Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS)

Testimony prepared for delivery to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC)

Testimony prepared for delivery to the Tom Lantos Human
Rights Commission (TLHRC)

Click Here to Download and Read Full Tesimony – PDF File

U.S. House of Representatives

By Radwan Ziadeh

Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria

The Commission hearing on human rights in Syria

Tuesday July12, 2011, at 10:00 a.m. in room 340

Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C.

 

Mr. Chairman,

           Thank you
for the opportunity to testify before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on
the situation of human rights under Asad regime’s during four-month crackdown
on Syria’s pro-democracy protestors.

 

          As
nonviolent popular uprisings began to sweep across the Middle East started from
Tunisia then Egypt, Syria joined this wave of Arab Democratization at the
middle of March. 

           The spark
of the Syrian uprising was lit in Daraa on March 6, 2011, following the
arbitrary arrest of 15 schoolchildren, who were subsequently detained and
tortured for painting anti-government slogans on a wall. The sentence: “People
want to topple the regime!" echoed some of the slogans heard by the
children during the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo. On March 18, 2011, some
inhabitants of the city of Daraa organized a march calling for the release of
these children. The march was violently repressed by the Syrian authorities,
who used lethal weapons against the peaceful crowd. Within a week of the first
protest, the Security Forces had killed at least 55 demonstrators in and around
the city of Daraa. Protests remained localized in the South of the country for
at least a month, before the wave of demonstrations could make its way up,
sweeping the unrest across Syria, from the West coast to the Eastern province
of Haska, to reach the inner walls of the University of Damascus and Aleppo and
finally the northern province of Idleb, near the Turkish border.

 

            
Demonstrations have and are still breaking out all across Syria in
unprecedented numbers. In total, thousands of people have now already
challenged the regime calling for freedoms and change and for the very most
part, peacefully. These demonstrations are explained by the deterioration of
the economic, political and social conditions in Syria, against the financial
and political corruption, and amid the general demands for reforms across the
Arab world. What started as peaceful demands for political reform transformed
into a quest for regime change, and it is in the face of these demands that the
Syrian government started exerting an increasingly tough repression. 

 

             Entire
populations have been subjected to repression, notably in the cities that were
and are still besieged by the army. In some of them, inhabitants suffer from a
humanitarian crisis, in lack of water, food, and medical supplies. Many of these
inhabitants are furthermore being denied access to medical personnel. As an
illustration, the unrestricted access to the areas and people affected by the
unrest was denied to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) until
June 21, 2011.

 

              The Syrian government has now blocked
territorial access to international journalists, independent NGOs, as well as
to the Fact finding mission on the situation in Syria mandated by the Human
Rights Council of the United Nations. Media personnel, human rights defenders,
local journalists and civil society organisations are also targeted by the
regime and often subjected to recurrent measures of repression.

 

            Overall in
the last four months and as of July 15th, 2011 over 1,800 individuals died,
including at least 84 children. Over 12,000 people were also allegedly arrested
and the total number of Syrian refugees is said to have surpassed 20 thousand
people.

 

            In turn,
the Syrian regime has escalated its crackdown to a degree rivaled only by the
Libyan leadership. In doing so, Assad has lost the legitimacy to rule.
Unfortunately, the United States has yet to take steps that are commensurate
with the severity of the violence. The U.S. leverage with Syria may be limited,
but there are nonetheless steps that Washington can take, in coordination with
the international community, to help ease Assad out of power. 

               

            The UN
Committee against Torture (CAT) in May 2010, after its first review of Syria,
has concluded that there are “numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations
concerning the routine use of torture by law enforcement and investigative
officials, at their instigation or with their consent, in particular, in
detention facilities.”

The CAT committee expressed particular concern that torture
takes place with impunity provided by the Emergency Law which attributes broad
emergency powers to various branches of the security forces outside any
judicial control. According to the committee experts, the State of Emergency has
taken on a “quasi permanent nature and allows the suspension of fundamental
rights and freedoms.”

 

         This was
before the Syrian uprising started, this was the daily life of the Syrians for
almost 47 years, but when the Syrian rose up against the Asad regime to stop
these practices the Asad regime responded with policies beyond our imagination
especially the methods of torture used against the peaceful protesters.    

          I want to
share with you two stories to give you an idea about the level of torture has
been used against the civilian in Syria today.

          The first
case, the case of Dr. Sakher Hallak, he is prominent physician in Aleppo, he
was in Penn-USA to attend a medical conference, then he backed to Syria, where
he arrested by the Syrian security forces on Wednesday, May 25, 2011, on his
way home from work, at 11:30 at night.

     On Thursday, his
wife called a person she knew, a relative who worked in the Syrian Parliament.
He assured her that he is at one of the security services in Aleppo, and that
he will ensure that he will be released soon. And Dr. Hallak himself called his
one of his best friends and told him that he is at the security and he will be
released soon.

        On Friday, the
security forces interviewed Sakher’s wife and daughter. They were told them
that everything would be OK, and that he would be released on Saturday.  On Saturday, his wife called again, and she
was told that he should be on his way home, but he had to stop at the
courthouse to sign some documents. His body was found freshly dead on Friday at
6 PM in a village 20 miles south of Aleppo. It was dumped in a ditch in an area
that was very hard to find.

