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Syria: tens of thousands marooned in detention camps and facilities where death, torture and disease are rife

New report shows how UK and USA are complicit in systematic cruelty and neglect, with hundreds dying in little-reported detention facilities as a result of torture and horrific conditions

Staggering numbers held, with 30,000 children, 14,500 women and 11,500 men detained indefinitely

Gender-based violence is common, with attacks by ISIS affiliates for perceived ‘moral’ infractions and sexual exploitation by members of the security forces

‘Continued inaction from the Government amounts to connivance in the unlawful detention of UK nationals amid misery, disease and possible death’ - Sacha Deshmukh

Thousands of people detained following the territorial defeat of the Islamic State armed group are facing systematic human rights violations and dying in large numbers due to inhumane conditions in camps and detention facilities in north-east Syria, Amnesty International said in a major new report today.

More than five years after ISIS’s defeat, tens of thousands of people are still being arbitrarily and indefinitely detained, with an estimated 11,500 men, 14,500 women and 30,000 children held in at least 27 detention facilities and two detention camps - Al-Hol and Roj, with the USA involved in most aspects of the detention system. Many are held in inhumane conditions and have been subjected to torture, including severe beatings, stress positions, electric shocks and gender-based violence (see below). 

Amnesty’s report, Aftermath: Injustice, Torture and Death in Detention in North-East Syria - based on interviews with 126 current or former detainees - shows how the region’s autonomous authorities, the USA’s main partner in the region, are responsible for large-scale human rights violations against an estimated 56,000 people in their custody. 

Thousands more have been forcibly disappeared, while women have been unlawfully separated from their children. Among those held in the detention system are ISIS victims, with scores - if not hundreds - of Yezidi victims detained. Many other detained women and girls are victims of forced marriage to ISIS members, and many detained boys and young men are victims of child recruitment by the armed group. Those detained include Syrians, Iraqis and foreign nationals from an estimated 74 other countries, including more than 20 UK nationals (see below). The majority of those detained came into the custody of the autonomous authorities during the final territorial battles with ISIS in early 2019. 

The camps and detention facilities are run by the Autonomous Authorities of the North and East Syria Region, comprised of the Syrian Democratic Forces, other security forces affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Syrian Democratic Forces’ civilian wing, the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Eight men detained between 2019 and 2023 in one facility - the Syrian Democratic Forces-run Sini detention facility on the outskirts of Al-Shaddadi city - told Amnesty that detainees at Sini suffered a catalogue of abuse, with people regularly beaten, whipped with electrical cables, suspended from the wrists in stress positions, and subjected to sexual violence and electric shocks.

Yusuf* told Amnesty: 

“There was no specific day or specific hour, or a way of torture … The worst was when they came inside the room… carrying plastic pipes, cables, steel pipes, and they beat us everywhere … Every 15 days, they would take us out, in the yard, all naked … [The guards] were raping people with [a] stick … Once they took me [out of the cell] with another guy ... They brought an electricity cable from the generator, and they kept torturing us by electricity … I think the guy next to me died. He stopped moving and screaming ... I reached a point where I could not scream any more.”

All eight former detainees said the Syrian Democratic Forces deprived them of adequate food and water, and that they faced inhumane conditions in their cells, including overcrow¬¬¬ding, lack of ventilation and extreme temperatures. They said the combination of physical abuse, inhumane conditions and a lack of medical care caused outbreaks of disease and other health conditions, and led to the deaths of hundreds of people. 

Detainees recounted distressing episodes where friends and cellmates died in front of them. One detainee said that 17 people in his cell died when the authorities turned off the exhaust fan one day in 2020. According to three detainees, the corpses of those who died in Sini were deposited in a mass grave referred to as a “ditch”. 

Abbas* told Amnesty that US soldiers visited the facility in December 2021: 

“We know the Americans, they come with their weapons and their dogs … [They] checked on the prison, and they searched us, and all of our rooms … They were able to see the blood on the wall. They could see the people who were injured from torture.” 

None of the people detained in north-east Syria has been prosecuted for crimes under international law, with prosecutions instead mostly for broadly-worded “terrorism” offences. Many serious crimes perpetrated by ISIS - such as sexual enslavement - have not been investigated at all. According to the autonomous authorities, specialised courts have finalised the cases of more than 9,600 people allegedly connected to ISIS in the last ten years. Almost all of those prosecuted have been Syrians and trials have been severely tainted by human rights violations, including a reliance on “confessions” extracted by torture and an absence of lawyers at all stages. Without fair trial safeguards, an accusation that a person is affiliated with ISIS can condemn them to years of arbitrary detention. Amnesty has documented 18 such accounts in which people said they were falsely accused of ISIS affiliation. 

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“The autonomous authorities have committed the war crimes of torture and cruel treatment, and likely committed the war crime of murder. 

“Children, women and men held in these detention camps and facilities suffer shocking cruelty and violence. 

“The US government has played a central role in the creation and maintenance of this system in which hundreds have died preventable deaths, and must play a role in changing it.

“This detention system violates the rights of people with perceived ISIS affiliation, and has also failed to deliver justice and accountability for the victims and survivors of ISIS crimes.

