"we want the detainees" - Photo credit: Lens Young Dimashqi

“Deaths Under State Custody”

University students, engineers, activists, clerics, etc. died inside Syrian jails

Deaths during detention violating article 35 of the Syrian Constitution adopted in 2012,

“what lies behind leaking names of deceased prisoners?”, Analysts and humanrights activists answer

Damascus – Istanbul: 

It was deeply shocking for Zeina,30, to read ‘dead’ next to her husband’s name on the family record she had just got from the civil status department in al-Jisr al-Abyad district, downtown Damascus.

Zakariya,her husband, had beendetained in one of the secret jails of the Syrian security services since 2014 underfalse charges of opposing regime based on malicious allegations. Since then,Zeina has been dreaming of the reunite, but alas her dream has vanished.

Zeina stood still at the departmentexamining the record she got and muttering to herself,trying to find a reason for her husband’s death when an employee interrupted her by saying: “we know not the cause of death, our work is just to mere enter data we received in the computer

Not just me, there were manywaiting in a line outside the door to know the fate of theirloved ones. They were mostly women; mothers, sisters or wives of thedisappeareddetainees, each left the department weeping with papersblew all their hopes.”said Zeina.

Just like with Zeina, Um Khalid received news of the death of her son Khalid, 30s, who was arrested from al-Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus late 2013 and held at the notorious prison of the Military Intelligence Branch 215, on charges of terrorismand incitement against regime, with being denied accessto any means of communication with his family.

“The first time I heard from my son was in 2014 when a former detainee informed meabout his whereabouts.While the secondand last was three months ago when I receiveda call from the Police Command, in Khalid Ibn al-Walid Street, Damascus, askingme to come and take my son’s personal effects. When I arrived there, they forcedmeto sign a paper saying that my son was kidnapped and killed by armed oppositiongroups”, Khalid’s mother recalled.

“Flurry of Syrian death certificatesresolved the fate ofthose disappeared since 2011 forprotesting against regime in several Syrian cities. Since last May,governmentstarted to deliver lists ofnames forthose died in detention to civil statusdepartments in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Al Hasakah. Thus, detainees’ families learnedof their sons’ death by chance, when they requested records from registeroffices. While other families latersearched paper and digital documents fornames ofdetaineesunaccounted for.”, a woman stated to the investigation group.

Deaths inside detention facilities after prolonged imprisonment without clear charges ortrials, even denying self-defense in accordance with fair trials standards,according to relatives of those deceased, violates article 53  of the Syrian Constitutionamended in February 2012, almost a year following the onset of the peaceful protests.

Article 53 reads

 1. No one maybe investigated or arrested, except under an order or decision issued by thecompetent judicial authority, or if he was arrested in the case of being caughtin the act, or with intent to bring him to the judicial authorities on chargesof committing a felony or misdemeanor.

2. No one may be tortured or treated in a humiliatingmanner, and the law shall define the punishment for those who do so.

3. any person who is arrested must be informed of thereason for his arrest and his rights, and may not be incarcerated in front ofthe administrative authority except by an order of the competent judicialauthority.

4. everyone sentenced by a finale ruling, carried outhis sentence and the ruling proved wrong shall have the right to ask the statefor compensation for the damage he suffered.  

Um Khalid wasn’t told about her son’s place of burial, but she was assured that he was “properlyburied”.

She received his personal effectsalong with a paper addressed to the civil status department to extract the death certificate officially. 

“According to the accumulated database, 127,593 Syrian citizens are still detained by the Syrian regime, including 81,652 citizens whohave become forcibly-disappeared between March 2011 and August 2018.”According to SNHR data.

The report documents 836 cases where the Syrian regimehas revealed that they all died. The report stresses that the Syrian regime did not mention the cause of death, deliver the dead bodies to their families, or reveal the death when it happened. According to the report, the 863 cases included no less than 22 popular uprising activists, 10 university students, 2 engineers, 3 athletes, 4 teachers, and 3 religious figures, all arrested in 2011 and 2012.

Crowded Civil registry departments

On a daily basis, dozens of families came andcrowdedat the personal status department in al-Thawra Street, downtown Damascus,to extract family or personal records to know the fate of their disappeared sons. “At least 10 death notices for detainees from different Syrian areas delivered to their relatives daily.” the investigation group stated.

