Amnesty says US-led coalition 'not doing enough' to address torture in Syrian camps

Amnesty says US-led coalition 'not doing enough' to address torture in Syrian camps
An Amnesty International advisor says the US-led coalition needs to do more to address serious torture violations in Syrian camps.
5 min read
17 April, 2024
The region's autonomous authorities are currently responsible for over 56,000 people in their custody accused of IS affiliation [Getty]

An Amnesty International senior advisor has said the US-led coalition was "not doing enough" to address serious torture and human rights violations in Syrian camps.

Lauren Aarons, the senior advisor on gender, conflict and international justice at the organisation told The New Arab that the rights group had found patterns of systematic torture and coercion, which the US has been involved in.

"They [US-led coalition] brought people into the system of detention…they fund the system of detention, they’re coming in and interrogating people and are not doing enough to address these horrific human rights concerns we’ve documented," she said.

The coalition, led by the US, consists of 87 partners and was formed in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State [IS] group.

Amnesty said in a report earlier this month that the region's Kurdish autonomous authorities were responsible for the violation of the rights of over 56,000 people in their custody accused of IS affiliation.

Violations included systematic torture either as punishment or to coerce confessions from men, women, and children as well as inhumane conditions that have caused preventable deaths, the report said.

The UK has provided at least $20 million to expand Panorama, the primary detention facility holding male foreign national fighters in north-east Syria, the report added.

Live Story

Human rights abuses

Aarons and her colleagues travelled to northeast Syria between September 2022 and 2023 to document the situation and conduct interviews in accordance with human rights monitoring standards.

"Every time we went to these facilities, these people told us that they hadn't met human rights monitors before, this was the first time they've been able to tell people about what happened to them," she told TNA.

They documented the abuse the women faced in these forced marriages, including rape and domestic servitude, while boys were used and recruited by IS to fight.

"Trafficking survivors have particular rights under international law, human rights law, anti-trafficking law, so if they’re foreign nationals, states need to be repatriating them and need to be identifying and repatriating them, which for the most case they're not doing," Aarons said.

She called on the US-led coalition to do a lot more and find solutions to the crisis, saying she hopes in the short term the coalition will work closely with the authorities in northeast Syria to make sure their patterns of torture are brought to an end.

She added that she hopes the UN also takes a much more active role in finding solutions to the human rights crisis and will work closely with the authorities in northeast Syria and the US to find ways to find justice for IS victims.

While in Syria, the Amnesty team heard 28 accounts indicating they were victims of trafficking.

Many women from local communities and foreign nationals told the team when they entered IS territory, or if they were widowed, they were taken by members of IS and held in women-only guest houses known as madafas.

The women were then forbidden to leave unless they acquiesced or accepted a marriage. The team also heard testimonies from women from local Syrian communities, who said they were married from as young as 11.

"If they [trafficked individuals] committed a crime as a result of their situation, they shouldn't be punished for it, but yet many are still being imprisoned in camps or prosecuted through the local courts even though they’re trafficking survivors and shouldn't be punished in this way," Aarons explained.

A former detainee at the Sini detention facility says that US soldiers visited the site in December 2021.

"They checked on the prison, and they searched us, and all of our rooms...They were able to see the blood on the wall," Abbas, who has had his name changed for safety reasons, said.

Live Story

‘The system isn’t working’

While Aarons acknowledges there is no easy solution to the crisis, she demands that steps are taken to ensure that victims get justice.

"There’s people in Syria, Iraq and 74 other countries, so it is a complicated situation to think what the solutions are to prosecute or release people and where they’ll go," she said.

“The system isn’t working for anyone…we need a system that ensures the right to people who are being detained including protection from torture, but we also need a solution that will give justice to [IS's] as victims as well,” she added.

An estimated 11,500 men and 14,500 women are being held in at least 27 detention facilities and two detention camps in Syria, Al-Hol and Roj.

Approximately 30,000 children, mostly under the age of 12, are also held, making it one of the highest concentrations of detained children anywhere in the world, the rights group says.

The rights groups found cases of physical abuse, such as whipping, hanging people from their arms, electric shocks, denial of food, water, oxygen, and medical care, which have led to the deaths of hundreds of people in recent years.

While some people in northeast Syria, are held in detention and are put to trial, authorities use vague counter-terror laws and do not prosecute anyone for international crimes.

"They’re [the authorities] heavily reliant, as we've documented, on torture, torture-induced confessions, and so they're really not conducive to providing justice for victims, so that's also a massive, massive concern," Aarons says.

The organisation has raised the alarm over how women and children have been taken out of the camp and transferred to detention facilities, where they are held incommunicado, and children, particularly foreign national children, are taken from their mothers when they reach the ages of 11 or 12. 

Cases of torture

Amnesty’s report contains interviews with over 100 current or former detainees, all detailing torture.

"The worst was when they came inside the room…carrying plastic pipes, cables, steel pipes, and they beat us everywhere," one person told the rights group.

"Every 15 days, they would take us out, in the yard, all naked… [The guards] were raping people with a stick…they brought an electricity cable from the generator and they kept torturing us by electricity," the person added.

Among those facing torture are thousands of women, particularly Yazidi women and children, who were enslaved by IS in Iraq and Syria, and are still stuck in camps, unable to return home.