Human rights in Syria

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The situation for human rights in Syria is considered exceptionally poor among international observers.[1][2] A state of emergency was in effect from 1963 until April 2011, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.[2]

From 1973–2012, Syria was a single-party state. The authorities have been accused of harassing and imprisoning human rights activists and other critics of the government.[3] Freedom of expression, association, and assembly are strictly controlled.[2][3] Women and ethnic minorities face discrimination.[2][3] According to Human Rights Watch, President Bashar al-Assad failed to improve Syria’s human rights record in the first 10 years of his rule,[4] and Syria's human rights situation remained among the worst in the world.[5] According to Amnesty International, the government may be guilty of crimes against humanity based on "witness accounts of deaths in custody, torture and arbitrary detention," during the crackdown against the 2011 uprising.[6]


French rule (1920–1946)

Three Syrian rebels hanged in Marjeh Square during Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927

From the early 1920s until 1946, Syria and Lebanon were under the control of a French Mandate, officially ratified by the League of Nations on 29 September 1923.[7] Human rights concerns during this period included the colonialist treatment of the Druze within their autonomous state in the southern portion of the mandate, as prisoners and peasants there were often used for forced labor.[8]

During the Great Syrian Revolt, French military forces sieged much of Damascus and the countryside,[9] killing at least 6,000 rebels and displacing over 100,000 civilians. Authorities would publicly display mutilated corpses in central squares within Damascus and villages throughout Syria as a means of intimidating opponents of the government.[10] In 1926, the Damascus military court executed 355 Syrians without any legal representation.[11] Hundreds of Syrians were sentenced to death in absentia, prison terms of various lengths, and life imprisonment with hard labor.

Additionally, it was during this period that Syrian Women's Rights groups began to assert themselves, led by individuals like Naziq al-Abid.

Ba'athist Rule

In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad responded to an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama by sending a paramilitary force to indiscriminately kill between 10,000 and 55,000 civilians including children, women, and the elderly during what became known as the Hama massacre.[12][13]

Amnesty International reports that women have been subject to discrimination and gender-based violence.[2]

For several years, the "watchdog organization" Freedom House has rated political rights in Syria as "7" — the "least free" rating on its scale of 1 to 7 — and given Syria a rating of "Not Free."[14]

According to the 2008 report on human rights by the U.S. State Department, the Syrian government's "respect for human rights worsened". Members of the security forces arrested and detained individuals without providing just cause, often held prisoners in "lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention", and "tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees". The government imposed significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, amid an atmosphere of government corruption.[15] According to Arab Press Network, "despite a generally repressive political climate", there were "signs of positive change," during the 2007 elections.[16] According to a 2008 report by Reporters without Borders, "Journalists have to tightly censor themselves for fear of being thrown into Adra Prison."[17]

In 2009 Syria was included in Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" section and given a rating of 7 for Political Rights: and 6 for Civil Liberties.[18] According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2009 Syria’s poor human rights situation had "deteriorated further". Authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers, and imposed travel bans. Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants. No political parties were licensed and emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remained in effect.[1]

Judicial process

Syria has a long history of arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and prolonged detention of suspects. Thousands of political prisoners remain in detention, with many belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party.[3] Since June 2000, more than 700 long-term political prisoners have been freed by President al-Asad, though an estimated 4,000 are reportedly still imprisoned.[3] Information regarding those detained in relation to political or security-related charges is not divulged by the authorities.[3] The government has not acknowledged responsibility for around 17,000 Lebanese citizens and Palestinians who "disappeared" in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s and are thought to be imprisoned in Syria.[3] In 2009, hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned for political reasons. Military Police were reported to have killed at least 17 detainees.[2] Human rights activists are continually targeted and imprisoned by the government.[2][3][19]

Political prisoners

Demonstration in Montreal in solidarity with the people of Syria. The sign reads: "Stop torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners in Syria!"

Among the scores of prisoners of conscience arrested in 2009, and hundreds political prisoners already in prison, some of the more prominent prisoners were:

