Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS)

Syria: Defectors Describe Orders to Shoot Unarmed Protesters

For Immediate Release

Syria: Defectors Describe Orders to Shoot Unarmed Protesters
Shootings, Detentions, and a Disinformation Campaign

(New York, July 9, 2011) – Defectors from Syria’s security
forces described receiving, and following, orders to shoot on protesters to
disperse them, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch interviewed
eight soldiers and four members of the security agencies who had defected since
anti-government
protests
erupted in March 2011. Those interviewed participated in the
government crackdown in Daraa, Izraa, Banyas, Homs, Jisr al-Shughur, Aleppo,
and Damascus. The soldiers also reported participating in and witnessing the
shooting and injury of dozens of protesters, and the arbitrary arrest and
detention of hundreds.

All of the interviewed defectors told Human Rights Watch that their
superiors had told them that they were fighting infiltrators (mundaseen),
salafists, and terrorists. The defectors said they were surprised to encounter
unarmed protesters instead, but still were ordered to fire on them in a number
of instances. The defectors also reported that those who refused orders to
shoot on protesters ran the risk of being shot themselves. One of the defectors
reported seeing a military officer shoot and kill two soldiers in Daraa for
refusing orders. Human Rights Watch interviewed the defectors in person in
Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

“The testimony of these defectors provides further evidence that the killing of
protesters was no accident but a result of a deliberate policy by senior
figures in Syria to use deadly force to disperse protesters,” said Sarah Leah
Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syrian soldiers and
officials should know that they too have not just a right but a duty to refuse
such unlawful orders, and that those who deliberately kill or injure peaceful protesters
will be subject to prosecution.”

Under international standards such as the United Nations Basic Principles on
the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, intentional lethal
use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The
UN Code of Conduct for law enforcement officials says that they shall to the
best of their capability prevent and rigorously oppose any violations of the
law or Code of Conduct.

Human Rights Watch called on the UN
Security Council
to condemn the Syrian authorities’ systematic violations
of human rights, adopt targeted sanctions against officials responsible for the
killing and torture of protesters, and impose an embargo on all arms and
security equipment to Syria. Russia has opposed a European-led UN Security
Council draft resolution, which condemns Syria’s government but stops short of
imposing sanctions. South Africa, India, and Brazil have refused so far to
support the resolution.

“Four months into the crackdown, the Security Council should be pressing the
Syrian leadership to end the bloodshed, yet some members refuse even to consider
a resolution, hiding behind their frustration with the situation in Libya,”
Whitson said. “Syria’s civilians deserve far more support from emerging powers
like South Africa, India, and Brazil.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to grant access to Syria to
independent observers and allow them to monitor and report on developments in
the country freely, and to provide full cooperation and access to the UN Office
of the High Commissioner for Human Rights team tasked to investigate the
alleged violations.

Orders to Shoot Protesters
Five of the defectors told Human Rights Watch that they received explicit
orders to shoot at protesters. One member of Syria’s security agencies,
referred to locally as mukhabarat, was deployed in Homs, Syria’s third
largest city, on April 19, when Syria’s security forces violently dispersed one
of the biggest gatherings of protesters attempting to stage a sit-in in the
central Clock Tower Square. He told Human Rights Watch that Colonel Abdel
Hameed Ibrahim ordered the soldiers to fire on unarmed protesters and that the soldiers
complied, killing dozens of people:

 

The
protesters had sat down in the square. We were told to disperse them with
violence if needed. We were there with air force security, army, and shabbiha
[armed supporters of the government who do not belong to security forces]. At
around 3:30 a.m., we got an order from Colonel
Abdel Hameed Ibrahim
from air force security to shoot at the protesters. We
were shooting for more than half an hour. There were dozens and dozens of
people killed and wounded. Thirty minutes later, earth diggers and fire trucks
arrived. The diggers lifted the bodies and put them in a truck. I don’t know
where they took them. The wounded ended up at the military hospital in Homs.
And then the fire trucks started cleaning the square.

