Saleh Malass | Ali Darwishl | Murad Abdul Jalil
Hundreds of reports have documented practices of Syria’s security apparatus, as Human Rights organizations recorded its crimes against detainees, either through extrajudicial killing, subjecting them to multiple forms of torture, deprivation of food and water, or even medical negligence. So those centers have become more like “human slaughterhouses” where detainees are slaughtered quietly.
More reports poured in, recently, amid international warnings over the horrible conditions these detainees live in, in conjunction with the emerging coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic outbreak in the region. The regime anticipated coronavirus’ arrival to Syria by approving a “general amnesty” that was not general enough to include those detainees.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised its concerns about an outbreak in the detention centers of the regime’s security services, among forcibly detained people, which could lead to a “humanitarian crisis.”
Since they live in inhuman conditions; being held in horrendously crowded cells of small sizes, forcing them to take turns in sleeping and breathing the same air, while feeding off breadcrumbs and being denied exposure to daylight.
In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the possibility of releasing political detainees in Syria, as a step to prevent a coronavirus outbreak among them. The Syrian regime issued decrees granting a “general amnesty” for all prisoners, especially that its Iranian ally, Tehran, has released about 54,000 prisoners all at once, to curb the disease spread in the overcrowded detention centers.
Political ends and narrowed concepts compared with the details
A few days back, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, issued a legislative decree granting a “general amnesty” for crimes committed before 22 March 2020, six months after the last “general amnesty” decree No. 20 of 2019 was approved.
The rationale behind issuing this decree (No.6 of the new year 2020), in a short period, was the adopted measures by the Syrian regime to curb coronavirus pandemic, aiming at restricting mass gatherings to prevent the infection spread, based on World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.
According to the chairman of the “Syrian Network for Human Rights” (SNHR), Fadl Abdel-Ghani, said that the Syrian regime, through its recent “amnesty” decree, aims at circumventing pressures excreted by organizations and countries that fear a coronavirus spread among tens of thousands of detainees, by executive measures which ultimately lead to freeing a minimal number of them.
Numerous Exceptions… in form only
Ghazwan Kronfol, a Syrian lawyer, in an interview with Enab Baladi, said that the number of those excluded from the “amnesty” Decree (No. 6) was higher than that of those included. Thus, it cannot be called general as promoted by the government of the Syrian regime. He explained that it is instead an amnesty for those involved in crimes of smuggling and kidnapping in exchange for ransom, foreign currency dealings, as well as those who fled military conscription, issued unbalanced checkbooks or misuse their credit, and involved parties in bribery and theft of public money.
This amnesty resembles several stipulated decrees in the Economic Penal Code, which means the regime has restricted its application to individuals it wishes to pardon.
According to reports by SNHR, these decrees apply mainly to criminal acts, offenses, and acts of misconducts, and, in conformity with the significant exceptions in these decrees, cover only a small number of detainees, which does not exceed a couple of dozen in total, in order to give some appearance of credibility”.
According to a brief legal study on amnesty decrees issued by the al-Assad government, conducted by the lawyer, Yaser al-Farhan, posted on 23 March, where he said that drafting provisions of “amnesty” decrees restricted by exceptions often with “political ends”, for instance, failing to include crimes causing personal harm within the new amnesty decree’s provisions, only in cases where victims forfeit their rights.
The payment of the adjudged compensation by virtue of forfeiture shall not be deemed, and in cases where the aggrieved party did not submit personal claims, they have the right to do so within 60 days from the date of the decree’s enforcement. In case this period elapsed without submitting claims, mitigation provisions stipulated in the new amnesty decree shall be applied.
This article on personal harm has been drafted in two parts. First, compensation payment is not deemed forfeiture of individual rights, contradicting the necessity of paying compensation to the aggrieved party’s prior knowledge, according to the same study.
As per the second part, it allows submission of personal claims for later considerations and verdicts within 60 days from the date of the decree’s enforcement, contrary to the due process of law.
