When the revolutionary impulses sweeping the Middle East first manifested themselves in Syria in March, no one foresaw how the movement would grow — or how violently it would be suppressed, although that was always a distinct possibility, given the manner in which the Ba’athist regime has maintained power in Syria for the last 41 years — through emergency laws (in place since 1963), a ban on all protests, and the widespread use of arbitrary detention and torture.
In the last two and a half months, protests have spread throughout the country, and have met with violent resistance, although the epicentre of resistance — the southern city of Daraa — remains the focus of the government’s worst excesses, with a death toll of at least 418 people, according to Human Rights Watch, in a report discussed below.
However, the Daraa protectorate has also become far more notorious in recent days as a result of the torture and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb, a 13-year old boy who has immediately become a symbol of the necessity for the overthrow of the Assad regime for the ever-growing number of Syrians, who, it seems, will not accept anything less than regime change as a result of the relentless brutality of the state’s response to even peaceful dissent.
Hamza was arrested during a protest in Saida, 10km east of Daraa, on April 29, and when his body was finally returned to his family on May 24, "it bore the scars of brutal torture," as Al-Jazeera explained, consisting of "[l]acerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face and knees, consistent with the use of electric shock devices and of being whipped with cable, both techniques of torture documented by Human Rights Watch as being used in Syrian prisons during the bloody three-month crackdown on protestors."
The Al-Jazeera report continued:
Hamza’s eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly. Hamza’s mutilated, castrated corpse was riddled with bullet holes and burn marks. On Hamza’s chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off.
These are some of the bleakest words I have ever had to present, which is quite an achievement, after five years of researching and writing about the crimes committed by the US in its "War on Terror" — as, for example, in a particularly depressing article from two years ago, When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan — but it is genuinely difficult to conceive of crimes worse than the torture and murder of children.
Al-Jazeera’s report also contained further analysis of Hamza’s story, which was just as heartbreaking:
Hamza al-Khateeb used to love it when the rains came to his small corner of southern Syria, filling up the farmers’ irrigation channels enough so that he and the other children could jump in and swim.
But the drought of the last few years had left the 13-year-old without the fun of his favourite pool.
Instead, he’d taken to raising homing pigeons, standing on the roof of his family’s simple breeze-block home, craning his neck back to see the birds circling above the wide horizon of fields, where wheat and tomatoes were grown from the tough, scrubby soils.
Though not from a wealthy family himself, Hamza was always aware of others less fortunate than himself, said a cousin who spoke to Al-Jazeera.
"He would often ask his parents for money to give to the poor. I remember once he wanted to give someone 100 Syrian Pounds ($2), and his family said it was too much. But Hamza said, 'I have a bed and food while that guy has nothing.’ And so he persuaded his parents to give the poor man the 100."
In the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, however, Hamza found no such compassion, his humanity degraded to nothing more than a lump of flesh to beat, burn, torture and defile, until the screaming stopped at last.
As the Observer reported today, Hamza al-Khateeb’s death has been the spur for "one of [the] bloodiest weekends" since the unrest began in March, with reports of "a violent crackdown on Friday despite the government’s attempt to stop news spreading by cutting off the internet in major cities."
The Observer report added that reports emerging from Syria, where foreign journalists have been banned, suggest that at least 90 people were killed on Friday, and that "dozens more" have been killed over the weekend.
Providing further details of children’s deaths, the Observer also noted that at least four children have been killed in the last few days, even though protest organizers had specifically described Friday as "Freedom for Children Friday in memory of more than 72 children killed since the protests began." In addition, a banner in a video showed women holding a banner stating, "We are all mothers of Hamza al-Khateeb."
The Observer also noted that, according to estimates by human rights groups, "more than 1,200 people have died and at least 10,000 have been detained in Syria since March."
Even so, although opponents of the Assad regime, meeting in Turkey last week, described Bashar al-Assad’s rule as "unsustainable," and called on him to "'resign immediately’ and to hand authority to his vice-president 'until the election of a transitional council.’" western governments have not yet called for his resignation, and a draft UN Security Council resolution is facing opposition from China and Russia.