The testimonies followed a detailed report published by Amnesty International entitled ” the Human Slaughter house: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison”As many as 13,000 people have been executed in Saydnaya Prison since 2011, inthe utmost secrecy. “Between 2011 and 2015, every week and often twice aweek, groups of up to 50 peoplewere taken out of their prison cells and hangedto death.”

Testimonies and documents obtained by the investigation group proved that the Syrian security authorities distribute death liststo the civil statusdepartments, which in turn extract death certificates.That make it complicatedfor the detainees’ relatives to conduct any legal procedure to define cause or location of their death or even to demand the recoveryof their remains, as the procedures taken inside security branches are top secret which make it impossible for the relatives to make formal complaints.

Families began discovering whathappened to their loved ones by chance, when they requested records fromregister offices.

If dead, no cause provided for his death; execution, torture, natural death, by anillness or like.

Natural Death

Civil status department in al-Tremseh village, Hama province, received lists of dead detainees in al Assad prisons who were arrested on July 12, 2012, the same day that the “Tremseh Massacre” was carried out by regime forces in an attempt to capture the village, claiming the lives of more than 100, according to al-Tremseh residents.

Ali, the eldest among the six sons of the detainee SayelHoyan al-Tabeh, 45, fromal-Tremseh stated:

“Despite the passage of more than 7 years since the arrest of my father, wekept hoping of his return. However, on Wednesday June 27, 2018 we were asked by the military security branch in Mahardah city, Hama,to check his status in the records of the civil status department, where we found that he was listed with the deadby “natural death”,without any further details like the date of his death. We have no evidence proves the death of my father under torture, as we didn’t receive his body.”

Ra’ad Zaki al-Ali, 40s, from Kafr Zita, Hama countryside, was detained while heading to al-HalMarket in Damascus to sell vegetables and fruits he carried in his vehicle, on February 2012, and hasn’t returned since then, as he was detained by the AirForce Intelligence Branch in Harasta city, northern Damascus and his vehicleseized

Ra’ad’s family received his arrest news from his co-worker and on June 13, 2018 theyread his name on the death lists released by civil status department in Hama

“We managed to obtain a death certificate,indicates that Ra’ad has died early in 2015”, the family said.

The timing ofdeath certificatesissuance

Consistent testimonies obtained from analysts, experts, and eyewitnesses, confirm that since early 2017,when the fate of Eastern Ghouta was determined, andwith the regime’s full control over Damascus and its suburbs backed by Russia, coupled with the complexityof the detainees’ issue which led to conducting inspections ofall security servicesprisons by patrols of Russian Generals and high-ranking Syrian officers to look into the detainees’ files, to count those diedto list them on burial lists, and those still alive with their photos and all information related to them. It was something like screening the dead and survived detainees’ files

Director of the SNHR,Fadl Abdul Ghani, said in a press release on August 27, it is almost possible to determine the Assad regime’s goal behind the release of these lists. He said that there were two hypotheses. The first one is that the Russians asked the Assad regime to release these lists with the aim of closing the page on the issue of detainees as it remains an obstacle to the political process. The second one is that the Assad regime wants to appear as winning the war and that it is time now to turn the page on the issue of detainees. 

After conducting the two- months statistics it was decided to consider the files of detainees who were not exist in prison tobe belong for dead.

Then it wassuggested the death lists to be circulated among mukhtars, civil status departments, Police Command, and the Ministry of Interior for to inform the detainees’ relatives of their death. Inmates who weren’t been living in Regime forces and who had no clear address,or a phone number written in their files, listed deadin the civil status departments’ records. On the other hand,the fate of inmates who are still alive in prisons and are estimated 220,000 citizens, has yet to be defined, according to SNHR in 2017.

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights- ECCHR, an organization dedicatedtostrategic litigationworldwide, including gross human rights violationsinSyria, stressed the immediate and unconditioned release of all politicalprisoners and the urgent investigations into the death cases inside the Syrianbyan “independent body”.In case the officer in charge of a prisonsproved to be the perpetrators, they must be held accountable individually andinternationally.

Purposes of the Regime’s Actions

For Ali Rasheed al-Hasan, lawyer and head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Aggregation: “the regime currently is acting out of law leaving only a single explanationthat the it is attempting to evade the awful crimes its security services committed”. 

Why Syrian authoritiesissuing death certificatesat this time?

