The top legal official in the embattled Syrian city of Hama has defected to the opposition in protest of what he called crimes against humanity committed by security forces. Many of the incidents he has referred to are documented in a report released Wednesday by Amnesty International on the killing and torture of anti-government activists in Syria since the uprising began there in mid-March. Researchers documented that at least 88 people have died in Syrian prisons since March. In at least 52 of these cases there is evidence that torture or other ill-treatment caused or contributed to the deaths. We speak with Neil Sammonds, the Syria researcher for Amnesty International and one of the authors of the new report, "Deadly Detention: Deaths in Custody Amid Popular Protest in Syria." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The top legal official in the embattled Syrian city of Hama has defected to the opposition in protest of what he called crimes against humanity committed by security forces. Hama’s attorney general, Adnan Bakkour, announced his resignation in a video posted Wednesday on the internet. It’s not clear when the video was recorded. Here’s an excerpt of his statement, translated by Al Jazeera English.
ADNAN AL-BAKKOUR: [translated] I hereby declare my resignation for the following reasons: one, the killing of 72 prisoners in Hama main prison on the 31st of August, where they were buried in a mass grave close to the village of Khalidiya; two, the numerous mass graves in public parks that include not less than 420 bodies killed by security forces, and I was asked to say that they were killed on the hands of the armed groups; three, the severe punishment and torture in the security branches where not less than 320 men were killed; four, the complete destruction of houses in Hamidiyah and Koosor districts, where bodies of the residents were kept under the rubble and debris. And for sure, I have a lot of documents that I will reveal later.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Adnan al-Bakkour, former attorney general of Hama. Many of the incidents he refers to are documented in a report released Wednesday by Amnesty International on the killing and torture of anti-government activists in Syria since the uprising began there in mid-March.
AMY GOODMAN: Even though demonstrations have been peaceful, Amnesty finds the Syrian authorities have responded, quote, "in the most brutal manner in their efforts to suppress them. The security forces have repeatedly used grossly excessive force, using snipers to shoot into crowds of peaceful protesters and deploying army tanks to shell residential areas while seeking to justify such force on the pretext that the government is under attack by armed gangs," unquote.
Amnesty International found at least 88 people have died in Syrian prisons since March. The deaths represent a significant escalation. In recent years, it says, it typically recorded about five deaths in custody per year in Syria. The group says in at least 52 of these cases there’s evidence that torture or other ill-treatment caused or contributed to the deaths.
Amnesty International’s report is called "Deadly Detention: Deaths in Custody amid Popular Protest in Syria," and we’re joined by one of its authors, Neil Sammonds, the Syria researcher for Amnesty International, just back from Syria.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Neil. Lay out your findings and what you found in Syria.
NEIL SAMMONDS: Hi. Good afternoon, Amy. Just a minor correction: I’ve not been into Syria. Amnesty International has not been allowed into the country during these events, although we have requested it. So the research for this report was done mostly from London, but also from some work in neighboring countries and through communications with a large network of contacts and relatives of the families, and, you know, other sources.
So, about the report, as you said, yes, a terrible spike in the deaths in custody: just in four-and-a-half months, 88 cases, compared to a yearly average of about four-and-a-half. So, from those, we have 68 of them, more than two-thirds, are from the restive cities of—restive provinces, sorry, of Homs and Daraa, and others are in five of the other provinces. So it’s half of the governorates or provinces where we have them from.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the general situation of deaths throughout the country, not just in the prisons, have you been able to get a more accurate count of what the toll has been in the last few months?
NEIL SAMMONDS: Well, we continue to compile figures of the deaths, and at the moment, just before I came to the studio, I saw that we have 1,963 names of people who have died since March the 18th. That includes the deaths in custody.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what you understand is happening as people are detained. What is taking place?
