“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) members secure a street as they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Like an addict, France does not know how to quit its state of emergency even though it has become clear that maintaining it erodes the rule of law and fosters human rights abuses while not keeping the country safer. The February 22 report by the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring the state of emergency provided yet another reminder that it no longer serves any meaningful purpose.

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) secure a street they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The commission president, Dominique Raimbourg, from the governing Socialist Party, noted that activity under the state of emergency has been “greatly reduced” since the last extension. His fellow commission member, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, from the main opposition party Les Republicains, noted that “time that passes erodes the efficiency and nature of the state of emergency.” A French commission of inquiry into the Paris attacks had already concluded back in July 2016 that  the state of emergency had “limited impact” on improving security and any effect it may have had “quickly dissipated.”

Human Rights Watch’s own research has found repeated abuses against ordinary people during policing operations under emergency powers.

So why is France maintaining the state of emergency despite repeated warnings by its own oversight mechanisms?

It is mainly due to confusion by politicians about the purpose of a state of emergency. Many have said that it is justified by an ongoing terrorist risk. This was clearly displayed in December 2016 when Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux justified his request for a fifth extension by saying that “the terrorist threat was at its highest.” Under this reasoning, a state of emergency is needed as long as there is a high security risk.

This reasoning is dangerous on many levels. By suggesting that regular laws, procedures, and oversight mechanisms are not sufficient to counter threats, it weakens the premise of the rule of law and relegates it to a luxury for “normal” times. But it also sets the stage for the trap in which France finds itself. French leaders have implied that they will only lift the state of emergency when the security risk has subsided but since they can’t predict the risk of future terrorist attacks, they prefer to maintain it rather than pay a political price if a subsequent attack takes place.

So lifting the state of emergency becomes less dependent on security considerations and more on political calculations. This would explain why France’s latest extension was driven by the electoral calendar, punting the issue to the next president and legislature. Call it political procrastination, or perhaps more aptly, political cowardice.

This disconnect between its initial purpose and current raison d’être was captured nicely by Sébastien Pietrasanta, a parliamentarian and rapporteur for the commission investigating the state’s response to the November 2015 attacks, who recently noted that “the effect of the state of emergency is fading and yet we extend it…even though the link with terrorism is quite tenuous.”

I have seen this logic at play in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, countries I have worked on for years, maintained their states of emergency for 31 and 48 years respectively. Every time the state of emergency was up for renewal, the country’s rulers argued that the risk was still there or that the timing was not right to lift it. France is not a tin-pot autocracy and its rulers are not despots, but there is a cautionary tale in these experiences.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk – an exogenous measure that cannot be controlled by political calculations. It should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment. It may have been justified for a few days immediately after the November 2015 attacks as the country’s security forces were caught unprepared. But it should have been lifted as soon as the institutions resumed their normal functioning – regardless of whether the underlying security threat has been addressed.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk, it should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment.

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

The French government’s own website on the fight against terrorism noted in August 2016 that the government has “completed its legal arsenal and put in place an unprecedented reinforcement of its means in the police, justice, army and intelligence services.” France already has a raft of laws under the non-emergency regime that permit the authorities to investigate, detain, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Judicial controls in no way impede their effectiveness.

France needs to adopt a clear path out of the state of emergency. The parliamentary commission monitoring the state of emergency suggested in December setting an upper limit on the extension of a state of emergency but parliament ignored it and voted a fifth extension with almost no debate. Candidates in the upcoming presidential election have largely avoided talking about the issue, perpetuating the procrastination strategy by the political class, and journalists have not pushed them on the issue.

It is no longer enough to wait and hope that the security threat will simply vanish or that the future president or legislature will finally decide to tackle the issue. The debate about lifting the state of emergency should become a priority topic in this presidential election. Like any addict hoping to recover, France needs to start by recognizing the problem and begin a serious conversation on how to quit.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Visiting al-Hota

Visiting al-Hota in September 2018.

(Beirut) – The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) used a gorge in northeast Syria as a dumping ground for the bodies of people it had abducted or detained, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. A Human Rights Watch investigation and drone flight into the gorge highlight the need for the authorities to secure the site, remove human remains, and preserve evidence for criminal proceedings against the killers.

ISIS controlled the territory around al-Hota gorge – 85 kilometers north of Raqqa city – from 2013 to 2015. Across Syria, more than 20 mass graves containing thousands of bodies have been found in areas formerly held by the armed group. The Human Rights Watch investigation of al-Hota involved interviews with local residents, a review of ISIS-recorded videos, analysis of satellite imagery, and flying the drone into the 50-meter-deep gorge.

“Al-Hota gorge, once a beautiful natural site, has become a place of horror and reckoning,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Exposing what happened there, and at the other mass graves in Syria, is crucial to determining what happened to the thousands of the people ISIS executed and holding their killers to account.” 

The area around al-Hota is currently controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, while Raqqa city remains under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Whoever controls the gorge has an obligation to preserve the site, identify the missing, and investigate their deaths, Human Rights Watch said.

Al-Hota gorge in northwest Syria, where ISIS dumped bodies.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

When ISIS controlled the Raqqa area, its members threatened people with being thrown into al-Hota, local residents recalled. Some said they saw bodies scattered along the gorge’s edge. An ISIS-recorded video posted to Facebook in 2014 shows a group of men throwing two bodies into the gorge. The clothes on the men match those worn by two people who are shown in another video getting executed by ISIS.

The inspection of al-Hota with a Parrot ANAFI drone revealed six bodies floating in water at the bottom. Based on the state of decomposition, the bodies were dumped there long after ISIS had left the area. The identities of those victims and their causes of death remain unknown.

Geological maps and a 3D topographic model of al-Hota from the drone imagery suggest that the gorge goes deeper than the drone was able to see, so more human remains most likely lie below the water’s surface.


3D animation of al-Hota gorge

3D animation of al-Hota gorge created with the software Pix4D Mapper and images from the Parrot ANAFI drone. © Human Rights Watch

Some local residents said they heard about other anti-government armed groups throwing the bodies of government soldiers and pro-government militia fighters into al-Hota before ISIS controlled the area, though none of them had seen this themselves.

A Human Rights Watch report released in February 2020 documented that ISIS abducted and detained thousands of people during its rule in Syria, and executed many of them. Among the missing are activists, humanitarian workers, journalists, and anti-ISIS fighters from a range of groups, as well as local residents who ran afoul of the armed group.

The effort to exhume the ISIS mass graves has been faltering and incomplete, in part due to the fluid security situation. With limited resources and minimal outside support, local groups, such as Raqqa’s First Responders Team, have been conducting partial exhumations, but the sites are still not protected and have not been examined in line with international best practices. No teams are working at al-Hota or the apparent mass grave sites that are currently under Turkish control.

In a positive step, on April 5, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), a civilian authority currently responsible for areas formerly held by ISIS in parts of northeast Syria, announced the creation of a new working group to help identify what happened to the missing people and those kidnapped by ISIS. The Kurdish-led SDC is unlikely to get access to areas controlled by Turkey and Turkish-backed factions.


The missing victims of ISIS, February 2020.

The missing victims of ISIS, February 2020.

Turkey and the Syrian National Army should treat al-Hota and other mass graves in the area as crime scenes and secure the sites so potential evidence is not destroyed, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that al-Hota is cleared of booby-traps and unexploded munitions so that forensic experts can descend into the gorge, locate and remove bodies, and begin the painstaking work of identification.

“Whichever authority controls the al-Hota area is obliged to protect and preserve the site,” Kayyali said. “They should facilitate the collection of evidence to hold ISIS members accountable for their horrendous crimes, as well as those who dumped bodies in al-Hota before or after the ISIS rule.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 Al-Hawl camp in Syria

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Toulouse) – Human Rights Watch and nine other organizations issued the following statement on April 21, 2020:

We, the undersigned civil society organizations have learned of the alarming situation of young Taymia, a 7-year-old child of French nationality, who is currently being held with her mother in Al-Hol, a camp in northeast Syria for family members of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects.

Taymia has a double heart defect, requiring urgent and specialized care, which she cannot receive on-site. Northeast Syria is woefully unprepared to deal with chronic or severe health issues.

In recent days, Taymia’s health has deteriorated and she is now at high risk of a cardio-vascular arrest at any moment.

For the past year, Taymia’s lawyer, Ludovic Rivière, has been unsuccessfully seeking her repatriation to France for medical treatment.

This repatriation is now of vital urgency: Taymia’s survival depends on it.

We therefore appeal to France’s highest authorities to ensure Taymia’s immediate return to France and medical care.

France should not let a child die if it’s in the country’s power to prevent it.

More than 500 people, most of them children, reportedly died in 2019 in Al-Hol camp, and at least 300 French children are held in Al-Hol and Roj, both camps under the administration of a Kurdish-led coalition in northeast Syria.

France has an obligation to protect its citizens, at all times and in all places, and in particular the most vulnerable.

France’s National Consultative Commission for Human Rights forcefully recalled this obligation in a communication dated September 25, 2019, calling on the French government to repatriate as soon as possible the French children detained in northeast Syria, based on the values of the Republic and respect for fundamental rights. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights and, more recently, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria established by the UN Human Rights Council, have called on countries to repatriate their children from camps in northeastern Syria.

France was one of the first signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets as a cardinal principle, beyond any ideology or personal conviction, the duty to protect the best interests of the child.

In an interview with Radio France International on April 14, answering a question about the fate of French people abroad in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “France protects all its children. ”

We call on the French president to respect his word and his commitments and to show humanity toward Taymia and all French children trapped in northeast Syria.


ACAT (Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture)

AEDH (European Association for the defence of Human Rights)

Amnesty International France

Avocats Sans Frontières France/Défense Sans Frontières –

Avocats Solidaires (Lawyers for Solidarity)

ECPM (Toghether against the death penalty)

FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)

Human Rights Watch

LDH (French League of Human Rights)

SCM – Syrian Center for Media and freedom of expression



Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Families of Palestinians held in jails in Saudi Arabia, hold placards in Arabic that read, "Release our sons in Saudi prisons, and No for the policy of isolation and torture for the prisoners in Saudi jails" during a protest, in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross office, in Gaza, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Adel Hana

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s mass trial of 68 Jordanian and Palestinian residents raises serious due process concerns amid accusations of abuse, Human Rights Watch said today. In March 2018, Saudi authorities carried out a wave of arrests targeting a group of long-term Palestinian and Jordanian residents in the country based on vague allegations of links with an unnamed “terrorist organization.”

After holding some of the detainees for nearly two years without charge, Saudi authorities began a mass trial behind closed doors on March 8, 2020 at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. The charges, said family members who saw portions of the charge sheets, included “belonging to” and “supporting” a “terrorist organization,” which was not named. They were not able to obtain additional details about the specific accusations or evidence from the partial charge sheets that Saudi authorities made available at the first trial session.

“Saudi Arabia’s long record of unfair trails raises the specter that Jordanians and Palestinians will be railroaded on serious charges and face severe penalties even though some have alleged serious abuses,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “At a time when Covid-19 presents acute dangers to prisoners, Saudi Arabia should consider alternatives to detention, particularly for those in pretrial detention.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to six family members of seven defendants, all of whom asked not the be named, fearing reprisals against them or their imprisoned relatives. The family members said that Saudi security services arrested five of the detainees during raids on their homes beginning in 2018 and arrested two others at airports as they attempted to leave the country. Family members of defendants described a range of abuses by Saudi authorities following the arrests, including enforced disappearances, long-term solitary confinement, and torture.

Two family members said that they were present during house raids in February and April 2019. “A large number [security forces] entered wearing masks, with guns and cameras, like they were going to a battle,” one said. She said that security forces were still there when her children returned from school. She said her eldest daughter, age 14, later told her that when she returned, a member of the security forces with a gun at his side questioned her about her father. Her 9-year-old daughter “was crying because they were terrifying, the way they were all over the house and their looks,” their mother said. “I had to tell her that they’re looking for a thief.”

In another case, a family member said that on the night of the arrest, around 4 a.m., four men wearing civilian clothes knocked on the door saying that his relative’s car had been damaged: “When he [the defendant] came to speak with them, they identified themselves [as] members of the state security apparatus. They told him he must come with them but that he would be back in a few hours.” The authorities refused for three months to tell his family where he was.

All six family members said that they were unable to learn the status or locations of their detained relatives for weeks, and as long as six months. Some said that family members checked with various intelligence prisons but that the authorities denied their relatives were there. Some found later that their relatives were in those prisons.

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

Some family members said that their relatives told them they were held for between two and six months in solitary confinement, then transferred to group prison cells, after which the authorities allowed visits and phone calls. One defendant detained in April 2019 who remained in solitary confinement for 3 months told his family during their first visit in July that during that period, the authorities only interrogated him 3 times, for about 20 minutes each.

Three family members said that their relatives told them during prison visits that the authorities tortured them during interrogations. One said that after their relative was held incommunicado for 23 days, they were allowed a family visit, but then communication stopped for 2 months. The detainee was finally able to tell his family that he had been tortured in various places, including a hotel room and an underground location. “He said that they used to wake him up at 5 a.m. to put his head in hot water,” the person’s relative said. “Sometimes they would leave him hanging upside down for two days.”

Some family members said it was hard to maintain contact with their detained relative. The authorities cut off phone calls and visits for three defendants in August 2019 without explanation, family members said. Others said that phone calls are usually restricted to two or five minutes.  

A witness who was at a March 8 hearing in the mass trial told Human Rights Watch that the judge entered the court room at 11:30 a.m. and left at 11:50 a.m. He said that authorities brought defendants in front of the judge, who asked whether they were guilty, and only then handed them partial versions of their charge sheets that did not include evidence or the basis of the charges. Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain copies of the charge sheets, but family members said that the sheets cited articles 32, 33, 38, 43, 47, and 53 of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law, all of which lay out penalties for involvement with terrorist organizations.

Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law of 2017 includes vague and overly broad definitions of acts of terrorism, in some cases punishable by death. The then-United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism concluded after a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017 that he was “concerned about the unacceptably broad definition of terrorism and the use of Saudi Arabia’s 2014 counter-terrorism law.” He also expressed “serious concern over allegations of torture made by terrorism suspects.”

Families of defendants in the current mass trial expressed serious concerns about the possible outbreak of Covid-19 in Saudi prisons and are calling for their release. Saudi Arabia has recorded 2,795 cases of Covid-19. On April 3, Amnesty International reported that one defendant associated with the case, Mohammed al-Khudari, 82, the former representative of Hamas to Saudi Arabia, has cancer.

The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, guarantees the right of anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge to be brought promptly before a judge or other officer of the law, and to have a trial within a reasonable time or be released. The charter says that “Pre-trial detention shall in no case be the general rule.” The Charter also says that trials should be public.

“Saudi Arabia should immediately make clear the specific accusations and underlying evidence against defendants to the detainees and their families,” Page said. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Australian SAS search operation in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in May 2012. Screenshot from ABC News, Four Corners, March 16, 2020.

(Sydney) – Australia’s Defence Department should reexamine previously dismissed cases of alleged summary executions and other war crimes in Afghanistan in light of new evidence, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. The March 16, 2020 episode of ABC’s Four Corners reported on possible war crimes by Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) members against Afghan civilians and captured combatants in Afghanistan in 2012.

On March 19, the Defence Department announced that it had identified and suspended from duty “Soldier C.,” an SAS member implicated in one of the incidents shown on the Four Corners program, and that the matter had been referred to the Australian Federal Police.

