Death Notifications for Hundreds of Detainees in Syria: Families with Broken Hopes

A sculpture featuring tortured detainees in the Syrian regime’s detention centers by American artist Marc Nelson – July 2018

Death Notifications for Hundreds of Detainees in Syria: Families with Broken Hopes

A sculpture featuring tortured detainees in the Syrian regime’s detention centers by American artist Marc Nelson – July 2018

A sculpture featuring tortured detainees in the Syrian regime’s detention centers by American artist Marc Nelson – July 2018


Seven years after they were forcibly disappeared, the news of their death arrived to their parents, destroying any trace of hope they had lived on through years of waiting.

Amer was arrested with his friend Ahmed in February of 2012 by elements of the Air Force Intelligence in al-Murabet area of Hama, on the pretext of their relief work. An informant reported them, and they were arrested on their way to a poor household. No information about them surfaced until January of this year, when the parents of the two young men were notified of the sons’ deaths by the Civil Registry in their city.

The parents were shocked to learn that Amer’s death was recorded in June of 2014, while Ahmad’s was recorded in April of 2016.

Approximately 700 death certificates for detainees were issued in the governorate of Hama alone since the beginning of 2019, according to a report by the independent rights organization Syrians for Truth and Justice.

In order to avoid an upheaval by the parents, the Civil Registry in the governorate sends only a few notifications to the families of deceased detainees. This method follows instructions received by the Registry, as one of its employees informed the families of the victims.

Since May 2018, lists of detainees who died inside security branches and in Syrian regime custody began to reach the Civil Registry departments in more than one governorate in Syria, mainly Damascus and its countryside, Aleppo, Hama and al-Hasakah. Some families were later informed of the death of a member when extracting a civil register of prisoners or missing persons, or a family register, from the Civil Registry.

Death Notifications with Little Information

After years of forced disappearances of thousands in Syrian prisons, and the loss of any trace of them, official death notifications for some of them recently began reaching their families. However, their bodies were not delivered to their parents, nor were they provided with the locations of their burial sites.

For many years, the families of disappeared persons in Syria held on by a thread, and kept alive hopes of seeing their loved ones and embrace them once again, after suffering the bitterness of their absence. They denied their foremost fears, and banished the spectre of the tragic outcomes they attempted to escape. However, their wait was ended by facing the bitter truth which came in the form of a death notification, killing any and all hope they may have had.

Testimonies and documents show that the regime’s security authorities distribute lists of persons killed in detention centers to the Civil Registry. Upon this, the Registry then issues a death certificate, which stands in the way of victims’ families in taking any legal action to determine the cause of death, its location, or even to claim the victim’s body.

Civil Registry offices issue death notifications,with few details about the deceased. However, military hospitals issue official certificates and medical reports, including a routine list in which the cause of death is most often attributed to a heart attack or stroke.

What does the regime seek from issuing these death notifications that began to emerge and become prevalent? Can such notifications constitute evidence of torture and murder in Syrian prisons? How can this practice be effectively utilized in holding accountable those involved, and in seeking justice for the victims?

Detained - Expressionist Photo (Sourced online)

Detained – Expressionist Photo (Sourced online)

Obfuscating Evidence of the Crime

Executive Director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, Bassam al-Ahmad, told Enab Baladi that the regime issues the names of detainees who died in its prisons in a piecemeal way, and attributes their deaths to the causes it fabricates. This is aimed, Bassam argued, at obfuscating evidence of its crimes, and concealing the full truth, in order to avoid exposure to international accountability.

Al-Ahmad pointed out that when the first batch of names of detainees, who had died under torture in regime prisons, was released, it was met by a great uproar by victims’ families, as well as state actors, the UN Security Council as well as human rights organizations. Then came regime silence, which suggested the cessation of such crimes. However, all facts indicate the continued existence of such cases, and the names of killed detainees were then released gradually, in batches, in order to avert a state of upheaval among victims’ families – and public opinion.

He also indicated that the regime adopts several methods of notifying the families and parents of detainees, and forcibly disappeared persons, of their loved ones’ deaths. It could be done through intermediaries who are often mukhtars (local mayors). Otherwise, the Civil Registry hangs handwritten lists on the walls, including the names of detainees who died in the custody of the security services. Some family members of detainees discover their deaths by accident, or after applying for the individual’s civil register or a family statement indicating the detainee’s status. As such, the Civil Registries change the status of hundreds of detainees without notifying the victims’ families.