For anyone seeking further information about the crimes committed by the Assad regime, I’m cross-posting below a news release by Human Rights Watch announcing the publication of a new 54-page report about the brutal suppression of dissent in the southern city of Daraa, where the rebellion against the regime began on March 18, after protests in Damascus earlier that week. I covered these early manifestations of the impulse for change in Syria at the time, in my articles, Revolution in the Middle East: Brave Protestors in Syria Call for Freedom, Syria: Amazingly, The Next Crucible of Revolution in the Middle East? and Political Prisoners in Syria: An Urgent Crisis Now!, but since then the human rights situation — which was bleak from the beginning — has continued to deteriorate, and, as Human Rights Watch makes clear, the government’s response can now, in all fairness, be described as crimes against humanity.
The torture and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb, which is so horrific, deserves, to my mind, to bring about the fall of the entire vile and discredited regime that has subjected so many of its people to a life of fear for the last four decades, but as Human Rights Watch’s valuable research shows, in Daraa, in many ways the crucible for revolutionary change since protests began three months ago, and a reflector of wider repression, the government’s response has been barbaric.
Syria: Crimes Against Humanity in Daraa
Killings, Torture in a Locked-Down City Under Siege
Human Rights Watch, June 1, 2011
Systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces in the city of Daraa since protests began there on March 18, 2011, strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 54-page report, "'We’ve Never Seen Such Horror’: Crimes against Humanity in Daraa," is based on more than 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuses. The report focuses on violations in Daraa governorate, where some of the worst violence took place after protests seeking greater freedoms began in various parts of the country. The specifics went largely unreported due to the information blockade imposed by the Syrian authorities. Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described systematic killings, beatings, torture using electroshock devices, and detention of people seeking medical care.
"For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "They need to stop — and if they don’t, it is the Security Council’s responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice."
The Syrian government should take immediate steps to halt the excessive use of lethal force by security forces, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Security Council should impose sanctions and press Syria for accountability and, if it doesn’t respond adequately, refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The protests first broke out in Daraa in response to the detention and torture of 15 children accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the government’s downfall. In response and since then, security forces have repeatedly and systematically opened fire on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators. The security forces have killed at least 418 people in the Daraa governorate alone, and more than 887 across Syria, according to local activists who have been maintaining a list of those killed. Exact numbers are impossible to verify.
Witnesses from Daraa interviewed by Human Rights Watch provided consistent accounts of security forces using lethal force against protesters and bystanders, in most cases without advance warning or any effort to disperse the protesters by nonviolent means. Members of various branches of the mukhabarat (security services) and numerous snipers positioned on rooftops deliberately targeted the protesters, and many of the victims had lethal head, neck, and chest wounds. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which security forces participating in the operations against protesters in Daraa and other cities had received "shoot-to-kill" orders from their commanders.
Some of the deadliest incidents Human Rights Watch documented include:
- An attack on al-Omari mosque, which served as a rallying point for protesters and a makeshift hospital for the wounded protesters, and attacks on ensuing protests from March 23 to 25, killing more than 30 protesters;
- Attacks on demonstrators during two protests on April 8, resulting in at least 25 deaths;
- Attacks during a protest and a funeral procession in the town of Izraa on April 22 and 23, resulting in at least 34 deaths;
- Killings during the blockade of Daraa and neighboring villages beginning on April 25, and during an effort by residents of neighboring towns to break the siege on April 29, which left up to 200 dead.
Nine witnesses from the towns of Tafas, Tseel, and Sahem al-Golan described to Human Rights Watch one of these attacks which happened on April 29, when thousands or people from towns surrounding Daraa attempted to break the blockade on the city. Witnesses said that the security forces stopped the protesters who were trying to approach Daraa at a checkpoint near the Western entrance of Daraa city. One of the witnesses from the town of Tseel who participated in the protest said:
We stopped there, waiting for more people to arrive. We held olive branches, and posters saying we want to bring food and water to Daraa. We had canisters with water and food parcels with us. Eventually thousands of people gathered on the road — the crowd stretched for some six kilometers.