  • Kamal al-Labwani, a prisoner of conscience who had three years added to his 12-year sentence for allegedly “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”, on account of remarks he was alleged to have made in his prison cell.[2]
  • Nabil Khlioui, an alleged Islamist from Deir al-Zour, who with at least 10 other Islamists "remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of 2009.[2]
  • Nabil Khlioui and at least 12 other alleged Islamists, mostly from Deir al-Zour, were arrested. At least 10 of them remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of the year.
  • Mashaal Tammo, the killed spokesperson for the unauthorized Kurdish Future Current group, who was `held incommunicado for 12 days and charged with “aiming to provoke civil war or sectarian fighting”, “conspiracy” and three other charges commonly brought against Kurdish activists, charges that could lead to the death penalty.
  • Twelve leaders of a prominent gathering of opposition groups, the Damascus Declaration, continue to serve 30-month prison terms. Among those detained is Riad Seif, 62, a former member of parliament who is in poor health.[1]
  • Habib Saleh was sentenced to three years in jail for “spreading false information” and “weakening national sentiment” in the form of writing articles criticizing the government and defending opposition figure Riad al-Turk.[1]
  • one released prisoner was Aref Dalila. He had served seven of the ten years in his prison sentence, much of it in solitary confinement and in increasingly poor health, for his involvement in the so-called “Damascus Spring” before being released by a presidential pardon.[2]
  • In June 2010, Mohannad al-Hassani, head of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights (Swasiya) and winner of the 2010 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, was convicted of "weakening national morale" and "conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation." He was sentenced to three years in prison.[20]

Sednaya prison alone houses more than 600 political prisoners. The authorities have kept many for years behind bars, often well past their legal sentence. The estimated 17,000 prisoners who have disappeared over the years suggests that Syria may have hidden mass graves.[12]

In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch reported on the continued detention of "thousands" of political prisoners in Syria, "many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party." According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee that there were 4,000 political prisoners held in Syrian jails in 2006.[21]

Freedom of religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion.[22] However, the Government restricts this right. While there is no official state religion, the Constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence, an expansion of Sharia Islamic law,[23] is a principal source of legislation. According to the U.S. Department of State's "International Religious Freedom Report 2007", the Constitution provides for freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that the religious rites do not disturb the public order. According to the report, the Syrian Government monitored the activities of all groups, including religious groups, discouraged proselytism, which it deemed a threat to relations among religious groups. The report said that the Government discriminated against the Jehovah's Witnesses and that there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups, some attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation.[24] There is some concern among religious minorities that democratic reforms will result in oppression of religious minorities by Islamist movements that are now repressed.[25]

LGBT rights

Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, prohibits having homosexual relations, i.e. "carnal relations against the order of nature", and provides for up to three-years imprisonment.[26]

In 2010 the Syrian police began a crackdown that led to the arrest of over 25 men. The men were charged with various crimes ranging from homosexual acts and illegal drug use, to encouraging homosexual behavior and organizing obscene parties.[27]

Freedom of movement

Syrians can not leave the country without an "exit visa" granted by the authorities.[12][28]

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the human right of Freedom of Movement as such “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”[29]

Despite this universal human right travel within Syria is discouraged, by both the government and the rebels, and both Extremist groups and the government have imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement on the people of Syria. Bans have been said to have increased significantly since 2006, though exact statistics are hard to come by as secret security agencies are commonly the ones issuing the bans.

The Syrian Constitution, in Article 38(3), allows freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws of public health and safety.”[30] From 2011 to 2015, the last four years of the Syrian war, the freedom of movement has been most widely restricted in certain areas and on certain individuals. Restrictions vary between regions, partly because of continuous fighting in certain areas. In rebel held areas there are severe restrictions on the movement of government supporters (or people thought to be government supporters). Foreign diplomats are unable to visit a majority of Syria, and are often not allowed outside of Damascus (Syrian capital).

In the areas of Jindires in Afrin, and Ras al Ayn, curfews where executed in 2012 and 2013 extremist groups put in place a curfew of 5pm, after which nobody could be seen in public. Then in December 2014 a travel ban was announced on Syrian men aged 18 to 42 (military age). The memorandum supposedly states that all Syrian males must have special permission to leave the country, obtained from army officials.[31]

An example of an individual travel ban is Louay Hussein, president of an opposition group in Syria (Building the Syrian State, or the BSS party), was unable to attend peace talks in Moscow in April 2015 because the regime refused to rid of his lifelong travel ban, however on the 26th April 2015 Hussein managed to evade his ban and flee to Spain.[32] Also Syrian human rights defenders are having their movement restrained by being held in arbitrary arrest. The human rights defenders Mazen Darwish, Hani Al-Zitani, and Hussein Gharir were arrested in February 2012 for ‘publicizing terrorist acts’. The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly called for their release.[33]

Al-Furat University in the city of Deir ez-Zor has been facing movement restrictions by ISIS recently. In January 2015 circulars were issued to ISIS checkpoints in the area to scrutinize all university students passing. To encourage students to abandon their studies and join the ranks of ISIS, the rebels have been restricting the students from travelling between regime areas and ISIS held areas, preventing many students from entering or exiting the university grounds.[34]

Further from this there are certain restrictions on movement placed on Women, for example Syrian law now allows males to place restrictions on certain female relatives. Women over the age of 18 are entitled to travel outside of Syria, however a woman’s husband may file a request for his wife to be banned from leaving the country. From July 2013, in certain villages in Syria (namely Mosul, Raqqu and Deir el-Zour), ISIS no longer allow women to appear in public alone, they must be accompanied by a male relative/guardian known as a mahram.[35] Security checkpoints in civilian areas set up by bot the government and by ISIS have allowed them to monitor these restrictions. With the males of Syria often being involved in the fighting, no matter which side, this is leaving many Syrian women at home alone with the children, stranded and unable to leave to purchase food and supplies. Further, women in Tel Abyad and Idlib city have been banned from driving by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nursa.