        On Saturday
evening, the police’s office called his family, and told them that they have a
body in the morgue, and that it might belong to Sakher. Indeed, the body was
that of Sakher. There was evidence of multiple injuries, consistent with
torture and direct trauma to the head. His eyes and his penis were mutilated.
All the bones in his body were broken, and marks from 4 different types of
boots were imprinted on his body. He died by strangulation. There was rope mark
on his fingers, suggesting that he was trying to dislodge the rope off of his
neck.

 In the morgue, the
security told his family that they never had Dr.Halak in their custody, but,
that, instead, they found him dead on the street. And then refused to release
the body for burial until the family accepted that story. They printed the
story in the daily paper, quoting his family with the official security forces
story.

 

           The
security wrapped the body with gauze, like a mummy, making sure that only his
face, with his eyes closed, and his feet were showing, to prevent any
incriminating photos. The family was not allowed to be alone with his body.
They also prevented people from attending his funeral. They used their cars for
transporting the body to the funeral and made sure that no photos were taken,
until he was burried.

           Dr.Halak
did not participate in any anti-government protests or meetings. He was
tortured and mutilated, just like the 13 years old boy Hamza Alkhataib.

          The second
story is the story of the 15 years old boy Tamer Mohammed al-Sharei from Daraa,
his father was talking to me almost every day asking me for help, I told him I
will tell the story may the world will know about the practices that Asad
regime is implementing everyday to suppress his own people.

          Inside a
filthy detention center in Damascus, according to Associated Press in Jul 7,
2011, where eight or nine interrogators repeatedly bludgeoned a skinny teenager
whose hands were bound and who bore a bullet wound on the left side of his
chest. They struck his head, back, feet and genitals until he was left on the
floor of a cell, bleeding from his ears and crying out for his mother and
father to help him.

         Ibrahim Jamal
al-Jahamani, a fellow prisoner who said he witnessed the brutal scene in Syria
in May, heard the interrogators demand that the 15-year-old proclaim strongman
Bashar Assad as his "beloved" president.

          The youth,
later identified as Tamer Mohammed al-Sharei, refused. Instead, he chanted an
often-heard slogan from anti-regime street protests calling for "freedom
and the love of God and our country." Tamer’s refusal apparently was the
final straw for the interrogators. “Guards broke his right wrist, beating him
with clubs on his hands, which were tied behind his back," al-Jahamani
told The Associated Press after his release from detention, referring to the
beatings as torture. "They also beat him on the face, head, back, feet and
genitals until he bled from the nose, mouth and ears and fell
unconscious," he recalled.

        "He
pleaded for mercy and yelled: ‘Mom, dad, come rescue me!’" al-Jahamani
said. "He was lying like a dog on the floor in his underwear, with blood
covering his body. But his interrogators had no compassion that they were
savagely beating a boy," al-Jahamani added, his voice breaking with
emotion.

        Al-Jahamani
witnessed the beating from a corridor lined with cells while he was waiting for
two hours for the prison guards to take him to his cell. He said the corridor
reeked from the stench of blood and dirty toilets and the cell beds were
covered in dirty sheets.

        At the lockup
run by Syria’s Air Force Intelligence, security forces kept Tamer bound and
nearly naked, his body covered in blood and bruises, while interrogators broke
his forearm and teeth. At one point, a doctor was brought in to revive him,
al-Jahamani said. "He gave him an injection and they started beating him
again," concentrating on his feet and genitals, and the boy started
bleeding from his ears, al-Jahamani said.

The next day, the teenager’s screams abruptly stopped and
al-Jahamani said he never heard a sound from him again.

       On the first
day, al-Jahamani saw a bruised Tamer face down on the floor of the corridor.
Later that day, they were placed in different cells near each other on that
same corridor, and al-Jahamani could hear Tamer’s screams.

         Tamer’s death
became known in June, when blurry cellphone videos showed the teen’s bruised
and bullet-pocked body, missing most of his teeth, in a wooden coffin. In one
clip, a woman cries out: "This is my son! I swear this is my son!",
Al-Jahamani said he saw the video after his release and instantly recognized
the dead youth as the teen from the detention center. He had heard
interrogators call him "Tamer."

         Tamer and
another youth, Hamza al-Khatib, 13, both from the southern village of Jiza in
Daraa province, disappeared April 29. The province is where the uprising began
after security forces arrested high school students who scrawled anti-regime
graffiti on a wall.

         Hamza was
arrested at a demonstration and not seen again until his mutilated body, with
his penis severed, was delivered to his family weeks later. He, too, has become
a symbol of the revolt against Assad, driving thousands of protesters into the
streets.

        The deaths of
Tamer and Hamza in particular enraged Syrians who have lived under a brutal
dictatorship led by the Assad family dynasty for more than four decades. The
protests have grown larger and drawn a broader cross section of society every
week.

          The torture
in Syrian today has been used as a means to exert pressure upon civilians, for
them to stop demonstrating and denounce other demonstrators.

