President Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Assad and Baath party leaders dominate all three branches of government as an authoritarian regime. An uprising against the government that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election and the 2016 parliamentary elections resulted in the election of Assad and 200 People’s Council (Syrian parliament) seats for the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front, respectively. Both elections took place in an environment of widespread government coercion, and many Syrians residing in opposition-held territory did not participate in the elections. Observers did not consider the elections free or fair.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces but did not maintain effective control over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations. These progovernment forces included Russian armed forces, Hizballah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and nonuniformed progovernment militias, such as the National Defense Forces.
Government and progovernment forces launched a massive assault on the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta, culminating in the government’s recapture in April of an area it had besieged since 2013. The assault by the government and progovernment forces involved use of heavy weapons, likely use of chemical weapons, and deliberate denial of humanitarian aid. Government and progovernment forces launched an assault on opposition-controlled areas of Daraa Province, considered the cradle of the revolution that began in 2011, and reasserted government control in July. The assault killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government, including those involving the repeated use of chemical weapons, including chlorine and other substances; enforced disappearances; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prisoners of conscience; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; undue restrictions on free expression, including restrictions on the press and access to the internet, including censorship and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe suppression of religious freedom; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the government and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; violence and severe discrimination targeting LGBTI persons; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
The government took no steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security forces and elsewhere in the government.
Government-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres, indiscriminate killings, kidnapping civilians, arbitrary detentions, and rape as a war tactic. Government-affiliated militias, including the terrorist organization Lebanese Hizballah, supported by Iran, repeatedly targeted civilians.
There were reports that armed opposition groups carried out what were characterized as indiscriminate attacks in the battle in eastern Ghouta and that they arbitrarily arrested and tortured civilians in Douma. Syrian opposition groups supported by the Turkish government reportedly looted and confiscated homes belonging to Kurdish residents in Afrin.
Some Kurdish forces reportedly unlawfully restricted the movement of persons in liberated areas and arbitrarily arrested some local civil council leaders, teachers, and other civilians. Elements affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minorities that included members of the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), reportedly engaged in forced conscription, to include limited conscription of children. In September the SDF issued a military order banning the recruitment of anyone younger than age 18 and ordering their military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted.
Armed terrorist groups, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also committed a wide range of abuses, including massacres, unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings; unlawful detention; torture; and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. ISIS lost the majority of territory it once controlled, limiting its ability to subject large populations to human rights violations. Although severely weakened, ISIS attacked members of religious minority groups and subjected women and girls to routine rape, forced marriages, sexual slavery, human trafficking, and murder.
Russian forces were reportedly implicated in the deaths of civilians resulting from air strikes characterized as indiscriminate, particularly during support of the government’s military campaigns in the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta, including Douma.
Foreign forces fighting ISIS were implicated in civilian casualties reportedly in Afrin and Raqqa.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports the government and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.).
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the conflict had killed at least 222,000 civilians from 2011 until September, including almost 6,400 civilians from January through October. The government continued its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling. The government continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that the government assault on eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killed hundreds of persons, with the SNHR reporting that more than 2,600 civilians died in eastern Ghouta in February and March. In June government and progovernment forces attacked the southwest Daraa governorate, with multiple sources reporting more than 230 civilian deaths.
Government and progovernment forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugee camps; these attacks included bombardment with improvised explosive devices, commonly referred to as “barrel bombs,” in addition to the use of chemical weapons. It used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.
Other actors in the conflict also were implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).
On November 23, unidentified gunmen assassinated activists and journalists, Raed Faris and Hamud Junaid, in Idlib Province. Faris and Junaid were prominent civilian leaders of the peaceful revolution that began in 2011. They spoke out against the abuses of the government and of the extremist elements of the opposition. As of late November, no group had taken responsibility for the assassinations, although media reports suggested an extremist group was responsible.
There were numerous reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. The UN COI reported the number of forced disappearances remained high. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. In August the SNHR attributed 86 percent of the estimated 95,000 forced disappearances from 2011 until August to the government. The government reportedly targeted critics, specifically journalists, medical personnel, antigovernment protesters, their families, and associates. The majority of disappearances reported by activists, human rights observers, and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).
In July the government began publishing notifications of thousands of deaths of detainees in government detention facilities. The SNHR reported the number of detainees certified as dead was unknown but estimated it to be in the thousands. The government did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers. According to media reports, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and discovered relatives they believed to be alive had died months or years earlier.
For example, in 2011 the Air Force Security Branch detained Yahya Shurbaji, an activist known for his promotion of nonviolent protest. Shurbaji’s health and whereabouts remained unknown until July when his family received confirmation that he died at Sednaya Prison in 2013. The government claimed Shurbaji died of natural causes, but he shared the same date of death with at least three other detainees at Sednaya Prison, the subject of numerous reports of torture and extrajudicial killings since 2011.
The COI reported that fears of arbitrary arrests and detention prevented IDPs from returning to their homes in areas retaken by government forces. The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared to approach authorities to inquire about the locations of their relatives; those who did so had to pay large bribes to learn the locations of relatives or faced systematic refusal by authorities to disclose information about the fate of disappeared individuals.
Armed groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).
The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such actions.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local NGOs, however, reported thousands of credible cases of government authorities engaging in frequent torture and abuse to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations. Observers reported most cases of torture or mistreatment occurred in detention centers operated by each of the government’s security service branches. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the COI reported regular use of torture against perceived government opponents at checkpoints and government facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. They identified specific detention facilities where torture occurred, including: the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra and Sednaya Prisons; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and Tishreen Military Hospital.
The COI also reported that the Counterterrorism Court (CTC) and courts-martial relied on forced confessions and information acquired through torture to obtain convictions. A large number of torture victims reportedly died in custody. The SNHR reported that more than 14,000 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and September and attributed approximately 99 percent of these cases to government forces (see section 1.a.). The SNHR attributed to the government more than 930 deaths due to torture in the first nine months of the year. Activists maintained that many instances of abuse went unreported. Some declined to allow reporting of their names or details of their cases due to fear of government reprisal.
The COI noted torture methods remained consistent. These included beatings on the head, bodies, and soles of feet (falaqua) with wooden and metal sticks, hoses, cables, belts, whips, and wires. Authorities also reportedly sexually assaulted detainees; administered electric shocks, including to their genitals; burned detainees with cigarettes; and placed them in stress positions for prolonged periods of time. A substantial number of detainees reported being handcuffed and then suspended from the ceiling or a wall by their wrists for hours.
Other reported methods of physical torture included removing nails and hair, stabbings, and cutting off body parts, including ears and genitals. Numerous human rights organizations reported other forms of torture, including forcing objects into the rectum and vagina, hyperextending the spine, and putting the victim onto the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts. Additionally, officers reportedly continued the practice of shabeh, in which they stripped detainees naked, hung them for prolonged periods from the ceiling, and administered electrical shocks. In August Deutsche Welle reported the experiences of Mizyed Khalid Tahad, a regime prisoner who detailed his torture during detention at Sednaya during 2012-13, including electric shock, shabeh, beatings, lashings with a pipe, being squeezed into a tire, and malnourishment. During the year NGOs, including (Amnesty International) AI, Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights (Urnammu), and Save the Rest continued to report that large numbers of detainees at Sednaya Military Prison died after repeated torture and deprivation of food, water, ventilation, medicine, and medical care.
There is no indication government use of psychological torture decreased. One commonly reported practice was detention of victims overnight in cells with corpses of previous victims. The SNHR reported psychological torture methods included forcing prisoners to witness the rape of other prisoners, threatening the rape of family members (in particular female family members), forcing prisoners to undress, and insulting prisoners’ beliefs. For example, in March the COI reported a 2014 incident in which a government officer in Damascus took two girls, held their faces down on the desk, and raped them in turn. The girls reportedly tried to resist. The officer then reportedly told a male detainee, “You see what I am doing to them? I will do this to your wife and daughter.”
