Middle East

Amnesty accuses Syria of crimes against humanity

Syrian troops in Jisr al-Shughour (Image grab from Syrian state television on 14 June)
Image caption The Syrian authorities say they are chasing "armed gangs" and "terrorists"

Amnesty International has called for a UN-backed investigation into the violence in Syria, saying the regime's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters may constitute crimes against humanity.

The group has documented several cases of torture, deaths in custody and arbitrary detention in a new report.

All relate to a military sweep in the western village of Tell Kalakh in May.

Amnesty says the UN Security Council must refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Syrian human rights groups have said that more than 1,350 civilians and 350 security personnel have been killed across the country since protests began in mid-March against the repressive rule of President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting off the most serious challenge to his family's four decades in power.

The Syrian government has not responded to the report, but it claims that many of those who have died were the victims not of the army, but of armed criminal gangs.

Syrian state media has also reported on what it said was a large pro-government demonstration in Tell Kalakh late last month.

Image caption Munira, seven, was shot three times when fleeing with her family

'Targeted abuse'

"The accounts we have heard from witnesses to events in Tell Kalakh paint a deeply disturbing picture of systematic, targeted abuses to crush dissent," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.

Witnesses have told Amnesty that Syrian security forces fired on fleeing families on 14 May, the day the army entered Tell Kalakh, near the Lebanese border, following a demonstration in the village calling for the downfall of the regime.

At least one person, 24-year-old Ali al-Basha, was killed, apparently by snipers, and the ambulance carrying his body came under fire, witnesses said by phone and in Lebanon. Amnesty has not been allowed to enter Syria.

In the following days, scores of male residents were rounded up and detained. Most were tortured, Amnesty says, some even as they were being arrested.

In one incident, soldiers transporting detainees counted how many they had arrested by stabbing lit cigarettes on the backs of their necks, Amnesty said in its report, titled Crackdown in Syria: Terror in Tell Kalakh.

Interrogation tactics

The report highlights the case of a 20-year-old, identified only as Mahmoud, who says he was jailed for nearly a month, including five days at a detention centre in Homs, where he was tied up in stress positions and tortured.

"Each day [was] the same story," he told Amnesty researchers. "They tied me up in a shabah position [strung up by the wrists and forced to stand on tiptoes] and applied electricity to my body and testicles. Sometimes I screamed very loudly and begged the interrogator to stop. He didn't care."

Witnesses say at least nine people from Tell Kalakh died while in custody. Their bodies showed signs of torture, including cuts to the chest, slashes on the thighs and apparent gunshot wounds on the legs, Amnesty was told.

The London-based international rights group says that a number of Tell Kalakh residents remain in detention, including a 17-year-old boy. It called on the authorities to free them immediately.

Image caption Majd al-Kurdy was one of nine people killed

"Amnesty considers that crimes committed in Tell Kalakh amount to crimes against humanity as they appear to be part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population," Mr Luther said in a press statement that accompanied the report.

The organisation reiterated its call on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC prosecutor in the Hague so that legal proceedings could be taken.

The call comes as the Syrian authorities continue their crackdown in the central city of Homs, killing at least nine people in two days and arresting around 500 across the country over the past few weeks, according to Syrian human rights groups.

On Tuesday, France again called for the UN to act against the "ferocious armed repression", but the French campaign for UN condemnation has met resistance from Russia and China.

The Syrian authorities - who blame "armed gangs" and "terrorists" for the unrest - are pushing for a national dialogue next week. But the opposition has refused to participate while the violence continues.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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