Syrian regime breaches commitment to implementing ICJ’s provisional measures

Images showing changes that have occurred in the al-Qutayfah mass grave in the Damascus countryside between 2014 and 2020 - January 30, 2024 (ADMSP)

Images showing changes that have occurred in the al-Qutayfah mass grave in the Damascus countryside between 2014 and 2020 - January 30, 2024 (ADMSP)


Enab Baladi – Baraa Khattab

Over the past 13 years, the Syrian regime has focused on hiding any evidence or proof that may establish the crimes and violations committed against the Syrian people, especially those who were arrested by the security branches and the regime forces during the revolution.

The latest evidence the Syrian regime is trying to destroy is a mass grave near the town of al-Qutayfah in the Damascus countryside. The Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of the Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) published on January 30 satellite images showing grading and leveling operations at the site of the cemetery.

The cemetery is located about 45 kilometers north of the capital Damascus, near the command of the Third Division in the regime’s army. It is believed that thousands of political detainees who were executed or died under torture in detention centers were buried in the area that has been graded.

The images dating back to early 2023 reveal extensive digging and land leveling with soil turnover at the site. It seems that the grading operations began at the end of the summer of 2022 and ended in January 2023.

The recent satellite images of the cemetery raise questions about the regime facilitating the destruction of mass graves to erase any evidence of torture or ongoing enforced disappearances since 2011. The site is no longer visible externally or apparent in satellite images.

These images were released coinciding with the case filed by the Netherlands and Canada against Syria in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a United Nations judicial organ, in June 2022.

On November 16, 2023, the Court issued its decision concerning the “provisional measures” and stipulated that the Syrian government, according to its obligations under the Convention Against Torture (which it ratified in 2004), must take all necessary measures to prevent acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and ensure that its officials or organizations or individuals under its control do not commit torture.

The Court also confirmed the death of tens of thousands during the Syrian revolution and ordered the Syrian regime to “take effective measures to prevent the destruction of evidence related to acts of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and ensure their preservation.”

The regime procrastinates

On February 9, the International Court of Justice fixed the time-limit for Canada and the Netherlands to submit their written pleadings relating to Syria’s violations of the Convention Against Torture on February 3, 2025, and for Syria to deliver its counter-memorial against the complaint on February 3, 2026.

Al-Mutassim al-Kilani, a lawyer specialized in international criminal law, told Enab Baladi that the regime is trying to delay “blatantly and harshly” in the court’s proceedings and deadlines and seeks to use that grace period to attempt to obliterate or destroy the evidence indicating its commission of war crimes, including torture and killing of detainees in its prisons.

As long as the Syrian regime breaches the provisional measures urgently requested by the court, one of the main provisions being the preservation of evidence related to torture, judges of the ICJ, according to Article 42.2 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, may petition the Security Council and inform it of this breach.

“And then we will have moved to a new phase, as the Security Council may impose the provisional measures urgently anew,” said al-Kilani.

The Syrian journalist and human rights activist Mansour al-Omari stated on his account on the platform “X“, on February 13, that the two-year timeframe is more than enough for the Syrian regime to potentially erase all evidence it can reach, including the annihilation of detainees and ramping up executions, tampering with or destroying evidence, which includes razing mass graves, manipulating, altering, or destroying medical reports, civil registries, and court archives.

It also includes intimidating or removing key personnel by targeting officials with direct links to the top of the Syrian regime chain of command, through arrests, threats, or even assassination.

The regime will also work on issuing misleading amnesty decisions and unenforceable laws, according to al-Omari, noting that the court did not ask the Syrian government to report on its implementation of provisional measures.

Al-Omari concluded that Syrian and international rights groups can play a vital role in meticulously monitoring the relevant actions of the Syrian government and documenting them.

Upon what does the ADMSP’s investigations rely on in revealing the mass graves?

In March 2022, The New York Times published an investigation in cooperation with the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of the Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) about mass grave sites in Syria and their role in proving and documenting the war crimes committed by the regime. The newspaper, based on information and testimonials provided by the ADMSP, succeeded in identifying the location of two mass graves that are expected to contain thousands of bodies of Syrians killed in detention.

The ADMSP’s investigations in revealing mass graves in Syria primarily rely on testimonies from former workers in three bodies (intelligence, military police, and the regime’s army, depending on the cemetery’s proximity to the military unit), according to what the ADMSP’s founder, Diab Serriyah, told Enab Baladi.

Serriyah said that most of the regime’s central mass graves were near military points, and based on the ADMSP’s analysis of the grave sites and some witnesses’ testimonies, the regime followed this mechanism to provide better protection for the graves.

Serriyah spoke about five mass graves, including al-Qutayfah, Najha, Baghdad Bridge, Qatana, and a cemetery in al-Dumayr, but some lacked definitive evidence, and access to testimonies to prove burial operations was weak. Consequently, the ADMSP did not expand its investigations into some of them later on, noting that the work and listening to testimonies are still ongoing.

Serriyah previously told Enab Baladi that revealing mass graves without sufficient evidence could prompt the regime to move graves from their locations before fully documenting them.

The recent revelation of the mass graves and satellite images that exposed the grading of the al-Qutayfah cemetery has led to media coverage and interest from international and UN bodies, especially after the first session at the International Court of Justice because the cemetery is one of the evidence of the regime’s violations and the practice of torture in detention centers, according to Serriyah.

The mass grave site also contained remains of people who died under torture in Sednaya prison or security branches, as well as those who were executed.


When the trial began, there was a clear text from the International Court of Justice to the Syrian regime not to tamper with the evidence and destroy it, and if proven that the destruction took place after the first session of the court, this is considered a major breach by the regime, and evidence of the burial of victims and the presence of bodies of detainees in the cemetery.

Diab Serriyah, Founder of the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of the Sednaya Prison


No response from the regime

Nearly three months after the court’s order, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) issued a statement on February 22, documenting the killing of no less than 16 people due to torture, as well as no less than 246 arrest cases, including six children and 17 women, 29 of whom were released, and 217 turned into cases of enforced disappearance, since the decision of the International Court of Justice was issued on November 16, 2023, until February 21 of the current year.

The SNHR stated that the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued its decision regarding the request for provisional measures presented by Canada and the Netherlands in the case related to the application of the Convention Against Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment against the regime.

The SNHR also mentioned that the regime has not brought any notable change in its “repressive policies and its savage security system,” or in terms of abolishing the laws that legitimize torture and impunity. There is no sign that it has stopped torturing, but it continues to commit more, leading to death under torture.


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