The COI and various NGOs, including HRW, AI, and the SNHR, continued to report widespread instances of rape and sexual abuse, including of minors. In March the COI reported government forces and affiliated militias raped and sexually abused women and girls, as well as men occasionally, during ground operations, house raids, and at checkpoints. One such example in the March COI report is that of a survivor of the al-Houla (Homs) massacre in 2012, who described how government forces entered her home and raped her daughter in front of her and her husband before shooting both her daughter and husband. Two soldiers then reportedly raped the mother.
The COI stated that government authorities subjected women and girls in detention to rape and gang rape in 20 government political and military institutions, while authorities raped men and boys and sometimes mutilated their genitals in 15 such branches. The March COI report detailed how in one such case at Branch 215 in 2012, an 18-year-old man from Daraa was severely beaten, threatened with the rape of his sisters, and then gang raped by five officers. One of the officers reportedly raped the detainee five more times over a month before authorities transferred the detainee to another detention facility. In another case the March COI report detailed how, over 10 consecutive days at the Hama State Security Branch in 2012, two officers, one of whom was a lieutenant colonel, raped two female detainees next to one another. On one occasion the same two officers reportedly raped the women in front of two naked male detainees whose hands and feet were tied in the shabeh position. In March the COI reported cases in 2012 in which perpetrators exploited blood relations by forcing male relatives to have intercourse with one another at the Damascus Political Intelligence Branch.
There were widespread reports that government security forces engaged in abuse and inhuman treatment of prisoners. According to the COI, most were civilians initially held at checkpoints or taken prisoner during military incursions. While the majority of accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in government custody. The COI assessed in March that the frequency, duration, and severity of the reported abuse suggested victims’ sustained long-term psychological and physical damage.
The COI reported that, beginning in 2011 and continuing throughout the conflict, security forces subjected detainees to mistreatment in military hospitals, often obstructing medical care or exacerbating existing injuries as a technique in abuse and interrogation. There were numerous reports of deaths in custody at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison. Authorities consistently directed families of detainees seeking information to the Qaboun Military Police and Tishreen Military Hospital. In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families. In July the government confirmed the death of activist Islam Dabbas in 2013 in Sednaya Prison, but they did not return his body.
There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the government. The COI noted regular reports of detention and torture of children younger than age 13, in some cases as young as 11, in government detention facilities. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relations, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. In March the UN Human Rights Council held a high-level panel discussion on human rights violations against children in Syria at which NGOs presented evidence of such abuses. The UN special representative for children and armed conflict reported that child detainees, largely boys, suffered similar or identical methods of torture practiced on adults. A May report from Urnammu, a NGO that focuses on the Syrian conflict, on abuses against children described usage of a torture wheel, shabeh, lynchings, beatings, rape, and forced sexual acts among children, among other abuses. For example, a May report from Urnammu detailed the experiences of Hamed, who was 15 years old when detained in 2014 in the Political Security branch in Latakia. Hamed described being tied to a torture wheel and being forced to confess to hiding weapons and tunneling, then being transferred to the Criminal Security branch where he reportedly was beaten and threatened with being shot. According to reliable witnesses, authorities continued to hold a number of children to compel parents and other relatives associated with opposition fighters to surrender to authorities.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and in many instances were life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical and psychological abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. The COI reported in March that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults. In a report released in May, Urnammu documented the detention of more than 2,400 children, while the SNHR reported the regime detained more than 7,000 children from the start of the conflict in 2011 until March and more than 200 children during the first half of the year.
According to the COI, government detention facilities lacked food, water, space, hygiene, and medical care. Poor conditions were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy.
According to local and international NGOs, the government held prisoners and detainees in severely cramped quarters with little or no access to toilets, hygiene, medical supplies, or adequate food. In March the COI reported detainees in government detention facilities subsisted in severely inhuman conditions. A February COI report stated that authorities kept detainees in government facilities in overcrowded cells, lacking adequate sanitation, and suffering from lice infestations. In August CNN reported that malnourishment and denial of medical treatment continued to lead to the deaths of detainees.
Reports from multiple international NGO sources continued to suggest there were also many informal detention sites and that authorities held thousands of prisoners in converted military bases and in civilian infrastructure, such as schools and stadiums, and in unknown locations. Activists asserted the government also housed arrested protesters in factories and vacant warehouses that were overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitary facilities.
In some cases authorities transferred detainees from unofficial holding areas to intelligence services facilities. Detention conditions at security and intelligence service facilities continued to be the harshest, especially for political or national security prisoners. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water or adequate food, medical staff and equipment, and sufficient sleeping quarters.
Inside prisons and detention centers, the prevalence of death from disease remained high due to unsanitary conditions and the withholding of food, medical care, and medication. Local NGOs and medical professionals reported authorities denied medical care to prisoners with pre-existing health needs, such as diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, and denied pregnant women any medical care. Authorities retaliated against prisoners who requested attention for the sick. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. The May report from Urnammu included the example of Ali, a 14-year-old from Aleppo, who was arrested in 2014 and held incommunicado for 10 months. Ali described the abuse of a fellow child detainee, “B.K.” from Kafer Yabos, who authorities tortured until he could no longer control his bodily functions. Ali said B.K.’s entire body was infected and that the other young detainees cared for him, fed him, and cleaned him and his wounds until he died.
Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable.
Conditions in detention centers operated by various opposition groups were not well known, but the COI and local NGOs reported accounts of arbitrary detention, torture, inhuman treatment, and abuse. According to the COI, conditions in detention center run by nonstate actors such as HTS and ISIS violated international law (see section 1.g.).
Administration: There were no credible mechanisms or avenues for prisoners to complain or submit grievances, and authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations or document complaints or grievances. Activists reported there was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. The law provides for prompt access to family members, but NGOs and families reported inconsistent application of the law, with some families waiting years to see relatives. The government continued to detain thousands of prisoners without charge and incommunicado in unknown locations.
In areas where government control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration. Former police forces or members of armed opposition groups operated facilities in areas under the control of opposition forces. Nonstate actors often did not understand due process and lacked sufficient training to run facilities.
Independent Monitoring: The government prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. AI, for example, has attempted with little success to engage Syrian authorities on human rights concerns, including torture and other mistreatment, enforced disappearances, and deaths in custody, through various means since 2011. For example, in January 2017 AI sent a letter to authorities requesting clarifications regarding the numerous allegations documented in their report “Human Slaughter House,” and in February 2017 the government denied the claims.
Some opposition forces invited the COI to visit facilities they administered and allowed some international human rights groups, including HRW, to visit. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties, except ISIS, to gain access to detention centers across the country but was unable to gain access to any government-controlled facilities during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the government to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not observe this requirement.
Arbitrary arrests continued according to local news sources, and several human rights organizations reported arbitrary detentions in the tens of thousands. The SNHR reported government forces and progovernment militias were responsible for more than 3,200 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported almost 119,000 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed almost 90 percent of such cases to the government. A March COI report stated that government forces and affiliated militias continued to detain tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. Government authorities held the vast majority without due process or access to legal representation or to their families. Victims endured brutal torture, and many died in detention or authorities summarily executed them. The COI report also concluded, “acts amounted to the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, and imprisonment in the context of its widespread and systematic detentions. They have also amounted to the war crimes of murder, cruel treatment, torture, rape, sexual violence, and outrages upon personal dignity.”
HRW reported the government continued to use counterterrorism law to arrest and convict nonviolent activists on charges of aiding terrorists in trials that violated basic due process rights. Although authorities reportedly brought charges under the guise of countering violent militancy, allegations included peaceful acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.
Government security forces failed to respond to or protect large regions of the country from violence. In February the COI reported some armed opposition groups maintained makeshift detention sites to hold civilians. The COI reported the SDF claimed to have detained nearly 1,400 terrorist fighters, the majority of whom were ISIS members but also included women and children associated with ISIS (see section 1.g.).