          Confessions
from these detainees confirm the inhumane conditions of detention and the
regular recourse to different forms of ill-treatment. These include:
psychological trauma, solitary confinement, and physical torture of different
kinds, including punching, beating, slapping, burning and tearing apart the skin,
pulling the nails, and torture using electric devices.

         Other ill
treatments were also reported, including: mental torture, death threats, the
denial of medical care for the sick and wounded, isolation from the outside
world and being blindfolded, handcuffed and placed in unknown locations or in
military camp prisons. These arbitrary measures fulfil the definition of the
Convention Against Torture (CAT).

        Acts of
physical and mental torture may have been committed to extract information but
often also to intimidate and repress the population. 

         A number of
those arrested, impossible to estimate, reportedly died while in detention as a
result of the infliction of torture. As of June 3rd, at least 148 detainees
allegedly died as a result of torture. This was evidenced by the state of the
corpse of those arrested, as they were in some case returned to the families by
the Security Forces. Evidence of torture was indeed most often reported via
videos and pictures of the corpses brought back after detention. Visual
evidence continues to testify of this free infliction of pain, used in some
cases as a means of pressure or intimidation.

        April 29th
marked a turn in the degree and scale of the repression by the Syrian
authorities, as a number of dead bodies were returned to families following
several raids of arrest across Syria . The corpses of an important number of
those arrested on April 29th, especially in Daraa, were indeed subsequently
returned to the families, evidencing that death of the detainees was subsequent
to torture inflicted during the time of detention.

 

 

         The situation
in Syria has taken a turn for the worse in an unprecedented way since the
beginning of the protests. As the protests have spread, the response of the
security forces has hardened, leading up to the deployment of tanks in several
cities (Deraa, Homs, Douma, Banyas. Jisr Ashagour, Hama etc.). The use of live
ammunition by security forces against demonstrators has led to the deaths of
around 1800 people since mid-March and hundreds are missing and more than 12000
have been detained.   

 

        The gap
between the official stance claiming the adoption of long awaited reforms
including the lift of the state of emergency, issuance of a law on peaceful
demonstrations and opening dialogue with the opposition and the systematic and
violent repression on the ground is more blatant than ever.

 

 Policy
Recommendations

 

While the Obama administration is correct in acknowledging
its limited leverage with Syria, the U.S. should use its position as a global
leader to mobilize the international community much as it did in Libya. In
particular, the United States, in concert with its allies, should:

 

             Have
President Obama make a live, televised statement calling on Bashar al-Assad to
step down immediately. President Obama made three televised statements pushing
for an immediate transition in Egypt and seven public remarks or speeches on
Libya. Such bold, public rhetoric affects the will of the protesters, who are
closely following the response of the international community and that of the
U.S. in particular. 

 

             Continue
to pressure Syria at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The
administration should be commended for playing a key role in the adoption of an
UN HRC resolution condemning Syria. Now, the U.S. must follow up on the mission
that investigates Syria’s human rights violations and ensure that it completes
its report. This report will enable the U.S. to work with other nations to
refer Assad to the International Criminal Court. Currently, Russia and China
oppose a strong UN Security Council resolution, but a damning report from the
UN HRC may help convince them otherwise.

             Encourage
EU leaders to expand targeted sanctions on officials responsible for violence,
as well as a trade embargo. Such a move will send a strong message and
encourage others to defect. Although the U.S. has already imposed targeted
sanctions, their impact is negligible. In contrast, Europe is Syria’s main
trading partner and provides Syria with substantial loans each year. EU
sanctions will cause significant damage to the already battered economy and
ultimately persuade those on the fence to abandon the regime.

 

             Harness
the role of the Ambassador to identify credible civil society activists and
opposition leaders. After almost six years of a diplomatic boycott, the U.S.
Ambassador to Damascus arrived in January. The administration should take
advantage of his presence in the country to meet with reformers, which will belie
Assad’s argument that there is no viable alternative to his leadership.

 

             Work with
Turkey to arrange for a transfer of power. In recent years, Turkey and Syria
have grown increasingly close. Since protests broke out, the Turkish government
has sent officials to Damascus three times to encourage the Syrian regime to
reform with no result. While Turkey has a strong relationship with Assad, it is
also deeply concerned with stability on its borders. Nearly 15 thousands
Syrians escaped to Turkey seeking refuge. With no visa requirements between the
two countries, a protracted government assault on civilians could lead to an
influx of Syrian refugees into southeastern Turkey. The U.S. should outline the
potential negative repercussions for Turkey if Assad remains in power, which
may compel the Turkish government to push for a transition, particularly if it
is able to play a lead role in brokering the accord.

 

              The U.S
should lead the negotiations at the security council to adopt a resolution
condemn the gross and systematic violation of human rights by the Syrian
authorities and urge them to put an immediate end to the violence. An
independent international commission of inquiry must also be urgently set up in
order to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law
and identify the alleged perpetrators. Those responsible should be brought to
justice. The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the ICC
and take other appropriate measures, such as individual sanctions to halt
massive targeting of civilians by the authorities.