000 Syrians have fled the intensifying violence into neighbouring countries. Many have been tortured. Their identities and the location of their safe houses must remain secret owing to the long reach of Syria’s “mukhabarat”.

We know of at least 16 children documented by human rights groups as having been returned to their parents dead. Images of these children, killed under torture in detention, are by far the most distressing of the videos we have seen.

Toby Cadman is a human rights lawyer representing Syrians who are bringing a case against Bashar al-Assad and senior members of the regime. He, too, has examined evidence of torture and spoken to victims and their families.

“I’ve never seen anything quite this bad before,” he said. “Particularly when you are talking about attacks on children, attacks on medical personnel, and actually preventing any form of treatment to civilians.”

Direct knowledge

In international law, proving command responsibility would come down to whether Bashar al-Assad knew, or should have known, what was going on. And perhaps more importantly, whether he did anything to stop it.

Last week Human Rights Watch claimed to have collected evidence strongly indicating the president’s direct knowledge of, and involvement in, the violent crackdown.

The UN human rights commissioner has recommended to the security council that Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court based on evidence of the widespread and systematic nature of killings, detentions and acts of torture, which constitute crimes against humanity. The security council has yet to act.