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Syrian Troops Pursue “Scorched Earth” Policy; Videos Document Children Tortured to Death

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The Syrian army has taken control of the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour following what state media has described as heavy fighting by “armed groups,” who residents say are mutinous soldiers defending the town. Our guest Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher for Amnesty International, is interviewing refugees who have fled the violence by crossing into Turkey. They tell him Syrian military forces have destroyed houses, burned crops, slaughtered livestock and contaminated water supplies. We speak with Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and human rights activist based in Damascus. She has documented that children are among those killed by snipers, or kidnapped by security forces, tortured and killed. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Syrian army has taken control of the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour following what state media has described as heavy fighting. State television reported Sunday that the army was fighting, quote, “armed groups.” But residents and activists have countered this claim. They say many in the army are defecting, and the military has been fighting mutinous soldiers defending the town.

The government operation forced many more refugees across the border. The U.N. refugee agency said Sunday that more than 5,000 refugees from Syria had crossed into Turkey.

METIN CORABATIR: The latest figure UNHCR received from the border area is 5,051 persons who fleed from Syria because of the violence and persecution in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, about a hundred protesters gathered outside U.N. headquarters in New York urging the organization to take action against the Syrian regime.

ASSAD AREF: It has gotten to a point that killing is daily in Syria. And we are here to tell the United Nations enough is enough. They have to condemn the Syrian regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to reporters in Cartagena, Colombia, on Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern at the situation in Syria.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I have issued many statements, and I have talked to President Assad several times. And I have urged him in person through my telephone talks that he should — he must take bold and immediate, decisive actions to listen to the people and to take necessary measures to reflect the wills of the people. I am deeply concerned and saddened by so many people have been killed in the course of peaceful demonstrations.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

To talk about the situation in Syria, we’re joined on the phone by Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher. He is in a Turkish border village a quarter mile from the Syrian border.

We’re also joined from Damascus by Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and human rights activist. She’s been reporting on the recent protests for various online networks.

And we’re going to Ottawa, Canada, to Maher Arar, former victim of U.S. extraordinary rendition, now a human rights activist. He was seized at New York’s Kennedy Airport in September of 2002 and sent to Syria, where he was tortured.

But we’re going to start in Damascus right now. Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the situation there.

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: There is continuing daily protest around the country. Every night, every — actually, during the week, most of the protests happen in the night. Every night, dozens of thousands of people are protesting in Damascus, in the suburb of Damascus, in Homs, Hama, in the whole country, especially in this time, when there is a Syrian city under siege, under army and security forces in Jisr al-Shughour. The situation there is disastrous, actually. Even though the regime declared that the military presence there is end, but the security there is still raiding houses, killing people. Only yesterday, 10 people got killed in [inaudible] Jisr al-Shughour, a massive wave of arrests among people who didn’t leave their houses. Thousands of people are continuing to flee their houses, not only to Turkey, to the Turkish border, only to Syrian villages far away from Jisr al-Shughour.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the level of protest, Razan Zaitouneh, in the streets? How afraid are people in Damascus right now, where you are?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Maybe in Damascus, as you know, it’s — the level of is less than another places. There’s continuing daily protests in Damascus in different areas. In center of Damascus, Al-Midan, in Al-Qadam, in the oldest neighborhoods in Damascus, it’s still not in the same level of another cities, like Homs or Hama or Daraa, for example, but it’s continuing and it’s daily.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these reports of the helicopter gunship attacks, Razan?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: It’s for sure. We got videos, we got photos, of this helicopter, shot people in Jisr al-Shughour. It was a real, real war against Jisr al-Shughour and its neighbors during last few days. You can’t imagine that hundreds of troops, tanks and helicopters went to just make this process against a small city like Jisr al-Shughour. It was really like war situation.

AMY GOODMAN: And the reports of the killing of children, Amnesty, I think, has more than 80 names of children who have been killed, children and teenagers. Videos are emerging, one by one, gruesome videos, Razan.

