New Report: "Gone Without A Trace" Examines the Dark Reality of Detentions in Syria


New York, May 29, 2020 Time is of the essence for breaking the deadlock over the release of detainees, abductees, and the forcibly disappeared in Syria, says a policy paper released today by ICTJ and the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation (CIC). Coordinated action by the Syrian regime and other parties to the conflict, as well as the international community, must begin now, particularly as the spread of the coronavirus accelerates in Syria. The consequences of delay and a failure to act — for the detainees and their families — are likely to be calamitous.

After nine years of war, among the structures still standing amid the decimation of Syria’s landscape are countless official and makeshift detention centers. Imprisoned within are tens of thousands of people, possibly as many as 100,000. Many are official prisons or secret detention centers run by the security service. Others are under the control of nonstate armed groups, who have also abducted and detained civilians as well as members of rival groups and the Syrian military and its affiliates.

Almost all of the official facilities are part of an impenetrable system that is closed to everyone other than those who work there; each one is essentially a sealed black box for the detainees trapped inside and their loved ones outside seeking their release or the chance to visit them. Many have existed since before the conflict in Syria began, a feature of the massive security apparatus built up over decades by Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad before him. As a nonviolent popular uprising in 2011 escalated into a protracted armed struggle, the numbers of detentions grew to include anyone perceived to oppose the regime, including peaceful demonstrators, political opponents, human rights activists, and even doctors who treated the “wrong” patients.

The policy paper explores the vast array of Syrian laws and institutions that allow the government to arrest, detain, and operate with absolute impunity, all behind a facade of legality. “The regime has flipped the concept of rule of law on its head. Rather than protecting Syrians, the law has been weaponized to protect Assad’s inner circle and those he favors while oppressing anyone he and his allies perceive to be a threat. For the regime, the rights enshrined in Syria’s Constitution and in the treaties it has ratified are empty promises,” says Nousha Kabawat, ICTJ's Special Coordinator for Syria.

The paper describes what prisoners face at the hands of both the regime and armed groups and explains the devastating real-world consequences for both the detainees and their families. With little-to-no information about where their loved ones are being held or if they are even still alive, families are forced to navigate an inscrutable and often hostile security system alone. The search process leaves them vulnerable to harassment, detention, and financial exploitation.

The enormity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria’s complex of prisons, both official and unofficial, is alarming. “The prisons are nothing short of death traps,” says Hanny Megally, a senior fellow at CIC and a coauthor of the policy paper. “Conditions are notoriously horrendous, with people dying because of neglect. Torture is commonplace and executions appear to be continuing and possibly accelerating.” “Delaying action on releases and access to those detained is no longer an option” says Elena Naughton, a coauthor and program expert at ICTJ. “The risk of the coronavirus spreading in Syria’s prison system adds another layer of urgency that threatens not only the lives of those in detention but all Syrians.”

The paper concludes with recommendations for what can and should be done, now and in the future. These include the immediate release of all those arbitrarily detained as well as vulnerable prisoners such as women, the elderly, children, and the disabled; unimpeded access by the International Committee of the Red Cross to all places of detention; and the sharing of lists specifying the status and location of detainees held by the Syrian government and other nonstate actors. Eventually, an independent mechanism should be created to review the remaining cases of detention; safe centers should be set up where families can request information about the fate of their loved ones, and rehabilitation programs should be established where released individuals can access psychosocial and other vital services.

The policy paper is part of a project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of The Netherlands and is available in both English and Arabic.

PHOTO: Syrian families of the detained and forcibly disappeared take part in a demonstration, organized by the Syrian victims' organization Families for Freedom, in London in 2017. (Families for Freedom)