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SYRIA: Rights Group Details Brutal Ongoing Crackdown in Homs

Sandra Siagian

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 11 2011 (IPS) - At least 587 civilians in Homs were killed by Syrian government forces between mid-April and August, the highest number of casualties for any single governorate, reveals a report released by Human Rights Watch Friday.

Violations by Syrian security forces included torture and unlawful killings, acts HRW constitutes as crimes against humanity.

The report, “‘We Live as in War’: Crackdown on Protesters in the Governorate of Homs”, is based on more than 110 interviews with victims and witnesses from Homs, an area that has emerged as the most restive governorate in Syria since anti-government protests erupted in mid-March.

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at HRW in New York, told IPS that the violence in Homs had escalated beyond the research period from April to August.

HRW reported another 104 people in Homs had been killed since Nov. 2, when the Syrian government agreed to the Arab League initiative for a political solution.

Hicks said the key message of the report was to “highlight that Homs is indicative of the overall problem”.

“This just isn’t a situation that is going to be solved unless there is a substantial increase in engagement by the Arab League countries and by the Security Council in particular,” Hicks told IPS.

Hundreds missing

Security forces in the Homs governorate subjected thousands of people to arrests, enforced disappearances and systematic torture in detention, says HRW. But while most were released after several weeks, several hundred remain missing. Detainees included young men, children, women and elderly people.

HRW has documented dozens of incidents where security forces and government-supported militias violently attacked and dispersed peaceful protests.

Syrian authorities have claimed that the violence in Homs has been carried out by armed terrorist gangs, incited and sponsored from abroad. IPS tried to contact the Syrian ambassador for comment but received no response.

The abuse and killings have also spread to other towns in the governorate, such as Tal Kalakh and Talbiseh.

While HRW admits that violence by protestors deserves further investigation, it adds that these incidents do not justify the disproportionate and systematic use of lethal force against demonstrators.

Former detainees who spoke with HRW investigators were reportedly subjected to electric shocks, heated metal rods and the use of stress positions for hours or even days at a time.

One former detainee said, “I was blindfolded but could hear people around me screaming and begging for water. I could hear the sound of electric stun guns and interrogators ordering to hang people by their hands.”

In the report, the organisation was able to confirm independently that in almost all of the 17 deaths in custody, witnesses had no information regarding their relatives’ fate after security forces detained them at a protest or a checkpoint, until they had to pick up their body from a hospital.

Calls for international action

HRW says Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and is urging the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership in the League when Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo Friday for an emergency session to discuss Syria’s failure to comply with the Arab League initiative.

The group says the U.N.’s Security Council should impose an embargo and sanctions against individuals responsible for the violations.

“Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government’s brutality,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. “The Arab League needs to tell President (Bashar al-) Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage.”

Hicks said the organisation was also calling for an international monitoring presence on the ground for people to report violence.

“Syria has said that it might allow in monitors from the Arab League and if that is to happen, it would be an important step and should happen urgently and in sufficient number and resource to make a difference on the ground,” Hicks told IPS.

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