All-Out Repression: Purging Dissent in Aleppo, Syria

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

All-Out Repression: Purging Dissent in Aleppo, Syria

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"Every protest I observed in Aleppo ended with security forces and shabiha militias opening fire on peaceful demonstrators."

Amnesty International delegate in Aleppo city at the end of May 2012

As anti-government demonstrations gathered pace in recent months in Aleppo, Syrian security forces stepped up a brutal crackdown in an apparent bid to crush the protest movement and stamp out dissenting voices.

Scores of demonstrators and bystanders, most of them young men and boys but including several children and older men, have been shot dead and hundreds injured in the city by security forces and the notorious shabiha, the armed militias working alongside government forces. Some of the victims were bystanders who were not taking part in the demonstrations.

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
hiding.

At the beginning of July, as the security forces increasingly targeted non-violent opposition activists, members of the armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) moved into some areas of the city from nearby towns and villages. They repeatedly clashed with security forces and militia members, who continued to attack demonstrators. The situation rapidly escalated and in the last week of July major clashes erupted between government and opposition forces in several neighbourhoods, including Salah al-Din, Bustan al-Qasr, and al-Sukkari, south-west of the city centre, and Hanano, to the north-east.

The Syrian army moved into the city in force with tanks and combat helicopters, shelling residential districts with battlefield weapons, including mortars and artillery, which are imprecise and should not be used in civilian residential areas.

Residents not involved in the confrontations were inevitably caught in the crossfire and many were killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks as terrified families fled the neighbourhoods. At the end of July parts of Salah al-Din, Hanano and other districts, virtually empty of their residents, had become the theatre of fierce clashes between heavily-armed government forces and the less well-equipped FSA fighters.

Months of relentless and lethal attacks on peaceful demonstrators have failed to suppress the protest
movement. Rather, the repression has fuelled resentment and fear. Some youths who were previously arrested and tortured now say they would rather die than be arrested and tortured again. Some have joined the armed opposition. Aleppo is now suffering the same fate as the rest of the country: allout repression of legitimate protest has spiraled into a protracted armed conflict that is claiming more lives every day.

This report, based largely on Amnesty International’s field research in and around Aleppo in late May 2012, concludes that the Syrian government is responsible for systematic violations amounting to crimes against humanity in Aleppo, which it has no intention of ending, let alone investigating. The international community - despite ample evidence of the scale and gravity of the human rights and humanitarian law violations being committed in Syria - has so far failed to bring any meaningful pressure to bear on the Syrian government to end them.

The cases and patterns of abuses investigated in this report, together with the gross and widespread human rights abuses documented by Amnesty International over the past 18 months in other parts of the country, constitute a body of evidence that Syrian government forces and state-armed militias have been responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have made numerous recommendations to the Syrian authorities over the past 18 months, as well as in previous years, which, if implemented, would have done much to curtail the practices documented in this report.

However, the Syrian government has shown no desire to try to stamp out these grave human rights violations, to investigate them or to hold those responsible to account. On the contrary, crimes under international law and other human rights violations continue to be committed, evidently with the blessing of government authorities at the highest level.

Amnesty International is therefore reiterating its call on the UN Security Council to:

* Refer the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for investigation of crimes under international law.

* Ensure that an adequately resourced and strong international human rights monitoring mission with the capacity to monitor, investigate and publicly report on all human rights abuses is established, either by expanding and strengthening the UN observer mission (UNSMIS) before its mandate expires in August 2012 or by establishing another mechanism.

* Freeze the assets of President Bashar al-Assad and his close associates.

* Immediately impose an arms embargo on Syria aimed at stopping all weapons, munitions, military, security and policing equipment from reaching government forces.

The organization is also calling on any country considering supplying arms to the armed opposition to have in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure the material supplied is not used to commit human rights abuses and/or war crimes.


ABOUT THIS REPORT

Since the onset of the unrest in 2011, Amnesty International – like other international human rights organizations – had not been able to conduct field research in Syria as it was effectively barred from entering the country by the government. The increasing gravity of the human rights crisis in Syria and the refusal of the government to countenance any form of outside verification led the organization to take the decision to enter Syria to carry out firsthand investigations without the authorization of the Syrian government. Between mid-April and the end of May 2012, Amnesty International conducted on-site investigations in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates in the north-west of the country.

In the city of Aleppo at the end of May an Amnesty International delegate observed peaceful demonstrations and funeral processions where members of the security forces and of statearmed militias repeatedly fired live rounds at demonstrators; visited secret field hospitals where injured protesters were receiving emergency medical treatment; interviewed witnesses, protesters who had been shot and injured by security forces during demonstrations, families of those killed, victims of torture and arbitrary detention, as well as relatives of people who have disappeared into secret detention since their arrest, medical professional involved in providing medical care to victims, and volunteers providing aid to people displaced by the conflict. The organization’s delegate also viewed hours of footage filmed by local activists of the demonstrations during which protesters and bystanders were killed and injured. Since leaving the country, the organization has remained in daily contact with activists in the city and has continued to receive and follow up information about ongoing human rights
violations.

In Aleppo city, all of those interviewed expressed fear of possible reprisals, and for this reason, the names of victims (except for the dead and some of the disappeared) and witnesses, and other identifying details, have been withheld.

The findings substantiate those of other bodies, such as the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the UN Committee against Torture, as well as the evidence collected by Amnesty International during research missions to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, where the organization interviewed Syrians who have fled their country since the violent repression of the unrest began.

While the field research in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates conducted between mid-April and the end of May 2012 provided further evidence of a plethora of abuses, this report focuses only on abuses committed by security forces and militias in the city of Aleppo in a bid to suppress dissent in the city. The findings of Amnesty International’s visit to other parts of northern Syria are contained in a report, Deadly Reprisals – deliberate killings and other abuses by Syria’s armed forces, published on 14 June 2012.

The vast majority of the human rights abuses documented by Amnesty International since the start of protests in February 2011, including those in this report, have been committed by the state’s security and armed forces, and shabiha militias. However, there are growing numbers of reports of abuses committed by armed opposition groups, including the torture and killing of captured soldiers and shabiha as well as the kidnapping and killing of people known or suspected to support or work with the government and its forces and militias. Amnesty International condemns without reservation such abuses and calls on the leadership of all armed opposition groups in Syria to publicly state that such acts are prohibited and to do all within their power to ensure that opposition forces put an immediate end to such abuses.

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