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The government’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence reported to the Ministry of Defense, the Political Security Directorate reported to the Ministry of Interior, and the General Intelligence Directorate reported directly to the Office of the President. The Interior Ministry controlled the four separate divisions of police: emergency police, traffic police, neighborhood police, and riot police. Government-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces (NDF), integrated with other government-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces, but did not maintain effective control over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations. These included Russian armed forces, Hizballah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and nonuniformed progovernment militias, such as the NDF. Impunity continued to be a widespread problem. The General Command of the Army and Armed Forces may issue arrest warrants for crimes committed by military officers, members of the internal security forces, or customs police during their normal duties; military courts must try such cases. Nevertheless, security forces operated independently and generally outside the control of the legal system. There were no known prosecutions or convictions of security force personnel for abuse or corruption and no reported government actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
Opposition forces established irregularly constituted courts and detention facilities in areas under their control, which varied greatly in organization and adherence to the rule of law. Some groups upheld the country’s law, while others followed a 1996 draft Arab League Unified Penal Code based on sharia or implemented a mix of customary law and sharia. The experience, expertise, and credentialing of opposition judges and religious scholars also varied widely, and dominant armed militias in the area often subjected them to their orders.
ISIS claimed that it based administration of justice in the territory it controlled on sharia. As detailed by the New York Times, ISIS reportedly authorized its police forces, known as “Hisbah,” to administer summary punishment for violations of ISIS’ morality code.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law generally requires a warrant for arrest in criminal cases, but police often cited emergency or national security justifications for acting without a warrant, which was permitted under the law. Police usually brought arrested individuals to a police station for processing and detention until a trial date was set. The law limits the length of time authorities may hold a person without charge to 60 days, but according to various NGOs, activists, and former detainees, police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the government applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which can be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or the court may appoint an attorney, although authorities did not assure lawyers access to their clients before trial. According to local human rights organizations, denial of access to a lawyer was common.
In cases involving political or national security offenses, authorities reportedly often made arrests in secret, with cases assigned in an apparently arbitrary manner to the CTC, courts-martial, or criminal courts. The government reportedly detained suspects incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied them the right to a judicial determination of their pretrial detention. In most cases authorities reportedly did not inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Security detainees did not have access to lawyers before or during questioning, or throughout preparation and presentation of their defense.
The government often reportedly failed to notify foreign governments when it arrested, detained, released, or deported their citizens, especially when the case involved political or national security charges. The government also failed to provide consular access to foreign citizens known to be in its prisons and, on numerous occasions, claimed these individuals were not in its custody or even in the country.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces continued previous practices of arbitrary arrests, and detainees had inconsistent legal redress. Reports continued of security services arresting relatives of wanted persons to pressure individuals to surrender. Police rarely issued or presented warrants or court orders before an arrest. According to reports, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that government forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests. In areas under government control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. For example, the SNHR reported that on June 21, government forces raided a residence in the Jaloub al Mal’ab neighborhood of Hama, arrested 11 civilians, including two women and three children, and took them to an undisclosed location. The COI reported in March that authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at some checkpoints. Often authorities cited no reason for arresting civilians.
Checkpoints operated by the government were a commonly reported location for arbitrary arrests, sometimes resulting in transfer to a long-term detention facility or disappearance. Government military and security forces reportedly arrested men at checkpoints solely for being of military age. According to the COI, there continued to be frequent accounts of enforced disappearances following arrest at checkpoints.
Multiple reports from local and international NGOs stated that the government prevented the majority of those detained from contacting their relatives or obtaining a lawyer. When authorities occasionally released detainees, it was often without any formal judicial procedures. Hundreds of detainees interviewed by human rights groups stated they had been arrested, detained, questioned, often tortured, and released after months or years of detention without seeing a judge or being sentenced.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.).
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Authorities reportedly held thousands of detainees incommunicado for months or years before releasing them without charge or bringing them to trial. A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. In previous years there were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for prison/detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available during the year. Syrian human rights groups continued to highlight the plight of detainees and advocate for their release.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and any delay in obtaining judicial process. If the court finds that authorities detained persons unlawfully, they are entitled to prompt release or compensation or both. Few detainees, however, had the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or obtain prompt release and compensation for unlawful detention.
Amnesty: In October the government granted amnesty to army deserters and civilians who avoided military duty, provided they reported for duty within four months if inside Syria and within six months if outside the country. The amnesty does not cover fighting against the government or joining the opposition, regarded by the government as terrorists. Media reported that refugees were skeptical, fearing forced conscription and imprisonment. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the government. During the year there were increasing reports of government forces violating prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns concentrated against civilians and former affiliates of armed opposition factions in areas that previously signed settlement agreements with the government. For example, the SNHR reported that on August 14, government forces arrested 80 civilians in the al Lajat suburbs of Daraa.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities regularly subjected courts to political influence and prosecutors and defense attorneys to intimidation and abuse. Outcomes of cases with political context appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. Government authorities detained without access to fair public trial tens of thousands of individuals, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial but not necessarily a public trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the government did not respect judicial independence.
The constitution presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated that the CTC or courts-martial did not respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them with interpretation as necessary, although authorities did not verifiably enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported that the accused were unaware of the charges against them. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held in camera. The law entitles defendants representation of their choice, but it does not permit legal representation for defendants accused of spying; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents. Defense attorneys often lacked adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, as the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) and other NGOs reported authorities arbitrarily assigned defense attorneys to many defendants at the courthouse on the day of trial. Human rights lawyers reported that in some politically charged cases, the government provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. Defendants may present witnesses and evidence and confront the prosecution or plaintiff witnesses, but authorities often did not respect this right. Defendants may not legally be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but family members and NGOs routinely reported that judges accepted confessions of guilt elicited through torture or intimidation, as described in a March report by the COI and a May report by Urnammu. Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation.
The COI, AI, ILAC, and others have reported the lack of due process in the CTC and courts-martial. In trials reportedly lasting between one and three minutes, judges reportedly used coerced confessions obtained through torture as often the only evidence to sentence prisoners to summary execution. Multiple sources alleged the government killed as many as 50 detainees per day at Sednaya Prison, since 2011. AI reported in 2017 that at Sednaya Prison an execution panel including the director of Sednaya, the military prosecutor of the court-martial, and a representative from the intelligence agencies met prisoners sentenced to death by one of two courts-martial in the al-Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus, and then prison guards immediately hanged the prisoners. Although the government denied using a crematorium to dispose of prisoners, the government failed to return the bodies of thousands of deceased prisoners after releasing death notices during the year.
Not all citizens enjoyed these rights equally, in part because interpretations of religious law provide the basis for elements of family and criminal law and discriminate against women. Some personal status laws apply sharia regardless of the religion of those involved. Additionally, media and NGO reports suggested the government denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the government, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-held areas. Sentences for persons accused of antigovernment activity tended to be harsh, if they reached trial, with violent and nonviolent offenders receiving similar punishments. For example, the government arrested internet activist Bassel Khartabil in March 2012. He was held for nine months of incommunicado detention, then subsequently moved to Adra Prison in Damascus, where his family was allowed to visit him. In October 2015 authorities moved Bassel to an unknown destination where he was later sentenced to death. According to the SNHR, the majority of those tried received five- to 20-year prison sentences. The government did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. Although activists reported individuals charged under the counterterrorism law could retain attorneys to move their trial date, according to the ILAC, authorities did not allow them to speak during proceedings or retain copies of documents on the court’s file.
In opposition-controlled areas, legal or trial procedures varied by locale and the armed group in control. Local human rights organizations reported that local governing structures assumed these responsibilities. HRW reported that civilians administered these processes employing customary sharia laws in some cases and national laws in others. Sentencing by opposition sharia councils sometimes resulted in public executions, without an appeals process or visits by family members.
According to local NGOs, opposition-run sharia councils continued to discriminate against women, not allowing them to serve as judges or lawyers or to visit detainees.
In the territories they controlled, Kurdish authorities created a legal code based on the “Social Charter.” Reports described the Social Charter as a mix of Syrian criminal and civil law with laws concerning divorce, marriage, weapons ownership, and tax evasion drawn from EU law, but without certain fair trial standards–such as the prohibition on arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer–that are customary in western judicial systems. The justice system consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies. In May Urnammu reported arbitrary arrests increased and that some opponents of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their families were forcibly disappeared (see section 1.g.).
