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Unlimited Brutality

Almost 15,000 Died Due to Torture in Syria


Tens of thousands of Syrians have suffered arbitrary arrests, mainly by the Syrian regime’s security forces, in connection with the popular movement that started in March 2011. They all experienced at least one, usually multiple forms of torture.

The SNHR (Syrian Network for Human Rights) database shows that at least 14,506 individuals died due to torture at the hands of the main parties to the conflict in Syria – with 180 children and 92 women (adult females) among the victims.

International law unreservedly prohibits torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 4), which is considered a customary rule that can in no way be infringed upon or set in equal measure with other rights or values, even in a state of emergency. Widespread and systematic torture constitutes a crime against humanity (Rome Statute, Article 7 (1) (f)) and a violation of international human rights law (Geneva Convention IV, Article 32); it also amounts to war crimes (Rome Statute, Article 8 (2) (a) (ii)).

Four main aspects define torture in Syria over the past ten years:

The Syrian Regime Is Responsible for the Vast Majority of Deaths Due to Torture

The crime of torture has been perpetrated by all parties to the conflict; however, the Syrian regime, which controls the army, security forces, and courts, has practiced torture in its detention centers in a widespread and systematic manner which constitutes a crime against humanity, as noted in many of the reports issued by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI), most notably in the special report on torture inside the regime’s detention centers.

Through this practice of torture, the regime aims to create a state of fear amongst detainees, their families, and anybody in the community expressing any opposition to crush their will and make an example out of them for anyone that dares to question the government in any shape or form.

The regime is responsible for 98 % of all deaths due to torture documented in Syria since the beginning of the conflict; according to the SNHR’s database; it is in complete control of all the state’s detention centers, and it is therefore highly unlikely that any of the torture and related deaths could occur without the regime’s and its institutions’ knowledge. Despite COI reports, and the release of the Caesar photographs as well as thousands of news reports, not even one governmental investigation was launched. In addition, the Syrian regime has issued laws that contradict international human rights law and legalize torture at the local level.

For example:

  1. Legislative Decree No. 14 of January 25, 1969.
  2. Article 74 of the Legislative Decree No. 549 of May 25, 1969. 
  3. Legislative Decree No. 69 of 2008, Article 1 (a) and Article 1 (b).
  4. Decree No. 55 of 2011 related to counterterrorism, Article 1.

These decrees show that the regime was not satisfied with the brutal practice of torture alone but imposed additional legislative force under the pretext of “security” to guarantee full protection from any possible prosecution for itself and the members of its security forces under domestic law, effectively doubling down on this crime.

Other parties to the conflict in Syria, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), extremist Islamist groups, and all factions of the armed opposition have applied similar strategies and practices to those of the Syrian regime, though to a lesser, non-systemic degree but with the same methods of torture being used in their detention centers.

The Vast Majority of Deaths Due to Torture Are Caused by the Spread of Disease amongst Detainees as a Result of Overcrowding, Lack of Healthcare and Medical Care

Detention in the regime’s detention centers is accompanied by deliberate denial of health care, followed by malnutrition. The conditions also fail to satisfy the most basic standards of cleanliness, hygiene, and ventilation, with large numbers of detainees packed into small, filthy cells that are not suitable for such extensive and increasing numbers. Each cell – on average – measures 6×4 m2, and holds 50 detainees, meaning that every detainee barely has 70 cm2 in which to stand, sit and sleep. Detainees usually take turn to sit or sleep when their numbers exceed the cell’s capacity. These practices are a tactic deliberately used by the Syrian regime with the intention of inflicting further torture on the detainees and creating a foul, disease-filled environment, willfully withholding medical care and neglecting treatment. This causes detainees further physical and psychological agony, trauma and suffering which consequently lead to their death.

A previous report issued by the SNHR documented 72 methods of physical, psychological, and sexual torture as the most notable forms used by the Syrian regime in its detention centers and military hospitals; but the deliberate denial of healthcare and neglect of detainees’ health remain the leading cause of death amongst detainees. In addition to the callousness and brutality inflicted on the detainee him-/herself, this method is also traumatic for fellow detainees who have to watch their cellmate suffer, while being unable to provide anything to save his/her life.

The Syrian Regime’s Use of Torture as a Method to Extract Any Confessions Required to Convict Detainees

A large number of detainees is tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit. After, the security forces hand these coerced “confessions” over to the public prosecution service, which uses them as the basis for charges against the detainees. This emphasizes the regime’s domination, control and abuse of the justice system. No public prosecutor would dare to decline or question files handed over by the security forces. These cases are always referred to special courts established by the regime to eliminate its political opposition, namely the Counterterrorism Court and Military Field Court. Since 2012, there have been no referrals to regular courts.

The Syrian Regime Does Not Inform Detainees’ Families of Their Loved Ones’ Fate, Even After Death, and Does Not Hand Over Their Bodies

The regime never notifies detainees’ families when their loved ones have died due to torture; this is an intentional method, adding insult to injury to further increase the trauma, humiliation and suffering of the families and the wider community. The regime also benefits financially through extortion networks that have been established in coordination with the security forces which compel detainees’ families to pay often exorbitant sums for information on their loved ones. It is clear that this information is invariably inaccurate.

In early 2018, the Syrian regime announced the deaths of hundreds of forcibly disappeared individuals through the civil registry. The SNHR had already documented at least 836 cases whose deaths were announced at this time, including nine children and two women. The bodies of those whose deaths the regime announced were not delivered to the families, and it was apparent from the records that most of these individuals had died some years before.

All these cases were recorded as having died due to heart attacks, even though the detainees’ families confirmed their loved ones were in a healthy state when arrested – which indicates that their deaths were caused by torture instead. The regime has not opened a single investigation into the above-mentioned cases.

A Fate Similar to That of the Victims Pictured in the Caesar Photos Awaits Tens of Thousands Still Detained by the Syrian Regime

The whole world was shocked by the photos of the Syrian detainees leaked by a former Syrian regime photographer who had been responsible for taking pictures of detainees after their death. These photos showed the ugliness, brutality, and sheer evil of the methods of torture used by the Syrian regime.

The SNHR’s database indicates that at least 131,000 detainees are still under arrest or forcibly disappeared, and there is not a single reason to believe that the government has stopped this torture machinery. International law is clear in holding commanders and other senior officials criminally responsible (Customary IHL, Article 152) for war crimes committed by their subordinates (Customary IHL, Article 153). The Rome Statute of the ICC extended this responsibility to include civilian superiors and crimes against humanity that are committed in times of war and in times of peace (Rome Statute, Article 28).

Torture in Syria, especially at the hands of the Syrian regime, is of a scale and barbarism unlike anywhere else in the modern world. One can argue that the Netherlands’ initiative last September, which holds the perpetrators of the crime of torture accountable in front of the International Court of Justice in accordance with the Convention against Torture, is a first step. Also Canada following suit can be considered a further notion in the right direction in order to hold the regime accountable and expose it in front of the United Nations’ Court.

While this is one of the tools of accountability, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will stop torturing the detainees since all its branches are involved in this crime and will continue to practice it, until a political settlement is reached. For the regime, these detainees are hostages and a card for negotiations in its hands, and the international community must accelerate the political transition in order to prevent more Syrians from dying due to torture.

Fadel Abdul Ghany

Fadel Abdul Ghany is the founder and chair of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). He wrote opinion articles and participated in research projects with local, regional, and international organisations.

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