 

A conscript who was a member of the Presidential Guard recounted
how he was deployed on April 18 to Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, to quell a
protest:

 

They gave
each one of us a Kalashnikov [rifle] with two magazines, and there was more
ammunition in the vehicles. They also gave us electric tasers. They told us we
were being sent to fight the gangs because security services needed
reinforcement. We were surprised [when we got to Harasta] because we couldn’t
see any gangs, just civilians, including some women and children, in the
street, and members of the mukhabarat firing at them. I was in a group
with five other soldiers from my unit. We received clear orders to shoot at
civilians from the Presidential Guard officers and from the 4th
military battalion, although normally we don’t get orders from other units. One
of the officers who gave orders was Major
Mujahed Ali Hassan
from 4th battalion; his military vehicle
license plate is 410. The exact orders were “load and shoot.” There were no
conditions, no prerequisites. We got closer to the demonstrators, and when we
were some five meters away, the officers shouted “fire!” At that moment, the
five of us defected and ran over to the demonstrators’ side throwing our
weapons to them while running away.

 

The interviewed defectors reported that they were generally
deployed in mixed teams of army personnel and often plainclothes mukhabarat and shabeeha. Two
soldiers reported incidents where their units had opened fire on armed mukhabarat
and shabeeha wearing civilian clothes after mistaking them for anti-government
gangs. A first sergeant (Raqeeb Awwal)
said the army opened fire in the coastal town of Bayda on members of security
services wearing civilian clothes because they mistook their identity. Other
defectors reported that security services later dressed in army clothes to
avoid such shootings.

A conscript trained as a sniper was deployed in Izraa, a town of 40,000 near
Daraa, on April 25, three days after security forces had shot 28 protesters
over a 48-hour period; he told Human Rights Watch:

 

I was in
Squad 14 (Firqa 14) of the 4th Regiment. We were around 300
soldiers deployed to Izraa. I had heard so much about foreign armed groups that
I was eager to fight them. But then General
Nasr Tawfiq
gave us the following orders: “Don’t shoot at the armed
civilians. They are with us. Shoot at the people whom they shoot at.” We were
all shocked after hearing his words, as we had imagined that the people were killed
by foreign armed groups, not by the security forces. We realized that our
orders were to shoot at our own people.

 

A soldier who was deployed for a month in Daraa before defecting
on June 1 said: “We received orders to kill protesters. Some military refused
the orders and were shot with a handgun. Two were killed in front of me, by
someone in the rank of lieutenant (muqaddam). I don’t know his name. He
said they were traitors.”

A sergeant (raqeeb) in Squad 7 of Brigade 88 (liwa’), who was
posted in the southern town of al-Hara, near Daraa, described the orders his
squad received when the army circled the town: “Snipers were on rooftops. Their
orders were, ‘If anyone goes out on the street, detain or shoot.’ I recall
watching a guy go out to smoke outside and then being shot and killed by a
sniper.”

Mobilized to Fight Infiltrators and Terrorists
All of the interviewed defectors told Human Rights Watch that their superiors
had led them to believe that they were fighting armed gangs paid by outside
actors. A member of Regiment 45 in the Special Forces (al-Kuwwat al-Khassat
– Fawj
45), deployed in the coastal areas of Banyas and Markeb, told
Human Rights Watch: “We were told that there are terrorist groups coming into
the country with funding from Bandar Bin Sultan [a prominent Saudi prince who
served until 2009 as Saudi’s national security chief], Saad al-Hariri [a former
Lebanese prime minister], and Jeffrey Feltman [US Assistant Secretary of State
for Near Eastern affairs].”

Military commanders often communicated this information during daily briefings
to soldiers, referred to as “nasharat
tawjeeh
.” A lieutenant in Squad 14 (Firka 14), posted in Damascus,
described the briefing: “Each morning we had guidance briefings. They would
tell us there are gangs and infiltrators. They would show us pictures of dead
soldiers and security forces.”

A member of the mukhabarat posted in Homs reported that he
and his colleagues “received leaflets that there are infiltrators and salafists
in the country and that they needed to stop them. In the flyers, they said
Bandar Bin Sultan and Saad Hariri had paid those infiltrators.”

According to the defectors, regular soldiers were not allowed to watch
television in private to avoid any of them watching TV channels that aired anti-government
information. Officers could watch television but only Syrian state television
and Dunya TV, a pro-government channel owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin and
close ally of President Bashar al-Asad. A conscript doing his military service
in Damascus told Human Rights Watch:

 

Every night
they used to summon us in a stadium-like place in the military barrack and make
us watch Dunya TV from a big TV screen. It was all scenes from Daraa showing
people killed by what they reported as foreign armed groups. Officers would
repeatedly tell us that there is a “foreign plot” going on in Daraa. Watching
Dunya TV every night between 20:00 and 22:00, we had the firm belief that there
is a foreign conspiracy against which we need to fight and protect our people.