In March and August, the COI reported that HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in its sharia courts the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
In the decreasing amount of territory it controlled, ISIS reportedly established courts to preside over its interpretation of sharia headed by judges with varied credentials. In February the COI reported that ISIS detained civilians in areas under its control accused of violating its rules or suspected of cooperating with enemy forces, members of minority religious groups, journalists, and activists accused of reporting on violations by the group, and frequently conducted public executions without proper judicial proceedings.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees.
AI and other NGOs reported the systematic arrest of tens of thousands of citizens since 2011. At greatest risk were those perceived to oppose the government, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies–Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Political Security, and General Intelligence–were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.
AI reported that the total number of political prisoners and detainees was difficult to determine in view of the lack of government information and absence of government transparency. Authorities continued to refuse to divulge information regarding numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges, but they did release thousands of death notices of detainees during the year.
According to the Washington Post, lawyers familiar with the process said the Defense Ministry sent the names of detainees to civil registry offices across the country throughout the year and instructed that these prisoners be registered as dead. The deaths were registered across the provinces of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Latakia.
The civil registry offices issued notices that were essentially executive summaries, reportedly listing few details about the deceased. Military hospitals issued other death notices, formal certificates, and medical reports. These routinely listed the cause of death as heart attack or stroke.
In March the SNHR reported that more than 104,000 persons remained in detention for reasons related to the conflict, including women and children, as well as doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Prison conditions for political or national security prisoners, especially accused opposition members, reportedly continued to be much worse than those for common criminals. According to local NGOs, authorities deliberately placed political prisoners in crowded cells with convicted and alleged felons and subjected them to verbal and physical threats and abuse. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, particularly the Families for Freedom collective, authorities refused many political prisoners access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the government denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells.
Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. While the government released thousands of detainee death notices during the year, there were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by government forces: nonviolent protester Abdel Aziz Kamal al-Rihawi; Alawite opposition figure Abdel Aziz al-Khair; Kurdish activist Berazani Karro; Yassin Ziadeh, brother of dissident Radwan Ziadeh; human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza; human rights activist Adel Barazi; and peace activist and theater director Zaki Kordillo and his son, Mihyar Kordillo.
HRW reported that courts continued to detain activists under the counterterrorism law, referring detainees arbitrarily to the CTC, courts-martial, or criminal courts, if at all. Authorities continued to re-arrest many of those released under earlier amnesties and those who previously signed settlement agreements with the government.
There were few updates in the kidnappings of many persons believed abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups. As of March 2017, the SNHR attributed several thousand arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances to armed opposition groups (see section 1.g.).
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Government civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. ISIS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.
In the Kurdish-administered parts of northeastern Syria, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a court.
Government security forces routinely seized detainees’ property, personal items, and electronics. The law also provides for the confiscation of movable and immovable property of persons convicted of terrorism, a common charge for political opponents and other detainees since 2012. Security forces did not catalog these items in accordance with the law and, although detained individuals had the right to retrieve their confiscated belongings after release, authorities often did not return the property. According to media reports and activists, government forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs. The CTC can try to convict cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of such property left by refugees and IDPs. The situation was further complicated due to the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.
Law No. 10, passed on April 2, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state. If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government. An individual can prove ownership in person or through designated proxies.
In May HRW reported that the government’s adoption of Law No. 10 will lead to confiscation of property without due process or compensation and will create a major obstacle for refugees and IDPs to return home. HRW said that it will be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property and that the procedural requirement of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population. Subsequently, in an October report, HRW detailed how the government began preventing displaced residents from former antigovernment-held areas in Darayya and Qaboun from returning to their properties, including by demolishing their properties with no warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation. The government amended the law on November 7 to add an appeals process, but NGOs continued to express serious concern the law would be implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary searches, but the government routinely failed to respect these prohibitions. Police and other security services frequently bypassed search warrant requirements in criminal cases by citing security reasons or emergency grounds for entry into private property. Arbitrary home raids occurred in large cities and towns of most governorates where the government maintained a presence, usually following antigovernment protests, opposition attacks against government targets, or resumption of government control.
The government continued to open mail addressed to both citizens and foreign residents and routinely monitored internet communications, including email (see section 2.a.).
As described in the February and March COI reports and the May Urnammu report, the government employed informer systems against political opponents and perceived national security threats.
The government continued to bar membership in some political organizations, including Islamist parties and often arrested their members (see section 3).
The government reportedly punished large numbers of family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives, as indicated in the March COI report. In May a report by Urnammu included the example of a fighter from Idlib; government forces arrested his mother (Bahia) in 2012, as well as his sister (Misa) and 15-year-old nephew (Salim) in 2015, to pressure him to surrender; the three family members remained in detention as of May.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but the law grants the government broad powers to restrict this freedom.
The Ministry of Interior requires permission for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. As a rule, the ministry authorized only demonstrations by the government, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions.
According to allegations by Kurdish activists and press reporting, the PYD and the YPG sometimes suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. During the year, however, hundreds of Christians and Assyrians peacefully protested against PYD policy to close private religious schools that teach the Syrian regime’s curriculum. Kurdish security forces fired weapons into the air but reportedly did not otherwise engage the protesters. Similar protests in Hasaka against forcible recruitment also appear to have occurred without serious incident.
During the year multiple media outlets reported that HTS loosened restrictions on civil society activity, including protests, due to popular pressure for engagement to oppose an expected assault by government and progovernment forces on the Idlib Governorate. This approach was manifested in September, when substantial numbers protested against President Assad and the government in opposition- and HTS-held areas of Idlib and Hama.
The COI reported that residents who previously resided in ISIS-controlled Raqqa noted severe restrictions on assembly while under ISIS rule, but ISIS territories contracted considerably during the year.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the government latitude to restrict this freedom. The government required prior registration and approval for private associations and restricted the activities of associations and their members. The executive boards of professional associations were not independent of the government.
The government often denied requests for registration or failed to act on them, reportedly on political grounds. None of the local human rights organizations operated with a license but many functioned under organizations that had requisite government registration. The government continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association. Despite government efforts, journalists in exile founded the Syrian Journalist Association as an independent democratic professional association in 2012 to empower the role of freedom of the press and expression in Syria.
The government selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only progovernment groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the government would use party lists to target opposition members.
Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the government, security forces detained hundreds of persons linked to local human rights groups and prodemocracy student groups. The thousands of death notices released by the government during the year shed light on this practice. For example, the Atlantic described the fates of many of the young protest organizers, civil society leaders, and local coordination committee members forcibly disappeared by the government in 2011. These included Yahya and Ma’an Shurbaji; both had been missing since 2011 and were now listed as having died in government detention in 2013. The government also searched these individuals’ personal and social media contacts for further potential targets.
HTS restricted the activities of organizations it deemed incompatible with its interpretation of Islam. For example, in its March report, the COI describes how in 2015 the HTS predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra group burned a women’s organization in Idlib, stole the organizer’s car, and detained the organizer for a short period. In 2017 the March COI report noted that HTS prevented NGOs in Idlib from conducting meetings with mixed participants so a number of NGOs began holding meetings via remote presence.
According to previous media reports and reports from former residents of ISIS-controlled areas, ISIS did not permit the existence of associations that opposed the structures or policies of the “caliphate.”
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the government, ISIS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Government sieges in Homs, Damascus, rural Damascus, Deir al-Zour, and Idlib Governorates restricted the freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while forced evacuations following sieges resulted in mass displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).
The government inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Both government and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.
In-country Movement: In government-besieged cities throughout the country, government forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.
The government expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement. Government forces reportedly used snipers to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The government also barred foreign diplomats from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.
In areas they still controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). According to the COI, long desert detour routes exposed drivers and passengers to arbitrary arrest, unlawful search and seizure of property, demands for bribes, and detention and execution at checkpoints administered by ISIS, the government, and other armed actors.
