Government forces used lethal and other excessive force against peaceful protesters who took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to demand political reform and the fall of the regime. The pattern and scale of state abuses may have constituted crimes against humanity. More than 4,300 people reportedly died during or in connection with the protests and during funerals of demonstrators, most apparently shot by members of the security forces, including snipers. Tanks were used in military operations in civilian residential areas. Some members of the security forces were also killed, some allegedly for refusing to fire on protesters and others in attacks by defecting soldiers and other individuals who joined in opposition to the government. Some prisoners were released in amnesties but thousands of people were detained in connection with the protests, with many held incommunicado and tortured. At least 200 detainees reportedly died in custody in suspicious circumstances; many appeared to have been tortured. The authorities failed to conduct independent investigations into alleged unlawful killings, torture and other serious human rights violations, which the security forces committed with impunity. Thousands of Syrians were forcibly displaced by the repression; many fled to neighbouring countries. Death sentences continued to be imposed and executions reportedly carried out.
Small pro-reform demonstrations in February developed into mass protests in mid-March after the security forces used grossly excessive force in Dera’a against people calling for the release of children who had been detained. The protests spread rapidly as government forces tried to quell the protests by brute force, including by using snipers to shoot into peaceful crowds while claiming that shadowy “armed gangs” opposed to the government were responsible for the violence.
President Bashar al-Assad announced various reforms in response to the protests. In April, he lifted the national state of emergency that had been in force continuously since 1963, abolished the notoriously unfair Supreme State Security Court that had jailed thousands of critics and opponents of the government, and decreed that some members of the Kurdish minority should receive Syrian citizenship, although excluding others who remained stateless. At the same time, however, he issued a decree allowing detention without charge or trial for up to two months. A new Peaceful Assembly Law was introduced under which only demonstrations “properly licensed” in advance by the authorities are considered lawful. In March, June and November, the President granted five separate amnesties for different categories of prisoners; among those freed were prisoners of conscience and people detained during the protests, although the vast majority of such detainees remained behind bars. Laws covering new Parties, elections and the media were passed in August. While representing a degree of liberalization, all three reforms failed to provide effective guarantees for freedom of expression and association.
In March, the UN Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission which in August concluded that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Syria. In August the Council established an Independent International Commission of Inquiry; on 23 November the Commission expressed grave concern that Syria’s military and security forces had committed crimes against humanity, including “killings, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, imprisonment, or other forms of severe deprivation of liberty and enforced disappearances.” The Syrian authorities refused both the Council and the Commission entry to the country, as well as most international media and independent human rights organizations.
At the UN Security Council, the Russian Federation, China and other states blocked a proposed resolution condemning the crimes and other abuses in Syria but the USA, the EU and the League of Arab States (Arab League) all imposed sanctions; from April, the US government extended sanctions against Syria in place since 2004; in May, the EU imposed targeted sanctions on Syria’s leaders and later expanded them; in November the Arab League first suspended Syria and then imposed economic sanctions when the government reneged on its pledge to the Arab League to withdraw its armed forces from Syria’s cities, halt the violence and release people imprisoned in connection with the protests. In late December the Arab League sent observers to monitor the Syrian government’s implementation of these pledges.Top of page
Government forces repeatedly used lethal and other excessive force against peaceful and other protesters. Many people were shot apparently by snipers while participating in mass protests or attending funerals of people killed on preceding days. Tanks and other armoured vehicles were sent into Dera’a, Homs and other places, firing into residential areas. A “scorched earth”-type policy was used in the north-western governorate of Idleb. The government sought to justify this brutal crackdown by claiming that it was under attack by armed gangs, but failed to produce any convincing evidence for this until late in the year when concerted armed resistance began in response to the continuing repression, some of it by soldiers who had defected from the army and turned against the government. By the end of the year, more than 4,300 people – the UN put the figure at over 5,000 – were reported to have been killed in connection with the protests and unrest, many of them unarmed demonstrators and bystanders who posed no threat to the security forces or others. Many more had been injured.
