All-Out Repression: Purging Dissent in Aleppo, Syria

Syrian opposition fighter takes aim in Aleppo on July 25, 2012 (BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)
July 31, 2012

All-Out Repression: Purging Dissent in Aleppo, Syria

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Families of demonstrators and bystanders shot dead by security forces have been pressured to sign statements saying that their loved ones were killed by “armed terrorist gangs”.

Wounded people risk arrest and torture if they go to hospital. Doctors, nurses and first-aiders who provide life-saving medical treatment to injured demonstrators in makeshift secret “field hospitals” have themselves been arrested, tortured and even killed by government security forces.

Activists organizing protests and those suspected of participating in demonstrations, making or distributing anti-government leaflets or opposition flags, or otherwise supporting protesters are often arrested and detained arbitrarily without access to their families or lawyers. Detainees are routinely tortured, in some cases to death. Some have been subjected to enforced disappearance; their families have been unable to obtain any information about their fate and whereabouts since their arrest.

Until July 2012, protest demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s largest and most populous city, remained smaller and less frequent than in other main towns. The authorities showed little tolerance for such public displays of dissent and, as elsewhere, responded with brute force. Security forces and militias have systematically used unwarranted lethal force to break up demonstrations, invariably killing and injuring peaceful protesters who posed no threat to them or to others.

While in much of the country government repression of peaceful demonstrations gave way to an increasingly deadly armed conflict between government forces and shabiha militias on the one hand and armed opposition groups on the other, until July 2012 Aleppo remained a microcosm of what the rest of the country was in the early months of the protest movement which began in February 2011 – with peaceful demonstrators being routinely assaulted, shot at and hunted down by security forces, soldiers and state-armed militia.

In early May 2012, security forces and shabiha militias attacked students who were demonstrating inside Aleppo’s “university city”, a gated area where the student dormitories are located. Several students were killed or injured. Following the incident, the student dormitories were shut down, leaving thousands of students, most of them poorer students from rural areas, homeless just as end-of-year exams were approaching.

In June 2012, as protest demonstrations were increasing in scale and frequency in Aleppo and as intense armed confrontations were taking place between government forces and armed opposition in rural areas around Aleppo, security forces stepped up the crackdown in the city. Checkpoints were set up throughout the city. Armoured vehicles and trucks with mounted machine-guns were deployed in “hot” areas and then used by government forces to fire on demonstrations, killing and injuring a growing number of protesters and passersby.

As part of the stepped up crackdown, suspected protest activists and their supporters were hunted down more systematically. Activists who had managed to remain below the security radar screen started to receive warning or threatening calls; some were attacked, beaten and threatened; others were arrested and have since disappeared.

The gruesome killing and mutilation of three young medics who were part of a network providing emergency medical care to wounded protesters, whose charred bodies bearing torture marks and bullet wounds were found on 24 June, a week after their arrest, sent shockwaves through protest activist circles in the city. Several activists told Amnesty International that they now feared being tortured to death or summarily executed if they were arrested. If young activists involved in humanitarian and relief work were targeted in such a manner, what awaited those who were active in organizing protests and strikes and distributing flags and anti-regime leaflets? Many were forced to leave their homes and go into

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