“Justice and accountability for alleged war crimes by Australian special forces members in Afghanistan is long overdue,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “The Defence Department’s decision to suspend one of the soldiers implicated is an important first step, but all those identified in alleged atrocities should be suspended pending further investigations.”

Since 2016, the Office of the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force, led by New South Wales Judge Paul Brereton, has been investigating 55 cases of alleged war crimes by SAS members in Afghanistan. In the interest of accountability, Defence Minister Reynolds should make a commitment to publicly release the full inspector general’s report as soon as it is completed.

Video still of alleged Australian SAS member shooting Afghan man Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in May 2012.  Screenshot from ABC News, Four Corners, March 16, 2020.

Human Rights Watch urged Reynolds to ensure an independent inquiry into allegations that officials or armed forces personnel may have suppressed evidence of war crimes or other human rights abuses. All legal action against those who reported these incidents, including whistleblowers, lawyers, and journalists acting in the public interest, should be dropped.

“Investigations into alleged war crimes should focus on the people responsible, not those who exposed the atrocities,” Pearson said. “Australia’s reputation as a rights-respecting nation both during peacetime and at war will hinge on how the government addresses the most egregious cases of alleged abuse.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Each week, a young man who sells shoes at a market in southern Kyrgyzstan loses a day of work to travel to the open prison where he is serving a three-year sentence. But the crime for which he was convicted, possession of “extremist” material, no longer exists.

An airplane trace is seen behind a Kyrgyzstan national flag fluttering in a central square in Bishkek March 11, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

When Kyrgyzstan overhauled its criminal code in January 2019, it decriminalized the possession of videos, pamphlets, songs, and other material the authorities label extremist. The charge had been widely used to imprison people for nonviolent behavior, such as practicing fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, or for even more innocuous legitimate activities. Since then, possession of such material can be treated as a crime only if the accused disseminated it or showed an intent to do so.

Kyrgyzstan has stepped up efforts to counter violent extremism in recent years in response to hundreds of its citizens joining extremist armed groups in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But its crackdown has led to serious abuses. The country’s overly broad definition of “extremism,” for example, includes acts of “hooliganism” and “vandalism,” allowing it to be misused against political and other targets.

In 2018, Human Rights Watch found that Kyrgyzstan’s offense of “possession” in particular resulted in hundreds of people being convicted and imprisoned for up to five years for possessing material that contained no call for ideologically or politically motivated violence. Many of those convicted said they were unaware that they were committing a crime. Human rights law incorporates the principle of legal certainty, which requires defining a criminal offense clearly enough that a person would know when they are violating it.  

While overhauling the criminal code in 2019 was a positive move, there is clear cause for concern about how the changes are being carried out. A colleague and I examined the cases of eight people, including the young shoe salesman. We concluded they did not receive a fair review of their cases after the possession of extremist materials was decriminalized. 

The shoe salesman’s saga with law enforcement began a week after his wedding, in June 2017. The police seized his phone during a house search, and said they found songs on it from two groups banned as terrorist, which contained lyrics deemed extremist. The songs were in Arabic — a language the shoe salesman says he does not understand. “I spent my honeymoon in pretrial detention,” he said. He was sentenced to three years in a minimum-security prison that allows prisoners to live at home for purposes of employment, as long as they pay a monthly fee to the penitentiary system and check in once a week. 

In early 2019, he learned from prison officials that possession of extremist material was no longer a crime. They told him he could write a letter asking a judge to review his case and that he would be assigned a state lawyer.  

After writing the letter, he said: “I never saw this lawyer… (Prison officials) said it will happen, wait, it’s being reviewed.” 

Only six months later, when he sought help from an independent lawyer, did he learn that a regional court had rejected his petition. In October, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court rejected his appeal. The judge ruled that he showed intent to disseminate the materials even though there was no mention of this in his 2017 conviction. People have a right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of double jeopardy guarantees that nobody should be tried or punished again for an offense for which they were already convicted. But in cases like this, in addition to reviewing cases without even notifying the person involved, Kyrgyzstan’s courts appear to be retroactively substituting a conviction for one offense with another, completely flouting fair trial standards. 

In January, we requested information from the Justice Ministry, the Supreme Court, the General Prosecutor, and the State Penitentiary Service of Kyrgyzstan asking how many people were still serving sentences exclusively for possession of extremist material. We also asked why courts can substitute a conviction and sentence for a cancelled offense with another one for an offense still on the books, but did not receive a response.

Continuing to serve a sentence for an act that is no longer a crime can result in severe hardship even for those who are serving sentences in open prisons. Five people we interviewed who were still serving sentences said they had to spend anywhere from four hours to a day each week to check in. They were paying monthly fees into the penitentiary systems of around 2,000 soms ($28), a burden to a family earning only 10,000 soms ($140) per month. One man, a builder, said he had gone into debt to keep up with payments.

Under Kyrgyzstan’s law, people serving prison sentences for terrorism or extremism offenses can also be added to a blacklist that effectively freezes their assets, and several people we interviewed said they had struggled financially as a result. They all were barred from traveling abroad, limiting their ability to seek employment or visit relatives, and all said they were emotionally burdened by the criminal convictions still hanging over their heads. They feared that they could be charged again at any time —this time as repeat offenders with heftier sentences. 

One single mother, whose 2017 sentence for possession of a video deemed extremist was postponed because she has young children, has yet to serve time in prison. But her conviction was upheld by a regional court last year, and unless she is vindicated by the Supreme Court, she will go to jail as scheduled, when her oldest child (now 8) turns 14. “The sentence is hanging over me — I feel it, my children feel it, [the fact] that I could go to prison.”

New cases brought since the January 2019 criminal code reforms suggest some questionable practices continue. Specifically, lawyers expressed concerns that courts are adopting an overly elastic interpretation of “intent to distribute” material they deem extremist to circumvent the 2019 decriminalization of possession alone. 

Kyrgyzstan should ensure that anyone serving a sentence for possession of extremist material has an effective and prompt review of their conviction, with the assistance of legal counsel. The review needs to be fair, and courts cannot be allowed either to retroactively change the offense for which a conviction was handed down, or to place the person in double jeopardy. It should also narrow the definition of extremism to ensure that those exercising their right to freedom of expression, as protected under international law, do not become victims of these overbroad measures. 

Kyrgyzstan’s partners should ensure that their security and counterterrorism cooperation is not marred by a partner’s abusive practices. International organizations including the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the European Union and its member states, in their dealings with Kyrgyzstan, should require measurable improvements in the country’s protection of people’s rights in cases of suspected extremism. 

People serving sentences for the defunct offense of possessing extremist material should not continue to pay for a crime that never should have been on the books to begin with. Rather than perpetuate this abuse, Kyrgyzstan should fix its system, and not just on paper.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you, Madam Special Rapporteur,

Your report on the potentially damaging human rights consequences of overly broad state agendas relating to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism could not be more timely.

This very session, China is presenting a draft resolution on “the role of counter-terrorism and deradicalization in promoting and protecting human rights.”

As your report makes clear, the pitfalls of such an approach are numerous: the lack of definitional clarity around concepts such as “extremism” and “deradicalization” is often used as a cloak for sweeping rights violations. Restrictive policies and programs are often based more on stereotypes than science. In numerous jurisdictions, these restrictions are not subject to legal oversight or challenge before independent tribunals. “Prevention” is often used as an excuse to target those who have committed no crime.  Many laws and programs abuse those who lack any intent to commit any act of violence. This overreach can violate the rights of entire communities based on nothing other than their identity, language, culture or religion. Faith communities are particularly at risk, with a common target being the practice of Islam, whether it be Rohingya in Myanmar, Muslims in India or Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The report references the joint letter by a dozen UN Special Procedures, expressing concerns at China’s counter-terrorism legislation, and noting that: “Special procedures mandate holders have expressed concern about legislation that enables the widespread use of arbitrary detention and ‘re-education’ as a method of preventing and countering violent extremism.”

As the joint letter notes, practices that violate human rights risk “fueling further radicalization.” Human Rights Watch shares these concerns. In the guise of countering terrorism and deradicalization, China has perpetrated mass arbitrary detentions, separated Uyghur children from their families, and targeted those whose only “crime” was expressing their faith in peaceful ways, such as wearing a veil or praying after meals. There are also reports of the authorities deliberately destroying Uyghur cemeteries.

The Special Rapporteur’s report is a crucial reminder that the Human Rights Council should reject any attempt to instrumentalize “deradicalization” as a pretext for rights violations.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Pictured (L) members of a left-wing group Set (Network) in court in Penza, Russia on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, when the court convicted seven members on terrorism charges, sentencing them to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years. (R) Eduard Nizamov.

© 2020 AP Photo/David Frenkel (L); 2019 Private (R)

(Berlin) – Russian military courts handed down guilty verdicts on February 5 and 10, 2020 in three separate, deeply flawed terrorism cases in which the defendants alleged incommunicado detention, torture, and other ill-treatment to extract confessions, Human Rights Watch said today. A total of 18 defendants in the cases were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 23 years.

The trials were also marred by the prosecution and judges’ refusal to rigorously investigate complaints of abuse, and by their reliance on dubious expert analysis and use of anonymous “secret witnesses.” In one of the cases, the very existence of the alleged terrorist organization remains in question.

“These are three cases in different parts of Russia, but what unites them is the authorities’ refusal to rigorously investigate the defendants’ credible claims of abuse,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These defendants didn’t get a fair trial. The verdicts should be quashed, and allegations of fabrications and ill-treatment adequately investigated.”

One case involves “Network” (Set, in Russian), which the Federal Security Service (FSB) allege to be a terrorist organization created in St. Petersburg and Penza, among other places. The authorities claimed the defendants planned to destabilize the country through violence, including during the 2018 presidential elections and the World Cup. The prosecution did not argue that the defendants planned any specific acts of violence. The seven defendants convicted on February 10, aged between 23 and 31, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years.

The second case involves an alleged leader of the entire Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist group that Russia’s Supreme Court banned in 2003, categorizing it as a terrorist organization. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a caliphate but does not espouse violence to achieve it. A court sentenced the defendant, Eduard Nizamov, to 23 years in maximum security prison.

Finally, five days earlier in a separate criminal case, another 10 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were handed prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years.

In the “Network” case, the Privolzhski District Military Court convicted the defendants on charges of creating and participating in a terrorist organization, as well as of trafficking in explosives and arms and attempted narcotics trafficking. The defendants are Dmitriy Pchelintsev, Ilya Shakurskiy, Andrey Chernov, Maksim Ivankin, Mikhail Kulkov, Vasiliy Kuskov, and Arman Sangynbayev.

Some of the men were antifascist activists, and others described themselves as anarchists or left- wing activists, and their supporters alleged that this case is part of a broader crackdown on radical leftist groups. Russian media reported that some of the defendants did not even know each other, but shared views and hobbies. Some had played a game similar to paintball that sometimes simulates battles or quests in forested areas. The prosecution claimed the game was in fact military training to prepare for an unspecified coup.

Several defendants alleged during court proceedings and beforehand that authorities beat them and used electric shocks to extract testimony. But the authorities claimed that a preliminary inquiry by the military department of the investigative committee, Russia’s chief criminal investigative agency, established the defendants’ injuries were from an attempted escape, and the court and the prosecution accepted this explanation without further inquiry. Another suspect in the same case who later fled the country consulted a physician and state forensic physician to document his injuries. In response to his formal complaint, the authorities claimed that marks on his body consistent with the use of an electroshock weapon were “insect bites.”

The defense team alleged that during the trial, the court accepted statements by four anonymized “secret witnesses” and allegedly rigged evidence. In January 2019, another person accused in this case, Igor Shishkin, was convicted as part of a plea bargain. Shishkin did not complain of ill-treatment, but members of the St. Petersburg Public Oversight Commission (ONK, the Russian acronym), an independent body of experts authorized by the government to monitor detention sites, observed injuries consistent with torture on his body. Two other young men, accused of involvement in “Network”, Viktor Filinkov and Yuliy (Yulian) Boyarshinov, remain on trial. ONK has also documented a detailed account by these two men of their torture and ill-treatment in custody. The Memorial Human Rights Center considers all those accused in relation to this case to be political prisoners.

On February 5, the same court that tried the “Network” defendants found 10 people guilty on a variety of charges related to their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. These include creating or membership in a local cell of a terrorist organization, assisting terrorism, and propaganda for terrorism. The defendants are Ilnar Zialilov, Ruslan Gabidullin, Azat Gataullin, Abdukakhor Mumindjanov, Sergey Derjipilskiy, Zulfat Sabirzianov, Komil Matiyev, Farid Kriyev, Rustem Salahutdinov, and Ilnaz Safiullin.

The prosecution said the men held meetings in which they discussed political news, how to campaign among other Muslims, and how to apply Sharia rules in everyday life. They were also accused of collecting membership dues, paying to print leaflets and journals, and organizing and paying for events, including football matches that they allegedly used to recruit members. Some of them were additionally accused in relation to their online posts. The prosecution did not allege that the defendants planned or carried out any specific act of violence.

Nizamov, who was convicted and sentenced on February 10 in the Central District Military Court in Yekaterinburg, was accused of being a leader of the entire Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir. He said that staff at the detention center had ill-treated him and caused him to be harassed in detention.

All of the Hizb ut-Tahrir defendants denied the accusations, saying the case against them was fabricated. They said they had condemned terrorism, and never called for the overthrow of the government nor for a violent coup. Their defense team challenged the prosecution’s use of two anonymous “secret witnesses” and the use of statements by persons who were exonerated after plea bargains.

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, an independent think tank focusing on extremism and the abuse of counterterrorism and counterextremism laws in Russia, takes issue with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s designation as a terrorist group and denounced prosecution of its members on terrorism charges based solely on such activities as conducting meetings, producing literature, and the like, because this group has not been proven to be linked to any terrorism-affiliated activities.

In a 2016 joint statement, four prominent Russian human rights organizations, the Memorial Human Rights Center, Civic Assistance Committee, SOVA, and the Institute for Human Rights, criticized the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that listed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, on the grounds that its activities do not contain any basis for accusations of terrorism or incitement to terrorism, and that no one should be criminally prosecuted for mere membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

While all countries have an obligation to protect people on their territory, counterterrorism measures should never be used as a pretext to prosecute political opponents or other critics, or otherwise to undermine human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy as well as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Russia is a participating state, warns that violations of human rights can fuel terrorism. “The link between the guarantee of human rights and protection from terrorism cannot be over-emphasized … [c]ombating and ultimately overcoming terrorism will not succeed if the means to secure that society are not consistent with human rights standards,” ODIHR has said in its manual, “Countering Terrorism, Protecting Human Rights.”

Russia has obligations, including as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, to observe the absolute prohibition of torture. In addition, rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, guarantees of a fair trial, and right to freedom of religion are all fundamental human rights protected by Russia’s own constitution and all key international human rights treaties.

Abusing counterterrorism laws to silence critics and deny fundamental human rights is unlawful and risks fomenting more resentment against the government,” Williamson said. “Instead of steamrolling the dissidents, the authorities urgently need to learn to engage them in constructive dialogue.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The authorities in Syria should address as a priority what happened to people who disappeared in the custody of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) while the group controlled parts of Syria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Authorities in de facto control of areas formerly under ISIS control should make information-sharing with families a priority and help create a formal system to address the issue of the missing and allow families to register their cases.

