New investigation says Damascus University student union 'responsible for war crimes'

New investigation says Damascus University student union 'responsible for war crimes'
A new investigation has found that the regime-allied NUSS took part in torturing students and suppressing peaceful protests.
4 min read
19 June, 2024
A new report found that the National Union of Syrian Students is responsible for war crimes against students at Damascus University [Getty]

A new year-long investigation carried out by the Syrian British Consortium's (SBC) investigations team has found that the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), affiliated with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, is guilty of war crimes including the targeting of pro-democracy activists at the University of Damascus between 2011 and 2013.

The investigation, which is based on interviews with witnesses, former students, professors and NUSS members, claims that the union served as the Syrian regime's arm on campus and worked directly with the wider state security apparatus.

Witnesses and former students described the union patrolling the university grounds, detaining students, and torturing them on campus.

Dr Yasmine Nahlawi, one of the lead investigators, called for members of the union to be held accountable.

"We need to see more serious international action to afford justice to Syrians inside and outside Syria for violations that have been committed and work towards putting an end to the future commission of these crimes," she told The New Arab, adding that the union members orchestrated torture, murder, and gender-based violence.

"At SBC we will continue to push through the avenues available to us to ensure that their voices are heard, and we hope their voices will be heard."

According to Nahlawi, the crimes documented in the report did not occur in isolation and were part of a wider organised and systematic crackdown aimed at stifling dissent on university campuses in Syria.

A pro-democracy uprising began in Syria in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, leading to a brutal crackdown by the regime with tens of thousands of protesters detained and tortured or executed.

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"Our investigation highlights that former NUSS members and war criminals are being promoted and hand-picked by the Syrian state to represent it abroad," she said.

The report will soon be submitted to the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria, as well as national war crimes offices, paving the war for authorities to begin judicial proceedings.

Crackdown on protests

The investigation states that the NUSS led brutal responses to non-violent student protests on campus, including one in the Faculty of Sciences on 11 April 2011, and others in the Faculty of Medicine and Economics.

This included circling around students, shouting profanities, and attacking them with sticks and batons before detaining them in torture rooms.

One source cited in the investigation said that during a protest where students held photos of Bashar Al-Assad mounted on sticks, NUSS members tore the portraits off and beat them with the sticks, as they chanted in support of the Syrian President.

Witnesses also told investigators they were not presented with any formal charges when detained by NUSS.

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Some members of the NUSS who oversaw major violations, such as instructing students to suppress protests and telling them to throw fellow students out of windows, have faced no repercussions, the report states.

The group accused Omar Aroub, a senior member of the NUSS leadership in Aleppo, who is now Syria's Vice President of the General Sports Federation, and the Chairman of the Syrian Paralympic Committee of being part of the crackdown on students.

"I was detained by the NUSS and physically assaulted. I'm now in Europe with my family and thought I would be far from war criminals here but now a NUSS official will be part of the Paris 2024 Olympics. He is being welcomed as if he has committed no crime," Noor Aftar, a former student, told the investigators.

"It is as if the regime is saying 'look at us, we committed crimes against you and we are still committing crimes against other Syrians, but the world approves of us and even allows us to be here at the Olympics'… we ask that France and the Olympic committee stand up for human rights and ban war criminals from the Olympics," she added.

Nahlawi reiterated that Aroub should be banned from being at the Olympics.

The New Arab could not independently verify the claims against Aroub.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented that between 2011 and 2013, over 35,000 students were detained across Syria, revealing the extent of which students were targeted across the country for activism against the government.