While the SDC and SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in July HRW claimed that the SDC and members of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration operating in Deir al-Zour and Raqqa confiscated the identification cards of IDPs in camps and prevented their freedom of movement. According to UN and HRW allegations, the SDF in some instances required IDPs to obtain “sponsorship” to move to traditionally Kurdish areas controlled by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Kobani.
In the remaining areas under its control, ISIS restricted the movement of government supporters or assumed supporters, especially the Alawite and Shia populations, as well as Yezidi, Christian, and other captives. ISIS reportedly did not permit female passengers to traverse territory it controlled unless accompanied by a close male relative.
Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the government denied passports and other vital documents based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The government also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. For example, local media reported that every man between the ages of 17 and 42 must obtain approval from the conscription office before leaving the country. Additionally, the government often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The government reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The government comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks at airports and border crossings.
The government also often refused to allow citizens to return. According to numerous media outlets, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security directorate, stated that in coordinating the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, the Syrian government reviews a list of names and “on average” rejects 10 percent of them.
Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The government allowed Syrians living outside of the country, whose passports expired, to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the government against which they may have protested or feared the government could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.
Women older than age 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country.
There were reports ISIS destroyed Syrian passports and legal records and produced its own passports, not recognized by any country or entity. These policies disproportionately affected children, because many left the country before obtaining a passport or identification card. ISIS explicitly prohibited women from foreign travel.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
During the year violence continued to be the primary reason for displacement, much of it attributed to government and Russian aerial attacks. Government and progovernment evacuations of besieged areas, often overseen by Russian forces, forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. Years of conflict and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, and each displacement depleted family assets. In September the United Nations estimated there were more than 6.2 million IDPs in the country, including 1.5 million new IDPs since the start of the year. The United Nations estimated that 750,000 IDPs returned to their places of origin during the first half of the year. Up to 1.2 million persons lived in UN-designated hard-to-reach areas. UN humanitarian officials reported that most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps. The humanitarian response to the country was coordinated through a complex bureaucratic structure. The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level 3 response–the global humanitarian system’s classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises.
The government generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, did not offer IDPs assistance or protection, did not facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, and provided inconsistent protection. The government forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The government did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs and, in many cases, refused to allow IDPs to return home. Seven Syrians who had attempted to return to their homes in Darayya and Qaboun, or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in May and July, told HRW that they or their relatives were unable to access their residential or commercial properties. According to HRW, the government was imposing town-wide restrictions on access to Darayya and in Qaboun the government either had restricted access to their neighborhoods or had demolished the property of the Syrians attempting to return. The government routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.).
The SARC functioned as the main partner for international humanitarian organizations working inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance in government and some opposition-controlled areas. NGOs operating from Damascus faced government bureaucratic obstruction in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to government offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the government increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. Cross-border operations from Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, provided humanitarian assistance, but these halted from Jordan in June when the government retook territory in the southwest up to the Syria-Jordan border. While humanitarian aid was provided cross-border from Turkey to northwest Syria (Idlib and Aleppo) via two border crossings, Turkey prohibited the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey.
Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the government continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the government secured control over many of these areas during the year. For example, humanitarian organizations reported throughout the summer that the government did not permit UN agencies the sustained access required to conduct detailed needs assessments for vulnerable populations in Quneitra. The United Nations reported that as of November only seven humanitarian assistance convoys had accessed hard-to-reach areas during the year, providing assistance to approximately 220,000 persons.
In early November the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to approximately 50,000 persons in need at Rukban camp in southeast Syria near the Jordanian border. Additionally, the convoy provided an emergency vaccination campaign to protect some 5,000 children against measles, polio, and other diseases. The overall humanitarian situation in Rukban camp had reached a dire state, with reported shortages of basic commodities, protection concerns, increasing violence, and the death of several children who reportedly were unable to obtain the further medical treatment they needed, according to the United Nations. Prior to the delivery of humanitarian goods, the last UN delivery of assistance to Rukban was in January, delivered through Jordan. Prior to the November delivery, the government refused to authorize a convoy to travel from Damascus to Rukban.
Armed opposition groups, and terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS, also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. For example, in March the United Nations criticized the Turkish-backed armed opposition groups, including the FSA, for providing inconsistent, restricted access to IDPs in Afrin. In October the United Kingdom temporarily suspended the delivery of aid to Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province due to HTS taxes on aid trucks. The United Kingdom subsequently resumed aid delivery and, as of November, was still delivering aid to Idlib Province. The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Raqqa.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to Syria in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to Syria during the year. In July, however, the government and Russia began a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. While Russia reportedly was eager to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, the Syrian government adopted a more cautious approach on promoting the return of refugees, reportedly due to the government’s suspicion that many Syrian refugees supported the opposition.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.
Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the government rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.
Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The government also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation, and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 48,000 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement. UNHCR reported a rise in sexual- and gender-based violence and child-protection concerns among refugees, including child labor, school dropouts, and early marriages.
Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced with regard to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah Governorate. Anyone not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork became “foreign” from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.
In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in al-Hasakah Governorate who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an approximate increase in population since the 1962 census.
Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries operating refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens were not able to exercise that ability. Outcomes reflected underlying circumstances of elections that impeded and coerced the will of the electorate.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Municipal elections were held on September 16 with approximately 40,000 candidates vying for more than 18,000 council seats in areas controlled by the government. According to media outlets, opposition figures claimed a low turnout because most Syrians considered the elections to be of limited value. Opposition sources, according to Al-Monitor, alleged the government forced civil servants to cast their votes. Multiple reports indicated the government denied access to ballot boxes to Syrians residing in Daraa Province, which the government brought under its control earlier this year following a military offensive. According to observers the results were rigged in favor of the ruling Baath Party. Most of the candidates were either from the Baath Party or associated with it.
In 2016 the country held geographically limited parliamentary elections, the results of which citizens living outside government control rejected. The 2014 presidential election, in which Bashar Assad ostensibly received 88.7 percent of the vote, was neither free nor fair by international standards. Voters faced intimidation by government security forces, and the government forcibly transported state employees in Damascus to polling centers, according to observers and media. Media reports described low overall voter turnout, even among those living in relatively stable areas with access to polling stations. Authorities allowed only persons in government-controlled territory, certain refugee areas, and refugees who left the country after obtaining official permission to vote.
In September 2017 Kurdish authorities held elections for leaders of local “communes” in an effort to establish new governing institutions to augment regional autonomy. The Syrian regime does not recognize the Kurdish enclave or the elections. The Kurdish National Council (KNC, a rival to the PYD) called for a boycott, terming the elections “a flagrant violation of the will of the Kurdish people.” Media outlets reported that the election was monitored by a small group of foreign experts, including a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which runs the Kurdish Regional Government in neighboring Iraq.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides that the Baath Party is the ruling party and assures that it has a majority in all government and popular associations, such as workers’ and women’s groups. The Baath Party and nine smaller satellite political parties constituted the coalition National Progressive Front. The Baath-led National Progressive Front dominated the 250-member People’s Council, holding 200 of the 250 parliament seats following the 2016 election. A 2011 decree allows for the establishment of additional political parties but forbids those based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests.
Membership in the Baath Party or close familial relationships with a prominent party member or powerful government official assisted in economic, social, and educational advancement. Party or government connections made it easier to gain admission to better schools, access lucrative employment, and achieve greater advancement and power within the government, military, and security services. The government reserved certain prominent positions, such as provincial governorships, solely for Baath Party members.
The government showed little tolerance for other political parties, including those allied with the Baath Party in the National Progressive Front. The government harassed parties such as the Communist Union Movement, Communist Action Party, and Arab Social Union. Police arrested members of banned Islamist parties, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. Reliable data on illegal political parties was unavailable.