Wounded protesters seeking medical attention at health centres risked arrest and abuse, including denial of treatment. Hospital doctors and staff also faced arrest and persecution if they participated in or supported the protests or treated wounded protesters without reporting them to the authorities; several health workers were said to have been killed possibly for treating wounded protesters.
Freedoms of expression, association and assembly remained severely restricted despite the lifting of the state of emergency and the enactment of laws purportedly to allow peaceful protests and the registration of political parties. The security forces arrested thousands of people in connection with the protests, some during demonstrations and others in raids on homes or house-to-house searches or other sweeps. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were victims of enforced disappearance and were held incommunicado at undisclosed official and makeshift detention centres such as sports grounds. In all these centres, torture and other abuses were rife.
Those detained included political activists and dissidents, journalists, bloggers, imams, soldiers who refused to fire on protesters, and human rights activists, some of whom went into hiding to escape arrest. Hundreds of those arrested were released following trials before military or criminal courts or under the amnesties issued by President al-Assad, but thousands of others were still held at the end of the year.
Many dissidents and former prisoners continued to be prevented from travelling abroad under administrative bans that they had no means to challenge. Syrians abroad who demonstrated in solidarity with the protesters were monitored and harassed by Syrian embassy officials and others; some of their relatives in Syria were also targeted for abuse apparently in reprisal for their activities.
In face of the protests and international expression of concern, President al-Assad issued five separate amnesties in which those released included prisoners of conscience, people detained in connection with the protests and members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. According to Syrian state media but otherwise unconfirmed, under the last two amnesties, both issued in November, more than 1,700 people detained during the protests were released.
Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were widespread and committed with impunity by the security forces with the aims of obtaining information, coercing “confessions” and punishing and terrorizing those suspected of opposing the government. Some victims feared that they would face reprisals if their identities were disclosed.
The rising incidence of torture was reflected by an upsurge in deaths in detention, with at least 200 people reported to have died in custody after being detained in connection with the protests. In many cases, the available evidence pointed to torture or other ill-treatment as the likely cause of death. No perpetrators were brought to justice. Some of the victims were children.
The authorities announced investigations into only two alleged deaths in custody, those of Hamza ‘Ali al-Khateeb, aged 13, and Dr Sakher Hallak (see above) after well-publicized allegations that they had been tortured. In both cases, the investigations, which appeared to have been neither independent nor impartial, were said to have exonerated the security forces.Top of page
Apart from the flawed investigations into two alleged deaths in custody, the authorities failed to investigate the many unlawful killings, torture and other serious abuses committed by the security forces, and to hold those responsible to account. Nor did they take any steps to investigate and hold to account those responsible for gross violations committed in previous years, including thousands of enforced disappearances and killings of prisoners at Saydnaya Military Prison in July 2008.
Members of the Kurdish minority, comprising an estimated 10 per cent of the population, continued to face identity-based discrimination, including legal restrictions on use of their language and culture. They were also effectively stateless until President al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 49 on 7 April granting Syrian nationality to Ajanib (“foreign”) Kurds but not to those known as Maktoumeen (“concealed”, effectively meaning unregistered) who live mostly in al-Hasakah governorate. Kurdish rights activists continued to face arrest and imprisonment.
Women continued to be discriminated against in both law and practice, and to face gender-based violence, including murder and other serious crimes committed against them often by male relatives ostensibly to uphold family “honour”. On 3 January, President al-Assad amended the Penal Code by decree to increase the minimum penalty for murder and other violent crimes committed against women in the name of family “honour” from at least two years to between five and seven years. The decree also imposed a penalty of at least two years’ imprisonment for rape or other sexual assault; formerly, perpetrators were exempt from prosecution or punishment if they married their victim.Top of page
Death sentences continued to be imposed. There were unconfirmed reports of executions, but no information on this was disclosed by the Syrian authorities.Top of page