 

Detentions and Theft During
Break-ins
Some of the defectors said that security forces detained large
numbers of people and routinely beat the detainees. A member of Regiment 45 in
the Special Forces (al-Kuwwat al-Khassat – Fawj 45), who was
deployed in the coastal area around Banyas, told Human Rights Watch about the
arrest campaign he witnessed in the village of Markeb:

 

We had around
400 names of people whom we wanted to detain. We went to the village. Then a
woman’s protest came out refusing the entry of the army (we had not yet
detained anyone) inside the village, almost in the center. We started going
into homes. We would break into closed houses. We detained so many people. Some
men tried to escape through a side road in a valley. But the army opened fire
on those trying to escape. We brought those detained to the center of the
village, stepping on them and insulting them. A security officer stood on a
man, yelling “Who is your god? [Say] Bashar al-Asad.” We had so many detainees
in the area that we used the Banyas stadium as a detention facility.

 

The soldier reported that the security forces also detained
children. “I saw the list of wanted individuals. So many were born in 1993,
1994, 1995. Mere teenagers,” he said. “We later entered Banyas and also
detained men and children. By the end of our first day in Banyas, I asked an
officer how many detainees we had taken that day; he said around 2,500 in
Banyas alone, all taken to the Banyas stadium. People would get beaten in the
bus on the way there and in the stadium as well.”

A sergeant (raqeeb) in Squad 7 of Brigade 88 (Liwa’) who was
posted in the southern town of al-Hara, near Daraa, described the arrest
campaign following the security forces’ entry into the town on May 10:

 

We surrounded
the town for days. I saw how the snipers would shoot on anyone who went out of
his house. Then we moved in. The mukhabarat who were with us had lists
of people to arrest. They had details: this person tore a poster of the
president or this person shouted “with excitement” at an anti-government
protest. I saw many of those detained and some looked as young as 12. Six buses
came and took the detained. We then gathered all the motorbikes in the town’s
center, and a tank crushed them. We talked among ourselves about how some
soldiers stole gold and money from houses. In one house, a colleague told me
that they found one million Syrian pounds [around $20,000] and his commanding
officer decided to confiscate the money saying it was being used to purchase
weapons even though my colleague told me there was no such evidence.

 

Other defectors also reported theft incidents in the towns of
Daraa and Homs.

A member of the Special Missions Unit (Wihdat al-Maham al-Khassat), an
elite unit under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, described his unit’s
role in cracking down on university students in Aleppo:

 

We were sent
to the university dorms to arrest people, with a simple order: “Go in and
detain.” We must have detained more than 200 people in one day around late
April/early May. We wanted to scare them and other students to prevent them
from protesting again. Our job was to detain the students and take them to the
branches of the mukhabarat, mostly Military Intelligence. We would beat
people all the way to the bus. We didn’t know what would happen to the
detainees after we dropped them off with the mukhabarat.

 

“The accounts of soldiers who were horrified enough at their
commanders’ orders and deceit to flee should send a message to the UN and other
countries that they need to do more to put a stop to these brutal attacks on
civilians,” Whitson said.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on
Syria, please visit:

http://www.hrw.org/en/middle-eastn-africa/syria

For more information, please contact:
In Beirut, Nadim Houry (English, Arabic, French): +961-1-447833; or
+961-3-639244 (mobile); or houryn@hrw.org
In New York, Sarah Leah Whitson (English):
+1-212-216-1230; or +1-718-362-0172 (mobile); or whitsos@hrw.org
In Johannesburg, Peter Bouckaert
(English, Dutch, French): +41-78-945-9385
(mobile); or +1-917-216-4812 (US mobile); or bouckap@hrw.org
In Brussels, Reed Brody (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese):
+32-49-8625-786 (mobile); or brodyr@hrw.org
In Berlin, Wenzel Michalski (English, German):
+49-151-419-24256 (mobile); or michalw@hrw.org
In Paris, Jean-Marie Fardeau (French, English, Portuguese) : +33-1-43-59-55-35;
or +33-6-45-85-24-87 (mobile); or fardeaj@hrw.org
In London, David Mepham, (English): +44-20-7713-2766; or +44-7572-603995
(mobile); or mephamd@hrw.org