The 57-page report, “‘Kidnapped by ISIS’: Failure to Uncover the Fate of Syria’s Missing,” highlights 27 cases of individuals or groups apprehended by ISIS and last heard of in its custody before the group’s military defeat. They include activists, aid workers, journalists, and anti-ISIS fighters from a range of groups, government and anti-government, as well as residents living under ISIS control. While the number of missing is uncertain, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 8,143 cases of people detained by ISIS whose fate remains unknown.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


The Islamic State’s (ISIS) expansion in Iraq and Syria featured horrendous public abuses. Largely unseen but equally egregious were the widespread detentions and kidnappings by the group –thousands of people snatched from their homes and cars and at checkpoints, who subsequently went missing. While the full scale of the missing has not been confirmed, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has reported more than 8,143 cases of individuals detained by ISIS whose fates remain unknown.

This report highlights 27 cases of individuals or groups of persons apprehended by ISIS. All of them were last heard of in the custody of ISIS, prior to the group’s military defeat. It documents the abduction and disappearance of activists, humanitarian workers, journalists, and anti-ISIS fighters from a range of groups, government and anti-government, as well as residents living under ISIS. In some cases, family members saw ISIS taking their relatives into custody, while in other cases, former detainees said they had seen the missing person in ISIS detention centers.

Different patterns emerge from these interviews. ISIS targeted those it saw as an obstacle to its expansion or resisting its rule. This was clearly the case with the disappearance of activists in Raqqa in 2013 as ISIS prepared to take control of the city. The kidnapping and disappearance of these activists spread fear and confusion, removed vocal opponents, and set an example for those who thought to resist. ISIS also targeted journalists and anyone else they considered able to criticize the caliphate’s practices to the outside world.

Relatives who approached ISIS officials or visited detention centers to inquire about their loved ones very rarely received any information, and in the worst cases, they themselves were detained.


Missing Victims of ISIS

Prioritize Sharing Information, Protect Mass Graves

Other disappearances targeted people whom ISIS accused of working or spying for the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (US-led coalition), the Syrian government, or Kurdish-led groups including the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which forms the majority in the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES); the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the civilian body for Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria; and the SDC’s armed wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of local forces led by the NES that was responsible for administering areas formerly held by the Islamic State.

Many victims vanished during ISIS’s military offensives, notably in 2014 when the group dramatically expanded the territory under its control. ISIS detained hundreds of soldiers from Syrian government bases near Raqqa, Kurdish men from villages near Kobani, and men from the al-Shuaitat community who rose against the group.

The majority of those who were taken by ISIS were men, but Human Rights Watch documented the disappearances of several women including local activists.

While a significant number of non-Syrians were also disappeared by ISIS, this report focuses on Syrians who have gone missing, with the aim of highlighting that the suffering of families caused by the uncertainty and dearth of answers transcends nationality or political or ethnic affiliation, and is a country-wide concern.

What did ISIS do to individuals after it detained or abducted them? In some cases, ISIS filmed its members summarily executing them. In other cases, structures that ISIS used as detention facilities were bombed – either by the US-led coalition or the Syrian-Russian military alliance – killing all but the few who escaped in the chaos that followed. For thousands who went missing at the hands of ISIS, however, their whereabouts and fate remain unknown.

The families of the missing who spoke with Human Rights Watch said they had hoped that the territorial defeat of ISIS would quickly lead to information about their loved ones. However, a series of delays and an apparent lack of political will placed significant obstacles in their path.

Making matters more complicated, in October 2019, Turkey and Syrian non-state armed actors that it backed launched an offensive on Kurdish-held northeast Syria with the purported objective of clearing the Turkish-Syria border area of Kurdish elements that Turkey considers terrorists. The offensive came on the heels of a decision by the US administration to withdraw its troops, acting as a green light for Turkey to commence hostilities. In addition to widescale displacement, the offensive led to a change in the authorities with effective control on the ground.

On October 13, The SDC and the Syrian government arrived at an agreement brokered by Russia to allow Syrian government forces into areas held by the SDF to support them against the Turkish incursion. Meanwhile, Turkey and Turkish-backed factions managed to capture and secure a segment of the border area previously held by the NES, between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad. An agreement between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on October 22 allowed Turkey to retain these areas, which required the Kurdish-led forces to withdraw. It also cemented the Syrian government’s presence in all other areas.


© 2020 Human Rights Watch

At the time of writing, the extent of the control by the Syrian government, Turkey, NES, and the US-led coalition in former ISIS-held areas remains unclear, making it more difficult for families to identify who to speak to and recovery efforts more precarious.

Regardless of who currently controls these areas, these developments highlight the urgency with which authorities should act on any leads available to learn what became of those missing at the hands of ISIS.

Thus far, authorities on the ground have not coordinated or systematized the limited local efforts to take up this issue. In areas controlled by the Kurdish-led authorities for example, the Kurdish local council in Kobani created a committee for the disappeared, while in Raqqa, members of the governorate’s Civil Council said that the intelligence services were responsible for investigating the issue. Many families living in camps for internally displaced persons approached the Kurdish security and intelligence services, known as Asayish, who neither directed them to other authorities nor collected and registered information on their cases. The absence of a system or responsible body or focal point to register cases of missing persons and follow up should information become available meant that family members were left to resort to personal contacts in positions of authority, local hospitals, and first responders responsible for excavating mass graves, or to unofficial interlocuters. In many cases, the SDF or the Asayish did not respond to families’ requests for information. In some cases, they provided conflicting or vague responses that left families even more frustrated. Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their only sources of information often came from former prisoners who saw their relatives in custody, or from unconfirmed local news and rumors.

More than 20 mass graves containing thousands of bodies have been found in areas formerly held by ISIS. In some areas, most prominently Raqqa, local teams had begun exhuming the mass graves, but support and resources for their efforts have been inadequate. The sites are not being protected in accordance with international best practices, thereby damaging families’ chances of identifying their loved ones. In addition to these mass graves, Human Rights Watch found that ISIS may have also used a naturally occurring gorge, locally known as al-Hota, to dispose of the bodies of individuals they detained or abducted. Further efforts to investigate those remains may provide answers to some of the questions posed.

In 2018 and 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed members of the First Responders’ Team in Raqqa, the group responsible for uncovering mass graves and recovering bodies across the governorate, and observed their protocol as they uncovered a mass grave at the al-Rashid playing field in Raqqa city. While the team worked diligently and carefully, their rudimentary methods and lack of standardized procedures risked losing information that would have been valuable in helping identify the missing. In areas held by the Syrian government, the search by families for their loved ones has been equally futile, despite the government having detained thousands of ISIS members and discovered mass graves in areas under its control. Those still awaiting answers from the authorities include the families of hundreds of Syrian Army soldiers.

Family members described their anguish at fruitlessly pursuing rumors, receiving promises of information in exchange for payments from suspicious intermediaries, and visiting former detention centers in the hope of finding some clues. Those who met with Syrian officials said they received no information, only speculation that ISIS killed all its prisoners, or blanket denials of any knowledge. Families told Human Rights Watch that if their relatives have been killed, they still wanted to bury them properly to achieve closure.

The US-led coalition to defeat ISIS has also failed to address or prioritize the issue of the missing. Though the United States increased their funding for the exhumation of mass graves and announced a reward for those who have information regarding the whereabouts of five prominent Syrian religious figures kidnapped by ISIS, the coalition and other member states have directed few resources toward supporting families to identify the fates of their loved ones. The US-led coalition and the SDF have detained thousands of ISIS suspects and family members, including many in positions of authority, who may have answers to these questions, but if they have this information they have not shared it with the families.

A Way Forward

The de facto authorities[1] in northeast Syria along with local civil councils and security forces should create a civilian body, with regional and local branches, with a mandate to collect information in their respective areas of control about those who vanished under ISIS rule. Such a mechanism should maintain a database of the missing, including contact information for families to facilitate updates, and coordinate with those responsible for protecting and exhuming mass graves across the area as well as with intelligence authorities responsible for questioning former ISIS members and those who have access to documents or evidence. A specific focus of such a body should be to conduct outreach to families of the missing both within and outside Syria. For each de facto authority, this body should coordinate and share intelligence with other such bodies in other areas of control to enable a comprehensive accounting of those missing. Where such a mechanism or body exists, it should be provided with support from local authorities to enable it to carry out its work comprehensively.

The Syrian conflict has been marked by the prolonged arbitrary detention and forced disappearance of tens of thousands of people by all parties to the conflict. The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been responsible for the vast majority of those disappearances. Most of those detained by the government ended up forcibly disappeared, with the government refusing to provide families with information about the whereabouts of their loved ones or their remains. These violations are ongoing despite the government having retaken a significant portion of its territory. Armed groups including Jaish al-Islam and Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, have also abducted and detained a large number of civilians and combatants. Where feasible, authorities should make similar efforts to learn the fates of those who were disappeared at the hands of other armed groups.

While ISIS’s practice of arbitrarily detaining, disappearing, and summarily executing individuals is not unique, it committed these acts on a scale that may amount to crimes against humanity. ISIS’s loss of territorial control provides an opportunity for authorities in Syria to both hold members of the group accountable for such crimes and to provide answers to families about what happened to their loved ones.


Given the breadth of territorial control that the Islamic State (ISIS) enjoyed at the height of its power in 2014 to 2016/17, and the fluidity of control of areas in Northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch addresses these recommendations to all authorities controlling areas in Syria where individuals have been kidnapped by the Islamic State, including the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces affiliated with them, the Syrian government, and Turkey and Turkish-backed armed groups.

We note with concern that all of these actors have themselves carried out serious abuses that have included arbitrarily detaining and disappearing individuals, torturing detainees, and/or failing to cooperate with international authorities or hold individuals accountable for abuses. Human Rights Watch has previously given detailed recommendations concerning the steps that these authorities should take to address the violations. Therefore, we outline below steps to address those kidnapped by ISIS and their families specifically, with the hope that implementing the recommendations below for ISIS-related abuses may provide a model to move forward to remedy abuses by other actors.

Steps to support families of those missing/detained by ISIS for each de facto authority

  • Appoint a centralized civilian body or focal point with a team across each authority’s area of control to register cases of those who went missing under ISIS rule and to coordinate the collection of information on the missing with other authorities in Syria. This centralized body or focal point should publicly communicate and advertise relevant contact information for offices and representatives to communities in areas under its control, including phone numbers, e-mails, websites, and physical addresses. Where such a body already exists, the First Responders’ Team in Raqqa city for example, authorities should ensure that they receive sufficient financial and technical support to carry out their duties;
  • Inform families of the fate, whereabouts, and legal status of all persons in custody and respond to all outstanding requests for such information from families;
  • Conduct outreach to families both within and outside Syria to ensure that they know whom to contact and how regarding missing family members; and
  • Prioritize obtaining information from ISIS suspects in custody about individuals who ISIS detained and kidnapped without resorting to unlawful interrogation tactics such as torture or mistreatment.

Steps to address mass graves in Syria

  • Take urgent steps to protect mass graves with the forensic expertise required to carry out this work effectively, including in order to allow for the identification of bodies and to preserve evidence to allow for the prosecution of ISIS suspects in line with international fair trial standards; and
  • Invite independent international forensic experts, including those with experience working before international criminal tribunals, to support local teams in preserving and analyzing evidence in newly accessible mass graves.

Steps to engage ISIS suspects in custody

  • Screen prisoners in a timely manner to determine whether any are former ISIS detainees;
  • Ensure that persons formerly detained by ISIS and other individuals in custody are not subjected to mistreatment, torture, or abuse. Ensure that conditions in which persons in custody are held align with international detention standards including the Mandela Rules.
  • Provide full and unimpeded access for independent and impartial monitoring bodies, such as the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to all detention facilities; and
  • Do not transfer any persons formerly detained by ISIS or other individuals in custody to countries or authorities that are known to have tortured or ill-treated individuals in their custody.

Steps to pursue justice for crimes committed by ISIS

Human Rights Watch has abiding concerns regarding the ability of authorities controlling former ISIS areas to provide fair trial guarantees, due process, and other human rights guarantees. Human Rights Watch instead urges authorities on the ground to reform their judicial systems to comply with international standards, in line with recommendations made in prior reports in detail.

Human Rights Watch encourages de facto authorities to cooperate fully with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) on Syria established by UN General Assembly resolution 71/248, and domestic judicial authorities elsewhere–that have universal jurisdiction over the investigation and prosecution of grave crimes committed in Syria, including the crime of enforced disappearance by ISIS members.

To the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS

  • Provide financial, technical, and capacity-building support to local authorities not implicated in serious crimes and human rights abuses, to investigate and document the fate of those who vanished in northeast Syria;
  • Encourage the UN and other international actors to ensure that such support and training is made available for this investigation and documentation within a human rights-respecting, nondiscriminatory framework;
  • Prioritize obtaining information from ISIS suspects in coalition custody regarding individuals detained and kidnapped by ISIS;
  • Screen those in custody in a timely manner to determine whether any are former ISIS detainees; and
  • Do not transfer any individual in coalition custody to countries or authorities that are known to have tortured or ill-treated individuals in their custody.

To the United States

  • The Department of Defense and the US-led Global Coalition should ensure that uncovering the fate of those missing is a core component of a post-ISIS strategy, and request appropriate funding and staffing to facilitate it;
  • In preparing any post-ISIS strategy, the Department of State should ensure that uncovering the fate of the missing is a core component, and request appropriate funding and staffing to facilitate it. The State Department should continue to provide financial support to Syrian civil society to urgently uncover and protect mass graves, including by providing capacity-building grants for local teams on the ground, and supporting the provision of supplies to help excavate mass graves urgently; and
  • Congress should ensure that uncovering the fate of those missing under ISIS is a core component of any post-ISIS strategy, and should provide for the appointment of a coordinator responsible for uncovering the fate of those kidnapped by ISIS. Such an individual will be authorized to liaise with the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Global Coalition to identify information about those kidnapped by ISIS and communicate that information to families and others seeking that information.


For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 31 individuals including relatives and colleagues of individuals who had been detained, kidnapped, or went missing at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), as well as former ISIS prisoners and forensic experts.

Researchers conducted interviews on four field trips to northeast Syria, and remotely interviewed families based in neighboring countries, Europe, and the United States. Researchers also spoke to international forensic experts and civil society leaders with expertise in identifying remains and learning the fate of the missing.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to representatives of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, the Raqqa Civil Council, and the Asayish security forces about people who were disappeared after being detained by ISIS.

Human Rights Watch sent letters to Syrian government officials and pro-government groups, the US-led coalition and to the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) authorities but did not receive any response.

Human Rights Watch relied on publicly available material and authoritative news reports regarding pro-government soldiers who were detained or kidnapped by ISIS.

All interviews were conducted in Arabic or English. Human Rights Watch explained the purpose of the interviews to interviewees and obtained their consent to use the information they provided in this report.

In all cases where interviewees asked to not be named or Human Rights Watch assessed that naming them would jeopardize their security or their ability to operate in Syria, Human Rights Watch has not named them or provided identifying information.

I. Mapping Those who were Disappeared at the Hands of ISIS

Local Activists and Community Leaders

Firas al-Haj Saleh with his son, Ibrahim

© Ghadir Nawfal

Firas al-Haj Saleh, July 2013

Firas al-Haj Saleh, a public sector employee born in 1972, had been arrested twice by the security forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for organizing anti-government protests and lost his job after the second arrest.[2] Al-Haj Saleh helped lead opposition to the Islamic State (ISIS) when the group rose in Raqqa city in 2013. Al-Haj Saleh’s brother, Khalil al-Haj Saleh, believes this was a direct cause of his kidnapping:

They dismantled civilian organizations to force people to leave the city. No one was left except those who were either benefiting from their presence or were not involved [in the resistance]. It’s a pivotal point. Each time they kidnap one person, 1,500 would flee. It’s how they propagated fear.[3]

On July 20, 2013, a car intercepted al-Haj Saleh and his friend Mustafa Suleiman while they were returning to his home after a night out in Raqqa city, al-Haj Saleh’s wife and brother told Human Rights Watch.[4] The car forced the two men to stop, and four armed men got out and took al-Haj Saleh, leaving Mustafa who told Firas’s family.

