Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the regime to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” or related offenses. Arbitrary arrests continued during the year, according to the COI, local news sources, and various human rights organizations, as well as prolonged or indefinite detentions. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the regime did not observe this requirement.
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 is permitted under the law. Under the constitution and code of criminal procedure, defendants must be informed of the reasons for their arrest, and they are entitled to legal aid and are presumed innocent until convicted by a court in a fair trial. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the regime applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which could 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 ensure lawyers’ access to their clients before trial.
In March the COI reported that those arrested were typically not given information regarding the justification for the arrest. Those informed of the charges rarely had access to evidence supporting the charges. According to the COI, detainees were routinely tortured to extract confessions or compelled to sign declarations they had not been allowed to read. The COI also found that proceedings in field courts would “last only minutes,” with no legal counsel or witnesses present.
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 Counterterrorism Court (CTC), courts-martial, or criminal courts. The CTC, military field courts, and military courts are exempted from following the same procedures as ordinary courts, allowing them to operate outside of the code of criminal procedure and deny basic rights guaranteed to defendants. Numerous human rights organizations asserted that trials before these courts were unfair and summary in nature, sometimes resulting in death sentences. In March the COI noted that eyewitness accounts from CTC proceedings described the hearings as “brief, with scant (if any) evidence presented to support serious charges.”
The regime 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 identify themselves or inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Individuals detained without charge did not qualify for release under regime-issued amnesty decrees. In January the Daraa Martyrs’ Documentation Office reported the execution of 83 military dissidents who had accepted a settlement agreement with the regime mediated by the Russian military police, in addition to 31 others who did not accept the agreement. According to the NGO Global Voices, the regime never complied with the conditions of the settlement and continued to target and arrest members of the opposition. In September the COI documented the case of a man from Homs who returned to Syria in 2019 under a regime-sponsored reconciliation process and was later detained for three and one-half months in several detention facilities until his family paid a bribe for his release. He said officials, as well as medical staff at Branch 235 of the Military Intelligence Directorate in Damascus, tortured him in detention.
Human rights groups continued to highlight the unlawful treatment of detainees and advocate for their release.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGO reports and confirmed by regime memoranda secured and released by human rights documentation groups, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. Because the regime continued to withhold information on detainees, estimates varied widely, but the COI stated regime forces and affiliated militias continued to hold tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in detention facilities. As of November the SNHR reported more than 150,000 persons remained arbitrary detained or forcibly disappeared; it attributed 88 percent of these cases to the regime, including the Syrian Arab Army, General Intelligence Directorate, Air Force Intelligence Directorate, General Administration Division, and Political Security Directorate. The SNHR reported that regime forces and proregime militias arbitrarily arrested or detained 756 individuals, including 19 children and 19 women, from the beginning of the year through November.
PHR reported that regime forces continued to specifically target health-care workers because of their status as medical professionals and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers. Survivors reported the regime relied on torture to coerce medical workers to confess to crimes they did not commit and gather information on other health workers and health-care activities. Additionally, human rights activists said the regime arrested health-care providers who spoke to international media outlets regarding the COVID-19 crisis or contradicted the tightly controlled narrative on the impact of the pandemic on the country. According to the SNHR, at least 3,360 health care workers remained detained or forcibly disappeared as of November, of which the regime was responsible for more than 3,300 cases.
The SNHR reported that authorities continued to arbitrarily arrest men and boys at checkpoints, often citing no reason for their arrest. Some who had previously settled their security status with the regime via reconciliation agreements were transferred to long-term detention facilities or forcibly disappeared.
The Norwegian Refugee Council reported fear of interrogation, forced conscription, and arbitrary arrests and detention deterred refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes in areas retaken by regime forces.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.). For example, a January report from the NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reported that military police affiliated with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups receiving support from the government of Turkey, detained 237 persons in the “Peace Spring” and “Olive Branch” areas at the end of 2020. At the time of the report’s release, 133 of these individuals remained incommunicado, including women and children. The STJ reported that armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey detained residents at times based on their affiliation or perceived affiliation with the SDF, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), or the Self Administration for North and East Syria (SANES). In its March report, the COI reported that the YPG forces of the SDF arbitrarily detained activists, NGO workers, and other individuals who expressed opposing views. NGOs also reported cases of arbitrary detention at the hands of the SDF, including in the context of anti-ISIS operations.