The PYD generally controlled the political and governance landscape in northeast Syria while allowing for Arab representation in local governance councils. The PYD, however, maintained overall control of critical decisions made by local councils. PYD-affiliated internal security forces at times reportedly detained and forcibly disappeared perceived opponents, and Assyrian and Chaldean protesters accused it of incorporating political indoctrination in the public school curriculum. In June the Washington Institute reported that these forces arrested KNC leaders, burned KNC offices, and prevented KNC members from holding meetings and conferences. The arrests follow a long-standing dispute between the KNC and the PYD, in which the latter accuses the former of working with Turkey and the Syrian opposition to undermine the PYD’s governance apparatus in northeast Syria.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Although there were no formal restrictions, cultural and social barriers largely excluded women from decision-making positions. The government formed after the 2014 election included three female members: Vice President Najah al-Attar, Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Nazira Serkis, and Minister of Social Affairs Rima al-Qadiri. In 2016, 13 percent of members of parliament were women. There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. In 2017 Hammouda Sabbagh became the first Orthodox Christian elected speaker of parliament. Alawites, the ruling religious minority, held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities as well as more authority than the majority Sunni sect did.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. Corruption continued to be a pervasive problem in police forces, security services, migration management agencies, and throughout the government.
Corruption: Due to the lack of free press and opposition access to instruments of government and media, there was almost no detailed information about corruption, except petty corruption. Freedom House reported that to secure its support base the government regularly distributed patronage in the form of public resources and implemented policies to benefit favored industries and companies. Authorities reportedly awarded government contracts and trade deals to allies like Iran and Russia, possibly as compensation for political and military aid. Basic state services and humanitarian aid reportedly were extended or withheld based on a community’s demonstrated political loyalty to the government, providing additional leverage for bribe-seeking officials.
For example, President Bashar Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, reportedly was known as “Mr. 5 Percent” or “Mr. 10 Percent,” depending on the size of the deal. As late as 2011, Makhlouf reportedly controlled 60 percent of the country’s economy. The Panama Papers, Swissleaks, and most recently the Paradise Papers chronicled his money laundering and sanctions busting activities. In April the Anticorruption Digest reported that Makhlouf stands to benefit from the presidential decree addressing confiscation of unregistered properties (see section 1.e.).
Human rights lawyers and family members of detainees stated that government officials in courts and prisons solicited bribes for favorable decisions and provision of basic services. For example, the New York Times reported in February that artist Najah al-Bukai won his release from detention at Branch 227 after his wife bribed officials with more than 10 million Syrian pounds ($20,000).
Financial Disclosure: There are no public financial disclosure laws for public officials.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The government restricted attempts to investigate alleged human rights violations, criminalized their publication, and refused to cooperate with any independent attempts to investigate alleged violations. The government did not grant permission for the formation of any domestic human rights organizations. Nevertheless, hundreds of such groups operated illegally in the country.
The government was highly suspicious of international human rights NGOs and did not allow them into the country. The government normally responded to queries from human rights organizations and foreign embassies regarding specific cases by denying the facts of the case or by reporting that the case was still under investigation, the prisoner in question had violated national security laws, or, if the case was in criminal court, the executive branch could not interfere with the judiciary. The government denied organizations access to locations where government agents launched assaults on antigovernment protesters or allegedly held prisoners detained on political grounds. The United Nations reported that the government also actively restricted the activities of humanitarian aid organizations, especially along supply routes and access points near opposition-controlled areas (see section 1.g.).
There were numerous reports the government harassed domestic human rights activists by subjecting them to regular surveillance and travel bans, property seizure, detention, torture, forcible disappearance, and extrajudicial killings. For example, human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza, reportedly disappeared from a government checkpoint near Damascus in 2012. HRW reported the government moved the two men among various detention facilities in Damascus, including the Palestine Branch, a detention center run by Military Intelligence. In October the SOHR again called on the government for information on the welfare and whereabouts of Ma’touq and Zaza.
Terrorist groups, including ISIS, violently attacked organizations and individuals seeking to investigate human rights abuses or advocate for improved practices. The SDF and other opposition groups occasionally imposed restrictions on human rights organizations or harassed individual activists.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to deny access for the COI, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to document and report on human rights violations and abuses in the country. It did not cooperate fully with numerous UN bodies, resulting in restrictions on access for humanitarian organizations, especially to opposition-controlled areas.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape is punishable by imprisonment and hard labor of at least 15 years (at least nine years in mitigating circumstances), which is aggravated if the perpetrator is a government official, religious official, or has legitimate or actual authority over the victim; male rape is punishable by imprisonment up to three years. The law specifically excludes spousal rape, and it reduces or suspends punishment if the rapist marries the victim. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies, NGOs, and media characterized rape and sexual violence as endemic, underreported, and uncontrolled in the country. Humanitarian organizations reported that women, men, and community leaders consistently identified sexual violence as a primary reason their families fled the country. In March the COI reported that government and progovernment forces regularly used rape and sexual violence to terrorize and punish women, men, and children perceived as associated with the opposition, as did terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS. There were instances, comparatively far fewer, of armed opposition groups reportedly raping women and children. HTS and ISIS also reportedly forced women and girls into sexual slavery (see sections 1.a., 1.c., and 1.g.).
The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, but it stipulates that men may discipline their female relatives in a form permitted by general custom. According to a November 2017 UNFPA report, violence against women and children was pervasive and increasing due to conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men. Victims did not report the vast majority of cases. Security forces consistently treated violence against women as a social rather than a criminal matter. Observers reported that when some abused women tried to file a police report, police did not investigate their reports thoroughly, if at all, and that in other cases police officers responded by abusing the women.
In previous years several domestic violence centers operated in Damascus; the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor licensed them. Local NGOs reported, however, that many centers no longer operated due to the conflict. There were no known government-run services for women outside Damascus. According to local human rights organizations, local coordination committees and other opposition-related groups offered programming specifically for protection of women; NGOs did not integrate these programs throughout the country, and none reported reliable funding.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permits judges to reduce penalties for murder and assault if the defendant asserts an “honor” defense, which often occurred. The government kept no official statistics on use of this defense in murder and assault cases and reportedly rarely pursued prosecution of so-called honor crimes. There were no officially reported honor killings during the year, but UNFPA reported in November 2017 that honor killings increased since the onset of the crisis in 2011 due to increased sexual violence and lawlessness. For example, UNFPA cited an adolescent girl in Mare, Aleppo, whose friend reportedly was killed by her father when she returned after being kidnapped. To protect their daughters, UNFPA reported that many families arranged for them to marry earlier, leading to an increase in early and forced marriage. NGOs working with refugees reported families killed some rape victims inside the country, including those raped by government forces, for reasons of honor.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS permitted and committed so-called honor killings in territories under their control (see section 1.g.).
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender but does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Sexual harassment was pervasive, uncontrolled, and increasing, according to a November 2017 report by UNFPA. For example, UNFPA cited an adolescent girl from Saraqab, Idlib, who said she formerly returned from university in Aleppo at night without any problems but that harassment of girls has spread, even in the daytime; her parents became worried and prevented her from leaving home.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization by the government, but previous reports from Iraq and NGOs such as Yazda and the Free Yezidi Foundation found that ISIS forced Yezidi women whom they had impregnated to have abortions. There were reports that ISIS transferred some Yezidi women captives from Iraq to Syria, and the COI reported in March that some ISIS fighters were seen fleeing Raqqa and Deir al-Zour in 2017 with women believed to be Yezidi captives (see section 1.g.).
Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, nationality, inheritance, retirement, and social security laws discriminate against women.
For example, if a man and a woman separately commit the same criminal act of adultery, then by law the woman’s punishment is double that of the man’s. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony in some cases. Under the law a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach age 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family. For Muslims in particular, personal status law discriminates against women. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. Women cannot pass citizenship to their children. The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, courts usually granted Muslim women half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.
The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.
Before the conflict began, 13 percent of women participated in the formal labor force, compared with 73 percent of men. Both male and female employment participation decreased as violence and insecurity increased, (The International Labor Organization estimated female employment fell by slightly more than 1 percent while male employment fell by almost 3 percent from 2011 to 2017). UNFPA reported local female employment participation increased in Damascus, Raqqa, Daraa, and elsewhere since the need to support the family forced women to work because many men could no longer do so.
The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered.