ISIS had threatened al-Haj Saleh a week before the kidnapping – telling him to leave the city or be killed, al-Haj Saleh’s wife and brother said. Al-Haj Saleh’s wife said Suleiman said that he saw the car take al-Haj Saleh to an ISIS headquarters nearby.[5]

Al-Haj Saleh’s wife and around 70 others went to ISIS headquarters in the city protest around two hours after she received the news.[6] When she asked ISIS officials about his whereabouts, they denied having him and said they did not know where he was. She asked other sources, including Arab clans with connections to ISIS members, to no avail:

With Daesh [ISIS], you cannot negotiate. No matter how much you hear about it, no matter how much you see, it’s not like for those who have lived with them. It’s been 4 years, 10 months, and 3 days—not a single piece of information, not a single sign.[7]

Al-Haj Saleh’s son, Ibrahim, now 8 years old, was 2 when his father was kidnapped. His mother said Ibrahim barely remembers his father:

Ibrahim he asks a lot about his father. A specialist recommended telling him that his father may be alive or dead, in preparation for telling him the full truth about his father’s disappearance.”[8]

Ismaeel al-Hamed

© Private

Ismaeel Hassan al-Hamed, November 2013

Dr. Ismaeel al-Hamed, born in 1964, was a general surgeon from Raqqa city. A prominent activist and respected community leader, he had participated in and organized protests against the Syrian government in 2011, and he provided medical aid to anti-government demonstrators. When ISIS emerged in Raqqa, Dr. al-Hamed was among its first and most outspoken critics, according to one of his relatives.

On November 2, 2013, at around 11 a.m., while Dr. al-Hamed was on his way to his clinic, a group of masked men intercepted him. He hurriedly informed two young men, just as he was taken away, to let his family know.[9] His wife – who was in Raqqa city at the time with three of their five children – visited ISIS’s known headquarters and offices, as well as those of other factions still operating in the city, asking for information about her husband. She also organized protests and campaigns for his release.

A few years after his disappearance, the Hamed family moved to Europe. Following the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, the family attempted unsuccessfully to reach out to the Kurdish-led authorities in control of the area to ask for more information. According to a relative, the family was unable to identify a point person or reach authorities. [10]

Abdullah Khalil, May 2013

Abdullah Khalil, born in 1961, was a long-time human rights defender and a known political opponent of the Syrian government who had been arrested by the Syrian authorities several times. Following his release from one prison sentence in November 2012 he left Syria for Turkey.[11] When the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a coalition of armed anti-government groups, took Raqqa city from the Syrian government in 2013, Khalil returned to the city and briefly served as the head of the local civil council overseen by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a coalition of anti-government groups founded in 2012

On May 19, 2013 at around 12:30 a.m., unknown gunmen abducted Khalil and four other men on their way to nearby al-Meshleb village, Khalil’s wife told Human Rights Watch. Two of Khalil’s associates escaped while the whereabouts of Khalil and the other men remains unknown. Khalil and the men were last seen in a car driven by other men that was stopped at a checkpoint guarded by Jabhat al-Nusra, an armed group that was affiliated to al-Qaeda, on a road heading out of the city.[12]

Khalil’s wife, who was living in Turkey at the time, told Human Rights Watch that she went to Raqqa in November 2013 to try to find information about her husband. Using the back door to sneak into their former house, she said she found Khalil’s keys in the entryway, “the Islamic State” written on the walls, and all the family’s possessions burned, including her and her husband’s degrees and more than 1,000 books in their library.[13]

She also visited the military court, which was controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra at the time. She asked if they had custody of her husband. She then went to a headquarters in the center of Raqqa governorate that belonged to ISIS. They did not deny having Khalil in their custody but did not provide any information.

His wife and other activists believe that Khalil was abducted because of his anti-ISIS activism and work to develop local civilian governance structures in Raqqa. Official ISIS documents obtained after the fall of Raqqa by Zaman al-Wsl, a Syrian news outlet affiliated with the anti-government opposition, show that ISIS identified Khalil as a threat because he was a civil society leader. The documents provide extensive details regarding Khalil’s movements in the days before he was kidnapped and indicate that the Islamic State was likely behind his kidnapping.[14]

The last that Khalil’s family heard about his whereabouts was in 2016, when a nurse who used to work at Tabqa prison[15] under ISIS told relatives that he had seen Khalil in the prison, and that he was still alive. Since then, his wife has not received any credible information regarding her husband, despite having raised the case with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Kurdish authorities after ISIS was defeated in Raqqa city.[16]

Describing the impact of Khalil’s kidnapping on the family, his wife said:

There are no words to describe the moments we went through – difficult, grim, moments of pain, pure pain. [Our daughters] Safa and Marwa, when they see anyone who knew their father, they feel broken. I see it in their eyes, in their look, because they do not know their father, they were seven when he left. They only see him in pictures. But no memories. They still live hoping that their father will come back.[17]

Ruqaiya al-Ahmed, mid-2014

Ruqaiya al-Ahmed, 25 at the time, a Kurdish resident of Raqqa city, was a prominent Facebook activist. In mid-2014, before the month of Ramadan, female ISIS security officers took her from her home at around 8 p.m., according to relatives who witnessed her detention.[18] They told Human Rights Watch that the officers ordered al-Ahmed to bring her laptop and mobile.

Ruqaiya’s uncle and father went to a football stadium in central Raqqa city that became known as the Black Stadium (and also as Point 11) after ISIS started using it as a detention facility, to ask about her. ISIS took them as well and detained them for a month, her uncle said. A local ISIS official had previously given the family a document saying that ISIS had killed Ruqaiya as an apostate.[19] Years later, the family learned from a former female detainee that in 2014, she had seen a woman who matched al-Ahmed’s appearance among the ISIS prisoners at the Black Stadium, ostensibly after she had been “killed.” Neither had provided dates, but the conflicting information left the family confused as to who to believe.

Both the US-led international coalition to defeat ISIS and the Syrian-Russian military alliance separately targeted the Black Stadium with air strikes on multiple occasions. The family said they did not know whether Ruqaiya had been executed by ISIS, killed in one of these attacks, or remained in detention in a different part of the country.[20]

One of the relatives, who returned to Raqqa city shortly after it was retaken by the US-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Human Rights Watch that they had initially thought it would be easy to obtain information after Raqqa was freed but made no progress: “We didn’t know who to ask.”[21]

Adnan and Idris Kashif, July 2013[22]

On the afternoon July 20, 2013, Adnan Kashif, an agricultural engineer living in Raqqa city, left the house to buy toys for his children to celebrate their birthday, his wife told Human Rights Watch.[23] By 9 p.m., he had still not returned. While Kashif often went out for hours with a group of friends that included both Arabs and Kurds, he always called to let his wife know. Concerned, his wife spoke with friends. She said they told her that Kashif had been walking with a group of friends when a group of armed ISIS fighters intercepted them and drove off with Kashif and one of his Kurdish friends. The kidnappers told the other friends that they planned to use them in a prisoner exchange with the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), and that if they wanted more information to follow up at governorate’s ISIS headquarters.

When Laila[24], his wife visited ISIS headquarters in Raqqa the next day, she said they told her they did not know her husband’s whereabouts. She visited several other headquarters to no avail. She told Human Rights Watch she asked for him “over a thousand times,” and after the fall of Raqqa contacted officials in the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the civilian arm of the People’s Protection Units – Kurdish-led armed group who at the time were in control of Northeast Syria (YPG), through her family as well as elders in Raqqa city, who by virtue of their status would have known about the supposed exchange. None of them provided her with a response.

Thirteen days later, Adnan’s brother, Idris Kashif, was also taken from the streets by ISIS in Raqqa city, witnesses told Laila. Adnan Kashif’s friends warned Laila she was next and helped smuggle her and their children out to the north.[25]

After Raqqa was retaken from ISIS, Laila, who was then working in a women’s center in SDF-held areas of northeast Syria, told Human Rights Watch that the family had heard that the SDF had conducted a prisoner swap with ISIS, exchanging an unknown number of ISIS members they had imprisoned for at least four or five SDF fighters as well as the corpses of 100 others killed by the group.[26]

Laila told Human Rights Watch that the last she heard about her husband was in 2016 when a former detainee called her on WhatsApp and told her that her husband was with him in an ISIS detention facility near a village in northeast Syria called al-Akirshi.

Idris Kashif, she said the family was told by the former detainee, had been handed to the Syrian government. When the former detainee reached out to Laila, she showed him a picture of the two brothers. He told her Idris Kashif had been in an ISIS prison with him in an airport near Aleppo. When a plane struck the detention facility, he said, the prisoners escaped. Laila told Human Rights Watch she wants the SDF and local authorities to find her husband:

There is no reason now for him to still be missing. We have four girls, and a son. He was our backbone. I need to know if he is dead or alive. His children need to know. Or give me an official contact I can apply to, or register him with as a missing person, so they could go look for him and find him and bring him back to me.[27]

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, July 2013

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, 64, is an Italian Jesuit priest who spent three decades in Syria renovating a monastery before being expelled by the Syrian government in 2012 for his condemnation of its treatment of protestors and other abuses.[28] Among Syrians, Dall’Oglio was widely considered a respected activist and a prominent voice for peace and co-existence. He returned to Syria in late July 2013, crossing through Gaziantep to visit areas that were no longer held by the government.[29]

In late July 2013, Dall’Oglio entered Raqqa city, apparently to negotiate the release of peace activists. According to local activists and news reports, at 11 a.m. on July 29, Dall’Oglio went to the Raqqa governorate building to request more information regarding detained activists.[30] He was not seen again.

The priest’s sister, Immacolata Dall’Oglio, told Human Rights Watch that she first learned of her brother’s disappearance from a news show.[31] A branch of the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs that specializes in tracking Italian citizens missing abroad confirmed to Immacolata Dall’Oglio and other siblings that the priest was last seen on July 29 in Raqqa city. But they provided no additional information, she said.

On February 7, 2019, the British daily, The Times, citing Kurdish sources, reported that Dall’Oglio might be alive and held in one of the pockets of territory still controlled by ISIS.[32] The Times said that ISIS was using Dall’Oglio and two other Western hostages, a British journalist and a nurse from New Zealand, as "bargaining chips" in negotiations with the US-backed forces surrounding them.[33]

Dall’Oglio’s sister told Human Rights Watch that both her family and the Italian government had separately reached out to the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) to inquire about her brother, both after Raqqa was retaken in October 2017, and after the fall of Baghuz, the last ISIS holdout in Syria, in February/March 2019.[34] The NES first responded indicating that they had information, but when the family followed up said they had no information.

“It is strange, no?” asked Immacolata Dall’Oglio. “First they say yes, and then they say no. Why?”[35]

On July 29, 2019 – six years after the anniversary of his kidnapping – the US announced up to US$5 million reward for anyone who could provide information about five kidnapped Syrian religious figures, including Dall’Oglio.[36]

Kidnapping Journalists and Media Activists

Abdel Kader Haddad, June 2013

Abdel Kader Haddad, 20 at the time, was active since the early days of the uprising as a photographer, first in Damascus before fleeing to Idlib, then in the Latakia countryside, and later in Turkey.

On June 26, 2013, at around 9:00 pm, Haddad was detained with his driver in the Atmeh area in Idlib governorate while on assignment for the organization he was working with, according to Haddad’s mother. The driver, who was released three days later, told Haddad’s family that he and Haddad were arrested at a checkpoint that was manned by Islamic State members. ISIS stopped the car and found Haddad’s laptop and asked if Haddad was a journalist, then took them both. He told the family that the Islamic State abused them heavily during their time in detention.

The driver was released when an armed opposition group was sent in to retrieve both. ISIS released the driver, but refused to release Haddad.

Haddad’s mother, Faten Ajjan, herself a journalist, tried everything to find more information about Haddad’s whereabouts. Shortly after his kidnapping, she crossed into Syria from Turkey to see if she could find more information about her son from ISIS. She told Human Rights Watch that individuals who crossed with her, told her she was wanted by ISIS for her work, and that the group was coming to arrest her, forcing her to leave without meeting any members.

She told Human Rights Watch she was not deterred, and reached out to ISIS numerous times:

What do you think the small Daeshis are? These were previously members of Free [Syrian] Army who defected to al-Nusra [an extremist anti-government group]. And then ISIS separated from al-Nusra. Al-Nusra members are part of the town. You know them. You ate with them. You saw them. Many have been responsive. We tried to negotiate several times. After Aboud [Haddad], Ateek, Batal, Samar, Mohammad. I started asking about them too. First 4, then 8, then 9 and the list kept growing. I connected with many emirs. Most would promise me a solution and then disappear.

In 2015, Ajjan told Human Rights Watch that a man confirmed to her that Haddad was being held in Raqqa, but was about to be transported to Deir al-Zor. That was the last time she heard about Haddad. Shortly after, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition began their air campaign on Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.

Since moving to France in February 2018, Ajjan told Human Rights Watch that she was unable to meet with or connect to any authorities. She said she had reached out to the Syrian Democratic Forces, who were in control of the northeast at the time, when an exchange was about to take place, but the authorities did not place the name of journalists who were taken on the list.

“All these years, every moment, it’s like a hundred year torture. They wanted to silence the voice of truth, that’s why they took him, that is the only reason.”

She told Human Rights Watch that when the battle of Baghuz ended in February 2019, she experienced mixed feelings:

I couldn’t sleep. I experienced immense fear and immense happiness at the same time. I was happy because ISIS would be over. But I was afraid that my hope to find Aboud [Haddad] would disappear. Qasd [Arabic initials of the Syrian Democratic Forces], the coalition, they’re refusing to have a mechanism to find our children. There is a total absence internationally. I’m a mother and I was never afraid of ISIS. You are nations, why are you afraid? I don’t know why they do not care. I keep looking at pictures of mass graves, inspecting them. Imagine, a mother looking at graves, inspecting every picture, wondering whether I’ll see Aboud. And thankfully I haven’t.

Muhammad Nour Matar, August 2013

Muhammad Nour Matar, 20 at the time, went missing in Raqqa city on the night of August 13, 2013. Matar and his older brother Amer, a journalist, had been filming and documenting ISIS abuses in the city.[37]

That night, a car bomb exploded near the old train station in Raqqa, where he was filming. Initially, his family feared he had been injured or killed. Amer Matar arrived in Raqqa a day after the explosion and was given his brother’s charred camera by the medical team that went to the site of the explosion. [38] There were no bodies at the site.

Matar’s family later was told by detainees released from ISIS jails told that they had seen him in the governate administration building that ISIS used for interrogations, and in al-Sad prison in the town of Tabqa, which ISIS controlled.[39] In 2015, the family received a tip from a relative in Raqqa that Matar had been taken to the city’s National Hospital following a severe asthma attack. Neither Amer Matar nor anyone else in his family were able to confirm the information.

Amer Matar told Human Rights Watch that the process of getting information about his brother was immensely difficult: “We were subjected to several extortion attempts – all the information we were provided with were lies.”

