Syrian regime detaining activists in retaken areas: Human Rights Watch

Syrian regime detaining activists in retaken areas: Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch calls on the Syrian government to "immediately release all arbitrarily held detainees" and for host countries not to forcibly return refugees to Syria.
3 min read
21 May, 2019
A Syrian government soldier walks past strewn mortar shells in a Syrian village near Hama[AFP/Getty]
In Syrian opposition areas retaken by regime forces, Bashar al-Assad's intelligence branches are arbitrarily detaining former rebel fighters - and even their family members - after they signed so-called "reconciliation agreements" with the government.

Human Rights Watch released a report Tuesday detailing 11 cases of arbitrary detention and disappearance in three areas retaken by the regime between February and August 2018: Daraa, Eastern Ghouta and southern Damascus.

The rights group found that after formed rebel fighters signed reconciliation agreements with the government, those involved - ranging from media activists to former rebel leaders and their family - were targeted by authorities.

"Active combat has ended in much of Syria, but nothing has changed in the way intelligence branches trample rights of perceived opponents of Assad's rule," said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Lack of due process, arbitrary arrests, and harassment, even in so-called reconciled areas, speak louder than empty government promises of return, reform, and reconciliation."

In interviews with 16 former residents of the three areas, HRW learned that Syrian intelligence branches detained and harassed those who had links to anti-government activists and fighters. Humanitarian workers, community leaders, and media activists were also affected.

Those who tell you there is stability or security in the south are lying.

In three cases, relatives were detained or harassed as a tactic by which the intelligence services could gain information about a family member.

HRW called on the Syrian regime to "immediately release all arbitrarily held detainees" and for host countries such as Lebanon, Denmark and Germany not to forcibly return refugees to Syria - as is the standpoint of the UN.

"Those who tell you there is stability or security in the south are lying," a humanitarian worker from Daraa told Human Rights Watch. "There are still assassinations and arbitrary detentions, and the residents continue to suffer persecution."

Those detained were often not charged or given access to a lawyer and relatives "paid a bribe and, in some of the cases, asked high level members of the reconciliation committees or Russian military police to intervene" in order to secure the release of their loved ones.

Russia should use its influence with its ally Syria to stop these human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said, and "expand its ad hoc intervention to release arbitrarily held detainees".

Russia has been pushing for Syrian refugees to leave Rukban camp on the Syria-Jordan border and enter regime territories.

When Russia opened up two "humanitarian corridors" to transport refugees back to Syria in February, not a single person used them, despite the dire conditions inside the border camp.

Rukban residents have reason to fear crossing to regime-held areas. Russia's ministry of defence said that, while checkpoints at the corridors would offer food, clothing, medical checkups and other vital support displaced Syrians have been lacking, Syrian regime "law enforcement agencies" also operate checkpoints and "escort" civilians to other destinations.

Almost nine years since protests erupted in March 2011, more than 500,000 people have been killed, while half of the pre-war population of 23 million is either displaced internally or living as refugees abroad, mostly in neighboring countries. Most of the towns and cities lie in ruins.

Bashar al-Assad's regime responded with a violent crackdown to anti-government protests, which in turn sparked an armed rebellion against Damascus.

With the vast majority of the country back under the hold of the regime, many refugees fear arrest, torture and even death if they return.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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