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Syria: Kurdish-dominated northern enclave jailing people after unfair trials

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are the de facto military force in the Kurdish-dominated northern enclave © Ahmet Sik/Getty Images
Local people caught between Islamic State and Kurdish authorities’ crackdown
‘I was sentenced to ten years in prison after seeing a judge for ten minutes’ - Mohamad
The Democratic Union Party-led autonomous administration in northern Syria is using a crackdown against terrorism and the Islamic State armed group as a pretext to unlawfully detain and unfairly try peaceful critics and civilians believed to be sympathisers or members of alleged terrorist groups, said Amnesty International. 
Last month during a fact-finding mission to northern Syria, Amnesty researchers interviewed ten detainees at two prisons - in the cities of Qamishli and Malikiya - run by the PYD’s police force, the Asayish. 
At both facilities Amnesty was able to speak to detainees and interview them separately without prison officials present. Some had been detained for up to a year without charge or trial. Those who had received trials said they’d suffered lengthy pre-trial detention and that trial proceedings were blatantly unfair - they were denied the right to defend themselves, to see the evidence against them, and were denied access to a lawyer or their family. Many detainees had been arrested for acts not even recognised as criminal offences, and often without evidence. 
According to Abeer Mohamad Khaled, the Director of Prisons for the Asayish, there are around 125 prisoners detained in three central prisons in the Jazira canton: Qamishli, Derbasiyah and Malikiya. Meanwhile, Ciwan Ibrahim, Director of the Asayish, told Amnesty that there up to 400 detainees held by Asayish across all three cantons under PYD control.
In 2014, after the withdrawal of Syrian government forces, the PYD along with a series of smaller political parties established an autonomous administration in three primarily Kurdish cantons in northern Syria: Afrin, Jazira (in Hasakeh governorate) and Ain al-Arab (Kobani). The administration has its own police force, courts, prisons, ministries and laws, and the PYD also formed an army, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), primarily responsible for protecting Kurdish-held territory and for running military courts. The area under PYD control has been subject to regular assault by Islamic State fighters and, in addition to targeting the territory’s police and armed units, Islamic State has targeted civilians, killing, displacing, and abducting residents. In 2014 the PYD administration passed a new counter-terrorism law to detain and prosecute terrorism suspects. 
Amnesty is calling on the PYD to end arbitrary arrests and release all detainees who are held unlawfully. 
Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor Lama Fakih said:
“The PYD-led autonomous administration cannot use their fight against terrorism as an excuse to violate the rights of individuals in areas under their control.
“It is clear that many detainees have faced grossly unjust trials in a serious violation of their rights. 
“Instead of trampling all over people’s rights in the name of security and counterterrorism, the PYD-led administration should ensure that the rights of detainees are respected.”

Arab men detained

A number of detainees told Amnesty that they were detained on a whim, with scant evidence, as retribution for peacefully opposing or criticising the PYD authorities, or because of perceived affiliations with terrorist groups. Fahed, 65, an Arab detainee from Hasakeh city, who was detained for two months with three of his sons, told Amnesty that the Asayish detained them because relatives of his daughter-in-law were affiliated with Islamic State, even though he said he had no dealings or connection with the group. 
In another case, Omar, 30, another Arab detainee, said he was detained for nearly a month and accused of being a terrorist because his name resembled that of a wanted man. No other evidence against him was presented, he told Amnesty. Omar said that more than a dozen other Arab men he knew from Hasakeh had been detained on suspicion of terrorist activity and held for about 15-20 days before being released because there was no evidence against them. Malek, 35, an Arab man from Raqqa, told Amnesty that he was accused of terrorism but that the only evidence against him consisted of non-violent Facebook posts criticising the PYD.
Asayish police forces have also used the counter-terrorism law to detain and prosecute Kurdish opposition groups critical of the PYD. The Syrian Democratic Kurdish Party (PDK-S), a Kurdish opposition party, told Amnesty that 12 members of their party in Afrin, also under PYD control, have been arbitrarily detained in 2014 and sentenced for committing terrorist acts without any substantiated evidence.  

Held in pre-trial detention for up to a year then given blatantly unfair trials 

Several detainees told Amnesty that they were held in pre-trial detention for periods up to a year without trial. Some said that they were never formally charged and never saw a public prosecutor, or went to court. For example, Safwan, a foreign national, had been detained for nearly a year when he spoke to Amnesty without having been charged, seeing a public prosecutor or appearing before a judge. According to the PYD’s own regulations, pre-trial detainees should be held for a maximum of 72 hours before being charged by a public prosecutor and being transferred to a central prison to await trial. 
One detainee, Issam, told Amnesty he was abducted by Islamic State fighters on his way to Raqqa and forced to give them the location of a YPG checkpoint. “I turned myself into the Asayish on time for them to prevent the attack. I might be guilty but I expected a fair trial,” he said. Instead he spent six months in pre-trial detention, was not informed of the charges against him before being sentenced to seven years in prison and seven years in exile. “I was sentenced in a room by a judge without a lawyer or the chance to defend myself,” he said. 
Mohamad, who was detained in August 2014 also described an unfair trial. “The interrogator told me that I was innocent and will be released in 15 days … instead, I was sentenced to ten years in prison after seeing a judge for ten minutes. The judge refused to show me the evidence they had against me,” he said. 

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