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Armed groups operating in Aleppo, Idleb and surrounding areas in the north of Syria have carried out a chilling wave of abductions, torture and summary killings, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today.

The briefing Torture Was My Punishment:  Abductions, Torture and Summary Killings Under Armed Group Rule in Aleppo and Idleb, Syria offers a rare glimpse of what life is really like in areas under the control of armed opposition groups. Some of them are believed to have the support of governments such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. despite evidence that they are committing violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). It also sheds light on the administrative and quasi-judicial institutions set up by armed groups to govern in these areas.

“This briefing exposes the distressing reality for civilians living under the control of some of the armed opposition groups in Aleppo, Idleb and surrounding areas. Many civilians live in constant fear of being abducted if they criticize the conduct of armed groups in power or fail to abide by the strict rules that some have imposed,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“In Aleppo and Idleb today, armed groups have free rein to commit war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law with impunity. Shockingly, we have also documented armed groups using the same methods of torture that are routinely used by the Syrian government.

“States that are members of the International Syria Support Group including the USA, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are involved in negotiations over Syria, must pressure armed groups to end such abuses and comply with the laws of war. They must also cease any transfer of arms or other support to groups implicated in committing war crimes and other gross violations.”

The briefing features abuses committed by five armed groups which have exercised control over parts of the governorates of Aleppo and Idleb since 2012. They include the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement, al-Shamia Front and Division 16, which joined the Aleppo Conquest coalition of armed groups (also known as Fatah Halab) in 2015. They also include Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement in Idleb, which both joined the Army of Conquest coalition, similarly in 2015.

Some non-state armed groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Shamia Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement have established their own Shari’a (Islamic law) “justice systems” in areas they control, as well setting up unofficial prosecution offices, police forces and detention centers. They have also appointed judges, some of whom have no knowledge of Shari’a. Some groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, have applied a strict interpretation of Shari’a and imposed punishments amounting to torture or other ill-treatment for perceived infractions.

The briefing documents 24 cases of abduction by armed groups in Aleppo and Idleb governorates between 2012 and 2016. Victims included peaceful activists and even some children, as well as minorities targeted solely because of their religion.

It also features five cases, from 2014 and 2015, of people who alleged they were tortured by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement after their abduction.

“Ibrahim” (not his real name), a political activist abducted by Jabhat al-Nusra in April 2015 in Aleppo, said he was tortured continuously during the three days he was held. He believes he was targeted for organizing peaceful protests in support of the 2011 uprising.

“I was taken to the torture room. They placed me in the shabeh position, hanging me from the ceiling from my wrists so that my toes were off the ground. Then they started beating me with cables all over my body… After the shabeh they used the dulab [tyre] technique. They folded my body and forced me to go inside a tyre and then they started beating me with wooden sticks,” he said. He was later released, abandoned on the side of a road.

In another shocking case, “Halim,” a humanitarian worker, was abducted by the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement in July 2014 while supervising a project in a hospital in Aleppo city. He was held incommunicado for around two months before being forced to sign a “confession” under torture.

“When I refused to sign the confession paper the interrogator ordered the guard to torture me. The guard used the bisat al-rih [flying carpet] technique. He placed my hands above my head, and forced me to lift my legs in a perpendicular position. He then started beating me with cables on the soles of my feet. I couldn’t bear the pain so I signed the paper,” he said.

Human rights activists, minorities, children targeted

Several of the journalists and media activists working to report on abuses told Amnesty International they were abducted because they had criticized the conduct of armed groups in power. Many were later released, apparently after public pressure on the armed group which had abducted them.

“Issa,” a 24-year-old media activist, said he stopped posting anything on Facebook that might put him at risk after receiving threats from Jabhat al-Nusra.

“They are in control of what we can and cannot say. You either agree with their social rules and policies or you disappear. In the past two years, I was threatened three times by Jabhat al-Nusra for criticizing their rule on Facebook,” he said.

“Imad,” another media activist, described how Jabhat al-Nusra raided Radio Fresh, a radio station in northern Idleb governorate, in January 2016, abducted two of its broadcasters and held them for two days simply for playing music which they deemed offensive to Islam.

In Aleppo, media activists said they received verbal and written threats from the al-Shamia Front and the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement for criticizing these armed groups or accusing them of corruption on Facebook.

Lawyers, political activists and others have also faced reprisal attacks from the al-Shamia Front, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement because of their activities, perceived religious beliefs and political opinions.

“Bassel,” a lawyer in Idleb, was abducted from his home in Ma’rat al-Nu’man in November 2015 for criticizing Jabhat al-Nusra.

“I was happy to be free from the Syrian government’s unjust rule but now the situation is worse. I publicly criticized Jabhat al-Nusra on Facebook… The next morning Jabhat al-Nusra forces took me from my home,” he said.

He was held in an abandoned home for 10 days and eventually released after captors forced him to give up his profession, threatening that if he failed to do so he would never see his family again.

One political activist abducted at an Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement checkpoint and held in a detention center run by them, told Amnesty International she was stopped for not wearing a veil and was suspected of being affiliated to the Syrian government. 

Amnesty International also documented the abduction of at least three children – boys aged 14, 15 and 16 – by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement in Idleb and Aleppo between 2012 and 2015. As of 28 June, two of them remain missing.

Members of the Kurdish minority in Sheikh Maqsoud, a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo city, were also among those abducted as well as Christian priests targeted on account of their religion.

“All armed groups, in particular those in Aleppo and Idleb, must immediately and unconditionally release any person held solely on account of their political opinion, religion or ethnicity,” said Luther. 

“Leaders of armed groups in northern Syria have a duty to end human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. They must speak out and publicly condemn such acts, and send a clear message to their subordinates that such crimes will not be tolerated.”

Summary killings

The briefing also contains evidence of summary killings carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Shamia Front and their affiliated “courts,” or the Supreme Judicial Council, a body in Aleppo governorate recognized by several armed groups as the sole judicial authority there.

Among those killed have been civilians, including a 17-year-old boy accused of being gay and a woman accused of adultery, as well as captured members of Syrian government forces, of pro-government shabiha militias, and of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and other rival groups. In some cases armed groups carried out summary killings in front of crowds. The deliberate killing of people held in captivity is prohibited by international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime.

“Saleh,” who was held by Jabhat al-Nusra in December 2014, said he saw five women who a guard told him were accused of adultery and would “only be forgiven by death.” He later saw a video showing Jabhat al-Nusra fighters carrying out a public, execution-style killing of one of the women.

According to the Unified Arab Code, a set of Shari’a-based legal codes followed by the Supreme Judicial Council and the “court” run by al-Shamia Front, certain crimes such as murder and apostasy are punishable by death.

“Passing sentences and carrying out summary killings without a judgment from a regularly constituted court with full judicial guarantees is a serious violation of international law and amounts to a war crime,” said Luther.

Over the past five years, Amnesty International has extensively documented war crimes and crimes against humanity on a mass scale committed by Syrian government forces. The organization has also documented serious violations, including war crimes, by the group calling itself Islamic State and other armed groups.

“While some civilians in areas controlled by armed opposition groups may at first have welcomed an escape from brutal Syrian government rule, hopes that these armed groups would respect rights have faded as they have increasingly taken the law into their own hands and committed serious abuses,” said Philip Luther.

“It is critical that Russia and the USA, and the UN Special Envoy to Syria, prioritize detention by government forces and abduction by armed groups during their ongoing talks in Geneva. For its part the UN Security Council must impose targeted sanctions on leaders of armed groups who are responsible for war crimes.”