Parallel ‘justice systems’ with police, detention centres and judges who often don’t understand Sharia law
‘You either agree with their social rules and policies or you disappear’ - media activist
Armed groups operating in Aleppo, Idlib and surrounding areas in the north of Syria have carried out a chilling wave of abductions, torture and summary killings, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
The 35-page report, ‘Torture was my punishment’
, documents multiple cases of abduction, including of children, Christians, Kurds and peaceful human rights activists. Summary killings - sometimes in front of crowds - have been carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Shamia Front and their affiliated “courts” in Aleppo. Among those killed have been a 17-year-old boy for the “offence” of being gay and a woman accused of adultery, as well as captured members of government forces, pro-government shabiha militias and Islamic State armed group fighters.
Some armed groups - such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Shamia Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement - have established their own Sharia “justice systems” in areas they control, as well as setting up unofficial prosecution offices, police forces and detention centres, as well as appointed judges, some of whom have no knowledge of Sharia law. Some groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, have applied a strict interpretation of Shari’a and imposed punishments amounting to torture for perceived infractions.
“Saleh” (not his real name), who was held by Jabhat al-Nusra in December 2014, said he saw five women who a guard told him were accused of adultery and would “only be forgiven by death”. He later saw a video showing Jabhat al-Nusra fighters carrying out a public, execution-style killing of one of the women. In another case, “Ibrahim”, a political activist kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo in April last year, said he was tortured non-stop for three days:
“I was taken to the torture room. They placed me in the shabeh position, hanging me from the ceiling from my wrists so that my toes were off the ground. Then they started beating me with cables all over my body … After the shabeh they used the dulab [tyre] technique. They folded my body and forced me to go inside a tyre and then they started beating me with wooden sticks.” He was later released, abandoned on the side of a road. He believes he was targeted for organising peaceful protests in support of the country's 2011 uprising.
In another case, “Halim”, a humanitarian worker, was abducted by the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement in July 2014 while supervising a project in a hospital in Aleppo. He was held in secret for around two months before being forced to sign a “confession” under torture.
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:
“In Aleppo and Idlib today, armed groups have free rein to commit war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law with impunity.
“Many civilians live in constant fear of being abducted if they criticise the conduct of armed groups in power or fail to abide by the strict rules that some have imposed.
“Shockingly, we have also documented armed groups using the same methods of torture that are routinely used by the Syrian government.
“While some civilians in areas controlled by armed opposition groups may at first have welcomed an escape from brutal Syrian government rule, hopes that these armed groups would respect rights have faded as they have increasingly taken the law into their own hands and committed serious abuses.”
Children, media activists and minorities targeted
Journalists and media activists attempting to report on human rights abuses in northern Syria told Amnesty they were abducted because they’d criticised the conduct of the armed groups. “Issa”, a 24-year-old media activist, said he stopped posting anything on Facebook that might put him at risk after receiving threats from Jabhat al-Nusra. “They are in control of what we can and cannot say. You either agree with their social rules and policies or you disappear. In the past two years, I was threatened three times by Jabhat al-Nusra for criticising their rule on Facebook,” he said.
“Imad”, another media activist, described how - this January - Jabhat al-Nusra raided Radio Fresh, a radio station in northern Idlib governorate, abducted two of its broadcasters and held them for two days for playing music they deemed offensive to Islam. In Aleppo, media activists said they received verbal and written threats from the al-Shamia Front and the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement for criticising these groups on Facebook.
Lawyers, political activists and others have also faced reprisal attacks from the al-Shamia Front, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement because of their activities, perceived religious beliefs and political opinions. “Bassel”, a lawyer in Idlib, was abducted from his home in Ma’rat al-Nu’man last November for criticising Jabhat al-Nusra:
“I was happy to be free from the Syrian government’s unjust rule but now the situation is worse. I publicly criticised Jabhat al-Nusra on Facebook ... The next morning Jabhat al-Nusra forces took me from my home,” he said. He was held in an abandoned home for ten days and eventually released after captors forced him to give up his profession, threatening that if he failed to do so he would never see his family again. One political activist abducted by Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement and held in one of their detention centres, told Amnesty she was stopped for not wearing a veil and was suspected of being affiliated to the Syrian government.
Amnesty has also documented the abduction of at least three children - boys aged 14, 15 and 16 - by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement in Idlib and Aleppo between 2012 and 2015. As of 28 June, two of them remain missing. Members of the Kurdish minority in Sheikh Maqsoud, a predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood in Aleppo city, have also been among those abducted, as well as Christian priests targeted on account of their religion.
Some groups supported by foreign powers
Amnesty report details abuses committed by five armed groups which have exercised control over parts of the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib since 2012. They include the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement, al-Shamia Front and Division 16, which joined the Aleppo Conquest coalition of armed groups (also known as Fatah Halab) in 2015. They also include Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement in Idlib, which both joined the Army of Conquest coalition, similarly in 2015. Some of these groups are believed to have the support of governments such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the USA, despite evidence that they’re committing war crimes. Over the past five years, Amnesty has also extensively documented war crimes and crimes against humanity on a mass scale committed by Syrian government forces, as well as serious violations, including war crimes, by ISIS.