NEIL SAMMONDS: Well, there are some question marks, because, as you can imagine, in a country such as Syria, with the overpowering powers of the security forces and the opaqueness with which they work, it’s not always possible to know where people were held. In many of the cases, we have seen the information whereby witnesses have said that they saw these people being detained by various security forces—air force intelligence and military intelligence probably the worst perpetrators. And then people were taken away to the detention centers, both formal and informal ones. So there’s been a number of ad hoc places, including schools and stadia.
Once there, of course, it becomes regretfully hellish. So, from testimony we have received directly from people who have been inside and people who have seen people being beaten, the kind of the levels and types of torture being inflicted on people has gone back to the very dark days of the 1980s, when Hafez al-Assad was in power. In that period, in 1987, in fact, Amnesty issued a report, "Torture by the Security Forces," and detailed 38 types of torture which were being inflicted. Now, many of those are not being used now, but more than half are, as far as we can aware, and there are a number of new ones. What is most common and seems to be routine is very severe beatings of detainees. So that’s kicking, punching, whipping, using sticks, cables, whatever people can get their hands on, really. And sometimes the individuals are being beaten while being suspended from frames or over doors, for example. And we have a number of accounts of electrocution of various parts of the body, including the genitalia, burns from cigarettes or other implements, boiling water, it seems.
One of the bodies has almost every form of torture that we can work out, at least from the signs. So his hair has been pulled out. He’s got—been a badly beaten body. He appears to have stab wounds, burn wounds, the electrocution to the penis. And strangely—or perhaps not strangely—there’s a statement from the authorities on his case, which is Tariq Ziad Abd al-Qadr, by the way, that the cause of his death was by a gunshot to the chest. People in the video—his is one of 45 videos of corpses which we have seen in compiling this report. And as people show the body, they turn him around and say, "But, you know, where is the gunshot wound?" You know, he doesn’t have that, although he has a whole range of other injuries on his body.
AMY GOODMAN: Who’s doing this? Neil, who is doing this?
NEIL SAMMONDS: Sorry, I—
AMY GOODMAN: Who is doing this? Who do you—
NEIL SAMMONDS: Sorry, I lost you for a second.
Yes, well, it will be members of the intelligence agencies who are interrogating or punishing the individuals, so, as I mentioned, air force intelligence, military intelligence, criminal security department, political security, they appear to be the main perpetrators of these abuses. But it is going on all around the country, and it appears to be in most of the interrogation centers. People are presumably being told that they can do this and they should be allowed to take them to the extent that they actually die, because you can imagine that, you know, perhaps, now and again, accidents happen, and maybe people are taken to an extreme.
But when you have 88, at least, being killed in such a short period, this is a policy of, it appears, murder. And as we’ve been highlighting, the crimes behind these abuses in detention—so, arbitrary detention, because people are not held, you know, legally and with due process—that they’re held incommunicado, as well, so no—have no access to visits from families or lawyers and so on. Then you have the torture, and then you have deliberate infliction of death. So that’s murder. Those—when parts of a systematic or widespread attack on the population, they count as crimes against humanity. And that’s why Amnesty has been calling, since April, for the Security Council to refer the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you mentioned the 45 videos that you have of some of the people who were killed in custody. That would suggest that you’re able to get a remarkable amount of information out of the country by those folks and family members who were taking the video and reaching out to the outside world for help. Can you talk a little bit about your ability to get information despite not being able to get into the country?
NEIL SAMMONDS: Absolutely. So, a lot of it is thanks to Amnesty having worked in the country for decades and having a large network of contacts, and of course a lot more new people, both inside and outside, who are channeling information. Then, with the videos themselves, it shows an incredible resourcefulness to the Syrian people, that despite all the restrictions on freedom of expression and movement and so on, including cutting of the internet, that people have managed to record videos. And often it’s very well done, so there will be something signifying the name of the person, the date, the location, although the scenario is often hidden for all sorts of obvious reasons, a fear of reprisal and so on. And people talk through, to varying degrees of expertise, the injuries on the bodies, where they were detained, and how they were returned to the families and so on. We also—sometimes we’ve received information from people who have managed to smuggle videos themselves out, by being able to take CDs and so on across borders, perhaps by, you know, bribing officials or their own ingenuity.
