Syrian human rights groups condemn murder of female activist Hiba Haj Aref, call on Turkey to investigate

Syrian human rights groups condemn murder of female activist Hiba Haj Aref, call on Turkey to investigate
Hiba Haj Aref was found dead in her home on Tuesday after receiving multiple death threats. Human rights organisations called on authorities to investigate.
3 min read
29 February, 2024
Women activists in northwestern Syria are working in an increasingly hostile and insecure environment, rights groups warn. (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

Syrian human rights groups have called for an investigation into the suspected murder of Hiba Suhaib Haj Aref, a Syrian  activist who was found hanged at her house in Bza'a city, Aleppo province, on Tuesday.

Hiba Suhaib Haj Aref, referred to by many as "Hiba Haj", had received multiple death threats in the preceding weeks, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported. According to SNHR, the police has launched an investigation into her death, but the network regretted that local authorities did not investigate the death threats she received when still alive.

"We call on the Syrian Interim Government, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the civilian police, and the SNA, to launch a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into this incident and to make the findings of this investigation public, and accordingly to hold those responsible to account," SNHR wrote in a statement.

Other organisations and activists denounced Haj Aref's presumed murder, including Human Rights Watch's senior Syria and Jordan researcher, Hiba Zayadin.

"The killing of Syrian feminist and activist Hiba Haj Aref in Bezaa village in northwest Syria yesterday is saddening and outrageous," the Syria Campaign, another Syrian human rights movement, wrote on X. "Hiba was a well known community leader, a survivor of detention in Assad’s prison, and loved by her colleagues. She never stopped fighting for women’s rights in Syria. May she rest in peace.

Other women activists from the area told SNHR that Haj Aref had been threatened for role as defending women’s rights and supporting women's empowerment in rural Aleppo. The threats allegedly pushed her to resign from the municipal council of her native town, Bza'a city.

The part of rural Aleppo province that Haj Aref lived in is under the control of the Syrian National Army (SNA), which is formed by a coalition of various armed factions backed by Turkey. In past years, numerous factions within the SNA have been accused of serious crimes against human rights defenders, including kidnappings, enforced disappearances, torture and murders.

Human Rights Watch released a report today on these abuses and potential war crimes, highlighting that the SNA's main backer, Turkey, bears responsibility for the acts. The human rights monitor said that Turkey controls and oversees the SNA through its armed forces and intelligence agencies, which were directly involved in some of the abuses.

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Haj Aref was in her thirties at the time of her death. She worked as an educational supervisor at the Fraternity Center for Public Education, and was a member of the Women’s Protection Network, the Women’s Support and Empowerment Unit, and the Women’s Feminist Movement.

She is survived by her husband and two sons, aged 3 and 6.

"Her murder is an immensely traumatic experience for her family, particularly her two young sons, as well as for her fellow women activists who feel more than ever that they are working in a hostile, insecure and unprotected environment," the SNHR regretted in a statement. 

Syrian women activists are working in extremely difficult conditions across all parts of Syria and are exposed to specific forms of persecution due to their gender.  Between March 2020 and March 2024, SNHR recorded at least 268 incidents of assault and intimidation targeting women in northeastern and northwestern Syria.

The organization stated it had also noticed "a notable decline in the rates of engagement in women-related activism by many affected women, which has ultimately undermined the state of women’s rights in those areas".