Women participated in public life and in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported that violence and lawlessness in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS reportedly placed similar discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in the territories they controlled. For example, in March the COI reported that HTS or ISIS or both: forced women and girls into marriage; imposed a dress code on women and girls; banned women and girls from wearing makeup; required that women and girls must be accompanied by a “mahram” or male member of their immediate family; forbade women from speaking with unrelated men or hosting men who were not their husband; forbade widows from living alone; banned women’s centers; banned meetings with mixed male and female participation; and segregated classrooms. Both ISIS and HTS maintained all-female police units to support the Hisbah in enforcing these regulations, sometimes violently, among women. Summary punishments for infractions ranged from corporal punishment such as lashing to execution.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship solely from their father. In large areas of the country where civil registries were not functioning, authorities did not register births. The government did not register the births of Kurdish noncitizen residents, including stateless Kurds (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons). Failure to register resulted in deprivation of services, such as diplomas for high school-level studies, access to universities, access to formal employment, and civil documentation and protection.
Education: The government provided free public education to citizen children from primary school through university. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 12. Enrollment, attendance, and completion rates for boys and girls generally were comparable. Noncitizen children could also attend public schools at no cost but required permission from the Ministry of Education. While Palestinians and other noncitizens, including stateless Kurds, could generally send their children to school and universities, stateless Kurds were ineligible to receive a degree documenting their academic achievement.
The conflict and widespread destruction continued to hamper the ability of children to attend school. In June the Assistance Coordination Unit, a local NGO, reported that only 9 percent of the assessed functional schools provided upper secondary education, 36 percent offered lower secondary education, 56 percent offered primary education, and almost one-third of the assessed schools did not separate the various teaching levels.
The terrorist groups, ISIS and HTS, reportedly imposed their interpretation of sharia on schools and discriminated against girls in the territories they controlled. For example, in March the COI reported that HTS and ISIS: segregated classrooms by gender, dismissed students for dress code violations, imposed their curriculum on teachers, and closed private schools and educational centers. ISIS also banned several basic education subjects, such as chemistry and philosophy.
Child Abuse: The law does not specifically prohibit child abuse, but it stipulates that parents may discipline their children in a form permitted by general custom. According to a November 2017 UNFPA report, violence against children, especially girls, was pervasive and increasing due to conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men.
There were reports of government and progovernment forces, as well as the terrorist groups HTS and ISIS, sexually assaulting, torturing, detaining, killing, and otherwise abusing children (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and 1.g.). In July Urnammu reported extensively on such abuses.
The terrorist groups HTS and ISIS subjected children to extremely harsh punishment, including execution, in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.).
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. A boy as young as 15 or a girl as young as 13 may marry if a judge deems both parties willing and “physically mature” and if the fathers or grandfathers of both parties consent. Early and forced marriages were increasingly common, as were abusive temporary marriages.
In November 2017 UNFPA reported early marriage had evolved from a cultural practice to an increasingly used coping mechanism during the war. Many families reportedly arranged marriages for girls, including at younger ages than pre-2011, believing that it would protect them and ease the financial burden on the family.
There were instances of early and forced marriage of girls to members of government, progovernment, and armed opposition forces.
In previous years ISIS abducted and sexually exploited Yezidi girls in Iraq and transported them to Syria for rape and forced marriage; many of those Yezidi women and girls remained captive during the year (see section 1.g. and section 6, Women). In March the COI reported that ISIS perceived unmarried women and girls older than the age of puberty as a threat to social order. As a result, from 2014 onwards, ISIS began to marry forcibly Sunni (also minority) girls and women living in territories under its control. Some of those forced to marry ISIS members were adults, including widows, but the vast majority of cases the COI documented revealed that girls between 12 and 16 years old were victims of forced marriage. Many women and girls reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years. HTS also reportedly forced Druze and other minority women and girls into marriage, as well as Sunni women and girls.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law stipulates penalties for those found guilty of certain forms of child abuse associated with trafficking crimes, including kidnapping and forced prostitution, both of which carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. The law considers child pornography a trafficking crime, but the punishment for child pornography was set at the local level with “appropriate penalties.” It was also unclear if there had been any prosecutions for child pornography or if authorities enforced the law.
The age of sexual consent by law is 15 with no close-in-age exemption. Premarital sex is illegal, but observers reported authorities did not enforce the law. Rape of a child under the age of 15 is punishable by not less than 21 years’ imprisonment and hard labor. There were no reports of government prosecution of child rape cases.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat (see section 1.g.).
Displaced Children: There was a large population of IDP children and some refugee children as well. These children reportedly experienced increased vulnerability to abuses, including by armed forces (see sections 1.c., 1.g., and 2.d.).
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
In 2016 NGOs estimated fewer than 20–perhaps fewer than 10–Jews remained in the country. The national school curriculum did not include materials on tolerance education or the Holocaust. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law protects the rights of persons with disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, and other state services, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and seeks to integrate them into the workforce, reserving 4 percent of government jobs and 2 percent of private-sector jobs for persons with disabilities. Private-sector businesses are eligible for tax exemptions after hiring persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for assisting persons with disabilities, and it worked through dedicated charities and organizations to provide assistance. Authorities did not fully document the number of persons with disabilities, but the NGO Humanity and Inclusion (HI, formerly Handicap International) reported in April that 30,000 new conflict-related trauma cases per month were leading to thousands of permanent disabilities. According to the local NGO Syria Relief, persons with disabilities remained among the most hidden, neglected, and socially excluded of all displaced persons in the country. They reportedly were not often recognized or calculated in record-keeping and data-collection exercises, contributing to neglect.
The destruction of schools and hospitals, most often by government and progovernment forces, limited access to education and health services for persons with disabilities, but government and nongovernment social care institutes reportedly existed for blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, and physical and intellectual disabilities. The government did not effectively work to provide access for persons with disabilities to information, communications, building, or transportation. In its November 2017 report, UNFPA detailed how educational institutions, early childcare centers, Quranic schools, and women’s centers often were easily accessible to community members with the exception of the elderly and persons with disabilities. UNFPA further stated that persons with disability were sometimes denied aid, as they could not access it, and some distribution centers required presence in person.
According to a 2017 report by the Syria Reliance Consortium of HI and other international NGOs, 50 percent of households surveyed, who counted a member with a disability, suffered from poor food consumption, compared with 34 percent for households without persons with a disability. In April HI reported that women and girls with disabilities were three times more likely to experience gender-based violence compared with nondisabled women. For example, in a November 2017 report, UNFPA cited the case of a young man in Sweida who lured and raped a disabled girl playing in the street by offering her candy. There was no indication that the government effectively investigated or punished those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.
The government actively restricted national and ethnic minorities from conducting traditional, religious, and cultural activities. The Kurdish population–citizens and noncitizens–faced official and societal discrimination and repression as well as government-sponsored violence. Government and progovernment forces, as well as ISIS and armed opposition forces such as the Turkish-backed FSA, reportedly arrested, detained, tortured, killed, and otherwise abused numerous Kurdish activists and individuals, as well as members of the SDF, during the year (see section 1.g.).
The government continued to limit the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted publication in Kurdish of books and other materials, Kurdish cultural expression, and at times the celebration of Kurdish festivals.
The Alawite community, to which Bashar Assad belongs, enjoyed privileged status throughout the government and dominated the state security apparatus and military leadership. Nevertheless, the government reportedly also targeted Alawite opposition activists for arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, and killing. Extremist opposition groups targeted Alawite communities on several occasions for their perceived progovernment stance.
In March the COI reported that armed opposition groups detained hundreds of women and girls belonging to minority groups, particularly Alawites, and used them as bargaining chips for initiating prisoner swaps with government and progovernment forces.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS violently oppressed and discriminated against all non-Sunni Arab ethnic minorities in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.).
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, defined as “carnal relations against the order of nature,” and punishable by imprisonment up to three years.
In previous years police used this charge to prosecute lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals. There were no reports of prosecutions under the law during the year, but NGO reports indicated the government arrested dozens of LGBTI persons since 2011 on charges such as abusing social values; selling, buying, or consuming illegal drugs; and organizing and promoting “obscene” parties. Local media and NGOs reported instances in which government and progovernment forces used accusations of homosexuality as a pretext to detain, arrest, torture, and kill civilians. The frequency of such instances was difficult to determine, since police rarely reported their rationale for arrests.