“While the threat of ISIS remains real worldwide, the violations ongoing in north-east Syria only entrench further grievances and mean a generation of children have known only systematic injustice. The autonomous authorities, members of the US-led coalition, and the UN must act to remedy these violations and end the cycles of abuse and violence.

“The autonomous authorities, the US government, other members of the coalition and the UN must all work together and prioritise the urgent development of a comprehensive strategy to bring this shameful system into compliance with international law and identify justice solutions to finally hold perpetrators of ISIS’s atrocity crimes to account.

“They should conduct an urgent screening process to identify individuals in detention who should be immediately released, with a particular focus on victims of ISIS crimes and at-risk groups.”

Torture in Syrian Democratic Forces detention facilities

Amnesty found that torture is being carried out systematically in detention facilities run by the Syrian Democratic Forces and affiliated security forces. Amnesty conducted interviews with 46 men, women and children held in security force detention facilities who experienced some form of torture or other ill-treatment. The majority were Syrian and had been tortured to extract confessions. Amnesty interviewed two people who were subjected to torture immediately after being transferred from the custody of the US-led coalition to the Syrian Democratic Forces and affiliated security forces. 

In response, the autonomous authorities said they would act on evidence of such violations, but said, “We have not received any information or complaints in this regard, and if this happened, they are individual actions”. 

An estimated 1,000 Syrian and foreign boys, and young men detained as boys are held in the detention facilities, including youth “rehabilitation” centres. They are subjected to some of the same violations as adults including, in some cases, torture and ill-treatment. Only an estimated one in ten have been charged with committing a crime. 

The number of boys in the detention facilities is expanding. Syrian boys continue to be arrested for their perceived ISIS affiliation, sometimes with the support of the US-led coalition. The autonomous authorities are also forcibly separating foreign national boys from their mothers or guardians in the detention camps, and transferring them to detention facilities. The removals do not appear to be based on individual assessments of the boys’ best interests, but rather a desire by the autonomous authorities to guard against an increasing and ageing camp population they believe could pose a future threat. 

A girl in one of the camps told Amnesty, “Because of this policy I keep pushing my brother’s head down, so he does not grow up ... If he were taller, they would take him”.

Women and children

As of last December, the autonomous authorities were holding more than 46,600 people - the overwhelming majority (roughly 94%) children and women - in Al-Hol and Roj detention camps. No-one in these camps has been charged or given the opportunity to challenge their detention before an independent judicial authority. People in both camps face unsanitary, inhumane and life-threatening conditions, with inadequate access to food, water and healthcare. Layla*, a 30-year-old woman, said, “Living here is a slow, painful death”.

There are high levels of gender-based violence in Al-Hol camp, including attacks against women by ISIS affiliates for perceived “moral” infractions, and sexual exploitation by members of the security forces and private individuals. There is no adequate system of protection or support in place for women who are at risk.  

Scores of Syrian women and a small number of girls have been transferred from the camps to detention facilities. Many women convicted of ISIS-related crimes described to Amnesty being tortured to extract “confessions”. Foreign national women are also taken to detention facilities, where they are interrogated and held incommunicado for protracted periods.

Eight women told Amnesty of how they were subjected to acts of gender-based violence amounting to torture or other ill-treatment in detention facilities. One woman said, “I was given electric shocks. I was pregnant at the time. The [interrogator] knew, he told me, ‘I am going to force you to have a miscarriage’, and that’s what he did”. Other women described being subjected to sexual threats and humiliation.

Syrian and foreign national women described being forced to leave their children behind when they were taken to detention facilities from the camps, without any alternative care arrangements. 

Despite efforts by the autonomous authorities to identify and repatriate Yezidi victims of what the UN has recognised as a genocide, it’s estimated that scores - if not hundreds - remain among those detained. Many other women and children held in the detention camps and facilities are also survivors of ISIS atrocity crimes and people trafficking. 

Amal*, a foreign national, described being deceived into travelling to ISIS-held territory, where she was imprisoned in a woman-only guesthouse (madafa) until she gave in to demands that she marry. The man to whom she was forcibly married subjected her to sexual violence and other abuse. Twenty-seven other women and children also gave accounts indicating they were victims of ISIS trafficking, including through madafas or forced marriage of young girls. Many of the boys were forced to work or fight for ISIS. Despite widespread trafficking by ISIS, no system exists to identify these victims and provide them with protection and support. 

Women were also convicted of “terrorism” crimes in relation to the acts of their husbands, including for “failing to inform” the authorities, without adequate consideration of any coercion. Children were left to navigate the same deeply flawed criminal proceedings without contact with their parent or guardian. 

Tuberculosis killing ‘one or two’ each week

In one Syrian Democratic Forces facility detaining men and boys - Panorama, located in Hasakah city, a facility purpose-built in a project managed by the US-led coalition - detainees have been denied access to adequate food and medical care, leading to illnesses and diseases, including a severe outbreak of tuberculosis that has been ongoing for several years. Last August, Syrian Democratic Forces representatives told Amnesty that an extremely high percentage of men and boys were infected, and that one or two men or boys were dying from tuberculosis each week. The Syrian Democratic Forces said they were not treating active cases or isolating sick detainees. According to available information, adult men infected with tuberculosis have only received limited medical treatment, if any, in the past, and were not receiving medical treatment for tuberculosis at the time this report was finalised. The US State Department told Amnesty they were “working with partners to address medical needs such as tuberculosis”.

