Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Syrian SOS to Cairo

Feeling isolated and abandoned, Syrian human rights defenders reach out to public opinion in Cairo on stopping the Syrian regime's killing machine, Amira Howeidy reports

As Arab League states convened in Cairo this week in a bid to garner support for the Palestinian Authority's bid for statehood in the UN, viewed by critics as symbolic and ineffective, Syrian human rights defenders reached out to the media in the Egyptian capital to draw attention to human rights violations committed by the Syrian regime as the international community watches in silence.

According to rights groups, an estimated 4,000 Syrians have been killed by Bashar Al-Assad's regime with 25,000 others detained since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March. While the media continues to shed light on rights violations and the rising death toll, Syrian rights groups are increasingly frustrated by the failure of the Arab League to even issue a condemnation of the situation. Because of the expected Russian and Chinese veto against any UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Damascus, this path has not been taken.

Ziyadi was speaking to the media in Cairo on Tuesday at a press conference held by FIDH to discuss its report Bashar Al-Assad: Criminal Against Humanity, documenting human rights violations in Syria from March to July. Since international human rights groups are banned from Syria and thus incapable of conducting fieldwork there, FIDH's report relied on information provided by Ziyadi's centre.

On the panel also was Syrian human rights activist Mohanad Al-Hosni, who after serving two and a half years in prison was pardoned two months ago and decided to leave Syria this week arriving in Cairo, a temporary stop before he settles elsewhere.

According to the report, the Syrian regime's war against the uprising adopted specific recurring trends: extrajudicial killings; mass arrests, abductions, enforced disappearances and detentions of civilians; acts of torture; repression of free assembly and freedom of information; military operations on besieged cities amounting to "collective punishment" against Syrians; and restriction and denial of access to hospitals.

FIDH's Middle East and North Africa director, St├ęphanie David, accused the triad of Syrian security forces, intelligence and shabbiha -- civilian militias -- for the gross violations. She said FIDH, the oldest international human rights organisation worldwide with 164 member organisations on five continents, believes that the UN Security Council "should intervene" to protect the Syrians and prosecute Syrian officials responsible for the ongoing "crimes against humanity".

Since Syria signed but didn't ratify the Rome Statute, Al-Assad and his security aides can only be indicted before the International Criminal Court (ICC) if the UN Security Council refers the situation in Syria to the ICC. Russia, which has a huge naval base in Syria's Tartus, is vehemently opposed to this step.

Meanwhile, loss of innocent life is occurring "almost on a daily basis" in Ziyadi's words. It is deliberately exacerbated by the authorities, which employ a strategy, he said, of spreading fear and terror in entire Syrian neighbourhoods and towns to inhibit rising dissent across the country.

Said Ziyadi, "there are 132 documented cases of deaths as a result of torture." The latest victim of this strategy was 26-year-old political activist Gheyath Mattar who was arrested on 6 September. According to Ziyadi, his family was contacted by Syrian intelligence to get their approval for "surgery". "The following day they received his tortured body and his larynx was missing."

A message, explained Ziyadi, was intended to be conveyed to the entire Damascus suburb of Daraya, where Ziyadi was instrumental in organising demonstrations. "This is a form of collective punishment which also includes power cuts for many days, such as the case with Hama [last month] which resulted in the death of several new-borns who suffocated in their hospital cots."

If Mattar's larynx was brutally removed from his body, a report by Amnesty International in August cited the atrocious case of 13-year-old Hamza Khatib who disappeared on 29 April during protests. His body was later found with a severed penis. The body of Sakher Hallak, who ran a clinic in Aleppo, was discovered by the side of a road a few days after his arrest on 25 May. Sources told Amnesty International that his injuries included broken ribs, arms and fingers, gouged eyes and mutilated genitals.

According to the FIDH report, some officers and soldiers were killed for refusing to fire live ammunition on civilians. It also provided evidence for the killing of officers who defected from the army and joined civilians in besieged cities such as Homs, Deraa, Jisr Al-Shoghour, Horan and Duma. Some of these officers were arrested and or killed.

FIDH's St├ęphanie David urged the Arab League should "at least" call for an end of the violence.

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