The Syrian juggernaut rolls on. But for how much longer?

If Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is phased by Colonel Gaddafi’s fall from power he’s not showing it.  The reality-denying juggernaut rolls on.

For months Assad and the Syrian state authorities – including their sometimes disarmingly smooth spokesperson Reem Haddad – have insisted that “terrorists” and “foreign agents” are behind the protests and that these have instigated murderous attacks on the security forces.  Every times Assad stands up in the Syrian parliament to explain how they are “crushing” the supposed terrorists he seems to be met with rapturous, sustained applause (to me the sight of a leader basking in rock star-like adulation from any parliamentary assembly is itself bizarre – maybe it’s a cultural thing).

Outside the Syrian Ba’ath party elite bubble, things are a little different.

The body count in Syria is now terrifying high – in excess of 2,000 people are dead, the majority apparently unarmed protestors. Thousands of others are in detention after waves of early-morning arrests, while thousands more have simply “disappeared” (ie they are probably in detention in undisclosed locations, unless they are actually dead).

Meanwhile, as a new Amnesty report shows, a frighteningly large number of people have wound up dead after being taken into detention by the Syrian security forces. There is now a well-established pattern of arrests – often from people’s homes early in the morning, and often by members of the Military Intelligence or Air Force Intelligence units. The arrests usually follow large protests, and have come in the wake of mass gatherings in Homs, Dera’a, Tell Kalakh, Damascus and elsewhere.

And many are only re-appearing when their dead bodies are returned to shocked and traumatised families.  The Amnesty report has compiled information on 88 deaths in custody between 1 April and 15 August (this is a staggering 50-fold increase on the five-deaths-per-year average in Syria in recent years). Here’s just one example:  

On 29 April 20-year-old Nazir Abd al-Qadr al-Zu’bi (pictured) went missing near Dera’a after a demonstration was broken up by security force gunfire. Nazir was reportedly wounded and arrested. Two and a half weeks later his family was told his body was at the local morgue. His body reportedly had the following injuries: damaged skull; broken neck; smashed kneecaps; bleeding from nose, ears and right eye; right cheek disfigured; multiple lesions on left hand and right arm. It seems Nazir died from torture, or at the very least torture plus an untreated bullet wound. Horrifyingly and tragically, six other members of Nazir’s extended family also died in custody after being detained at around the same time.

The violence in Syria has been truly terrible. Last week, in an eerie echo of the treatment dished out to the Chilean poet and songwriter Victor Jara by Pinochet’s thugs in 1973, armed men abducted and badly beat up Syria’s prominent political cartoonist Ali Ferzat (like Jara, Ferzat’s hands were mangled by his attackers in an apparently quite deliberate symbolic assault). Meanwhile, last month Ibrahim al-Qashoush, a fireman and amateur poet who had composed a song popular among Syria’s protestors, was found dead with his vocal cords ripped out.

Some commentators are now talking about the “inevitability” of Assad’s political demise, something I’m always a little sceptical about (many said the same thing during Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009). Either way, the appalling situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court (support the Amnesty online campaign for that here).

One of Ferzat’s cartoons shows Bashar al-Assad with a suitcase trying to hitch a lift from Muammar Gaddafi in a rickety old vehicle. The Assad juggernaut rolls on for now, but he may not escape justice for that much longer …

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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