Other countries have begun closing their borders to Syrian refugees. On October 7, 2013, Turkey built a two-meter wall on the Syrian border in the Nusaybin district where there was frequent fighting with the rebels. Then on March 9 Turkey closed a further two of its border crossings from Syria, Oncupinar and Cilvegozu, in response to the escalating violence and worries of a terrorist plot. Up until this date Turkey had accepted nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. Aid trucks are still welcome to cross the border, but it is strictly closed to individuals.[36]

The Syrian government continues its practice of issuing exit visas with strict requirements. They have also closed the Damascus airport frequently because of growing violence. Bans on travel are frequently used against human rights activists and their associates, often these people would not learn about their travel ban until they were prevented leaving the country. Usually no explanations are given for these travel restrictions. The government often banns members of the opposition and their families from travelling abroad, and they are targeted if they attempt to, causing opposition families to fear attempting to leave Syria for fear of being attacked at the airport or border crossing. Though this action is illegal under international law, Syrian courts have been known to decline to interfere in matters of national security.

Article 38(1) provides that “no citizen may be deported from the country, or prevented from returning to it”.[30] This, along with Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights creates a general legal right to travel internationally. As well as preventing citizens from leaving Syria, there have also been many instances of citizens being prevent from returning to Syria, whether they left illegally or not. A positive step in regards to this was taken on the 28th April 2015, when it was announced by Syrian authorities that citizens who had previously fled the war would be able to re-attain passports without a review by the intelligence service, or going though the Department of emigration and passports. These citizens had fled the country illegally and either not taken their passports, or lost them.[37]

Freedom of speech and the media

The number of news media has increased in the past decade, but the Ba'ath Party continues to maintain control of the press.[38] Journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tried.[4] In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria number three in a list of the ten worst countries in which to be a blogger, given the arrests, harassment, and restrictions which online writers in Syria faced.[39]

Internet censorship in Syria is extensive. Syria bans websites for political reasons and arrests people accessing them. Internet cafes are required to record all the comments users post on chat forums.[40] Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked from 2008 to 2011.[41] Filtering and blocking was found to be pervasive in the political and Internet tools areas, and selective in the social and conflict/security areas by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2009.[42] Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders' Enemy of the Internet list since 2006 when the list was established.[43]

In addition to filtering a wide range of Web content, the Syrian government monitors Internet use very closely and has detained citizens "for expressing their opinions or reporting information online." Vague and broadly worded laws invite government abuse and have prompted Internet users to engage in self-censorship to avoid the state's ambiguous grounds for arrest.[42][44]

The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed by the government in September 2009. It was the country’s only NGO specializing in media issues, Internet access and media monitoring during election campaigns. It had operated without government approval, and had monitored violations of journalists’ rights and had taken up the cause of the ban on the dissemination of many newspapers and magazines.[38]

Ethnic and racial discrimination

Syria is home to 1.7 million Kurds who constitute 10% of the population, forming the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in the country.[2][3][4][4] They were denied citizenship until April 2011 (Decree 49).[2][3][45]

Syrian civil war

During the Syrian civil war, a UN report described actions by the security forces as being "gross violations of human rights".[46] The UN report documented shooting recruits that refused to fire into peaceful crowds without warning, brutal interrogations including elements of sexual abuse of men and gang rape of young boys, staking out hospitals when wounded sought assistance, and shooting of children as young as two.[47] In 2011 Human Rights Watch stated that Syria's bleak human rights record stood out in the region. While Human Rights Watch doesn't rank offenders, many have characterized Syria's human rights report as among the worst in the world in 2010.[5]

While it is claimed that 'the majority of these violations have been committed by the Syrian government's forces',[48] Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said that both sides appear to have committed war crimes.[49]