Al-Ahmad explained that not all numbers of deceased detainees are issued at the same time, and their causes of death vary as well. This is aimed at blurring the narratives of victims, and so that no one could gather and document all the information surrounding their deaths.

He also pointed out that detainees die under the custody of the government, which is therefore responsible as it is tasked with their health and medical care. Moreover, thousands of human rights reports indicate the presence of systematic torture, ill-treatment and the spread of diseases in regime detention centers. This confirms the existence of violations against detainees which led to their deaths, which is not to deny that some of them may have died of natural causes.

Al-Ahmad delineated the violations which can be documented in these cases. The detainee was not arrested by a court order, presented in a trial or provided with a fair sentence, and they were subjected to imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment.

In a report published in July 2018, Human Rights Watch confirmed that “If [the forcibly disappeared] are dead, the families should be able to recover the remains and learn about the circumstances of the death through an independent investigation. There also needs to be accountability for the enforced disappearances and deaths in detention…”

Dealing with Detainees According to the Syrian Constitution and Laws

Deaths of detainees in prisons, their lack of trial or clear charges against them, constitute a violation of the Syrian constitution.

Attorney Dalal al-Aws stated that, although the Syrian Constitution stipulates in Articles 53 and 54 that the personal freedom of citizens is respected, that no one shall be detained without a legal basis or subjected to torture, Syrian authorities invariably violate the Constitution and laws.

According to Article 53 of the Constitution:

Paragraph 1 states that, “No one may be investigated or arrested, except under an order or decision issued by the competent judicial authority, or if he was arrested in the case of being caught in the act, or with intent to bring him to the judicial authorities on charges of committing a felony or misdemeanor;”

Paragraph 2 states that, “No one may be tortured or treated in a humiliating manner, and the law shall define the punishment for those who do so;”

Paragraph 3 states that “Any person who is arrested must be informed of the reasons for his arrest and his rights, and may not be incarcerated in front of the administrative authority except by an order of the competent judicial authority;”

Paragraph 4 states that, “Every person sentenced by a final ruling, carried out his sentence and the ruling proved wrong shall have the right to ask the state for compensation for the damage he suffered.”

Article 54 of the Constitution states:

“Any assault on individual freedom, on the inviolability of private life or any other rights and public freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution shall be considered a punishable crime by the law.”

Detention in Accordance with the Syrian Penal Code

The Code of Criminal Procedure stipulates that an arrest warrant must be presented at the time of arrest, with the reasons for its issuance, and provides that the offense and the legal article punishing it should be declared. It also stipulates that the investigation should not be delayed, and that they should be presented to the Public Prosecution in no more than 24 hours, or else the official will be held accountable under the Syrian Penal Code.

Al-Aws indicated that these articles were never implemented, and officers of the law do not comply with them in many cases.

Thousands of people were disappeared in secret detention centers, prevented from contacting their families and the outside world. This constitutes a violation of the detainees’ rights, especially since they were detained under inhumane conditions of which do not meet the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Moreover, many detainees were subject to torture and executed without making an announcement or notifying their parents.

The First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held in Geneva in 1955, recommended the adoption of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which provides that all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated humanely and with respect for the inherent human dignity. They are to enjoy the rights recognized by international conventions, and it may not be invoked that the state in question recognizes these rights to a lesser extent.

These rights include the right to voice grievance against the exercise by authorities of powers that are not legally authorized, the right to be informed of the basis for the arrest, the right to make statements as soon as possible, the right to defense and the use of legal counsel, the right to information and reasons for detention, the right of detainees to access information about their rights and their explanation and means of using them, the right to communicate with the outside world, and the right to inform the family of the location to which the prison administration transferred the detainee.

Al-Aws indicated that the legislature granted the judicial authority broad powers represented by the security services, under exceptional laws and martial provisions that go beyond the constitution and other legislation. Legislative Decree No. 55 of 2011 gave the security services the powers of the judicial authorities to amend Article 17 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, adding the following paragraph:

“The judicial authority or its commissioners shall be responsible for investigating the offenses set forth in articles 260 to 339, articles 221, 388, 392 and 393 of the Penal Code, collecting evidence and listening to suspects. The period of custody shall not exceed seven days, renewable by the Attorney General, according to the data of each file separately, and the duration shall not exceed sixty days.”

