CIVICUS

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Syria

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Last updated on 03.12.2018 at 09:34

Syria Overview

In 2016, there is probably no deadlier place to be a civil society activist than in Syria. More than five years of civil war has almost totally destroyed all protections for civil society organisations and human rights defenders in the country.

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Human rights defenders arrested and journalists injured

Human rights defenders arrested and journalists injured

Human rights lawyer Yasser Al-Saleem and activist Abdelhamid Al-Bayoush arrested, journalists Ibrahim Ahmad and Gulistan Mohammed, who work for the Syrian Kurdish news agency ANHA/Hawa, sustained gunshot injuries while covering clashes, Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda released after 40 months detention by Islamist group, Syrian writer Souleman Yousph arrested and detained for five days after critising the Kurdish Democratic Union

Association

Human rights lawyer Yasser Al-Saleem and activist Abdelhamid Al-Bayoush were arrested in the early hours of the morning on 22nd September 2018 by an armed group, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. The group stormed the home of human rights lawyer Yasser Al-Saleem in Kafr Nabl, located in Idlib governate in Syria and arrested both activists. Subsequent reports indicated that they were taken to Al-Eqab prison in the Jabal Al-Zawiya area, located about 40km south-west of the governorate capital, Idlib city.

Al-Saleem who has been undertaking human rights activities in the city of Kaft Nabl had participated in demonstrations that took place in Kafr Nabl the day before his arrest. The demonstrations called for the release of citizens of the city of Sweida who were kidnapped a month before.

Expression

In a positive development, Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda was released on 24th October 2018 after three years as a hostage in Syria. As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, Yasuda had been captured and held hostage by an Islamist group in June 2015. 

On 30th September 2018, Syrian writer Souleman Yousph, was arrested and detained without charge and held for five days. Yousph, who is a contributor to several media outlets, including the Assyrian news website Ankawa, the independent Arabic news website Elaph, and the political and cultural online secular magazine Ahewar, had previously published an article criticizing the Kurdish Democratic Union, the political wing of the People's Protection Units, and its ally, the Syriac Union Party.  In the days prior to his arrest, he had also published a series of posts on his Facebook account that criticised the Syriac Union Party for ordering the closure of private Assyrian schools and for trying to impose a national Kurdish curriculum. A day after his arrest, the police issued a statement on Facebook saying that action had been taken against ‘those spreading lies, that democracy has rules and limitations, and that defamation is punishable by law in Western countries’.

On 2nd September 2018, an armed group arrested journalist Marwan Al-Hamid in the town of Kafr Nabl in Idlib governorate and transferred to Al-Eqab prison without specifying the reasons for his arrest. There has been no news of him since his arrest. Al-Hamid has worked as a journalist in several media stations since 2011, and has also worked on several projects by humanitarian organisations. 

As the conflict continues in Syria, journalists continue to face grave risks to their lives. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ibrahim Ahmad and Gulistan Mohammed, who work for the Syrian Kurdish news agency ANHA/Hawa, sustained gunshot injuries on 2nd November 2018 while covering the clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces and the Turkish army’s cross-border bombardment of the town of Tal Abyad. 

Syria ranks 2nd on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index released on 2nd November, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. CPJ has documented the killings of 123 journalists since the outbreak of the war in 2011 and impunity for these killings remains the norm. 

Association in Syria

On paper, it is possible to establish a CSO in Syria. However, the government has full authority to decide if an association can be registered or not. In practice, Syrian citizens are completely denied the right to freedom of association.

