Seeking Truth for Syria’s Disappeared

Source: William Warby

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, tens of thousands of people have been disappeared, captured and detained by state entities and, to a lesser extent, non-state armed groups, that provide no information about a detainee’s status or whereabouts. In recent weeks, however, the government has quietly begun updating the records of civil registries, changing the status of individuals who were missing in government detention to “deceased” due to natural causes. This wide-scale release of information is an attempt by the government to end an uncomfortable conversation about the country’s practice of disappearance by claiming that the fate of these individuals has been established. Moreover, by claiming that all of these deaths were due to natural causes, the government is attempting to obscure the crimes reportedly committed in Syrian detention centers, where prisoners die due to poor conditions, a lack of medical care, torture, and extrajudicial killings. The issuance of death certificates in no way represents justice. As is affirmed by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, families of the disappeared have the right to know what happened to their loved ones, including the cause of their deaths and locations of their remains. An independent investigation into the fates of the disappeared should be a requirement of any UN-endorsed peace treaty.

According to SJAC’s documentation, hundreds of such records have been updated in the Damascus countryside, Hama, Hasakah, Homs, and Latakia. These records list dates of death from throughout the conflict, and in some cases are accompanied by documentation with signatures from government hospitals. Muadamiyat al-Sham, a town of 50,000 in the countryside of Damascus, has been informed of the deaths of a staggering five hundred former residents. Recently released names have included high-profile political activists, including leading non-violent activist Yahya Shurbaji, who was detained in 2011. His family announced this week that they recently received confirmation of his death at the infamous Saydnaya Prison on January 15, 2013, the same date of death listed for at least three other detainees at the same prison, further discrediting the government’s claim of natural causes. In some towns, families have been informed of the deaths by the local government, while in others they have discovered their relative’s fate by accident. One man interviewed by SJAC explained that he learned of his father’s death while attempting to collect his father’s pension. The release of names has caused panic among many Syrians, who are rushing to local civil registry offices to ask after their loved ones. Since an immediate family member needs to be present to make an inquiry at the civil registry, many refugee families are left without a way of inquiring after their disappeared relatives, and report that many lawyers who could inquire on their behalf are unwilling to do so, as they do not want their inquiry recorded by the government.

Even prior to the conflict, the Syrian government disappeared political opponents, and the release of these prisoners and reform of such practices have been a long-standing demand of human rights activists and citizens. Since the conflict, the number of disappeared has substantially increased, with the UN Commission of Inquiry stating that enforced disappearances may amount to a crime against humanity, and that such disappearances not only violate international customary law, but often lead to other crimes, including torture. Along with the disappeared themselves, surviving family members suffer the emotional toll of wondering about the fate of loved ones and are left in a legal limbo regarding financial assets and plans for the future. Since the majority of those who are disappeared are men, women are often left without financial support, and the decision whether to seek a divorce or request that the missing person be pronounced dead is rife with complicated financial, emotional and social implications. While the government’s recent release of death certificates informs family members of their loved ones’ ultimate fates and allows them to resolve legal challenges, it denies their right to the truth about the circumstances of the death and the location of their loves ones’ remains.

Justice for the disappeared and their families should be a non-negotiable requirement of any peace treaty, and the UN Special Envoy should prioritize the following measures. First, all remaining political detainees, whether held by state or non-state forces, should be released and basic information about any remaining non-political prisoners should be made publicly available. Second, a new legal  status, akin to Argentina’s ‘absence due to enforced disappearance,’ should be established, allowing family members to address their financial and legal needs while the fate of their relatives are under investigation. Finally, an independent investigative entity, such as the existing Commission of Inquiry or a truth commission should be mandated to investigate enforced disappearances and establish the fates of disappeared people. Truth commissions focused on disappearances were originally created in Latin America in the 70s and 80s, a result of the tireless fight by families intent on knowing the fate of their loved ones.  In Argentina, where 30,000 people were disappeared from 1976 to 1983, the National Commission on the Disappeared was formed. Its final report, Nunca Más (Never Again) became a best-selling book, and includes information on the systematic practices of disappearances, torture, and detention utilized by the government as well as 8,960 specific incidents of disappearance. In Syria, an investigative mechanism could focus on creating a comprehensive list of those that died in detention and establishing the basic facts of their disappearances and deaths, including the location of their remains. The release of this information could play an important role in helping family members begin to mourn and heal.

SJAC has consistently called for the release of detainees and information about the disappeared. The recent actions by the government does not absolve its obligations under international law, either to detainees or their families. As the government rushes to bring an end to the war on the battlefield, it is integral that the international community maintains a spotlight on the gross human rights violations that continue in Syria, using the leverage they have both in peace negotiations and possible funding of reconstruction to insist on justice for all crimes, including truth for the disappeared.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Correction: SJAC has updated the original article as it receives more information. Not all of the detainees referenced in the article have had official death certificates issued, as was initially written. In many cases the civil registry has been updated without the publication of a death certificate. The original text is below.

According to SJAC’s documentation, hundreds of death certificates, with signatures from government hospitals and dates of death from throughout the conflict, have been issued in the Damascus countryside, Hama, Hasakah, Homs, and Latakia. Muadamiyat al-Sham, a town of 50,000 in the countryside of Damascus, has received a staggering five hundred such death certificates for former residents.  Recently released names have included high-profile political activists, including leading non-violent activist Yahya Shurbaji, who was detained in 2011. His family announced this week that they recently received confirmation of his death at the infamous Saydnaya Prison on January 15, 2013, the same date of death listed for at least three other detainees at the same prison, further discrediting the government’s claim of natural causes. In some towns, families have been informed of the deaths by the local government, while in others they have discovered their relative’s fate by accident. One man interviewed by SJAC explained that he learned of his father’s death while attempting to collect his father’s pension. The release of names has caused panic among many Syrians, who are rushing to local civil registry offices to ask after their loved ones. Since an immediate family member needs to be present to claim a death certificate, many refugee families are left without a way of inquiring after their disappeared relatives, and report that many lawyers who could inquire on their behalf are unwilling to do so, as they do not want their inquiry recorded by the government.

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