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Actually, yes. Most of the children who got killed, according to our reports, were killed in their houses by snipers, when they — on windows, on balconies. Some of them who are between 14 and 15 got kidnapped and arrested in the streets, like what happened with Hamza al-Khateeb and Tamer. They were participating in the protests, which was going to break the siege on Daraa, when they got kidnapped by the security. And after days, they were delivered to their families as dead bodies, tortured awfully. It’s confirmed that the security didn’t separate, didn’t make any difference in dealing with Syrian people. It doesn’t matter if the person is 80 or is 10 years old. Everybody will be treated equally in torturing, in killing. And this is what the statistics shows, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan, there was a report of a protest outside the Turkish embassy in Damascus. Now, in many cases, people are gunned down when they protest in the streets. Here, as they were trying to take down the flag of the Turkish embassy and put up the Syrian flag — Turkey is accepting thousands of refugees into Turkey now — there was no attack like that. Who were these people protesting?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: It’s not only in front of the Turkish embassy. There is the security and shabiha. Daily they make a protest to show support to the regime, to show opposed to Al Jazeera, TV channel. They’re protesting daily in front of its office in Damascus, and yesterday in front of the Turkish embassy. If anybody, we have daily protests. All our protests, which demand for our freedom, is faced with security. Many got arrested. Many got killed. But for sure, those who are protesting for — they are pro-the-regime, they are from the regime, they are security and shabiha. They can do everything freely without anybody telling them anything.

AMY GOODMAN: So let us go to the border right now. We’re also joined by Neil Sammonds, who is the Syria researcher for Amnesty International, in a Turkish border village about a quarter-mile from the Syrian border, from Guvecci. Can you tell us exactly what’s happening there? Welcome, Neil.

NEIL SAMMONDS: Yes, hi. Thank you very much. Yes, well, the — it’s a small border village, Guvecci. And as far as I’m aware, the Syrians aren’t actually living there, but tens of them are coming across every day, and they are now collecting bread and Pepsi bottles and so on, and they’re then sneaking back across the border and they’re taking them to their families and neighbors who are displaced on the other side. On the other side, we can see tens of tents. And on the other side of the hill, apparently, there’s up to 10,000 people who are basically living under trees, and they’ve spent the night in the woods and under rain, actually. You know, it’s quite high altitude, and it was a cold, wet night.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what people are describing who are coming across the border from Syria, Neil.

NEIL SAMMONDS: Well, it’s really a very chilling picture, from everyone I’ve spoken to today, and I’ve spoken to, I don’t know, up to 50 Syrians. They come from different villages around Jisr al-Shughour, most of them, and from Jisr al-Shughour itself. They say that no one is left in the city, and only in one or two villages, perhaps some elderly people left. The army, they say, and the security forces, backed up by a paramilitary organization, the shabiha, the “ghosts,” have gone into those villages, and usually with tanks first, they’ve shelled the houses, and then the army has gone in and they’ve killed many people. It’s difficult to say figures. Some say tens, some say hundreds, some say thousands. That may be too high; it’s impossible to verify.

And not only that, they’ve gone on with something like a kind of scorched earth policy, because they say that livestock is being slaughtered, the crops have been burned, food has been burned, water supply has been contaminated. Basically, the population of northwestern Syria close to the Turkish border has just been driven up to within a few kilometers of the border here with Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also been in the hospitals there, Neil Sammonds?

NEIL SAMMONDS: Yes, I was in the state hospital yesterday, and I’ll probably go back later today. There, I spoke with about half a dozen Syrians. Through the cases, I — well, I spent a lot of time on, they were quite mixed. One was a agricultural worker. He’s 40 years old, illiterate. He said he was working his land near a demonstration one day, and he got shot in the leg and then taken off by the army to a security center, where he was very badly beaten. And after about five days, when he thumb-printed some papers which he couldn’t read, he was allowed to go. And then he managed to get up here to hospital for treatment.

Another person was a first aid worker. He worked for the Syrian Red Crescent. He said he was treating wounded people, or trying to treat wounded people, at least, during killings in the city of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday and Sunday, and then he was shot in the back. And then he was taken up to treatment.