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, while many detainees died in prison (see section 1.a.). A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. There were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for the prison and detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available.
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 where defendants were affiliated with the opposition appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. NGOs reported that the regime at times shared with progovernment media outlets lists of in absentia sentences targeting armed opposition groups before the sentences were issued by the court. The SNHR reported that most of the individuals detained by regime authorities between January and November were denied access to fair public trial.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the regime did not respect judicial independence. In its June report, the international NGO International Legal Assistance Consortium found that “overt and indirect intimidation by the Syrian security services continues to inhibit the judiciary’s independence,” noting that the lack of independence left judges vulnerable to pressure in instances where one party is affiliated with the regime or proregime armed groups.
The constitution presumes that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated 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 enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported the accused were unaware of the charges against them. In its March report, the COI noted that some defendants learned they had been sentenced without being present at a hearing, while others were only informed of the verdict years after their trial. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held via video conference instead of in person. 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.
In March the COI reported that the regime denied detainees access to a lawyer and subjected detainees to incommunicado detention. The SNHR reported detainees on trial in military courts were often transferred to unknown locations without notification to their attorneys or families. The Truth and Justice Charter groups reported families of individuals detained by the regime continued to be unable to access information on the status of their relatives.
Human rights groups reported that in some cases the regime provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. By law defendants may present witnesses and evidence or confront the prosecution 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 defendants were tortured and intimidated to acquire information and force confessions, as described in a July SNHR report.
Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. 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 regime denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the regime, 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. The regime did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. The International Legal Assistance Consortium estimated that between March 2011 and August, more than 10,000 Syrians were tried in the CTC.
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. NGOs 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 it controlled, SANES authorities continued to implement a legal code based on the draft “Social Contract.” Reports described the Social Contract 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 of arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer. The justice system within the SANES-controlled area consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies.
Human rights groups and media organizations continued to report that HTS denied those it had detained the opportunity to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention in its sharia courts. HTS reportedly permitted confessions obtained through torture and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
Tens of thousands of men, women, and children, many from former ISIS-held areas, remained in the overcrowded al-Hol camp, administered by an international NGO with security assistance provided by the SDF and Asayesh, the internal security forces of SANES. Living conditions remained difficult at al-Hol camp, where security incidents persisted, and most camp residents had limited freedom of movement. According to camp management, 89 residents were reportedly killed in al-Hol camp during the year. Violence was likely due to ISIS-related or criminal-related activity in the camp. The international NGO Save the Children reported from the start of the year through mid-August three children were shot and killed in al-Hol. While basic humanitarian needs were met, services were at times reduced due to COVID-19.
The SDF reportedly provided information to the COI on its procedure for the return of al-Hol inhabitants. According to the COI’s August report, 8,548 Syrians had been transferred out of al-Hol camp under tribal sponsorship agreements since mid-2019, while another 322 children and 56 women from 13 different countries were repatriated between September 2020 and June. Approximately 55,000 residents remained in al-Hol, more than 30,000 of them children younger than age 12.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees. Amnesty International reported the regime continued to detain civilians systematically, particularly those perceived to oppose the regime, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies – Air Force, Military, Political Security, and General – were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.
Authorities continued to refuse to release information regarding the numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges. Human rights groups noted detainees included 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 widespread torture. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, including the Families for Freedom network, authorities refused many political prisoners access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the regime also denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells. According to the SNHR and the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ), regime forces arrested writer and journalist Bassam Safar at a regime checkpoint in Damascus in June. Prior to his arrest, Safar had conducted an interview on the presidential elections in which he criticized the regime. Safar was denied access to family and counsel. According to one local media outlet, Safar was released on July 30.
Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. There were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by regime 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.
NGOs continued to report the regime used the 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.
