SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC: State profits from crimes against humanity as policy of enforced disappearances drives black market

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5 Nov 2015
[International Secretariat]

The vast scale and chillingly orchestrated nature of tens of thousands of enforced disappearances by the Syrian government over the past four years is exposed in a new report by Amnesty International published today.

Between prison and the grave: Enforced disappearances in Syria reveals that the state is profiting from widespread and systematic enforced disappearances amounting to crimes against humanity, through an insidious black market in which family members desperate to find out the fates of their disappeared relatives are ruthlessly exploited for cash.

The scale of the disappearances is harrowing. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented at least 65,000 disappearances since 2011 – 58,000 of them civilians. Those taken are usually held in overcrowded detention cells in appalling conditions and cut off from the outside world. Many die as a result of rampant disease, torture and extrajudicial execution.

Enforced disappearances have become so entrenched in Syria they have given rise to a black market in which “middlemen” or “brokers” are paid bribes ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, by family members desperate to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones or whether they are even still alive. Such bribes have become “a big part of the economy” according to one Syrian human rights activist. A lawyer from Damascus also told Amnesty International the bribes are “a cash cow for the regime… a source of funding they have come to rely on”.

Those forcibly disappeared include peaceful opponents of the government such as demonstrators, human rights activists, journalists, doctors and humanitarian workers. Others have been targeted because they are believed to be disloyal to the government or because their relatives are wanted by the authorities.

Some families have sold their property or given up their entire life savings to pay bribes to find out the fate of their relatives. One man whose three brothers were disappeared in 2012 told Amnesty International he had borrowed more than US$150,000 in failed attempts to find out where they are. He is now in Turkey working to pay back his debts.

Family members who try to inquire about disappeared relatives are often at risk of arrest or being forcibly disappeared themselves, which gives them little choice but to resort to using such “middlemen”.

A friend of Syrian human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq, who was forcibly disappeared two years ago, said enforced disappearances are part of “a grand strategy by the government to terrorize the people of Syria”.

In one particularly shocking case, Rania al-Abbasi, a dentist, was arrested in 2013 along with her six children aged between two and 14 years old, a day after her husband was seized during a raid on their home. The entire family has not been heard of since. It is believed they may have been targeted for providing humanitarian assistance to local families.

While some states and the UN have condemned enforced disappearances, much more is needed than words of censure. More than a year and a half ago, in February 2014, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2139, which calls for an end to enforced disappearances in Syria, but it has yet to take further steps to ensure it is implemented.

The UN Security Council must urgently refer the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes, to pressure the authorities to end enforced disappearances,” said Philip Luther.

5 November 2015

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