Another person, a construction worker, he was shot in the back. He says he was a demonstrator. He was amongst, he says, about 15,000-20,000 people who were marching towards military linesmen. They opened fire upon his — top of his leg has been shattered. And then, yeah, he was ferried up here, where he’s been.

The Turkish government has certainly done a pretty good job of receiving people, but until now it’s a little bit of a mystery about why they haven’t actually allowed journalists and others access into the camps, although it appears that their treatment has been very good.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is very significant. You know, many Libyans have also fled to Turkey, and they’ve certainly allowed access to the media. On the one hand, they’re allowing thousands of Syrians to come in, but not allowing them access to journalists means that it protects the Syrian government. Yet you’re there. You’re a human rights researcher. How are you traveling around there on the border?

NEIL SAMMONDS: Well, in the border area, you know, it’s fine to move around, and there’s not any clear Turkish security presence trying to stop anyone doing anything, except for around the camps. So, if you get to within 50 meters or so of these camps, which have actually now got like blue tarpaulin around them, so that — whereas maybe a week ago, people say that you could go up and talk to them through the fence. Now the government has actually closed up those little holes, so people aren’t able to talk to people in there. Another journalist was saying that she had been able to throw stones or rocks with little messages attached to them, and people were then able to kind of read them and send them back, so there was a little bit of communication like that. But even that is very difficult to happen at the moment.

People feel perhaps after the elections yesterday here, with the AKP winning again, or perhaps for other reasons, that it was unsure what the government would actually decide to do to deal with access to the camps. People are hopeful. We’re still trying to get in. And we would have thought, as Amnesty International, that we might have a slightly more benign influence, if we were allowed to be in, but it’s unclear.

AMY GOODMAN: Neil Sammonds, would you say that there would be more international response, if access was allowed to hear these stories of what you call a scorched earth policy on the part of the Syrian government and military?

NEIL SAMMONDS: Very possibly. That’s what it is. I mean, people who came here, you know, a week or so ago probably saw the worst events in Jisr al-Shughour, and that is not being adequately documented by anyone. You know, journalists and others aren’t allowed into Syria, obviously. At the same time, we have the Security Council deliberating very, very slowly yet again whether it can even condemn the killings. And it’s pretty disgusting they won’t go as far as condemning, let alone referring the situation in the country to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which appears to be the only way that there would ever be an end to the killing there and to the impunity, which the Syrian government and security forces have enjoyed, sadly, for decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Neil, the killing of children — Amnesty has documented how many children killed? It sounds like far more than was previously believed.

NEIL SAMMONDS: Yes. You know, thanks to kind of trusted human rights activists in the country, I mean, we have 82 names. That’s until — that was three days ago, it was 82, you know, 16 and below. And amongst those, we have even five who appear to have been tortured to death — most shocking cases. And I’ve, you know, had some mixed [inaudible], and on a — you know, looking at a number of the videos of these people’s bodies after they’ve been returned to their families, and, you know, with like their heads beaten to pulps and broken bones and bullet wounds, skin scraped across, perhaps from, you know, acid or something — it’s difficult to say — electrolysis. You know, and this is to children. I mean, how far does a regime go to try to terrify its people into stopping to pressure for change? It’s astonishing. But really quite inspiring, as well, of course, that the Syrian people are continuing to go into the streets and to demand their legitimate rights, even though they know they may get a bullet in the head.

AMY GOODMAN: Neil Sammonds, I want to thank you for being with us on the Syria-Turkish border, on the Turkish side, there for Amnesty International, joining us from Guvecci, a Turkish border village. And thank you to Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and human rights activist in Damascus, Syria, who risks a great deal as she reports on the recent protests.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we turn to a Canadian citizen who was tortured in Syria — not now, well, almost a decade ago. He was sent to Syria by the U.S. government. He was a victim of extraordinary rendition. He’ll talk about the situation today and then. Stay with us.

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Maher Arar: My Rendition & Torture in Syrian Prison Highlights U.S. Reliance on Syria as an Ally

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