This part was drafted in a way that allows security services and their members to dominate more and interfere in the fate of the detainees, in a way that justifies the continued detention in the areas of “settlements” subjected to understandings with the regime’s ally, Russia.
This reminds us of the “general amnesty” No 61 of 2011, which granted pardon to “Islamist detainees” like Zahran Alloush. Alloush became later responsible for kidnapping four human rights defenders, Razan Zaitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi, on 9 December 2013, according to 45 civil society organizations.
According to the lawyer Ghazwan Kronfol, “amnesty” decrees do not cover human rights issues related to the regime’s struggle with its opponents overpower, such as “political crimes offenders,” as labeled by the regime, which confirms treating its political opponents as criminals. This makes it “an absolute power which is not subjected to any law.”
Terrorism cases out of tune
The vast majority of human rights activists, media workers, and detained demonstrators have been charged with several accumulated offenses by the Syrian regime, such as “terrorism.” For this end, the government established the Counter-Terrorism Court (CTC) under Law No. 22 of 2012, although in reality, this entity is closer to being a “new regime security branch” rather than a court” as described by the SNRH, where amnesty decrees do not cover those with terrorism charges.
This court was formed by a proposal from the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) chaired by the President of the Republic, which tries civilians and military personnel and juveniles and issues sentences in absentia without a right of appeal except to those who surrendered voluntarily.
Law “No. 22” defines terrorism as “every act intended to create panic among people, disturb public security, damage the infrastructural or institutional foundations of the state, that is committed via the use of weapons, ammunition, explosives, flammable materials, poisonous products, or epidemiological or microbial instruments … or via the use of any tool that achieves the same purpose.”
Commenting on this definition, “Human Rights Watch” (HRW) believes that the use of the expression “via the use of any tool” leaves the door open for associating terrorism with almost every act.
The law does not clearly define in-court proceedings and makes few references to procedural standards and raises many “concerns about the fairness of trials” in accordance with the organization’s reading of the provisions of the law.
HRW considers this law provisions insufficient to oversee trials and appeals, while obtained confessions under torture are used as evidence in the Counter-Terrorism Court.
130,000 detainees in Syrian regime prisons
Amnesty decrees, for what reason?
Charges of supporting and financing terrorism are one of many other accusations directed by the Syrian regime to the vast majority of detainees, most notably, “provoking sectarian strife, threatening the system of government, weakening national sentiment, acting in collusion with external agents and the enemy and weakening the national psyche.”
According to Kronfol, these charges are inclusive and general, and they are not covered by any decree issued by the Syrian regime.
Despite the approval of these general amnesty decrees in Syria by the regime’s government, there are still about 130,000 Syrian detainees in its detention centers, including 7913 women (adult females) and 3561 children, equivalent to 88.53 percent of the total number of detainees in all Syrian regions, since March 2011 to date, according to SNHR’s database built over the past nine years.
Suspended effectiveness for detainees
According to Kronfol, there are many prisoners of conscience held in detention with no specific charges, such as Raja Nasser. In addition to prisoners who were tried and served their sentence, and yet still in imprisonment despite issuing decrees granting amnesty for crimes attributed to them, such as the detainee Tal al-Mallouhi. Thereby nullifying these decrees of any real effectiveness towards Syrian detainees who participated in the peaceful civil movement against the regime in Syria.
After a “General Amnesty” Decree was issued in 2019, SNHR’s team documented 232 releases, including 14 women (adult females) from the regime’s detention centers between 15 September 2019 and 22 March of this year. No cases have been recorded of release from detention centers of the four security branches (air security, military security, political security, public administration, or “state security”).
“Amnesty”: a power tool
In principle, “amnesty” law falls under the jurisdiction of legislative authority, (People’s Assembly), according to Article 74 of the current Syrian constitution, issued in decrees with a legal status that includes abolition or mitigation of penalties for certain crimes. Usually, these decrees cover perpetrators of low-risk crimes on public order.
Amnesties are often issued on national occasions, holidays, or after major events leading to changes in the social contract.