Anwaral-Boni, head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Researches (SCLSR)answered:there are several potential targetssuch as the withdrawal ofthedetainees’ issue from the political alternationtobringit to the table in theapproaching Astana Talks, which Russia agreed on.

To prevent any attempt to formRed Cross or international committees aimed at uncovering the fate of thedetainees, as it took the step first.”Another possibleaim is ” to prevent opening judicial investigation in Syria and accusesome symbols of criminality whom role has ended in this war,in an attempt towithdrawthe justice file from the hands of the international or the European Judiciary.Absolutely, this will not work as an independent impartial judiciary is notavailable in Syria.

”Another possibleaim is ” to prevent opening judicial investigation in Syria and accusesome symbols of criminality whom role has ended in this war,in an attempt towithdrawthe justice file from the hands of the international or the European Judiciary.Absolutely, this will not work as an independent impartial judiciary is notavailable in Syria.

Evading Accountability

The Syrian regime trying to evade international accountability for the “horrifying” numbers of deaths and detainees in its jails by releasinglists of hundreds who were tortured to deathand circulating them among civil status departments, claiming different cause for their deaths to evade accountability especially with the emergence of a political solution to the Syrian crisis.”,Human rights activists report.

Lawyer Michel Shamas, a member of the defense of prisoners of conscience and consceience, said that”the leak of the names of detainees killed under torture to the civilianpopulation in the Syrian governorates is an attempt by the regime to evade theconsequences of the file of missing persons and detainees in its prisons.”

Records inciting retaliation

Youssef’s father was arrested by the regime forces in late 2012 form Daraya city, Damascus countryside and shot dead during detention, an inmate reported. “The summary executionof my father without returning his bodyor mentioning the cause all incite feelings of retaliation albeit we have displaced to north Syria” Youssef, 30,assailed recalling the last moments of his father’s arrest.

Many of those who had screamed to death, had children, maybe three or four. How will those children reconcile with the murderer of their fathers? Can such action leavea lasting impact on the population and incite retaliations,which would resulted in shake of the foundations of peaceful coexistence and long-term stability between the power and civil society? 

the regime’s killing of detainees in its jails is a form of genocide against Syrian youthswho possess lofty values, mainly freedom, and it is a horror without parallel in the history. Stating that “the collective memory of the population will always recall this calamity, with feelings of sorrow, rage and animosity against the perpetrator.”, said Ahmad Barkawi, a Palestinian researcher and former president of the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, University of Damascus, stated to the investigation group

“Social coexistence sounds impossible in the foreseeable futurealbeit living in one place. I mean by “coexistence”the sense of belonging and the resulting relationships likemarriage and friendship andsharingfortunate and unfortunate occasions ” he added. 

Testimonies of former detainees or human rights reports have deeply affected the population especially the families and relatives of detainees “The community incurrently in shock and sorrow which engrave deep in hearts of mothers, fathers,children, relatives and in the community as a whole”, he concluded.

Recovering the remains

“The overwhelming evidence -of killings and torture of detainees in Syrian jails, collected by rights and international organizations, should be adduced to international tribunals not to national courts, in order to hold accountable those involved on the basis ofprinciple of universal jurisdiction which is applied in some countries like France, Germany and Spain along with some Scandinavian states. As competent counsel appointed who in turn communicate with the competent authorities and prepare case files in accordance with international standards.”, said Cecilia Pechmeze, the legal expert in Syrians for Truth and Justice/STJ, based in Istanbul, Turkey.

Pechmezegoes on to say that the death certificates constitute issued by the regime constituted, in principle, a clearrecognition of their death under the custody of the Syrian government. The factthat would be linked to other facts of the issue at stake, like testimoniesfrom detainees’ relatives who visited them in jails or from former detainees whohad shared the same cell with dead.”

With the issuance of lists of dead detainees in Syrian jails who had been forcefully disappeared for years, Syrian regime continues to deny that anything ever happened and thatit had committed any crimes despite the issuance of death certificates that weredelivered to the detainees’ relatives which is one of the incriminating evidences along with the continued denying institution and international commissions of inquiry access to those prisons.”

In a report asrecently as July 2018, Human Rights Watch says “if they are dead, thefamilies should be able to recover the remains and learn about thecircumstances of the death through an independent investigation. The Syriangovernment must not be allowed to escape without accountability.”


This report prepared by Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) and Damascus Voice in association with the Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism – (SIRAJ) Coached by Ali Ibrahim, Published on DARAJ 

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