During the military campaign to drive ISIS from Raqqa, Amer Matar began searching prisons abandoned by ISIS for any information about his brother. “We started taking pictures of the prisons and the names on the walls,” he said. “Like most prisons that ISIS had left, there was no one [there].”

After the SDF gained control of Raqqa and areas surrounding it, the family contacted them to see if they had any information about Muhammad Matar.[40] They asked the SDF to question ISIS members in custody about what happened to prisoners in their detention centers. They contacted the Northern Brigade (Liwa’ al-Shamal), formerly part of the Free Syrian Army, which also held ISIS suspects with the same request.

“The SDF arrested hundreds of ISIS members, and we tried to communicate [with them]; they never responded or took this seriously,” Amer Matar said.

Ishak Moctar, Samir Kassab, and their Syrian Driver, October 2013

On October 14, 2013, Samir Kassab, a Lebanese cameraman for Sky News Arabia, was kidnapped along with his colleague Ishak Moctar and a Syrian driver, while driving from Turkey to Aleppo.[41] Kassab’s family and employers believe the kidnappers were ISIS members. Sky News Arabia had a house in Aleppo, and the team was deployed to cover Eid al-Adha festivities.[42]

Adrian Wells, a former Sky News reporter, told Human Rights Watch that the network first heard about the kidnappings after it lost contact with the team while they were en route to Aleppo.[43] They sent a safety team to Turkey to try to find out what happened to the crew. Despite a number of conversations with intermediaries, Wells said, they did not receive clear information.

 “There were a number of different rumors, as well as people contacting us for ransom, but none [of the rumors] turned out to be real,” Wells said. “Proof of death has also been hard to establish.”[44]

George Kassab, Samir Kassab’s brother, told Human Rights Watch the last he heard anything certain about his brother was in 2014, when Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who had also been kidnapped by ISIS, told the family that while in custody he heard a voice he thought was Kassab’s in late 2013 while detained by the group in Aleppo.[45] In 2018, a former detainee from Tabqa reached the family to tell them he saw Samir in the prison in Aleppo, but said nothing else. George Kassab told Human Rights Watch that they did not reach out to the SDF directly, but instead with Abbas Ibrahim, the director of Lebanese General Security. So far, he said, Lebanese authorities have failed to provide them with additional information or direction.[46]

Samar Saleh and her fiancé Muhammad al-Omar.

© Maisa al-Saleh

Samar Saleh and Muhammad al-Omar, August 2013

Samar Saleh, 25 at the time, was initially detained by the Syrian government in 2012 for her activism with the anti-government student movement at Aleppo university. After her release, she managed several shelters in Aleppo schools for displaced families from the Aleppo countryside. Fearing re-arrest, she went to Cairo University to study for a master’s degree in archaeology.

In 2013, she returned to northern Syria to see her family. On August 13, 2013, when she was driving back from a family visit in the car with her fiancé, Muhammad al-Omar, and her mother, they were stopped by a jeep in al-Atareb, Aleppo, her sister told Human Rights Watch.[47] Masked gunmen got out of the car and took Saleh and Muhammad but let Saleh’s mother go.

The family soon learned that the kidnappers were ISIS after members of the group used Saleh’s Skype and Facebook accounts to communicate with her friends and relatives and threaten them with the same fate.[48] At the time of the kidnapping, ISIS did not control al-Atareb but was present in nearby town of al-Dana.

The next day, Saleh’s parents visited al-Dana to ask about their daughter. ISIS officials there told them it was a routine investigation, and that she would be released soon. They asked why she had gone to the United States before the conflict, and what she did for a living. In the parents’ second visit to al-Dana, ISIS denied that they had Saleh. Since then, neither Maisa, Saleh’s sister, nor her parents have received any substantial information regarding Saleh or Muhammad’s whereabouts.

Husam Nizam al-Deen, AbdelKader Ateek, and Obeida Batal, July 2013

On July 25, 2013 three journalists with Orient News, an opposition-affiliated outlet, Abdel Kader Ateek, Obeida Battal, and Hussam Nizam al-Deen, 22, 25, and an unknown age respectively, were kidnapped in Maskan Tel Rifaat while on an assignment. Ateek's father told Human Rights Watch that they learned the three were taken by ISIS from another journalist who saw them being kidnapped after he was briefly detained at an ISIS checkpoint.[49]

Ateek and Batal’s fathers told Human Rights Watch that they received information from Iraqi officials indicating that ISIS had transferred their sons to Mosul at some point during their detention, and that as of early 2019 they were in Iraqi government custody.[50] Batal’s father told Human Rights Watch that an Iraqi military officer had reached out to his cousin to ask him if Batal was related to him and confirmed that he was in the custody of the Iraqi government.[51] Ateek’s father said that he contacted someone in the Iraqi government who confirmed that his son had been in the government’s custody.[52]

Soon after, the Iraqi government transferred Batal and Ateeq to the Syrian government, they both said.[53] Ateek’s father received information from a former inmate that Ateek and Batal were in Sednaya, a Syrian military prison notorious for extrajudicial executions and torture, but was not able to confirm this officially.[54] Both fathers said they unsuccessfully attempted to find more information, including by paying large sums of money.

“We paid money but we were robbed – we are tired of this,” Batal said. “The Syrian regime does not give any information.”[55]

The Syrian government has detained and disappeared tens of thousands of prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch and other international and local human rights organizations.[56] Detention facilities under its control are known for widespread and systematic torture, and disastrous humanitarian conditions leading to the deaths of thousands.[57] For those that it perceives as threats, the Syrian government is also known to conduct sham trials in military field courts and counterterrorism courts, often sentencing individuals to death or life in prison.[58] The Syrian government has failed to inform families of the whereabouts of their loved ones or to provide them with the remains of those they declared dead.[59]

Both parents told Human Rights Watch that they had been contacted by countless media and international organizations, but that none had been able to help them gain more information or secure the release of their loved ones.[60]

Masoud Aqil, December 2014

On December 15, 2014, ISIS kidnapped Masoud Aqil, a fourth-year English literature university student and journalist with the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, along with a colleague who Human Rights Watch is not naming due to security concerns. Aqil who was detained for a little over 9 months, told Human Rights Watch after his release that they were driving to al-Hasakeh when ISIS stopped them at a checkpoint.[61]

“They asked us who we are. It was obvious we were reporters. We had cameras, we had microphones, we had laptops. Our first reaction was to ask them, ‘Who are you?’ They said, ‘We’re the Islamic State.’”[62]

Aqil told Human Rights Watch they were taken to a garrisoned house that ISIS used as a prison in Tel Hamees, in al-Hasakeh governorate. He described how ISIS guards accused them of being infidels and atheists working for secular media, and how they searched their devices and social media accounts.[63]

Aqil told Human Rights Watch that he and his colleague were transferred repeatedly from one ISIS prison to another in locations inside Syria, including al-Shaddadeh, Manbij, and Raqqa, all in Northeast Syria. He said that he was placed in security prisons alongside infiltrators and individuals detained for collaborating with the coalition, the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party, and others.

In these prisons, he told Human Rights Watch, he was tortured, and saw other detainees tortured but the most severe abuse was in Raqqa:

In the security prisons, it was torture. All around the clock. Every prisoner would cry through the night. You know, like all other prisons in Syria. You can say like the Palestine Branch [of the Syrian Military Intelligence]. After all, this is Syria. In the prison, they used to focus on this idea: that you will die—whether it’s today or tomorrow, you will die.[64]

In March 2015, four months after their detention, ISIS separated Aqil from his colleague. To this day, Aqil does not have information regarding his colleague's whereabouts.

Aqil was released on September 21, 2015, after an exchange of prisoners between ISIS and the PYD:

By the end, ISIS began to lose and it needed to reinforce its base, show that they’re bringing back their detained emirs. And to do that, they had to pay a price. My parents, as well as the news station [he worked with], asked the YPG for help. The negotiations began. It used to be through WhatsApp through middlemen, from tribes. Eventually, they reached an agreement to exchange me and seven others for several ISIS members.[65]

Aqil said that after his release he asked the YPG if they could free other detainees, and that they responded positively but said they appeared to be busy.

Accused of Apostasy or Treason

Al-Aran brothers, Summer 2015

The al-Aran brothers—Yaman Khaled al-Aran, 20, Muhammad Khaled al-Aran, 25, and Abdulhamid Khaled al-Aran, 35, were detained by ISIS in mid-2015. ISIS fighters entered their home in al-Bukamal, a town in Deir al-Zor governorate near the Syria-Iraq border, at around 6 a.m., their next-door relatives told Human Rights Watch.[66] The family was sleeping when a Hi-Lux truck with five ISIS members pulled up.

They were shouting loudly. They broke the door while shouting “apostates,” and took them, with their hands tied behind their back. Everyone came out into the street. We were scared to stop [them].[67]

Family members went to an ISIS leader in al-Bukamal, who told them the brothers had been killed. But when they later asked for the bodies, they were told the brothers were still alive. The family heard that ISIS had accused the brothers of apostasy, and of supporting the Syrian government.

Every time we went, they said ‘We slaughtered them….’ [Then] ‘They are alive.’ They said different things. Some people told us that people from al-Bukamal were imprisoned in Iraq. [68]

The Syrian government controlled al-Bukamal at the time Human Rights Watch interviewed the al-Aran brothers’ relatives. Their relatives said they did not feel safe returning to government-controlled territory or making inquiries with government authorities.

Yasser Abdul Majid, Summer 2015

ISIS detained Yasser Abdul Majid, 38, in his hometown of Qoriya, in Deir al-Zor governorate. Abdul Majid’s relatives said he had fought with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and that he was detained on suspicion of collaborating with the US-led coalition. “They wrote a report [saying] that he was helping US forces and he insulted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [the leader of ISIS],” his cousin said.[69]

According to two of Abdul Majid’s cousins, he worked buying and selling motorbikes, in addition to his role with the FSA. Six ISIS members arrived at his workshop in a car and took him away, bystanders told the cousins, who arrived ten minutes after he was taken. [70]

The cousins said they went to a man named Mahmoud Matar, an ISIS leader in their area, to ask what had happened to Abdul Majid. “If we have something on your cousin, we will execute him,” one recalled the leader saying.

“The last news [we had] was when the government took al-Mayadin, [it] was that he was in a basement there. Our relatives in Turkey said his name was published on SANA [Syrian state news agency].”[71]

The family later heard that former ISIS prisoners were sent to the main hospital in Qamishli, but when Abdul Majid’s wife visited she was not able to find him or learn any information, according to his cousins.

Abdul Majid was married with six children.

Ahmad Muhammad al-Kawan, Summer 2013

Ahmad al-Kawan, 28, was driving a tractor in Abu Khashab, in Deir al-Zor governorate, when ISIS took over the town. He had previously worked with the FSA in public relations. ISIS took him during a roundup of all suspected FSA members in 2014. His family had not heard from him since, relatives told Human Rights Watch.[72]

The family said it was unlikely that al-Kawan was executed, because in the early days, ISIS used to share lists of the names of the people they executed, and they had never seen his name.[73] When the family arrived in SDF-held areas, they heard that SDF was holding ISIS prisoners. They tried to ask about them but didn’t know where to go, and the SDF officials they were able to contact told them they would not give them a response.

We went to the Asayish and asked, and we received no response. He is neither dead nor alive. He does not exist anymore. He was married. His wife was in al-Hol camp. She waited for him, but five years is a long time so she gave up, and now she is married to another.[74]

A relative in Damascus had also inquired with the Syrian authorities, assuming that al-Kawan ended up in a government prison in one of the exchanges with the SDF, but he was not able to obtain any additional information.[75]

Disputes with Local ISIS Leaders

Members of the Imam family, August 2013

ISIS members detained brothers Muhammad Muhammad Imam, then 34, and Farouq Muhammad Imam, 29, and their cousin Nechervan Muhammad Imam, 21, from a checkpoint in Hatara, in the Raqqa governorate on August 14, 2013.[76]

The three worked together on a farm in Raqqa governorate. They owned a tractor that they would take to work the field. On August 14, 2013, the three went to work as usual. A few hours later, one of the Imams’ colleagues returned and told the family that a local ISIS emir had taken the three men after they refused to give him their tractor.[77] Imam Muhammad Imam, Nechervan Imam’s father, and his brother immediately went to Raqqa governorate to follow up. Officials at ISIS headquarters turned them away and told them not to create trouble.

Imam Muhammad Imam told Human Rights Watch that the family tried to visit the detention centers in Raqqa city multiple times after a neighbor had told them that a former detainee in Raqqa had seen the men around a year after they were taken. But they said they did not receive any information:

“The amount of money we spent going back and forth, paying officials off, just to hear any news of them, but it was all for naught,” he said.[78]

He told Human Rights Watch they subsequently followed every possible lead and spoke to media multiple times in the hope of finding the missing men. After the SDF and US-led coalition started to retake territory in Raqqa governorate, Imam said they conducted multiple visits and asked contacts at the highest levels of the SDF as well as in Syrian government-held areas about the three relatives, but learned nothing.

“We don’t want anything, we just want them to come back,” Imam said. “It’s been five years without any calls, or anything, and we are tired of asking, tired of telling the same story over again, tired of not having answers. For five years, our hearts are burning, and no one can relieve our pain.”[79]

Residents Living under ISIS in Deir al-Zor

Ibrahim Khalifeh, early 2016

Ibrahim Khalifeh, 16 at the time, was kidnapped by ISIS in early 2016, his mother told Human Rights Watch.[80] He left the house one day at 3 p.m. to attend a Quran recital class. When dusk came and he hadn’t returned, his mother went to the house where ISIS held the course to ask about him. His friends told her he left with a couple of ISIS members. Ibrahim’s mother went to the ISIS al-Hisbeh (equivalent to a police force) center in the nearby town. The officials there told her they did not have any information and that she should speak to the security forces, who then asked her to go to the governor responsible for the area. She told Human Rights Watch that she went from center to center and official to official:

I went to every ISIS headquarter in the area. I told them it was a child they had taken, and if he was with them, they need to tell me. Some days, they would say we have him, and other days they would deny it. For two years, I have not been at ease. My heart is on fire, not knowing if he is dead or alive. If he was dead, then at least we would know—we would have the name and date of death. Now, we are just in limbo.”[81]

Fahed Mukhalaf al-Faraihi, November 2017

Fahed al-Faraihi was kidnapped by ISIS in November 2017 from Baghuz, his cousin told Human Rights Watch.[82] He used to work in Baghuz as a van driver, transporting people including ISIS fighters. One day in November he was transporting a group of ISIS fighters to a location 35 kilometers away, near the town of Hajin. A few hours later, his cousins saw the van return but al-Faraihi was not in it. They went to al-Hisbeh in al-Bukamal, around 13 kilometers from Baghuz, but ISIS officials there told them they didn’t know where he was. The family then went to Hajin, but no ISIS member they asked provided any information about his whereabouts.

