From Human Rights Watch
(Beirut) – An armed group with links to al-Qaeda has in recent months arbitrarily arrested scores of residents in areas under their control in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch documented 11 cases in which the group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, detained Idlib residents, apparently because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group’s rule. Six of those detained were apparently tortured. Syrian rights groups have documented hundreds of other cases of detention by the group in Aleppo and Idlib governorates, including at least 184 in the last three months, according to one organization.
“Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s crackdown on perceived opposition to their rule mirrors some of the same oppressive tactics used by the Syrian government,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no legitimate excuse for rounding up opponents and arbitrarily detaining and torturing them.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed seven former detainees and relatives of four other men who are still detained by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, or whose whereabouts remain unknown. Eight of the men were detained between December 2017 and October 2018, while three others were arrested earlier, including a 16-year-old boy. Former detainees described being taken from their homes, at checkpoints, or at their workplace by men who identified themselves as members of or affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham or who were recognized as members. They said they were taken to locations that served as detention facilities, where they were interrogated, and six of them, including the boy, were tortured.
Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should immediately release all unlawfully held prisoners and stop arbitrarily arresting people and torturing and mistreating detainees, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey should use its leverage with the group to stop its abusive practices.
On September 17, 2018, Russia and Turkey brokered a cautious ceasefire. The agreement covered Idlib governorate and parts of Western Aleppo and Hama governorates still held by the anti-government groups. Following a ceasefire agreement between the anti-government armed groups on January 10, 2019, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham consolidated its control over the areas that remained outside its control in the governorate and surrounding areas. As Idlib remains under threat of attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance, the presence of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should not be used as pretext to conduct an offensive on the estimated 3 million other people under the group’s control, Human Rights Watch said.
On December 9, citing sources close to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, news media reported that journalist Amjad al-Maleh had been sentenced to death for collaborating with enemies, including Israel and the US-led coalition, to disclose locations of several armed groups. Al-Maleh had been displaced to Idlib from his home in Madaya and was detained by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham in December 2017.
On December 20, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and the civilian government affiliated with it, the Salvation Government, requesting a response to the claims made in this report and calling on the group to immediately halt plans to execute al-Maleh. On January 11, a representative of the group responded to Human Rights Watch on behalf of the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham judicial committee. He denied that Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had used the torture methods that Human Rights Watch documented and said that al-Maleh, whose whereabouts remain unknown, had not been sentenced to death.
The representative also shared a draft law on prisoners and detainees with Human Rights Watch.
Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and the Salvation Government should reform detention and judicial processes to ensure that detainees are not mistreated and are guaranteed all rights essential to a fair trial, including that they can obtain legal representation and appeal their sentences in a timely manner, if the reason for their arrest is valid.
When committed in the context of an armed conflict, cruel treatment, torture, and humiliating or degrading treatment of detainees are war crimes. Under international law, non-state armed actors with de facto control must refrain from torture and mistreatment of detainees and must allow them due process. Authorities should bring a suspect before a judge within 48 hours of arrest to review the legality and necessity of the continued detention and to ensure that the detainee’s rights are respected. There should be a clear legal basis for all detentions, and detainees should promptly be taken before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention.
Under the laws of armed conflict and human rights law, no one may be convicted or sentenced except after a fair trial providing all essential judicial guarantees. These include that the courts should be independent, impartial, and “regularly constituted” according to the laws and procedures in force in the country.
“Solidifying power by spreading terror is never the answer,” Fakih said. “Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should cease the panic-induced frenzy of arrests, and instead prioritize protecting civilians in areas under their control.”
More of this story from Human Rights Watch.