'At least 28,000 Syrians forcibly ‘disappeared"

NGO releases testimony from families of those missing, calls on United Nations to investigate.

October 19, 2012 01:57
Residents walk through rubble after Aleppo blasts

Scene of blasts in Syria's Aleppo 370 (R). (photo credit: Sana / Reuters)

As heavy fighting continued across Syria on Thursday, an international advocacy group released testimonies from families who said their relatives have been forcibly “disappeared” by the Assad regime.

President Bashar Assad’s forces have disappeared tens of thousands of Syrians since the conflict began 19 months ago, global citizen activist group Avaaz said.

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The enforced disappearances are a deliberate tactic to silence dissent by terrorizing families opposed to the regime, the NGO said.

“Syrians are being plucked off the street by Syrian security forces and paramilitaries and being ‘disappeared’ into torture cells,” said Alice Jay, Avaaz’s campaign director.

Human rights lawyers and research groups in Syria have given a range of estimates on the number of people forcibly disappeared since fighting began last March.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights says that at least 28,000 people have vanished, while Muhannad al- Hasani of the Sawasya human rights organization said there could be as many as 80,000 disappearances.

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“People are being snatched at night, on the street and when no one is looking,” Hasani said.

Among Avaaz’s testimonies is a report from the sister of Anas al-Shaghri, a 23-year-old man who disappeared from a rural area of Banyas in May 2011, shortly after protests began.

Shaghri was a nonviolent protester and an active media spokesman in Banyas, which made the security forces and Shabiha [an Alawite civilian militia loyal to Assad] resentful, his sister said.

After Shaghri’s arrest, an informer told the young man’s family that he was held in solitary confinement and had been subjected to severe torture.

“This left me in a state of fear and horror over my brother to the point where I cried every day just imagining what could have happened to him,” Shaghri’s sister said, adding that security forces would not provide information about the young man.

“Every time we ask about Anas they deny that he was detained in one of their security branches. We hired a lawyer for this matter but to no avail,” Shaghri’s sister testified.

Avaaz’s Jay said the organization planned to hand over the names of disappeared Syrians to the UN Human Rights Council and to UN/Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“The panic of not knowing whether your husband or child is alive breeds such fear that it silences dissent,” Jay added. “The fate of each and every one of these people must be investigated and the perpetrators punished.”

Brahimi told reporters on Thursday that he planned to go to Damascus within the next few days to attempt to broker a temporary cease-fire.

Brahmi said that a brief truce could build confidence and help broker a longer ceasefire.

“Yes I am going to Syria.

This appeal we made to our Syrian brothers, whether in the government or against the government, to stop fighting in the three or four days of the Id [holiday] next week,” Brahimi said after meeting with Jordan’s foreign minister.

The truce would be selfimposed with no monitoring.

“This is an appeal to the Syrians themselves that they stop fighting and observe it themselves.

This is not the political process or the solution required to the Syrian crisis,” Brahimi added.

The Syrian government guardedly welcomed the proposal but said any initiative must be respected by both sides. Turkey, one of Assad’s harshest critics, and Iran, one of his strongest allies, both backed the plan, in a rare display of agreement.

Brahimi will meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al- Moualem on Saturday, an official in Damascus said.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Damascus hoped his talks in the region, including with countries that back the rebels, could herald “something which leads to the success of a constructive initiative.”

Syrian officials have questioned whether the rebels, who agreed on a joint leadership on Tuesday to encourage supporters to provide them with more powerful weapons, could commit to or honor any cease-fire deal.

But Brahimi said on Wednesday that opposition figures had told him any cease-fire by Assad’s forces would be immediately reciprocated.

“We heard from everyone we met in the opposition, and everyone [else] we met that, if the government stops using violence, ‘We will respond to this directly,’” he said.

On Thursday, Brahimi’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the envoy, a veteran Algerian diplomat, was working on a new, comprehensive peace plan.

“It’s difficult to put a timeline on it, but it’s all coming together. He has completed the circle with this tour of neighboring countries. He needs to go now to the outer circle, to Moscow and China, and look them in the eye and say this will not work unless you support it,” Fawzi said.

Russia – which sold Syria arms worth $1 billion last year – and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions favored by Western powers that would have condemned Syrian authorities and opened the way to UN sanctions on Damascus.

Meanwhile, government forces in Damascus shelled the capital’s outlying suburbs on Thursday, while the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of people were wounded when warplanes bombed the northern town of Maarat al-Numan, which straddles the main north-south highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo and was captured by rebels last week.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay said on Thursday that the situation in Syria was reminiscent of Bosnia’s 1992-95 sectarian war, and called on world powers to unite in trying to halt the bloodshed.

“The memories of what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be sufficiently fresh to warn us all of the danger of allowing Syria to descend into an all-out sectarian conflict,” Pillay said.

“It should not take something as drastic as Srebrenica to shake the world into taking serious action to stop this type of conflict,” she told reporters.

The July 1995 massacre in Srebrenica was the worst on European soil since World War II. Dutch UN peacekeepers abandoned what had been designated a UN safe haven to advancing Bosnian Serb forces who then killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys and bulldozed their corpses into pits.

Pillay, a former UN war crimes judge, said both sides in the Syrian conflict may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.

“The indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry by government forces to destroy large swathes of cities such as Homs and Aleppo is inexcusable, as is the use of huge bombs by extremist opposition groups which kill and maim civilians as well as military targets,” Pillay said.

More than 140 Syrians were killed on Wednesday, including 62 unarmed civilians, 12 of them children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. More than 33,000 people have died since the violence began, the Observatory said.

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