On paper, it is possible to establish a CSO in Syria. However, the government has full authority to decide if an association can be registered or not. In practice, Syrian citizens are completely denied the right to freedom of association. Most CSOs which provide critical services in the midst of the conflict are forced to operate clandestinely and with the threat of sanction, rather than the support of the state behind them. Those operating in areas of the country controlled by government forces have virtually no freedom in which to operate, while those in opposition-controlled areas (excluding areas controlled by extremist Islamist groups) are largely limited in scope to mitigating the effects of the conflict.Air and ground strikes have targeted CSOs, foreign and domestic alike. Recent examples of such attacks include the bombing in November 2015 of a bakery run by a Turkish non-governmental organisation in Idlib.Many civil society activists and organisations, who were at the centre of peaceful efforts to denounce Syria’s brutal dictatorship in 2011, have either disappeared, been killed or forced into exile since the start of the armed conflict. As of June 2016, many prominent human rights defenders including Khalil Ma’touq, Bassel Khartabil, Mohamed Zaza, Hussein ‘Essou, Yahia Al Sharbaji, Samar Kokash, Zaki Kordillo and his son Mehyar and Ibrahim Hajji Al Halabi remained unlawfully detained or disappeared – their whereabouts unknown to even their own families. Torture in detention is systematic and methods include ‘suspending detainees by their wrists for hours or days; beating detainees on their heads or chests with PVC pipes, whipping with steel cables, electrocution, and burning.’ Rape, threats of rape and sexual harassment are also used as forms of torture, especially against women in detention. Incredibly, some CSOs, including those advancing the causes of women in Syria, have continued to campaign and organise in increasingly desperate circumstances throughout the conflict. On 9 December 2013, woman human rights defender and head of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria, Razan Zaitouneh, was abducted with her two colleagues and husband during a raid on their offices by a group of armed men and remain in captivity until today.

Peaceful Assembly in Syria

In today’s Syria, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is all but completely denied. When Syrian citizens attempted to exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express their unhappiness with the absence of democratic freedoms in 2011, the government reacted with force, precipitating a spiral of violence which continues today despite the removal of an Emergency Law in April 2011.

In today’s Syria, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is all but completely denied.When Syrian citizens attempted to exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express their unhappiness with the absence of democratic freedoms in 2011, the government reacted with force, precipitating a spiral of violence which continues today despite the removal of an Emergency Law in April 2011. Protest organisers were some of the first to be rounded up through illegal arrests and enforced disappearances, later to be brought up on spurious charges under the State of Emergency Law that included ‘weakening national sentiment’ and ‘causing sectarian and racial strife’.Today, activists describe conditions of enormous fear, in which any public gatherings, of even two or three people, are not tolerated. Even meetings in private houses carry huge risks for activists or ordinary citizens. The realities of war, and constant bombardment of some urban areas, has made gathering in public extremely dangerous. A shaky ceasefire agreement in early 2016 resulted in a temporary reduction in the number of airstrikes on civilian areas, providing a rare opportunity for Syrians to exercise their freedom to gather in public.

Expression in Syria

Syria has now become the most dangerous place on Earth to be a journalist. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the deaths of 399 media personnel at the hands of the Syrian authorities between 2011 and 2015.

Syria has now become the most dangerous place on Earth to be a journalist.The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the deaths of 399 media personnel at the hands of the Syrian authorities between 2011 and 2015. Many more remain in prison or have been forcibly disappeared. These media personnel were subjected to a pattern of unlawful arrest, enforced disappearance, torture and death that have befallen so many individuals accused of ‘terrorism’ or plotting to destabilise the state and its regime. International journalists have also become victims. Counter-Terrorism Law No.19 has been used by the Syrian State to justify a widespread campaign of arrests, including against free-expression advocates Hussein Ghrer, Hani Al-Zaytani and Mazen Darwish who were arrested in 2012 and held in appalling conditions for over three years. The cases of television director Bilal Ahmad Bilal, software engineer and Internet freedom advocate Bassel Khartabil, Nabil Shurbaji and citizen journalist Mohammed Abdel-Mawla Al-Hariri, who all remain in detention, are also emblematic of the government’s brutal repression of the right to free expression in Syria. The effects of this campaign of violence on free expression are widespread self-censorship and the closure of most independent news sources in Syria. Although social media sites like Facebook remain accessible in Syria, the Internet is used by the government as a tool to track down activists and carry out mass surveillance over the Syrian population.