However, the executive authority in Syria governs the state “in an authoritarian manner,” as stated by Kronfol to Enab Baladi, where the President of the Republic is solely entitled to issue the general amnesty under legislative articles. In this case, granting amnesty for criminals becomes “a tool in the hand of the authority” to re-establish itself through “issuing amnesty to release thugs and gangs in order to create a social fabric of criminality to suppress society.”
Kronfol mentioned that there is a difference between a legislative or presidential pardon and parole issued through a judicial decision. While a release by a president or via a decree takes effect upon its issuance, parole is granted by the court hearing the case, and it is temporary until the case verdict.
Syria one of the most countries issuing “amnesty” decree
Number of detainees in constant increase
Since he came to power in 2000, President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, became one of the region presidents who issued “amnesty” decrees for detainees the most. However, these decrees often did not include prisoners of conscience, politicians, and those who participated in the peaceful civil movement at the beginning of the revolution. Meanwhile, most of them were applicable to criminal offenders, perpetrators of misdemeanors, offenses, drug trafficking, theft, and fraud.
Enab Baladi’s team monitored “amnesty” decrees issued by the Syrian regime, which can be divided into two parts: “amnesty” decrees for all crimes committed before the date of issuance and other amnesty decrees targeting certain crimes, such as kidnappings, military conscription, and fugitives (inside or out the country).
The number of the issued “pardon” decrees that covered many crimes since March 2011 to the moment of writing this report is nine. Some of these decrees resemble in contents in terms of the exempted crimes, while some of them were distinguished, especially the decree of the “Muslim Brotherhood.”
“Amnesty” decrees without implementation
Assad anticipated the outbreak of protests against him and the arrival of the Arab Spring to Syria, after Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, by issuing an “amnesty” Decree on 7 March 2011, (ten days before the revolution began). However, its application was limited only to misdemeanors, offenses, and internally and externally escaped convicts at that time.
In the first weeks of intensified protests and increased demonstrations, and in an attempt to absorb the anger of the Syrian street, al-Assad issued an “amnesty” Decree on 31 May 2011. Many have considered this decree one the most famous amnesty decrees since it granted a pardon, for the first time, for all criminal acts stipulated in the law No. “49” issued in 1980 pertaining to the “Muslim Brotherhood.” Back then, all affiliated persons were sentenced to the death penalty.
At a time when the Muslim Brotherhood considered issuing the decree was too little too late, the regime released a number of opponents, most notably the Kurdish leader and leader of the Kurdish “Future Movement” party, Meshaal Tammu, who was assassinated later by an unknown party in October 2011.
Less than two months later, al-Assad issued another “amnesty” decree on 20 June 20 of the same year to cover this time those arrested on charges of smuggling, drugs, theft, and fraud.
The second year of the Syrian revolution witnessed the issuance of two “amnesty” decrees, the first was on 15 on January 2012 and covered detainees arrested since the beginning of the protests, and included associates of secret groups and peaceful demonstrators and those charged with possession of weapons, which their numbers have exceeded 85,000 according to SNHR’s estimation.
After that, the similar “pardon” decrees were issued and included a specific category at the exclusion of forcibly disappeared. Al-Assad issued several decrees on 23 October 2012, on 16 April 2013, and on 6 June 2014, on terrorism law, which covered some detained under the war-torn country’s terrorism law, namely those who joined “terrorist organizations” and arms trade. These amnesty decrees also referred to non-Syrians on Syrian soil who joined “terrorist groups,” as described by the regime, provided they surrender themselves.
However, issuing these decrees did not stop the regime from carrying out arbitrary arrests, with more than 774 cases of arrests, as documented by SNHR, added to 117 held detainees in the regime detention centers.
The following years went by without a “general amnesty” issuance, except for some legislative decrees to grant amnesty to individuals accused of kidnappings and avoiding military service in 2018, until last year, where an amnesty decree was issued on 20 September 2019. The latter was not much different from previous ones or the newly published on 22 March of this year, as the number of detainees continues to rise, reaching 146,825 detainees, according to SNHR’s records.
