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Mar 20 2012

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Syria’s Systematic Torture

Concerted action by the international community appears to be the only recourse

By Sanjeev Bery

Sanjeev Bery

Harrowing eyewitness reports of a brutal massacre of civilians have been trickling out of the opposition stronghold of Idlib following a massive assault by Syrian government forces in the city of Homs.

The graphic images and videos posted online by activists support their account of what may be one of the deadliest assaults to date. Unfortunately, Syrian government restrictions on human rights organizations and foreign journalists have made it nearly impossible to independently verify these accounts.

One year after protests began in Syria, the blood in the streets is a stark reminder of the pervasive violence the government has inflicted upon civilians swept up in the wave of arrests. In a new report, Amnesty International has documented torture on a scale not seen since the 1980s under former President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current president Bashar al-Assad. The report is based on testimonies given in February by dozens of Syrians who fled to Jordan.

The survivors’ disturbing accounts suggest that Syrian government forces are engaging in widespread torture. Their goal appears to be to degrade, humiliate, and terrify victims into silence — and to deter Syrians from protest or opposition activities.

"Syria's Butcher," an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

One former detainee known as “Abu al-Najem” described being tortured before escaping to Jordan. According to al-Najem, “I was beaten with cables, especially on my head, and was told to kneel before a picture of Bashar al-Assad.” Dozens of other survivors interviewed by Amnesty International described 31 different types of torture and mistreatment, including beatings with sticks, rifle butts, whips, and braided cables, as well as electric shock, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.

These survivor accounts make it clear that Syrian authorities are engaged in systematic torture, which violates international law. Given the Syrian government’s continued brutality and its refusal to allow foreign journalists within its borders, concerted action by the international community appears to be the only recourse.

Amnesty International has called for the UN Security Council to stop the violence by placing a comprehensive arms embargo on Syria, freezing the overseas financial assets of senior Syrian officials, and referring the situation to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Following global pressure, the number of countries that initially resisted strong action has dwindled. Rotating UN Security Council members India and South Africa, for example, both got off the fence to support UN action. But permanent members Russia and China continue to stand in the way.

The Russian government’s behavior in this matter has been particularly egregious. Russia has provided arms to Syria even as the Syrian government’s violations continue to escalate. That’s why it isn’t enough for the international community to wait until the Security Council takes action. Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, individual countries can and should work together to investigate the crimes that are now being committed in Syria and prosecute them in national courts. Not only that, but the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria must be authorized to continue documenting the crimes on the ground.

The global community must make it clear to Syria’s torturers and the others responsible for this brutality that they will face justice for their actions.

Sanjeev Bery is Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa. www.amnestyusa.org

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