By Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer focused on political prisoners and president of the Syrian Centre for Research and Legal Studies.
“Imagine that every hour two detainees will die in Syrian detention centres. They will probably have wished for death a hundred times before.
“I would like you to try and imagine what the families of these detainees are experiencing – their mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, and their children. They have had no news of their loved ones for months, even years. The detainee is moved from one security branch to another carrying their relatives’ photographs. When one person is released, families will swarm to ask if there is any news of their loved ones, hoping to be assured that they are still alive. The same families are conned by members of the security forces or so called mediators, who promise to provide information on detainees’ whereabouts, health or court appearances in exchange for very large sums of money.
“Now try to picture a prison cell – an area not exceeding 20m2 containing more than 200 people. Those inside spend days and weeks standing, unable to lie down or sit, the lucky ones leaning on the wall. Imagine entire families in detention – husband, wife and children. Some of the children are just a few months old.
“Let’s also imagine the more than 20 different methods of torture they are subjected to: beatings, suspension, electric shock, rape, starvation and denial of medical care. I personally believe that the number of deaths of detainees in the security branches in these four years has reached more than 50,000 as a result of torture and other ill-treatment, including inhuman conditions of detention.
“Imagine the people who are subjected to enforced disappearance. I believe more than 150,000 prisoners, mostly men and young people, are still unaccounted for after being arrested at checkpoints or during security raids on residential neighbourhoods. They do not have access to their families or a lawyer. They don’t know whether their families are aware that they are still alive, for months, years even. Gone without charge or trial. And despite making some reconciliations in certain areas, the authorities refuse to release the prisoners of conscience, locked away for peacefully expressing their opinions or beliefs.
“Picture the lucky ones who are referred to a court; they are ghosts of the people they once were. After months in detention, many weigh less than 50kg. Many months without sanitation has left their skin covered in sores and their smell makes lawyers and judges want to leave the building.
“Now picture the Anti-Terrorism Court, with seven investigating judges, unconstrained by fair trial standards. There are military and civilian judges, both of whom suppress any kind of opposition to the government, regardless of how peaceful this opposition is. Before the Anti-Terrorism Court there are 38,000 files, for more than 80,000 accused, most of whom are peaceful. Some are accused of “funding terrorism” because they were carrying bread for their family in a besieged area, or were cooking a meal for family members whom the authorities suspected of being affiliated with an opposition group.
“Now let’s picture the thousands of peaceful activists, hundreds of journalists, doctors, other medical workers and pharmacists, and dozens of lawyers who are still in prison.
“But this is not imaginary. It is fact. It all exists. And there is more. For the full picture, we must include the wilful destruction of homes, schools, hospitals and other civilian objects. The indiscriminate killing of civilians, including children, continues through the government’s use of explosive barrel bombs, which devastate entire neighbourhoods. The parties to the conflict are blatantly ignoring the requirements of UN Resolution 2139 [passed unanimously in February 2014, which demanded that attacks on civilians and the deprivation of food and medicine must cease]. Yet the international community sits idly watching the death and destruction, without any meaningful reaction.
“This leaves half of our population displaced inside Syria or living as refugees in other countries. Many are without shelter or any means to support themselves.
“And then we have armed extremist groups, many of whom have come from outside of Syria, trying to control the Syrian people and impose their ideas on them. They intimidate and abduct our people, and persecute peaceful activists and journalists.
“Extremist groups who use violence to impose their ideas have existed across history, in all religions and ideologies, political, intellectual and ideological backgrounds. Without exception, there are always those who justify violence under the banner of “noble goals” or “higher causes”, but such violence is always simply unacceptable.
“And yet, in their actions taken against the armed group calling itself “Islamic State” and other such groups, the international community is treating the symptoms, not the causes of terrorism.
“After all, what better environment for extremism to grow than an environment of repression and oppression, lacking justice and the right to peacefully express oneself? The Syrian authorities have fostered the growth of terrorism by creating the necessary environment for it; by silencing any voices critical of the government, by throwing into prison peaceful political opposition figures, lawyers defending prisoners of conscience, young activists organizing peaceful demonstrations calling for change, human rights activists documenting human rights violations, and journalists and others sharing their experiences with the rest of the world. They have met peaceful demonstrations with a merciless crackdown and destroyed all space for civil society.
By not sufficiently addressing the crimes under international law currently carried out in Syria, including torture, enforced disappearances and violations of the law of war, we, as the international community, are not doing enough to ensure justice for the victims and to make it perfectly clear to the perpetrators that their actions will not go unpunished, that there is no longer room for impunity, regardless of who has committed the crimes.
We must remember that the efforts to fight terrorism in Syria must not stop at facing the armed group that calls itself “Islamic State” and other such groups. Without addressing the root causes of terrorism that I have outlined above, a one-sided approach will not lead to success. We must work towards accountability and justice for all victims of human rights violations in Syria. We must ensure prosecution of all those who have committed international crimes, either through international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, or national courts outside of Syria through universal jurisdiction. Otherwise those who commit these hideous crimes and rob Syria of its future will be emboldened and the root causes for terrorism will continue to exist and continue to threaten the Syrian people and peace in the international community overall.
For this reason, we cannot talk about fighting terrorism or political negotiations without first addressing the detention centres. For it is in these detention centres that Syria’s future is dying”.