Less than a month later, the cousin again saw one of the ISIS fighters that al-Faraihi had gone with. He was traveling in al-Faraihi’s van:

This time I stopped them and asked where he was and they shrugged at me, told me to go home. Then I asked where they got the van from, it was his [al-Faraihi’s] van, and they told me that the ISIS security services had it. We went to the security services then and asked that they at least give us the van back but they refused.[83]

Three months later, the US-led coalition bombed the prison of Hajin. A prisoner who escaped told al-Faraihi’s family that al-Faraihi was with them in the prison, but he was transferred elsewhere before the strike, and no one knew where he was. Rumors were the prisoners were liberated, and photos circulated online. His family thought they could identify al-Faraihi in a photo of those released.[84]

The cousin told Human Rights Watch that in late 2017, a few days after al-Faraihi’s family arrived in a displacement camp in Northeast Syria where many of the families escaping ISIS sought shelter, a PYD officer interviewed them about al-Faraihi. Other camp residents told them they heard the prisoners had been taken to a hospital near Kobani. The cousin said the family contacted the hospital but received no response.[85]

Anas Khalaf al-Muhammad, Adnan Khodr al-Muhammad (often called Hussein), May 2014

On May 24, 2014, Anas al-Muhammad, then 27, and his cousin Adnan al-Muhammad, 28, were detained at a flying ISIS checkpoint in the village of Muhaimadiya in Deir al-Zor governorate.

According to Anas al-Muhammad’s father, ISIS held the two cousins in al-Kasra, a key town in western Deir al-Zor governorate, for two days and then transferred them to the Black Stadium in Raqqa city.[86] The father said when he went to ISIS’s public relations office in Raqqa, local officials would tell him that his son was in the stadium. However, they would not let him visit him.[87]

Residents of Raqqa city told Human Rights Watch that the Black Stadium was bombarded, first by the Russian-Syrian military alliance and then by the US-led coalition. After the stadium was struck, Anas al-Muhammad’s father was no longer able to confirm the whereabouts of his son.

The father said that later, a former prisoner who was held with Anas and Adnan al-Muhammad told him that after the bombing, the cousins were moved to a building known as Mabna al-Markabat (Vehicles Administration Building) in Raqqa’s industrial neighborhood but that he had no further information about them.

In late 2018, a former ISIS prisoner who had been held in a detention facility near the Iraqi border told al-Muhammad’s family that he had seen the cousins. The family was unable to confirm the information.[88]

Hussein Muhammad al-Omar, Deir al-Zor, August 2014

Hussein al-Omar, 48 at the time, known as Abu Omar, was an employee in SADCOP, a Syrian government owned company, in charge of distributing fuel. Around noon on August 21, 2014, a pickup truck carrying ISIS members detained al-Omar from his home.[89] He told his family that the ISIS members were taking him to Deir al-Zor city for interrogation as he was accused of “reconciling with the regime.” Many in Deir al-Zor had maintained contact with government authorities to ensure that their employment status is up to date, and to continue receiving their government-issued salaries.

Both al-Omar’s wife and his brother, Saleh al-Omar, said that the person who ordered his detention was the local ISIS commander Abdel Rahman `Aqla `Aref al-Omar, who was known as Abu Hareth, and was related to Hussein al-Omar.[90] They said they believed Hussein al-Omar was detained for complaining about Abu Hareth’s conduct.

Al-Omar’s family said they learned from a local ISIS member that he was held for 15 days in an ISIS court in Deir al-Zor that was being used as a security center. Later, they received secondhand information that the local ISIS judge, Abu Faruq al-Tunisi, had said that he had been referred to Maadan, a Syrian town near Deir al-Zor, and that he was punished by qasas, a form of retaliatory punishment for serious crimes such as intentional wounding or murder that may include beheading.

According to a brother, Saleh al-Omar, four months after al-Omar was disappeared, a released detainee told them that he saw al-Omar being held in a CONECO oil field that ISIS controlled. Later, they heard from an ISIS member that he was held in another oil field called Omar.[91]

After the western countryside of Deir al-Zor was retaken from ISIS in early 2019, a rumor spread that SDF had found ISIS detainees in tunnels beneath a cotton factory in Deir al Zor.[92]

The family went to see the new local council backed by the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) that took over after removing ISIS, but did not receive any information. Al-Omar’s wife, a nurse for the Ministry of Health affiliated with the Syrian government, also reported his disappearance to Syrian government authorities.[93] She also did not receive any answers.

Ahmad Khabur al-Suleiman, Deir al-Zor, August 2014

On the same day that Hussein Muhammad al-Omar was detained, at around 10:30 a.m., a black pick-up truck carrying armed ISIS members approached a group of men standing in front of the pharmacy of Sfeira al-Tahtani in Deir al-Zor governorate. The armed men called out to Ahmad Khabur al-Suleiman, a 51-year-old employee of the Syrian state oil company SADCOP. The ISIS members told him in front of his brothers that he was wanted because he had reconciled with the Syrian regime to obtain his salary. [94] He was taken to the main ISIS headquarters in Sfeira al-Tahtani.

One week later, al-Suleiman’s brother Mahmud al-Suleiman said he asked Abu Hareth, the main ISIS commander in the village, about his brother’s detention. He said Abu Hareth responded that it was a “simple issue.”

The family later received information from a former prisoner that he saw al-Suleiman at the ISIS court in Deir al-Zor. They also received word from various people that al-Suleiman had been detained in Maadan, then in al-Mayadin, then in Raqqa at the Black Stadium, and later to Tabqa. But they were unable to verify the information.

Mahmud al-Suleiman said the last information that the family received about his brother was in late 2018, when a man from eastern Deir al-Zor told relatives that there was a detention center in Shaafa village where many of those who were disappeared from the village were held.

II. ISIS Military Offensives

During and in the immediate aftermath of its military offensives, notably in 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) detained large numbers of combatants and civilians perceived as hostile. The fate of most of those who were detained remains unknown.

ISIS filmed its forces committing mass executions of captives, in some cases publicly displaying the bodies after the execution, but it never provided information to families about the fate of their relatives or about the areas where they buried these victims. The sections below highlight some of the major offensives that ISIS undertook which left hundreds, or possibly thousands, of civilians and combatants missing.

Attacks on 17th Division, Brigade 93, and Tabqa Airbase in Raqqa Governorate, July 2014

In mid-2014, ISIS besieged the remaining three bases of the Syrian army in Raqqa governorate: the 17th Division’s base in Raqqa city, Brigade 93 in Ain Issa, and Tabqa airbase.

On July 23, 2014, ISIS launched an attack on the 17th Division. After two days of fighting, government forces retreated and ISIS took control of the base. When ISIS overran the 17th Division, it executed most of the soldiers captured inside and later posted photographs of soldiers that it said it had beheaded.[95] Hundreds of government troops retreated towards Brigade 93, roughly 45 kilometers to the northwest, and nearby villages. While many made it safely to Brigade 93, ISIS ambushed one retreating group in the village of Abu Shareb. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based Syrian human rights monitoring body, ISIS detained 50 soldiers and most likely executed them in Abu Shareb.[96] Residents of Raqqa city and Suluk, a village close to Raqqa, described how, in the days that followed, ISIS displayed the bodies and heads of many soldiers in town squares.

ISIS then attacked the 93rd Brigade, capturing it on August 7.[97] ISIS released a video detailing the attack, including aerial views of the base, bombardment, gun battles, and the execution of Syrian army soldiers.[98] The video shows graphic footage of soldiers being beheaded, as well as images of bloody and disfigured corpses of soldiers the video said had been run over by a tank. On July 21, 2018, after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) retook the area from the Islamic State, local authorities discovered four mass graves of Syrian soldiers at the 93rd Brigade headquarters, according to local news agency Hawar.[99]

In mid-August 2014, ISIS assaulted Tabqa airbase, the last remaining government stronghold in Raqqa governorate, where hundreds of soldiers and officers were trapped. The airbase fell on August 24. As its fall became apparent, hundreds of soldiers fled southwest across the desert, toward the government-held town of Ithriya, in Hama province.[100] While a few made it safely to army positions many kilometers away, ISIS captured and killed many others and broadcasted gruesome videos and images of their torture and execution.

Syria Direct, an online media outlet, conducted an in-depth investigation of the videos and concluded that ISIS executed at least 160 Syrian army soldiers it captured from Tabqa and surrounding desert settlements.[101] The Syria Direct investigation found that on August 27, as many as 20 ISIS fighters in 10 vehicles stripped, force-marched, then drove the soldiers from settlements 20 to 30 kilometers southwest of Tabqa airbase to the Islamic archeological site of Thoul Nayel, about 5 kilometers east of Raqqa city, where they executed them.[102]

The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a body created by the Human Rights Commission to document violations by all sides in the Syrian conflict, documented additional ISIS executions of captured soldiers. For example, it reported that between 28 and 30 August 2014, ISIS brought two soldiers, captured outside Tabqa airbase, to nearby Suluk and executed them in a public square.[103] ISIS read the judgment, declaring that the soldiers were traitors and apostates before cutting their throats. In late August 2014, the group publicly executed two more captured soldiers in Tabqa.

After killing the soldiers captured near the base, ISIS mutilated their bodies. The group placed the decapitated heads of some of the soldiers on public display in squares and on roundabouts in Tabqa and Raqqa cities.

Missing for Assisting Soldiers: Ayman Shaaban Mustafa; Hussein Aly Mustafa, August 2, 2014

ISIS fighters took cousins Ayman Mustafa, 18 at the time, and Hussein Mustafa, 23, from their home in the northern Raqqa countryside on August 2, 2014.[104]

Six days before, as ISIS approached the headquarters of the 17th Division, some 400 government soldiers sought refuge in the family’s cornfields. After Ayman Mustafa informed his father, Shaaban Mustafa, that they were hiding there, he and Hussein Mustafa took the soldiers some water. The family let them stay until nightfall. “We didn’t know any soldier, any officer from [among] them. We just treated them in a humanitarian way so ISIS wouldn’t slaughter them,” Shaaban Mustafa said. [105]

Ayman’s mother holding up a photo of Ayman before he went missing.

© San Serevan

The morning of August 2, the two cousins were working in the fields. Shaaban Mustafa was in Raqqa city, where he sold carpets for his living. His wife arrived and told him that ISIS had taken Ayman and Hussein Mustafa. Their neighbors’ children had seen two vehicles with several fighters leave with the two young men.

Ayman Mustafa’s parents immediately went to the nearby ISIS headquarters in Hazima and asked about them. The ISIS members there told him the two had been moved to Raqqa city, to the detention center called Point 11, also known as the Black Stadium. Shaaban went to the area’s tribal council, a body of influential local elders, at their suggestion.

I gave them the names. They said, ‘Come back after ten days.’ They said they would look in the prisons. I went back every ten days. I said [to ISIS], ‘If you’ve slaughtered him, just tell me.’ We went many times. I went to the [Black] Stadium. When I went there, they said ‘Go ask another person.’ They sent me back to the tribal council.

About 45 days after the cousins were taken, Shaaban Mustafa said, a former ISIS detainee came to the family and told them he had met the two cousins in detention.

He said, ‘I was in Point 11 …. The day it was struck, [the guards] opened the doors to let prisoners out and four or five tried to escape. The [guards] pointed their guns and marched [the detainees] to the Vehicles Administration [building].... Ayman and Hussein were there with [us]. In Point 11 they were in solitary but when [we] left [we] were together for eight days in the Vehicles Administration.’[106]

After that, the family had no further news of the cousins. Shaaban Mustafa and his family had fled from bombing during the campaign to retake the area from ISIS and been displaced from their home for over a year when Human Rights Watch interviewed them in 2018. After the SDF gained control of the area, the family occasionally heard through social media or local news sources that some former prisoners had been released. But despite regular inquiries to the intelligence services and the Asayish, the family learned no new information about the two cousins.

Al-Shuaitat Community, Eastern Deir al-Zor, July-August 2014

In July 2014, large segments of al-Shuaitat community, a large community whose traditional strongholds lie along the Euphrates river in the towns of Abu Hamam, al-Khushkieh, and Gharanij, refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS and rose up against the group, killing at least 11 ISIS fighters.[107]

Over the following weeks, ISIS took control of the three towns and detained men and boys over the age of 15 at checkpoints as they tried to leave, including men older than 75. They raided hospitals and homes of those who remained. ISIS filmed its members executing many of the townspeople. Gruesome videos showing the beheading of dozens of al-Shuaitat men and boys surfaced online in August 2014.[108] One observer described the videos as “probably the most detailed mass killing of Sunnis by ISIS.”[109]

Screen capture of ISIS video, originally from Twitter, August 2014.

The fate of those detained remains unknown, though most reports indicate that they were executed.

On August 11, 2014, ISIS entered a camp for the displaced in the village of al-Buhirah and detained a number of males who were members of al-Shuaitat. According to a report by Justice for Life Organization, a local Syrian group that documented the attacks, the fate of many of those abducted that day remains unknown.[110]

ISIS did not allow families to bury their relatives, as a form of punishment. In November 2014, ISIS finally allowed thousands of al-Shuaitat to return to their villages and lands.[111] On December 17, 2014, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that those who returned found more than 230 bodies in a mass grave in the desert near al-Khushkieh, east of Deir al-Zor.[112] Locals who spoke to Justice for Life Organization, a Syrian human rights organization, reported at least 10 mass graves in the al-Shuaitat villages “distributed according to the witnesses in the desert of Abu Hamam’s town, in the area that separates the villages of Gharanij and al-Buhirah, near the electricity station in the village of Gharanij, and near the train lines where they expected the largest number of victims.”[113]

Offensive on Kobani (Ayn al-Arab)

In 2014, ISIS also expanded toward the Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) region in northern Syria, an area defended by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces. By October 2, 2014, ISIS had succeeded in capturing 350 Kurdish villages and towns in the vicinity of Kobani, generating a wave of some 200,000 displaced, most of them Kurds, who fled across the border into Turkey's Şanlıurfa province.

Some of those who did not flee – who were too old, too infirm, or who remained to try to protect their property – were executed by ISIS. Others were taken by force to Tal Abyad where they were detained and beaten.[114] On release, ISIS forced them to leave the area. Before and after the offensive, ISIS also detained individuals as they attempted to flee.

Fayez Humam[115], February 2014

On February 19, 2014, the Islamic State detained 152 people in al-Aliya, a village in al-Hasakeh governorate, who were on their way from Kobani to Iraqi Kurdistan for work. Among them was Fayez Humam, 30, who was going to join his brother.[116]

According to Humam’s brother, ISIS immediately executed two of those detained and divided the rest into detention centers in Manbij and Tabqa. Humam’s cousin, who was detained with him but transferred to Manbij, was released alongside 69 others under a general amnesty. He told Humam’s brother that Humam had been transferred to Tabqa.

A former detainee from Kobani told the brother that Humam was with them in Tabqa, and that they stayed there for six months before being transferred to Manbij. [117]

The brother told Human Rights Watch that he tried everything to secure Human’s release—going so far as to form his own association for those kidnapped by ISIS. While Humam was in Manbij, his brother contacted Arab sheikhs there with whom he had family connections. They told him that Humam had been brought to court but not charged. They also told him that ISIS would only release him through a prisoner exchange.

The brother set out to ensure that Humam would be on the list of those exchanged, paying money and using wasta — an Arabic term for influential connections – but two attempted exchanges fell through and ISIS transferred the prisoners to the Black Stadium in Raqqa.[118]

In his search, Humam’s brother collected over 600 names of people who had been kidnapped by ISIS. He told Human Rights Watch he shared the names with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) spokesperson, along with the dates and details of how they were taken by the SDF after ISIS was territorially defeated. As of October, the SDF had not responded to his request for information.

After Baghuz was liberated, Kurdish television and social media leaked pictures of people detained as ISIS suspects. Humam’s brother told Human Rights Watch he was contacted by the mother of one of those pictured who initially had been kidnapped by ISIS. He reached out to the Kurdish authorities about this, sharing both the son’s photo and identification card, but they denied holding the son and other prisoners.

