Survivors’ testimonies track Syrian regime at the International Court of Justice
Enab Baladi – Baraa Khattab
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has reserved on October 10 judgment on the joint bid by Canada and the Netherlands for a provisional order requiring the Syria regime to “immediately cease its systematic practice of torture and other forms of ill-treatment” of Syrians, pending the outcome of the pair’s application on the merits, said the Canadian media outlets.
The countries released a joint statement following the regime’s non-appearance at the ICJ’s public hearing on October 10, saying, “There is overwhelming and compelling evidence that Syria has committed — and continues to commit — serious human rights violations on a massive scale against its people,” Canada and the Netherlands said in a joint statement Oct. 10. “These human rights violations at the hands of the Syrian regime must stop.”
Last June, the Netherlands and Canada started legal proceedings at the ICJ in an effort to hold Syria accountable for its violations of the Convention against Torture, which actions they allege include the Syrian regime, since at least 2011, attacking tens of thousands of Syrians with chemical weapons, torture, murder, sexual assault and forcible disappearances, according to the legal LAW360 website.
Among the experiences of people who endured regime torture is the story of Mahmoud Hammoud, a former detainee in the Syrian regime’s prisons, and his story not only represents these violations but is also consistent with the Dutch-Canadian legal initiative that aims to hold the regime accountable for its violations, according to a report prepared by the American Center for Levant Studies (ACLS).
The research and education organization highlighted Hammoud’s journey in the regime’s prisons and the horrific violations he was subjected to after his arrest when he was under 18 years old.
Hammoud’s experience is not the only one, but there are many experiences that have appeared recently documenting the violations that detainees are exposed to inside the regime’s prisons.
Diab Sariya, the co-founder director of the Association of Detainees and Missing in Sednaya Prisons (ADMSP), told Enab Baladi that the Dutch-Canadian legal initiative was built through communication and listening to the testimonies of many survivors and their families, in addition to communicating with many networks specialized in documenting human rights violations in Syria.
The ACLS report documented nine violations that Hammoud was subjected to before and after his arrest by the Syrian regime’s security services, where he spent seven and a half years in prison.
Violations included forced displacement, detention of children, torture to extract confessions, false charges, control of the judiciary, field courts, arbitrary death sentences, imprisonment, prolonged detention, and arbitrary release of minors.
Hammoud was arrested on October 14, 2014, on the Syrian-Jordanian border when he was 17 years old. He was accused of financing militants and knowing the locations of ammunition depots in the Moadamiyat al-Sham district in the western Damascus suburbs, even though he was outside Syria during the period specified by the charges, after he was displaced to Lebanon with his sister, following an incursion by Syrian regime forces.
He was transferred to more than one security branch and was subjected to various types of torture before the judge sentenced him to the “death of a minor,” which means a life sentence without the possibility of execution or parole. Hammoud was then transferred to Sednaya military prison and witnessed the execution of 30 prisoners who were with him in court and 15 cellmates.
After that, Hammoud was transferred to other branches until he was released on September 15, 2019, under a presidential pardon, transforming from a revolutionary young man into a world-famous film student, bearing witness to the indomitable human spirit, according to the report of the American Center for Levant Studies.
ADMSP director Sariya believes that the presence of such stories at this time strengthens the court as being built on listening to hundreds of torture survivors, in addition to being an essential factor in the course of the trial.
He considered the International Court of Justice session a watershed moment for achieving justice and accountability in Syria, pointing out that decision-makers in the United States must take advantage of this moment to gather international support for the case against the Syrian regime.
Sariya pointed out that the support of the International Court of Justice to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable represents a pivotal step towards ending the vicious cycle of violations and impunity in Syria.
Other complaints in the ICJ
Syrian human rights activist Mansour al-Omari told Enab Baladi in a previous interview that this lawsuit in the International Court of Justice, related to the Convention against Torture, could be an example of other complaints in the court.
It is possible to file a complaint in court regarding any treaty or agreement to which Syria is a party and has violated it, such as filing a complaint regarding Syria’s violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, specifically the right to a fair trial, and arbitrary detention.
A complaint can be made regarding Syria’s violation of the Children’s Convention, specifically the torture of children and failure to separate them from adults in places of detention.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 15,000 detainees were killed under torture from March 2011 until June 2023, including 198 children and 113 women, and approximately 98% of them at the hands of regime forces.
About 13,000 detainees remain in the prisons of the Syrian regime from March 2011 until August 2023, including 3,693 children, in addition to approximately 112,000 forcibly disappeared persons, about 85% of whom are held by the Syrian regime forces.
What’s the issue?
The International Court of Justice announced that both the Netherlands and Canada filed a case against the Syrian regime regarding torture in Syrian prisons, based on Syria’s failure to comply with the Convention against Torture, and demanded that the two countries take “provisional measures” to protect those at risk of torture.
The International Court’s statement, issued on June 12, stated that Canada and the Netherlands stated in the lawsuit submitted that the regime had committed “countless” violations of international law, starting at least in 2011.
The violations, according to the lawsuit filed, include “the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees, inhumane conditions in places of detention, enforced disappearance, the use of sexual and gender-based violence, and violence against children.”
The plaintiffs are demanding that the court impose “provisional measures,” including issuing orders for the regime to release arbitrarily detained prisoners and allow international monitors to enter detention centers.
Pro forma law
In 2022, the President of the Syrian regime issued Law No. “16” of 2022 to criminalize torture, as he justified the reasons for issuing the law in accordance with “the constitutional obligations of the Syrian state that prohibit torture” and to comply with “the provisions of the Convention against Torture” of 1984, to which Syria joined in 2004.
The Syrian “criminalization of torture” law of 2022 came about 18 years after the date of Syria’s accession to the Convention and more than 35 years after the Convention entered into force, and the number of its member states currently stands at 173 countries.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention and opened it for signature, ratification, and accession in 1984, and the Convention has been in force since 1987.
The Syrian law came about a year after the Canadian government requested formal negotiations under the United Nations Convention against Torture to hold the Syrian government accountable for violations against the Syrian people since 2011.
In its request announced in 2021, the Canadian government stressed its repeated calls to the Syrian government, calling on it to end the gross human rights violations against its people.
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