In contrast, Articles 358 and 359 provided that prison administrators and guards, disciplinary institutes or correctional institutions, and anyone who carried out their duties, shall be punished if they admit a person without a judicial warrant or a decision, or hold him beyond the limit of one to three years. This includes all officers and members of General Force and all administrative personnel who refuse or delay the bringing of a detained person or a prisoner before the competent judge who is required to do so. They shall be punished with imprisonment from one month to one year. Whoever does not comply to judge orders to produce prison records, and all records of detention locations, are punishable by the same penalty.”

Psychological and Social Impact on Families and Parents of Detainees

These incidents cannot pass without leaving a mark on the families of victims and society at large. They could establish a basis for retaliation, and undermine social cohesion and peaceful coexistence between Syrians in the near and long term.

Psychosocial support specialist, Samah Salmeh, noted that during the period of their children’s disappearance and presence in the detention centers, parents awaited with a sense of anticipation and anxiety, which increased as years were spent in detention centers.

Speaking to Enab Baladi, she explained that this had a major negative impact on their psyche, including the loss or delay of pleasure, and constant feelings of sadness, frustration and despair.

After being informed of the death of their son, some of them deny his death, saying, “I will not believe until I see him dead with my own eyes,” Others recognize the truth of the matter, because they had placed the possibility of death within their expectations.

Salmeh pointed out that the most difficult element is to wait and then have the hope dispel, hope that he is still alive which accompanied the parents throughout the disappearance of their son, until they receive a paper to notify them of his death.

She pointed out that the receipt of the body of the deceased and the location of burial is a human and a legal right. She indicated that taking a last look at the deceased and bidding them farewell, and burial rites and religious rituals that accompany this, contribute greatly to the psychological acceptance of the victim’s death, and enables parents to go through the stages of grief faster than if such measures were not taken.

Salmeh added that the social impacts on the families of deceased detainees are grave. They become more complicated if the detainee is married and has children. The wife may deny his death and live her life in the hope that he will return to her someday. She may otherwise consider marrying another or abandon care for her children.

The situation is most difficult for children, especially when they are younger and the concept of death had not yet formed. To them, the absence of consolation is more difficult because they cannot construct a vision of death.

Employing Death Notifications in Accountability Efforts

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic concluded in a paper issued after receiving information on the death of a number of detainees and missing persons in Syrian prisons, in November 2018, that, “9. By updating the records of those disappeared, State officials including high-ranking members of the Military Police Corps of the Syrian Arab Army admit to having information about the fates, including purported dates of death,” and “To that end, the State is further tacitly admitting to knowing where the individual was at the time of his/her death, as well as having played a role in deaths in the cases of executions by court order or extrajudicial executions.”

Bassam al-Ahmad, for his part, believes that these notifications constitute strong proof that these detainees have died under the custody of the government, which may represent a “lead” and the basis on which a case can be built, by collecting additional information about the locations of detention and taking statements from persons who have been detained in similar circumstances.

Al-Ahmad pointed out that these notifications constitute documents that may support the open cases to hold accountable those suspected of committing “war crimes” in Syria. They may also help open new cases against persons who manage security branches that have not yet been convicted.

Al-Ahmad advises the families of the detainees who received death notifications of their children to submit these notifications to reliable, credible and reputable entities to be employed to support Syrian accountability efforts.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic Recommends:

  • The Syrian State shall, when death occurs in detention for an unlawful cause such as torture, inhumane treatment, summary or extrajudicial executions, ensure that an immediate, full, transparent and independent investigation into such deaths is carried out in allegations of torture or other ill-treatment, in accordance with international standards.
  • All medical reports and other evidence arising from such investigations should be published and made available to the closest relatives.
  • Those responsible should be held accountable, and this measure should not be left to families to follow through individually.
  • A national reparations mechanism should be established to assess actual damage, receive complaints, provide appropriate individual or community compensation and other appropriate remedies, whether financial or otherwise.

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