Although there were no known domestic NGOs focused on LGBTI matters, there were several online networking communities, including an online LGBTI-oriented magazine. Human rights activists reported there was overt societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society.
The terrorist groups ISIS and HTS regularly detained, tortured, and killed LGBTI individuals in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.). For example, in its March report, the COI described how in 2016 HTS predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra accused two men of being homosexuals, tied their hands behind their backs, announced the accusations of homosexuality over loudspeakers, and threw the two men from the third floor of a building in Sheikhoun, Idlib. Similarly, the COI reported that ISIS executed males, including boys raped by older men, on charges of sodomy and widely circulated videos of the executions to terrorize populations under their control. For example, in its March report, the COI reported that Hisbah belonging to ISIS arrested a teenage boy in Raqqa, charged him with sodomy, and threw him off a building.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
There were no reports of violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, but human rights activists believed such cases were underreported and the UN Development Program (UNDP) noted that stigma affected access to health care. The Ministry of Health claimed in December 2017 there were 35 known cases of HIV/AIDS in the country, while UNDP estimated there were 450 persons with HIV/AIDS. The UNDP and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria assessed that the incapability of the health-care sector to identify newly infected persons or offer medical support in a hostile environment posed a major problem and added to the risk of further spread of the disease among the general population.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Yezidis, Druze, Christians, and other religious minorities were subject to violence and discrimination by ISIS (see section 1.g.).
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
While the law provides for the right to form and join unions, conduct legal labor strikes, and bargain collectively, there were excessive restrictions on these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but also allows employers to fire workers at will.
The law requires all unions to belong to the government-affiliated General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). The law prohibits strikes involving more than 20 workers in certain sectors, including transportation and telecommunications, or strike actions resembling public demonstrations. Restrictions on freedom of association also included fines and prison sentences for illegal strikes.
The law requires that government representatives be part of the bargaining process in the public sector, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor could object to, and refuse to register, any agreements concluded. The law and relevant labor protections do not apply to workers covered under civil service provisions, under which employees neither have nor considered to need collective bargaining rights. The law does not apply to foreign domestic servants, agricultural workers, NGO employees, or informal-sector workers. There are no legal protections for self-employed workers, although they constituted a significant proportion of the total workforce. Foreign workers may join the syndicate representing their profession but may not run for elected positions, with the exception of Palestinians, who may serve as elected officials in unions.
The government did not enforce applicable laws effectively or make any serious attempt to do so during the year. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
The Baath Party dominated the GFTU, and Baath Party doctrine stipulates that its quasi-official constituent unions protect worker rights. The GFTU president was a senior member of the Baath Party, and he and his deputy could attend cabinet meetings on economic affairs. In previous years the GFTU controlled most aspects of union activity, including which sectors or industries could have unions. It also had the power to disband union governing bodies. Union elections were generally free of direct GFTU interference, but successful campaigns usually required membership in the Baath Party. Because of the GFTU’s close ties to the government, the right to bargain collectively did not exist in practical terms. Although the law provides for collective bargaining in the private sector, past government repression dissuaded most workers from exercising this right.
There was little information available on employer practices with regard to antiunion discrimination. Unrest and economic decline during the year caused many workers to lose their private-sector jobs, giving employers the stronger hand in disputes.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and such practices existed. The Syrian Penal Code does not define forced labor. The code states, “Those sentenced to forced labor will be strictly required to do work with difficulty on par with their sex, age, and may be inside or outside of the prison.” The Penal Code allows for forced labor as a mandatory or optional sentence for numerous crimes, such as treason. Authorities may sentence convicted prisoners to hard labor, although according to the International Labor Organization, authorities seldom enforced such a sentence. There was little information available on government efforts to enforce relevant laws during the year or on the effectiveness of penalties to deter violations.
Terrorist groups, including ISIS and HTS, reportedly forced, coerced, or fraudulently recruited some foreigners, including migrants from Central Asia, children, and western women to join them. Thousands of Yezidi women and girl captives of ISIS remained missing and were presumed to have served as sex slaves and in domestic servitude (see section 1.g.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law provides for the protection of children from exploitation in the workplace and prohibits the worst forms of child labor. There was little publicly available information on enforcement of child labor law. The government generally did not make significant efforts to enforce laws that prevent or eliminate child labor. Independent information and audits regarding government enforcement were not available. The minimum age for most types of nonagricultural labor is 15 or the completion of elementary schooling, whichever occurs first, and the minimum age for employment in industries with heavy work is 17. Parental permission is required for children younger than age 16 to work. Children younger than age 18 may work no more than six hours a day and may not work overtime or during night shifts, weekends, or on official holidays. The law specifies that authorities should apply “appropriate penalties” to violators. Restrictions on child labor do not apply to those who work in family businesses and do not receive a salary.
Child labor occurred in the country in both informal sectors, such as begging, domestic work, and agriculture, as well as in positions related to the conflict, such as lookouts, spies, and informants. Conflict-related work subjected children to significant dangers of retaliation and violence.
Various forces, particularly terrorist groups and government-aligned groups, continued to recruit and use child soldiers (see section 1.g.).
Organized begging rings continued to subject children displaced within the country to forced labor. In October UNICEF reported that 5.3 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance. As of October UNICEF also reported that fighting destroyed, damaged, or occupied one in every three schools; 1.75 million children were out of school (more than 2.6 million Syrian children, including refugees and others in the diaspora); another 1.35 million were at risk for leaving school.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution does not address discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, or HIV-positive status. Since the law criminalizes homosexuality, many persons faced discrimination due to their sexual orientation. Discrimination against persons with disabilities occurred in hiring and access to worksites. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to certain minority groups (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law divides the public-sector monthly minimum wage into five levels based on job type or level of education, almost all of which fell below the World Bank’s poverty indicator of almost 1,000 Syrian pounds ($1.90) per day. Benefits included compensation for meals, uniforms, and transportation. Most public-sector employees relied on bribery to supplement their income. Private-sector companies usually paid much higher wages, with lower-end wage rates semi-officially set by the government and employer organizations. Many workers in the public and private sectors took additional manual jobs or relied on their extended families to support them.
The public-sector workweek was 35 hours, and the standard private-sector workweek was 40 hours, excluding meals and rest breaks. Hours of work could increase or decrease based on the industry and associated health hazards. The law provides for at least one meal or rest break totaling no less than one hour per day. Employers must schedule hours of work and rest such that workers do not work more than five consecutive hours or 10 hours per day in total. Employers must provide premium pay for overtime work.
The government set occupational safety and health standards. The law includes provisions mandating that employers take appropriate precautions to protect workers from hazards inherent to the nature of work. The law does not protect workers who chose to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety from losing their employment.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage and other regulations pertaining to acceptable conditions of work. The Ministries of Health and of Social Affairs and Labor designated officials to inspect worksites for compliance with health and safety standards. Workers could lodge complaints about health and safety conditions with special committees established to adjudicate such cases. Wage and hour regulations as well as occupational health and safety rules do not apply to migrant workers, rendering them more vulnerable to abuse.
There was little information on government enforcement of labor law or working conditions during the year. There were no health and safety inspections reported, and even previous routine inspections of tourist facilities such as hotels and major restaurants no longer occurred. The enforcement of labor law was lax in both rural and urban areas, since many inspector positions were vacant due to the violence, and their number was insufficient to cover more than 10,000 workplaces. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Foreign workers, especially domestic workers, remained vulnerable to exploitative conditions. For example, the law does not legally entitle foreign female domestic workers to the same wages as Syrian domestic workers. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is in charge of regulating employment agencies responsible for providing safe working conditions for migrant domestic workers, but the scope of oversight was unknown. The continued unrest resulted in the large-scale voluntary departure of foreign workers as demand for services significantly declined, but violence and lawlessness impeded some foreign workers from leaving the country.