Transfers to Iraq

According to multiple sources, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Iraqi authorities and the US-led coalition came to a new agreement in January 2022 that 50 Iraqi men from detention facilities in north-east Syria would be transferred to Iraq each month. Under this deal, hundreds of Iraqi men have been transferred to Iraq with the support of the US-led coalition. Amnesty has documented the cases of seven Iraqi men who were transferred from north-east Syria to Iraq - six were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment during interrogations in Iraq, while the seventh “confessed” due to threat of torture. Four of these men are now awaiting execution, including two who were transferred under the 2022 deal. Amnesty concludes that the autonomous authorities and the US government are likely to have violated the international legal principle of non-refoulement in these transfers, as well as the rights to life and to freedom from torture. 

UK nationals in camps and other detention facilities

There are reportedly more than 20 UK nationals in the detention camps, mostly women and their dependents, and an unknown number of men and boys held in detention facilities in north-east Syria. There are also a number of other UK nationals who have had their citizenship removed by the UK authorities - including the high-profile case of Shamima Begum, who was groomed and trafficked to Syria when she was aged 15. Amnesty has called on the UK government to reverse its decision to remove citizenship from Begum and others, and for it to meet its responsibility to ensure that UK nationals are assisted in being able to leave the highly dangerous environment of the detention camps and facilities.

The UK government has provided more than £15 million in funding to help expand a large Syrian Democratic Forces facility (Panorama) which detains men and boys in Hasakah city. The facility was built in a project managed by the US-led coalition. Those detained in Panorama have been denied access to adequate food and medical care leading to illnesses and diseases, including a severe outbreak of tuberculosis that has been ongoing for several years. If left untreated, tuberculosis is fatal in 50% of cases. In response to Amnesty’s findings, UK officials have said the UK has “robust processes in place to ensure that projects funded by the UK meet our human rights obligations and values”. Officials also said that the UK was extremely concerned about the threat of tuberculosis in the detention facilities, while stressing that “ultimately, responsibility for detention and camp facilities and the wellbeing, detention, transfer or prosecution of detainees is a matter for authorities under whose jurisdiction individuals are detained”.

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, said:

“The Government has put considerable resources into the detention facilities in north-east Syria and it has a responsibility to avoid being complicit in the ongoing cruelty and violence of these places.

“Continued inaction from the Government amounts to connivance in the unlawful detention of UK nationals amid misery, disease and possible death.

“The UK government has a responsibility for all its citizens, including Shamima Begum, which it can’t cast off when that might suit it.

“The UK should be helping its citizens stranded in dangerous circumstances in Syria, not barring their safe return to the UK.

“The UK should support a long-overdue screening process to identify people in detention who need to be immediately released, and it should be working with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US-led coalition to establish a fair means to finally bring to justice the perpetrators of ISIS’s horrific crimes.”

Methodology and responses

Amnesty researchers conducted interviews in camps and in ten detention facilities during September 2022 and August 2023, and along with additional remote interviews spoke to 126 people suspected of ISIS affiliation who are currently or have previously been held in detention facilities and camps. Amnesty also interviewed 39 representatives of the autonomous authorities, 53 staff members of national and international NGOs, and 25 UN representatives. In total, Amnesty interviewed 314 people for the report and sent briefings and other written communications to the autonomous authorities, the US and UK government, with each of these responding in writing. 

The autonomous authorities’ response highlighted the difficult conditions they face, including ongoing armed conflicts. They criticised the “international community and global partners” for failing to “fulfill their legal and moral obligations”, and said countries with nationals in the detention system and the international community had left them “alone in dealing with the consequences” of the fight against ISIS. The US State Department’s response identified US efforts to address the “dire humanitarian and security challenges” in north-east Syria. It urged all groups in Syria, including the Syrian Democratic Forces, to “uphold human rights”, and said it works with groups and individuals in the Syrian Democratic Forces who are “appropriately vetted”. It said the only solution is the “repatriation and return of displaced persons and detainees to their countries of origin”, so that the perpetrators can “be held responsible for their crimes by competent rights-respecting judicial processes”.

US-led coalition

In 2014, the US Department of Defense established a US-led coalition to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. While the coalition is technically made up of 29 countries, the US government is by far its most influential member, leading on its strategy, planning, resourcing and implementation. The US-led coalition, with funding from Congress, has refurbished existing detention facilities, constructed new ones and frequently visits them. The Department of Defense has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the Syrian Democratic Forces and affiliated security forces. The US-led coalition has also played a key role in ongoing joint operations that result in the transfer of people to Syrian Democratic Forces custody and in facilitating the repatriation of people held in north-east Syria to third countries, including Iraq. 

Note: *names have been changed.

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Aftermath: Injustice, Torture and Death in Detention in North-East Syria