Amnesty: The regime issued 18 amnesty decrees since 2011, but decrees generally resulted in the release of limited numbers of ordinary criminals. These amnesties excluded detainees who had not been charged with any crimes. In July the SNHR reported the regime released 81 detainees in the two months following the May amnesty announcement, while arbitrarily detaining 176 others within that same period. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the regime. During the year regime forces violated prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns against civilians and former members of armed opposition factions in areas with signed settlement agreements with the regime.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: Human rights groups reported the regime used violence and threats of violence against Syrians in other countries and their family members residing in Syria for the purpose of politically motivated reprisal. In September National Public Radio reported the regime subjected witnesses in a trial against regime official Anwar Raslan taking place in Koblenz, Germany, and their families in Syria to threats and harassment. One witness, Hassan Mahmoud, reported withdrawing his testimony after feeling threatened by reports that regime security officials went searching for his brother, Waseem, in their Syrian hometown of Salamiyah.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: In late 2020 the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) issued a report analyzing regime documentation that detailed coordination between regime intelligence officials and Syrian embassy staff in Saudi Arabia and Spain, corroborating long-standing NGO reporting that the regime maintained a global surveillance apparatus to track dissidents’ activities both inside and outside of the country systematically.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: In October INTERPOL announced that its executive committee lifted “corrective measures” imposed on Syria in 2012 that restricted the Assad regime’s use of INTERPOL databases and communication systems. Following the decision media outlets and human rights organizations reported concern by human rights organizations that the Syrian government may use Red Notices to pursue political opponents.
Efforts to Control Mobility: The regime amended the military conscription law to allow authorities to confiscate the assets of “[military] service evaders” and their families who failed to pay the military exemption fee. The Guardian newspaper reported this regulation amounted to an effort to extort Syrian citizens living abroad, many of whom fled the country to escape the regime’s military offensive and would be unwilling to serve in the military. According to the Ministry of Defense, military exemption fees range from $7,000 for those who had four years of permanent and continuous residence outside Syria before or after entering the age of assignment, $8,000 for those who residing outside Syria for less than four years and more than three years, $9,000 for those residing outside Syria for two years, and $10,000 for those residing outside Syria for one year.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Regime civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. HTS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.
In the areas of the northeast under the control of SANES, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a more formal justice system.
Property Seizure and Restitution
Regime security forces routinely seized detainees’ property and personal items. The law 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. In its June report, the International Legal Assistance Consortium found that the CTC continued to issue orders for the seizure of property of those accused of terrorism, broadly interpreted to include perceived opponents, noting that such orders were also directed at medical workers, members of the Syrian Civil Defense, and journalists. According to media reports and activists, regime forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs and used confiscations to target regime opponents. The CTC can try cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of property left by refugees and IDPs.
In its September report, the COI found that some confiscated land was also “burned or destroyed,” which the COI concluded may amount to pillage, an act prohibited under international humanitarian law and a possible war crime. The housing, land, and property rights situation was further complicated by the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.
In February the SNHR reported that the regime seized at least 170 square miles of agricultural land in the suburbs of Hama and Idlib. The SNHR called the seizing of regime opponents’ property part of the regime’s strategy to “engineer the demographic and social structure of the Syrian state that automatically constitutes a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs.”
In April HRW reported that regime authorities unlawfully confiscated the homes and lands of citizens who fled regime and Russian military offensives in Hama and Idlib. In interviews with HRW, those whose lands were seized said the regime provided no notice or compensation. In three cases, they said that security committees consisting of the Peasants’ Cooperative Associations, Syrian military intelligence, and progovernment militia were responsible for seizing and leasing their land.
The regime continued to use Decree 66, issued in 2012, to “redesign unauthorized or illegal housing areas” and replace them with “modern” real estate projects. In April the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy described these urban development projects as illustrative of the regime’s efforts to punish opponents and “consolidate power and wealth among elites” allied with the regime. In September Presidential Decree No. 237 officially created a new development district known as the Northern Gate of Damascus Regulatory Area on the outskirts of Damascus. Homeowners and renters are required to submit proof of residence to qualify for interim housing during development. COAR predicted these projects would ultimately displace thousands of residents living in informal and transient neighborhoods in the area and cause refugees and IDPs to lose ownership of their property.
Armed groups also reportedly seized residents’ properties. In July the chair of the COI noted that SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn looted and appropriated properties under their control. The SJAC similarly reported SNA fighters in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn used threats of extortion, abduction, and torture to force residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes so the fighters could occupy them. A coalition of 34 NGOs assessed these and other abuses by armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey were part of a systematic effort to enforce demographic change targeting Kurdish Syrians. In September Syrian Interim Government authorities said it had facilitated the return of 300 Kurdish families to their original homes in Afrin and provided them with resettlement assistance. (See section 1.e., Efforts to Control Mobility, for information regarding seizing property of Syrians abroad who do not pay exemption fees for military service.)