See also

References and footnotes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 World Report 2010 Human Rights Watch World Report 2010, pg. 555.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Amnesty International Report 2009, Syria
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Human Rights Watch World Report 2005 Events of 2004, Human Rights Watch 2005. (The same group also highlighted, in a report "Syria: End Opposition Use of Torture, Executions" (Abuses Show Need for Accountability) September 17, 2012, That "A detainee who had been held in a school told Human Rights Watch that FSA fighters there had beaten him regularly for 25 days before he was transferred to the detention facility...") ISBN 1-56432-331-5.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Black, Ian (2010-07-16). "Syrian human rights record unchanged under Assad, report says". The Guardian. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Syria among worst for rights abuses: HRW report". Reuters. 2011-01-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Amnesty International says Syrian forces may have committed war crimes during crackdown". Associated Press. 2010-07-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. League of Nations Official Journal, Vol 3, August 1922, p1013
  8. Miller, Joyce Laverty (1977). "The Syrian Revolt of 1925". International Journal of Middle East Studies. pp. 550&ndash, 555. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Provence, Michael (2005). "The Spread of Rebellion". The Great Syrian Revolt: And the Rise of Arab Nationalism. University of Texas Press. pp. 87&ndash, 107. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Michael Provence, Jamal Wakim (4 October 2011). "Colonial Origins of the Syrian Security State". Al Akhbar English. Retrieved 2 March 2013. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Christoph Schumann (31 October 2008). Liberal Thought in the Eastern Mediterranean: Late 19th Century Until the 1960s. Brill. pp. 70&ndash, 71. Retrieved 2 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Ghadry, Farid N. (Winter 2005). "Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath". The Middle East Quarterly.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Syrian Human Rights Committee, The Massacre of Hama, February 19, 2004, reporting 30,000-40,000 massacred and 10,000-15,000 disappeared.
  14. "Freedom in the World 2006" (PDF). Freedom House. 2005-12-16. Retrieved 2006-07-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    See also Freedom in the World 2006, List of indices of freedom
  15. 2008 Human Rights Report: Syria, US Department of State
  17. Syria Reporters without Borders, Published on 7 February 2008
  18. Special Report Section Freedom House, Worst of the Worst 2009
  19. see also "Human Rights Watch 2006 Report". Human Rights Watch.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Syria jails leading rights lawyer". BBC. 2010-06-23. Retrieved 24 June 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Human Rights Watch 2006 Report". Human Rights Watch.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Syrian Constitution, Article 35, Paragraphs (1) and (2).
  23. Mutahhari, Morteza. "Jurisprudence and its Principles". Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an. Retrieved 2010-12-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Syria: International Religious Freedom Report 2007. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  25. For Syria's minorities, Assad is security. Al Jazeera, 16 September 2011.
  26. Syria: Treatment and human rights situation of homosexuals
  27. Brocklebank, Christopher (2010-06-23). "Syrian authorities crack down on gay men". Pink News. Retrieved 2010-12-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. "How Syria controls its dissidents - Banning travel". The Economist. 30 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
  30. 30.0 30.1 Constitution of the Syrian Arabic Republic 2012 (reformed)
  31. Human Rights Watch,
  32. BBC News, Syrian Dissident Louay Hussein flees to Spain, 27th April 2015
  33. Human Rights Watch,
  34. Ara News, ISIS checkpoints constrain Syrian movements, January 9th 2015
  35. The Guardian, Double-layered Veils and Despair, 17th February 2015
  36. The Telegraph, Turkey closes two border crossings with Syria amid fears of 'terrorist attack', 30th March 2015
  37. Ara News, Syria regime to issue passports for citizens abroad, including refugees, April 28th 2015
  38. 38.0 38.1 Ten years after Bashar el-Assad’s installation, the government still decides who can be a journalist, Reporters Without Borders USA.
  39. "10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger", Committee to Protect Journalists, 30 April 2009
  40. "Bashar Al-Assad, President, Syria". Reporters Without Borders.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  41. "Red lines that cannot be crossed - The authorities don't want you to read or see too much". The Economist. 2008-07-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. 42.0 42.1 "ONI Country Profile: Syria", OpenNet Initiative, August 2009
  43. "Internet Enemies: Syria", Reporters Without Borders, March 2011
  44. "Syrian jailed for internet usage". BBC News. 21 June 2004.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  45. Legislative Decree on Granting Syrian Nationality to People Registered in Registers of Hasaka Foreigners, SANA
  46. "UN report: Syrian forces commit 'gross violations' of human rights, CNN". November 29, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  47. Joe Lauria (November 29, 2011). "More than 250 children among dead, U.N. says". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 29, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  48. "Syrian army behind majority of abuses: UN". News24. 24 May 2012. Retrieved 20 September 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  49. "Assad's regime, Syrian rebels both committed war crimes: U.N. official". Al Arabiya News. 2 July 2012. Retrieved 12 July 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links