In another incident, Human’s brother recounted a woman telling him that a doctor told her family that her father, who was detained by ISIS in Debsi Afnan, a village near Raqqa, had been taken by the SDF to Derik for treatment after Raqqa was liberated. When the woman and her family tried to visit the hospital, doctors told them that her father had been transferred, and she could no longer find information about him.

"Is it possible that the thousands of ISIS members that the SDF hold don’t have any information about the detainees?” Humam’s brother asked “Is it possible? Thousands including the highest-ranking emirs, and you cannot get information about the kidnapped? This is not something common sense would accept."[119]

Jalal Ahmad, January 2015

On January 29, 2015, Aras Ahmad received a call from his uncle in Russia asking him if it was true that his father, Jalal Ahmad, had been kidnapped by ISIS in Manbij.[120] Aras Ahmad, based in Erbil with his wife and newborn at the time, had spoken to his father only two hours earlier, when his father called to hear his grandchild's voice. He immediately called his mother, who told him that seven ISIS members had knocked on the door of the house, asked for Jalal Ahmad by name, and took him.

The next day, 14 ISIS fighters asked his mother, brother, and his brother’s wife to vacate the house, which they did. According to Aras Ahmad, they were certain that the men were members of ISIS because they included a neighbor who they knew had joined the group.

Ahmad told Human Rights Watch that his father was likely detained because he was a prominent Kurdish activist in Manbij, and well known in both Kobani and Aleppo due to his work on the Kurdish National Council, a Kurdish Syrian political coalition operating in Northeast Syria (Majles Kurdi Watani).[121]

Since the kidnapping, Ahmad told Human Rights Watch, he has dedicated his time to learning the fate of his father, quitting his job and spending tens of thousands of dollars tracking any available information.

In the two months after his father was first detained, Ahmad had provided US$600 to his mother to pay as fidyeh (ransom payment) for his father’s release. His mother bought 14 sheep and took them to the wife of Emir Abu Muhammad al-Almani, a German ISIS leader in the area. He accepted the fidyeh and promised Jalal’s release in a few days, but Abu Muhammad was killed in al-Bab, a city in Aleppo governorate, a few days later and the deal fell through.[122]

Ahmad also reached out to Arab local leaders who he thought had influence with ISIS to broker his release, to no avail. He said local activists told him that during the liberation of Manbij, the SDF opened a line for ISIS to leave, and ISIS took advantage of this by transferring their detainees from a detention center called al-Matahen to Debsi Afnan near Raqqa. The SDF entered Raqqa on October 23, 2017 but according to Ahmad, Debsi Afnan fell under the control of the Syrian government.

Ahmad told Human Rights Watch that he had tried to communicate with the SDF regarding the release of his father, also to no avail.

In May 2017, ISIS released 10 prisoners originally from Kobani. Ahmad told Human Rights Watch that the released prisoners initially refused to share information. After he persisted, they told him they were released for a payment totaling 4 million Syrian Pounds (approximately $18,000).

On January 17, 2019, almost two years after Ahmad’s father disappeared, Ahmad hired an intermediary for $17,500 to help broker his father's release. The man went to Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, where he called Ahmad and told him he found his father and that he was in stable condition, but that the rates had increased and he needed more money.

Ahmad refused to give the intermediary more money until he was able to prove that his father was still alive. On January 27, at around 5:30 p.m., Ahmad received a WhatsApp call from a Turkish number. It was his father.

“We spoke for 38 seconds. We were crying, but I verified it was him. I asked him for a password, and he said ‘Hajruneh,’ [little bird] this is what he calls my mother. No one else would know this.”[123]

Two days later, Ahmad transferred the money to Raqqa. But he never heard back from the broker.

III. Prison Bombings

Mahmoud Muhammad, July 2017

On July 14, 2017, the Islamic State (ISIS) detained Mahmoud Muhammad at a checkpoint near his hometown of Quriyeh while he was trying to escape to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-held territory.[124] ISIS took him to al-Shuaitat Prison in July before transferring him to a secret house in a town called Abu Hammam where the group was holding 78 other prisoners. According to Muhammad, the prisoners were all detained for the same reason –they had wanted to free the “lands of apostasy” and ISIS burned their Syrian identification documents to prevent them from escaping. Muhammad said,

Every day they would come and ask us to join them in the fight. They were losing, and they were panicking, and they kept threatening us. ‘If you don’t join us, we’ll kill you,’ they said, ‘or better yet, leave you here for a US plane to come and bomb you to pieces. You will die.’[125]

Muhammad told Human Rights Watch that 16 of the prisoners left to fight alongside ISIS. After two months, Muhammad said, he escaped during a “rehabilitation” lesson — ISIS made detainees sit through courses to return them to the “righteous path” — when his guards ran out of the house, hearing a commotion outside:

We broke a window and ran to the [nearby] river. Some of us could not swim and they drowned. I found out later that the commotion was an airstrike, and there was another airstrike soon after that, which took down the prison.”[126]

He could not verify whether the other prisoners survived.

Muhammad Abdulhamid, August 2017

Muhammad Abdulhamid, 30, is a lawyer living in Raqqa. In August 2017, at 7:30 p.m., three masked gunmen raided his house in Istiklal Garden neighborhood and detained him for failing to provide information about a man wanted by ISIS.[127]

Abdulhamid told Human Rights Watch that ISIS first detained him in the basement of a fitness center, where they hung him by his arms for three days before questioning him and accusing him of being a spy. He said ISIS released him 12 days later. Although he attempted to stay clear of his neighborhood, the fighting between the SDF and ISIS had become so severe that he was forced to return to his home. But upon arrival he found that ISIS had turned his house into a military headquarters; ISIS members detained him and returned him to the same detention facility.

Abdulhamid told Human Rights Watch there were 80 people in the makeshift prison, all civilians as far as he could tell.

On the 27th day, I was transferred to the sharia judge. It was in the same place. They sentenced me as an apostate.… First they accused me of being a spy. Then they said, ‘You went to a military point near the front line.’[128]

After his conviction, ISIS placed Abdulhamid in solitary confinement. The next day, around the time of dawn prayer, Abdulhamid was still blindfolded but he began to see sparks and felt a piercing headache. He removed the blindfold to find he could see the street: the prison had been bombed.

"Then I started to hear screaming. Blood was flowing from his head like from a faucet. Five seconds later came the next rocket. Everything was on fire."

He told Human Rights Watch he realized he could escape.

"I was running, sometimes on top of bodies [of other prisoners]. After 10 minutes, I saw that a dog was eating the bodies, meaning the bodies had been there for a while."[129]

He told Human Rights Watch that after walking for half a day he reached an SDF checkpoint. The SDF took him to a hospital to treat his injuries and then to interrogation with the SDF and, he said, American soldiers. He was blindfolded throughout the interrogation, he said, but at the end was unmasked and asked to pinpoint on a screen ISIS prisons that he knew about. Abdulhamid was then transferred to an SDF facility, where an officer accused him of being ISIS. The SDF detained Abdulhamid and interrogated him for five days. He told Human Rights Watch SDF beat him and transferred him to a small, overcrowded detention facility.

"There was no oxygen, there were so many people. People had injuries, skin issues. Because of the filth, they were not changing bandages. The prisoners there were all Da'esh [ISIS]."[130]

IV. Searching for the Disappeared

Forced disappearances can have a profound effect on family and friends of those taken. Relatives of disappeared detainees told Human Rights Watch that they routinely experienced a deterioration of their mental and physical health, financial hardships, social stigma, and legal and administrative difficulties.[131]

In their efforts to obtain information about those kidnapped, family members often left no stone unturned. Many, especially those who remained under Islamic State (ISIS) rule, routinely visited the group’s headquarters and centers to inquire about their loved ones. Often they were met with derision and denials – and very rarely would they receive a concrete response.[132]

Some families avoided direct contact with ISIS regarding their missing loved ones for fear of becoming victims themselves.[133] Indeed, in some cases the relatives of missing individuals were detained after making such inquiries.[134]

After the fall of the ISIS self-declared caliphate, families held out hope that authorities in control would provide them with information regarding their loved ones. However, all those interviewed by Human Rights Watch confirmed that they have had very little success, for a number of reasons.

First is the lack of a point person among Kurdish-led authorities for families to submit or obtain information regarding missing relatives. Those family members able to reach officials, if they received any response, were given mixed information regarding who was the relevant authority—or worse, contradictory accounts as to whether they had any relevant information.

According to relatives interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the Asayish are responsible for missing persons, but the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) had assigned a point person for missing military personnel but not for civilians. When one relative reached out to the responsible authority in Asayish, that person refused to help because the missing relative was not a soldier.[135]

Similarly, the Syrian government does not have a designated person or office for those missing or detained. Facebook accounts of relatives of Syrian soldiers who went missing at the hands of ISIS highlight the difficulties they have faced in reaching the authorities, or obtaining information about their missing loved ones.[136] The Syrian government’s failure to reveal information regarding those missing extends to those that its forces have disappeared or detained. Despite numerous requests by families and lawyers to the government for information about such individuals, the authorities failed to respond in a comprehensive and adequate manner.

In most cases, families, particularly those based outside Syria, do not know who to reach out to.

The absence of designated authority and clear communication regarding how families can submit and obtain information, means that families often resort to intermediaries and pay exorbitant amounts of money for any smidgen of information about their relatives. These intermediaries are often unreliable, and rarely provide credible information. Instead, they take advantage of the vulnerability and desperation of families for information to extract money from them. In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, relatives claimed to have given thousands of dollars to intermediaries to obtain information over the years, with few if any results.

Numerous interviewees reached also out to tribal leaders in communities where their relatives were last seen or went missing, to ask that they intervene on their behalf with the Islamic State, and later with the local authorities and the Syrian government. Tribal connections are particularly strong in areas formerly ruled by ISIS, and influential tribal leaders may call in favors or broker information. But this, too, yielded scant reliable information.

In addition to the lack of a centralized mechanism and dedicated resources, families complained of a lack of political will. According to news reports and interviewees, the SDF and ISIS had conducted several prisoner exchanges, swapping SDF soldiers for safe passage or ISIS emirs. Not only were such exchanges rarely successful, they also focused on a small number of prisoners held by ISIS.

V. Handling of Mass Graves

As of September 2019, at least 20 mass graves have been found in Syria’s Raqqa and Deir al-Zor governorates, in areas previously under Islamic State (ISIS) control.[137] Local authorities estimate that these graves hold thousands of bodies – not only of ISIS fighters and civilians killed by airstrikes but also the bodies of ISIS victims.[138] In addition to these mass graves, Human Rights Watch found that ISIS may have also used a naturally occurring gorge, locally known as al-Hota, to dispose of the bodies of individuals they detained or abducted. Further efforts to investigate those remains may provide answers to some of the questions posed.[139] The graves may also contain evidence of crimes committed by ISIS that could be vital to future domestic and international accountability processes to address serious international crimes.

Despite the mass graves’ potential to yield answers, local authorities are struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of properly protecting the graves and collecting information about the corpses. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, no forensic expert, including those who have criminal expertise, has been able to visit or assess any of these graves.

Areas under Control of the Syrian Democratic Council and Forces

In June 2018, Human Rights Watch observed the First Responders’ Team in Raqqa, responsible for recovering bodies across the governorate, as they uncovered a mass grave at the al-Rashid playing field in Raqqa city.[140] While the team worked diligently and carefully, their rudimentary methods and inadequate procedural standards for collecting information on the dead appeared to fall far short of international best practices.[141]

For one, the team does not have forensic expertise or the equipment required for forensic analysis and identification of bodies. They rely on a visual assessment of the body, such as its features and clothes, for identification. According to the head of the team, only 900 of the 4,550 bodies at that time from Raqqa’s mass graves had been returned to their families.[142]

The team needed substantial training and technical assistance to exhume the bodies and collect data without losing information crucial to identifying them. Since Human Rights Watch’s June 2018 visit, the team in Raqqa has continued to uncover mass graves and slowly remove bodies but the methods remain largely the same. In recognition of the need for an urgent response to protect the graves and advance local capacities to respond, international donors have provided support to the groups on the ground but a representative of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee, a group that operates under the umbrella of the Raqqa Civil Council to rehabilitate Raqqa city, told Human Rights Watch they were still struggling.[143]

For all its shortcomings, the team responsible for identifying the remains in Raqqa city and its immediate surroundings is better placed than others. Areas in al-Hasakeh or Deir al-Zor do not have similar international support. In Deir al-Zor, the team responsible for exhuming mass graves is much smaller, and in al-Hasakeh, no team exists at all.

Areas Under the Control of the Syrian Government

In December 2018, the official Syrian News Agency reported that Syrian authorities have uncovered seven mass graves in al-Bukamal that contain hundreds of unidentified bodies.[144] It reported that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had exhumed some of these bodies, almost all of which showed evidence of torture. In one of the mass graves, bodies showed evidence of being shot, a military source told the news agency.[145]

Human Rights Watch has been unable to reach the Syrian authorities or the Syrian Red Crescent to confirm the information reported.

On July 31, 2018, Kurdish news sources reported that the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the civilian body for Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria, handed over the remains of 44 soldiers who had been killed by ISIS to the Syrian government.[146] According to statements by the SDF, those bodies were found in mass graves close to the headquarters of the Syrian Army’s Brigade 93, which ISIS captured in August 2014. The news reports mentioned that the Syrian government delivered the bodies to the Aleppo Military Hospital for an initial examination of the remains.[147]

VI. International Legal Standards

Under customary international law, parties to a conflict must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict and must provide their family members with information it has on their fate.[148] The obligation is predicated on the right of the families of those missing to know the fate of their loved ones, and the concurrent obligation on states and de-facto authorities to provide that information.

Human rights law further confirms that authorities are not allowed to deliberately withhold information regarding missing relatives from families, given the degree of suffering and mental anguish that a family experiences as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the fate of their loved one which can attain a degree of severity that amounts to inhumane treatment.[149] Even where the individual is likely deceased, the authorities must provide the family with information regarding where the remains are buried.[150]

For some regional human rights bodies, the obligation on the authorities extends beyond informing the families to investigating the fates of those missing in areas under their control.[151] This means that authorities must dedicate resources to uncovering the fate of those missing, and providing that information to the families. Where there are mass graves, this obligation may be partially fulfilled by dedicating resources to exhuming and identifying remains in a timely manner.[152]

The Kurdish-led authorities and the US-led coalition, as parties to the conflict in areas they retook from the Islamic State (ISIS), have an ongoing obligation to share with families any information they have.[153] In areas under the control of the Syrian government, that obligation falls on the Syrian government.

ISIS’s practice of kidnapping, detaining, and forcibly disappearing individuals, as documented in this report, may amount to crimes against humanity, for which those responsible should be held accountable. Crimes against humanity are defined as such crimes that cause great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health and are committed “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Crimes against humanity include a wide range of offences, including enforced disappearances.

The scale of those who have gone missing at the hands of ISIS, as well as the manner in which ISIS carried out these kidnappings —particularly of human rights advocates, civil society activities and journalists — and, in some cases, public executions, makes it likely that ISIS leaders and members are responsible for the crime against humanity of enforced disappearances and summary executions.