Then we started moving closer to the checkpoint. We shouted 'peaceful, peaceful,’ and in response they opened fire. Security forces were everywhere, in the fields nearby, on a water tank behind the checkpoint, on the roof of a nearby factory, and in the trees, and the fire came from all sides. People started running, falling, trying to carry the wounded away. Nine people from Tseel were wounded there and one of them died.
Another witness, from Tafas, said:
There was no warning, no firing in the air. It was simply an ambush. There was gunfire from all sides, from automatic guns. Security forces were positioned in the fields along the road, and on the roofs of the buildings. They were deliberately targeting people. Most injuries were in the head and chest.
Two men from Tafas were killed there: 22-year-old Muhammad Aiman Baradan and 38-year-old Ziad Hreidin. Ziad stood next to me when a sniper bullet hit him in the head. He died on the spot. Altogether, 62 people were killed and more than a hundred wounded, I assisted with their transportation to Tafas hospital.
Syrian authorities repeatedly blamed the protesters in Daraa for initiating the violence and accused them of attacking security forces. All of the testimony collected by Human Rights Watch indicates, however, that the protests were in most cases peaceful.
Human Rights Watch documented several incidents in which, in response to the killings of protesters, Daraa residents resorted to violence, setting cars and buildings on fire, and killing members of the security forces. Human Rights Watch said that such incidents should be further investigated, but that they by no means justify the massive and systematic use of lethal force against the demonstrators.
Syrian authorities also routinely denied wounded protesters access to medical assistance by preventing ambulances from reaching the wounded, and on several occasions opening fire on medical personnel or rescuers who tried to carrying the wounded away. Security forces took control of most of the hospitals in Daraa and detained the wounded who were brought in. As a result, many wounded people avoided the hospitals and were treated in makeshift hospitals with limited facilities. In at least two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, people died because they were denied needed medical care.
Witnesses from Daraa and neighboring towns described to Human Rights Watch large-scale sweep operations by the security forces, who detained hundreds of people daily, as well as the targeted arrests of activists and their family members. The detainees, many of them children, were held in appalling conditions. All ex-detainees interviewed said that they, as well as hundreds of others they saw in detention, had been subjected to torture, including prolonged beatings with sticks, twisted wires, other devices, and electric shocks. Some were tortured on improvised metal and wooden "racks" and, in at least one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a male detainee was raped with a baton.
Two witnesses independently reported to Human Rights Watch the extrajudicial execution of detainees on May 1 at an ad hoc detention facility at a football field in Daraa. One of the detainees said the security forces had executed 26 detainees; the other described a group of "more than 20." Human Rights Watch has not been able to further corroborate these accounts. However, the detailed information provided by two independent witnesses and the fact that other parts of their statements were fully corroborated by other witnesses supports the credibility of the allegations.
On April 25, security forces began a large-scale military operation in Daraa, imposing a blockade that lasted at least 11 days and was then extended to neighboring towns. Under the cover of heavy gunfire, security forces occupied every neighborhood in the city, ordered people to remain indoors, and opened fire on those who defied the ban. Witnesses said that Daraa residents experienced acute shortages of food, water, medicine, and other necessary supplies during the siege. The security forces shot out water tanks. Electricity and all communications were cut off. Unable to bury or properly store the growing number of dead bodies, Daraa residents stored many of them in mobile vegetable refrigerators that could run on diesel fuel.
Syrian authorities also imposed an information blockade on Daraa. They prevented any independent observers from entering the town, and shut down all means of communication. Security forces searched for and confiscated cellphones that contained footage of events in Daraa, and arrested and tortured those whom they suspected of trying to get images or other information out, including some foreign nationals. In some areas, electricity and communications remain cut off.
Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to halt immediately the use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against demonstrators and activists, release all arbitrarily arrested detainees, and provide human rights groups and journalists with immediate and unhindered access to Daraa. It also called on the Security Council to adopt targeted financial and travel sanctions on officials responsible for continuing human rights violations, as well as to push for and support efforts to investigate and prosecute the grave, widespread and systemic human rights violations committed in Syria.
"Syrian authorities did everything they could to conceal their bloody repression in Daraa," Whitson said. "But horrendous crimes like these are impossible to hide, and sooner or later those responsible will have to answer for their actions."
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.