CIVICUS

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Last updated on 20.01.2021 at 08:26

The Civic Space Developments

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Journalists assassinated and detained incommunicado, peaceful protesters arrested

Journalists assassinated and detained incommunicado, peaceful protesters arrested

Several protesters arrested following peaceful protests which began on 7th June 2020 in the predominantly Druze city of Sweida; journalist Hussain Khattab assassinated by unidentified masked gunmen; civil society activist and journalist Nour Al-Shilo released after she was arrested and detained incommunicado; On 9th December 2020, Syrian civil society organisations marked the anniversary of the kidnapping of four activists in Douma in 2013;

Expression

"What can I do with someone who tried to kill me and put a weapon in my face, and before that he wanted to prevent me from entering the area of Tarheen and tried to prevent me from filming there?" – Slain journalist Hussain Khattab

On 12th December 2020, journalist Hussain Khattab, also known as Kara Al-Safrani, was assassinated by unidentified masked gunmen on a motorbike who shot Khattab in the head and chest, killing him instantly. Khattab was killed in the city of Al-Bab, in the countryside of Aleppo, as he was preparing a media report on COVID-19. Khattab, who was a member of the executive office of the Aleppo Media Union, worked in several media outlets, including the Turkish TV channel, TRT Arabic.

Commenting on Khattab’s assassination, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) stated that Syria is “still one of the most dangerous places for journalists, who continue to be targeted with murder and harassment while performing their journalistic work.” GCHR further condemned “the level of impunity and the lack of accountability for attacks on journalists and the human cost of these crimes.”

Khattab, who was originally from the city of Al-Safira, in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, was previously the subject of threats in retaliation for his work as a journalist. On 27th September 2020, Khattab commented on one such threat on his Facebook page, stating, "The person who carried a weapon and raised it in my face was Ahmed Al-Abdullah (Al-Sous). Therefore, my problem is with him in particular and the complaint I submitted was against him only."

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) has several sources who reported that this was not the first assassination attempt against Khattab, who had previously been targeted by an explosive device placed in front of his office in the city of Al-Bab.

In a statement issued in response to Khattab’s murder, SCM said:

“[SCM] calls on all parties to the conflict and the de-facto authorities throughout Syria to shoulder their responsibilities for the safety of civilians residing in their areas of control, especially activists and journalists, in accordance with the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention of 1984 and the relevant international treaties. SCM also calls on them to impose the necessary measures to ensure freedom of journalistic work and the safety of press personnel, prosecute perpetrators of the crime, and hold accountable those responsible for neglecting previously submitted complaints”.

In separate developments, civil society activist and journalist Nour Al-Shilo was detained incommunicado after she was arrested in Aleppo on 15th September 2020 by Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an extremist armed faction operating in northern Syria near the border with Turkey. HTS is infamous for committing extrajudicial executions of innocent citizens, including activists. Al-Shilo has worked for a number of local media outlets as well as women's rights organisations in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. Al-Shilo was released on 4th January 2021.

In yet another case involving activists and journalists, on 9th December 2020, Syrian civil society organisations marked the anniversary of the kidnapping of four activists in Douma in 2013, by calling for accountability in their disappearance. Seven years ago an armed group attacked the offices of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), the Local Development and Small-Projects Support (LDSPS), and “Rising for Freedom” magazine and kidnapped activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil and Nazim Hammadi. “Despite the fact that all the military factions left the area after the forces of the Syrian regime took control of it, the fate of our colleagues remains unknown to this day,” they wrote.

In its campaign marking #16DaysofActivism against gender-based violence (GBV), GCHR highlighted that Al-Shilo, Zaitouneh and Khalil were among Syrian women human rights defenders who “are abducted, arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured, killed, harassed physically and virtually, displaced and exiled, while being denied fundamental rights by de facto state and non-state actors. Most importantly, they remain under-documented.”

Peaceful Assembly

Amnesty International reported on the arrest of 11 men who were detained following peaceful protests which began on 7th June 2020 in the predominantly Druze city of Sweida. The protests were initially centred on concerns over Syria’s dire economic situation but grew to include calls for “regime change”, the withdrawal of Russian and Iranian forces from Syria and the release of detainees. In the days that followed, a prominent activist who helped organise the protests was arrested by Syrian security forces. He has not been heard from since, and his fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

On 15th June 2020, nine more men were arrested during a peaceful protest in Sweida and a student was arrested at a checkpoint the following day. Anti-government demonstrations were confronted by organised pro-government supporters while security forces reportedly beat anti-government protesters.

Regarding the repression of peaceful protest in Syria, Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, commented:

“The Syrian government’s brutal response to protests since 2011 has led to years of bloodshed and unfathomable suffering for people in Syria. This latest crackdown goes to show that the government has no intent of changing its brutal and repressive practices nine years on.”

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.