Syrian security forces have intensified their campaign of mass arrests in cities across the country that have had anti-government protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The targeted cities include including Hama, Homs, and various suburbs around Damascus.
Reliable activists and witnesses contacted by Human Rights Watch estimate that since late June, 2011, security forces have arrested more than 2,000 anti-government protesters, medical professionals providing aid to wounded protesters, and those alleged to have provided information to international media and human rights organizations.
“President Assad talks reform but continues to practice repression, not only through the widespread killings of demonstrators but also through mass arrests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Who does President Assad mean to include in his ‘national dialogue’ when his security forces are targeting the very people who might have something to say to him?”
The government has been arresting and holding activists despite the start of its National Dialogue Initiative on July 10 that, government media maintain, is intended to facilitate Syria’s transition to a multi-party democratic political system. Opposition figures boycotted the event, saying the government first needs to stop arresting, torturing, and killing activists and protesters.
In one of the most recent arrests of a nationally known activist, a group of about 20 plainclothes security forces went to the home of George Sabra, a senior member of the National Democratic Party and a key opposition figure, at about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of July 20 and took him away. His wife confirmed his arrest to Human Rights Watch by phone:
Security forces came and took him at about 1:30 a.m. There were about 20 people outside with both military and civilian cars, but only about six or seven actually entered the home, all of them in sports clothes and carrying guns. They searched the house and took his computer and his mobile. All they said is, “You are wanted,” but nothing about what security branch they were from, where they were taking him, or why he was being arrested. They allowed him to get dressed and didn’t vandalize anything, but blocked us at the door and would not let us leave the home as they took him away. Until now, we have heard nothing more about him.
Even though many detainees have been released after a few days or weeks, the Local Coordination Committees, a loose affiliation of groups that both organizes and reports on the democracy protests in Syria, estimates that over 15,000 people arrested since the beginning of the protests remain in detention, most without any contact with the outside world.
Despite presidential amnesties and promises of reform, many detained earlier in March, April, May, June, and the beginning of July on suspicion of being protesters or activists remain in detention, with no confirmation of their whereabouts or the legal grounds for their detention. For those who have been charged, some of the offenses cited are unduly vague and political rather than criminal, such as “spreading false or exaggerated information that weakens national sentiment.” Others have been released only after signing forced confessions “admitting” to being terrorists or religious extremists.
People held in incommunicado detention are at risk of torture. Human Rights Watch has already documented widespread torture from the accounts of people who have been released, causing concern that many detainees still in detention are being tortured.
The Syrian authorities continue to bar international observers and most of the international media from the country. Human Rights Watch has collected its information from witnesses who are friends and family members of those detained, or who witnessed the recent wave of arrests, some of them refugees who crossed into neighboring countries.