Global appeals and calls
Would detainees be saved from Coronavirus?
Following the spread of “coronavirus” (COVID-19) almost in all countries and the numbers of recorded infections in Syria and its neighboring countries, all raised international and local fears of a pandemic outbreak inside regime cells, which could lead to a new humanitarian catastrophe among detainees.
For that end, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, urged the President of the regime, Bashar al-Assad, to release all arbitrarily detained Syrians and US citizens with the American citizens, held in custody.
On 25 March, US State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagos, called for the release of tens of thousands of civilians, arbitrarily detained in detention centers of the Syrian regime.
On 24 March of this year, the United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson, called for “large scale release” of detainees in the Syrian regime’s detention sites and stressed the need for humanitarian organizations to have access to all facilities immediately, and to take “urgent steps” to ensure detainees’ adequate medical care and preventative measures against the coronavirus in all prisons.
Several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch( HRW), the Caesar Families Association (CFA), the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), along with the Syrian Bar Association (SBA), and the Syrian Journalists Association (SJA), have called for the release of detainees, as the rest of countries released their detainees out of fear of the virus outbreak among prisoners.
Political attempts by the opposition
The coordinator of the “Syrian National Commission on Detainees and Missing Persons” affiliated with the opposing “National Coalition,” Yaser al-Farhan, told Enab Baladi that their continuous demands have increased international concerns about the detainees’ issue, and elaborated through saying,“ recently, we have noticed a higher degree of response to our requirements, which can be seen in considering this issue among the five priorities of the international envoy’s declared plan before the Security Council, and through the issuance of the Caesar Law.
According to al-Farhan, the commission warned, that the regime could exploit the epidemic to justify “genocides” committed against detainees, which requires urgent pressure to allow the access of international institutions to all detention centers to assess the situation
Al-Farhan added that Syrian justice files move at a frantic pace, as they moved from the documentation phase to build cases for prosecution, stressing that “setting an end for the suffering of the Syrian people completely requires – from a realistic perspective – achieving a political transition.”
In addition to that, this commission has received letters from most of the concerned international parties (which have sent out precise demands to the regime to permit access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to prisons), clarifying some points included in the commission’s letters and declared statements, according to al-Farhan.
These letters were discussed at the European Union (EU) meeting in Brussels on 23 March, followed by a statement by the US State Department regarding its demands, as indicated by both the Secretary-General and international envoy. However, these statements were shy and below the required minimum level to achieve the needed outcomes, according to al-Farhan
Will the regime respond?
Human Rights Watch researcher, Sarah Kayali, in an interview with Enab Baladi, asserted that the government of the Syrian regime is not ready and unable to stop the coronavirus spread.
Most countries with productive economies and advanced health infrastructures face challenges in curbing the coronavirus spread, subsequently “one can imagine how the situation is in Syria, a war-torn country with more than 70 percent of destroyed cities, and about 70 percent of its hospitals are out of order, while the majority of its medical personnel have left the country. ”
According to Kayali, the regime is facing tremendous difficulties in preventing the “coronavirus” spread, which can be noticed from two different angles, from one hand, is the number of infections announced by the Syrian regime (five cases up to the time of conducting this investigation), and the scarcity of information on health sector’s readiness and ability to face these hurdles.
The director of detainees’ affairs at the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), Omar Alshogre, agrees with Kayali, from his point of view, the regime is unable to prevent the spread of the virus, and impeding his access to detention centers ii due to the enormous numbers of detainees trapped in very narrow spaces and cells, in addition to the fact that most correctional officers are not sensitive or aware of such medical matters.
In addition to that, many hurdles and challenges obstruct international organizations and political bodies requests and calls to release detainees held inside the regime’s prisons; staring by regime’s refusal to disclose the number of detainees held in its prisons, and widespread of torture in these prisons, forced disappearance of detainees, as well as the considerable amount of deaths, according to researcher Sarah Kayali.
While Alshogre believes that the Syrian regime will not allow disclosing massacres committed against those detainees, it will continue to use them as political and economic leverage.
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