AMY GOODMAN: Neil Sammonds, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday the Syrian regime had caused irreparable damage, and France and its partners would do whatever they could to help the Syrian people. This is what he said.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: [translated] The powers in Damascus would be wrong to think they are protected by their own people. What the Syrian president has committed is irreparable, and France and its partners will do everything legally possible to help the Syrian people’s aspirations to freedom and democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Neil Sammonds, what would be legally possible for France to do, for the United States to do, for the international community to do?
NEIL SAMMONDS: Well, at the moment—you may have seen this week that the the E.U. imposed oil sanctions on Syria, which will be a probably quite significant pressure on the regime. So, the country obtains something like two-and-a-half billion dollars a year through its sale of oil. Ninety percent of it goes to E.U. countries. So France will be part of that.
As for the Security Council, I mean, there are some countries who were being rather obstinate here: Russia and China, not too—unsurprisingly, but also Brazil, South Africa and India, who we would have hoped for a slightly more progressive or understanding position from. So, I mean, legally, as we’ve said, the issue of the Security Council and the referral to the ICC is the most important one.
Actions people can take bilaterally, of course, you know, they can do almost whatever they like. But if it’s within international law, then at the moment I think there’s not enough of a cause for military intervention, and very, very, very few people in Syria are calling for that. I mean, overwhelmingly, people want to kind of topple the regime or to bring about meaningful reform by themselves. And it’s a little bit of a red herring, I think, when countries, such as the obstinate ones, say that, you know, they fear something will happen in Libya that has—sorry, that something will happen in Syria as it happened in Libya, is a red herring because no one is actually calling for military intervention, and the situation is very different in terms of, you know, the control of the land, what the local people are calling for, the position of the Arab League, other neighbors and so on.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What about some of those neighbors who have much influence, let’s say, in Syria, Iraq, Turkey? What’s been the response of the neighboring countries to the continued crackdown?
NEIL SAMMONDS: Well, as you’ve probably seen, Turkey’s position has been extremely interesting. So, as far as we understand, for the first month or so, there were very strong messages in private coming from Ankara to Damascus. And after a while, despite promises from the Syrian regime to reform or to reduce the violence, they never did. And the messages became much more public and much more strong.
However, despite, as you probably saw—and, in fact, when I was on Democracy Now! last, it was while I was in Turkey trying to reach Syrian refugees who had fled. Some 20,000 crossed the border fleeing abuses, particularly in the northwest of the country. And while there, the Syrian—sorry, the Turkish authorities refused us entrance—and most, if not all, journalists—access to the camps to meet with the Syrians there. So, that was quite surprising, because they appear to be playing quite a complicated game. Our understanding is that probably they fear a mass influx of Syrians. So, for example, had we been able to get those testimonies of what were probably crimes against humanity, perhaps more Syrians would have fled, maybe more would have gone into Turkey, and the Turkish government would have feared, you know, a high amount of Kurds coming over, which might mix the, you know, sectarian or kind of PKK powers, perhaps. But it’s tricky.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the—
NEIL SAMMONDS: Of course, one wouldn’t really expect too—sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Neil.
NEIL SAMMONDS: I was just going to—Lebanon, of course, is in a very tricky position with its history of close and intimate and quite painful relations with its neighbor. And it’s apparently wobbling in the Arab League and the Security Council, or at least in the U.N., about what it may be able to do.
AMY GOODMAN: The fact that the United States has not actually signed on to the ICC, the International Criminal Court, how does that play in here and in situations around the world? How significant is that?
NEIL SAMMONDS: You know, Amy, it’s a good question. I’m not actually sure whether that is that significant, because, as I understood it, I thought that the U.S. had been pushing for a resolution, which could be including at some stage the ICC, even if that’s not explicitly on the board now. So, yeah, to be honest, I don’t know. Sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Neil Sammonds, we thank you very much for joining us, Syria researcher for Amnesty International, speaking to us from London.