The prohibition on enforced disappearances is part of customary international law and has roots in both international human rights law and humanitarian law. It is codified in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and is recognized as part of customary international humanitarian law applicable in both internal and international conflicts. An enforced disappearance occurs when someone is deprived of their liberty by agents of the state or persons acting with the state’s authorization, support or acquiescence, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, placing that person outside the protection of the law, according to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

An enforced disappearance is also a "continuing crime" — that is it continues to take place so long as the disappeared person remains missing, and information about his or her fate or whereabouts has not been provided. This unique aspect of the crime — unlike that of torture, rape, or extrajudicial killing—means that irrespective of when the initial act of disappearance took place, until the fate of the disappeared person is resolved there is an ongoing violation that is to be treated as such by the criminal justice system. Thus, the prohibition also entails a duty to investigate cases of alleged enforced disappearance and prosecute those responsible.


This report was researched and written by Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch; Priyanka Motaparthy, former acting director of the Emergencies division; and Nadim Houry, former director of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism division. Charbel Salloum, a senior research assistant, contributed significantly to the research and drafting.

The report was edited by Joe Stork, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division; Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor; and Tom Porteous, deputy program director. Clara Long, acting deputy director of the US Advocacy division, and Letta Tayler, a senior researcher leading counterterrorism work in the Conflict and Crisis division, provided expert review. Nader Durgham, an intern in the Middle East and North Africa Division, also contributed to this report.

This report was prepared for publication by Diana Naoum, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa division; Remy Arthur, photography and publications coordinator; Jose Martinez, senior coordinator; and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch would like to thank the families of those kidnapped by ISIS for sharing their stories. We add our voices to yours in the demand for answers.



[1] At the time of writing, these include Turkey and Turkish-backed factions; the Kurdish-led autonomous administration and Syrian Democratic Forces; and the Syrian government. Russian military police are also present.

[2] Human Rights Watch interview with Ghadir Nawfal, Firas al-Haj Saleh’s wife, remotely, May 2018.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with Khalil al-Haj Saleh, Firas al-Haj Saleh’s brother, remotely, July 2019.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with Ghadir Nawfal, May 2018 and Khalil al-Haj Saleh, July 2019.

[5] Human Rights Watch interview with Ghadir Nawfal, Firas al-Haj Saleh’s wife, remotely, May 2018.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with Ghadir Nawfal, Firas al-Haj Saleh’s wife, remotely, May 2018.

[7] Ibid; Duration as stated at time of interview. Actual time that has passed at time of publishing: six and a half years.

[8] Human Rights Watch interview with Ghadir Nawfal, Firas al-Haj Saleh’s wife, remotely, May 2018.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with close relative of Dr. Ismaeel al-Hamed, remotely, October 2017.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with close relative of Dr. Ismaeel al-Hamed, remotely, October 2017.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview with Ra’ifa Muslim, Abdullah Khalil’s wife, remotely, August 2019.

[12] Human Rights Watch, “UN Human Rights Council: Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria,” June 4, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/04/un-human-rights-council-interactive-dialogue-commission-inquiry-syria.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Ra’ifa Muslim, Abdullah Khalil’s wife, remotely, August 2019; pictures on file with Human Rights Watch.

[14]Raqqa docs reveal how ISIS tracked and killed prominent civil activist and lawyer,Zaman al-Wsl news release, January 31, 2017, https://en.zamanalwsl.net/news/article/22823 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[15] Tabqa is a town near Raqqa city.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Ra’ifa Muslim, Abdullah Khalil’s wife, remotely, August 2019.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with two relatives of Ruqaiya al-Ahmed, Raqqa city, May 2018.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Not their real names.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with Adnan’s wife, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[24] Not her real name.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Syria Expels Jesuit Priest Who Spoke for Change,” New York Times, June 20, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/world/middleeast/syria-expels-activis... (accessed September 1, 2019).

[29] Sara Manisera, What became of the Italian priest kidnapped by ISIS in Raqqa?The National, August 1, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/what-became-of-the-italian-priest-kidnapped-by-isis-in-raqqa-1.756105 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[30] Ibid.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Immacolata Dall’Oglio, remotely, August 2019.

[32] Desperate Isis using British hostage John Cantlie as bargaining chip, say Kurds,The Times, February 7, 2019, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-cantlie-isis-using-british-hostage-as-bargaining-chip-say-kurds-n8k2pkj3x (accessed September 1, 2019).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Immacolata Dall’Oglio, remotely, August 2019.

[35] Ibid.

[36] United States State Department, Rewards for Justice: ISIS Kidnapping Networks, https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/isis_kidnapping_networks.html (accessed September 1, 2019).

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with Amer Matar, remotely, October 2017 and August 2019.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with Masoud Aqil, June 2018.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with George Kassab, remotely, July 2019 and Adrian Wells, remotely, August 2019.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with Adrian Wells, remotely, August 2019.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview with George Kassab, remotely, July 2019 and Adrian Wells, remotely, August 2019.

[45] Human Rights Watch also reached out to Nicolas Henin, who confirmed the above by email in July 2019.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with George Kassab, remotely, July 2019.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview with Maisa Saleh, Samar Saleh’s sister, remotely, August 2019.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with Imad El Din Ateek, remotely, August 2019.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with Imad El Din Ateek and Nader Batal, remotely, August 2019.

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with Nader Batal, remotely, August 2019.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Imad El Din Ateek, remotely, August 2019.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with Imad El Din Ateek and Nader Batal, remotely, August 2019.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Imad El Din Ateek, remotely, August 2019.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with Nader Batal, remotely, August 2019.

[56] Human Rights Watch, Torture Archipelago: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances in Syrias Underground Prisons since March 2011 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2012), https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/07/03/torture-archipelago/arbitrary-arre... Human Rights Watch, If the Dead Could Speak: Mass Deaths and Torture in Syrias Detention Facilities (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2015), https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/12/16/if-dead-could-speak/mass-deaths-an....

[57] Ibid.

[58] “Syria: Counterterrorism Court Used to Stifle Dissent,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 25, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/25/syria-counterterrorism-court-used-st....

[59] Nadim Houry (then Human Rights Watch), Syria’s Bureaucracy of Death and the Fate of the Disappeared, Op-ed, Lobe Log, June 30, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/30/syrias-bureaucracy-death-and-fate-di....

[60] Human Rights Watch interview with Imad El Din Ateek and Nader Batal, remotely, August 2019.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview with Masoud Aqil, June 2018.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Human Rights Watch interview with unnamed neighbors, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview with al-Aran’s relatives, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with Yasser Abdul Majid’s cousins, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad al-Kawan’s relatives, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Imam Muhammad Imam, Nechervan Muhammad Imam’s father, and other family members, al-Hasakeh, May 2018.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrahim Khalifeh’s mother, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with Fahed al-Faraihi’s cousin, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Anas al-Muhammad’s father, Sfeira al-Tahtani, March 2019.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Wafa’ Awad al-Kurdi, Hussein al-Omar’s wife, Sfeira al-Tahtani, Deir al-Zor. March 2019.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with Wafa’ Awad al-Kurdi, Hussein al-Omar’s wife, and Saleh al-Omar, Hussein al-Omar’s brother, Sfeira al-Tahtani, Deir al-Zor, March 2019.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with Saleh al-Omar, Hussein al-Omar’s brother, Sfeira al-Tahtani, Deir al-Zor, March2019.

[92] The factory is in an industrial area of the city near the roundabout known as Km 7.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview with Wafa’ Awad al-Kurdi, Hussein al-Omar’s wife, Sfeira al-Tahtani, Deir al-Zor, March 2019.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahmud Khabur al-Suleiman, Sfeira al-Tahtani, Deir al-Zor, March 2019.

[95] ISIS posted photos of beheaded soldiers on July 24, 2015, saying that they were the bodies of soldiers that it had executed after taking over the 17th Division. See also, reporting by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria,” November 19, 2014, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/HRC_CRP_ISIS... (accessed September 1, 2019).

[96] “85 Syrian Soldiers Killed in Battle with ISIS in Raqqa” (in Arabic), France 24, July 25, 2017, https://www.france24.com/ar/20140725-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%... (accessed September 1, 2019).

[97] Jeffrey White, Military Implications of the Syrian Regime's Defeat in Raqqa, The Washington Institute, August 27, 2014,https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/military-implications-of-the-syrian-regimes-defeat-in-raqqa (accessed September 1, 2019).

[98] The video is no longer online. Channel 4 summarizes some of its findings. David Doyle, Islamic State video shows Assad army base massacre, Channel 4, September 9, 2014, https://www.channel4.com/news/islamic-state-isis-raqqa-syria-battle-video-propaganda (accessed September 1, 2019).

[99] Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “US-backed forces hand over remains of 44 soldiers killed by IS to Syria,” Kurdistan24, July 31, 2018,https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/b44fe541-87c0-49d7-ae96-feb4292e9a26 (accessed September 1, 2019). Please see section on mass graves for more information.

[100] Russian Radio Arabic noted, “The [Syrian army] was forced to withdraw 600 soldiers, four planes, and ammunition stocks to Al-’Ajrawi village, where they remained until 12:00 am [on August 25]. Then, they withdrew in the direction of Ithriya village, an army checkpoint. ISIS followed, capturing approximately 200 soldiers.” See further, Joseph Adams, “Anatomy of a Massacre part I: The March,” Syria Direct, December 3, 2014, https://syriadirect.org/news/anatomy-of-a-massacre-part-i-the-march/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

[101] See further, Joseph Adams, “Anatomy of a Massacre part I: The March,” Syria Direct, December 3, 2014, https://syriadirect.org/news/anatomy-of-a-massacre-part-i-the-march/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

[102] Ibid.; see further, Joseph Adams, “Anatomy of a Massacre part II: The Killing,” Syria Direct, December 4, 2014,

https://syriadirect.org/news/anatomy-of-a-massacre-part-ii-the-killing/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

[103] Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria,” November 19, 2014, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/HRC_CRP_ISIS... (accessed September 1, 2019).

[104] Human Rights Watch interview with Shaaban Mustafa, Ayman Mustafa’s father, and other family members, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Ibid.

[107] “Full Story” (in Arabic), YouTube, August 12, 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urFs6x9jlME (accessed September 1, 2019).

[108] Videos have since been taken offline. For a summary of the content of the videos, please see Alberto M. Fernandez, Massacre And Media: ISIS And The Case Of The Sunni Arab Shaitat Tribe,The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), June 23, 2015, https://www.memri.org/reports/massacre-and-media-isis-and-case-sunni-ara... (accessed September 1, 2019).

[109] Alberto M. Fernandez, Massacre And Media: ISIS And The Case Of The Sunni Arab Shaitat Tribe,The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), June 23, 2015, https://www.memri.org/reports/massacre-and-media-isis-and-case-sunni-arab-shaitat-tribe#_edn7 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[110] Justice for Life, “They Killed Them to Make Them an Example,” June 11, 2018, https://jfl.ngo/?p=5588&lang=en (accessed September 1, 2019).

[111] In January 2015, ISIS Wilayat Al-Khayr (Deir al-Zor) media office issued along production titled "Except for Those Who Believe.”

[112] “‘Over 200 bodies’ found in Syria mass grave,” Al Jazeera, December, 17, 2014, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/12/200-bodies-found-syria-mass-grave-2014121718569341299.html (accessed September 1, 2019); ”Syria: 230 bodies found in mass grave,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, December 19, 2014 http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=8149 (accessed December 9, 2019).

[113] Justice for Life, “They Killed Them to Make Them an Example,” June 11, 2018, https://jfl.ngo/?p=5588&lang=en (accessed September 1, 2019).

[114] Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria,” November 19, 2014, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/HRC_CRP_ISIS....

[115] Not his real name.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with Fayez Humam’s brother, name withheld, remotely, August 2019.

[117] Ibid.

[118] Ibid.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Human Rights Watch interview with Aras Ahmad, remotely, August 2019.

[121] Ibid.

[122] Ibid.

[123] Ibid.

[124] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahmoud Muhammad, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[125] Ibid.

[126] Ibid.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Abdulhamid, Ein Issa, May 2018.

[128] Ibid.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Ibid.

[131] Examples of this provided above. See for example, Human Rights Watch interview with Ghadir Nawfal, Firas al-Haj Saleh’s wife, remotely, May 2018.

[132] For example, Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrahim Khalifeh’s mother, displacement camp in Northeast Syria, May 2018.

[133] For example, Human Rights Watch interview with two relatives of Ruqaiya al-Ahmed, Raqqa city, May 2018.

[134] Ibid.

[135] Human Rights Watch interview with Aras Ahmad, remotely, August 2019.

[136] See for example, Syrian Abductees Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/SyrianAbductees/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

[137] 15 graves found in Raqqa city according to the Raqqa Civil Council and news reports (Raqqa Reconstruction Committee, RCC Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/RaqqaRC/). Another seven found in Deir al-Zor under the Syrian government’s control per SANA, the official Syrian news agency ( Seven mass graves containing hundreds of bodies found in Deir Ezzor, Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), December 11, 2018, https://sana.sy/en/?p=153316 (accessed September 1, 2019)). News reports indicate that mass graves have also been found in al-Tanf and Palmyra areas. Russian Defense Ministry: 300 corpses were found in a mass grave near al-Rukban Camp on the Syrian Jordanian borders in al-Tanf area, Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), March 5, 2019, https://sana.sy/en/?p=160331 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[138] By February 2019, the Raqqa Civil Council estimated there were 2,021 bodies in Raqqa mass graves alone. The number is likely to be much higher. Raqqa Reconstruction Committee, RCC Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/RaqqaRC/.

[139] Forthcoming Human Rights Watch report on al-Hota mass grave in Raqqa governorate.

[140] “Syria: Mass Graves in Former ISIS Areas,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 3, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/03/syria-mass-graves-former-isis-areas.

[141] See for example, The International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC, “Operational best practices regarding the management of human remains and information on the dead by non-specialists: For all armed forces For all humanitarian organizations,” November 2004, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/icrc_002_858.pdf (accessed September 8, 2019).

[142]Exclusive Mass Graves in Raqqa Uncover Post-War Traumas,AlSharq al-Awsat, June 18, 2019, https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1772751/exclusive-%E2%80%93-mass-graves-raqqa-uncover-post-war-traumas (accessed September 1, 2019).

[143] Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrahim Hassan, representative of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee, remotely, August 2019. Donors include United States, Germany, and the Netherlands.

[144] Seven mass graves containing hundreds of bodies found in Deir Ezzor,Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), December 11, 2018, https://sana.sy/en/?p=153316 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[145] Ibid.

[146] Wladimir van Wilgenburg, US-backed forces hand over remains of 44 soldiers killed by IS to Syria,Kurdistan24, July 31, 2018, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/b44fe541-87c0-49d7-ae96-feb4292e9a26 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[147] Ibid.

[148] See International Committee of the Red Cross, Customary International Law Database, Rule 117, Accounting for Missing Persons, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule117 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[149] United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Compilation of General Comments on the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, E/CN.4/1996/38, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Disappearances/GeneralCommentsDisappearances_en.pdf (accessed September 1, 2019).

[150] Ibid.

[151] See for example, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Velásquez Rodríguez case.

[152] See International Committee of the Red Cross, Customary International Law Database, Rule 117, Accounting for Missing Persons, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule117 (accessed September 1, 2019).

[153] Ibid.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In this photo reviewed by US military officials, flags fly in front of the tents of Camp Justice, April 18, 2019, in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba.

© 2019 AP Photo/Alex Brandon

In the gallery at the back of the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay’s military commission hearing, I could open a copy of Enhanced Interrogation, James Mitchell’s widely available book chronicling his role in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation program. But Mitchell is prevented from citing some of his own words during his testimony at the hearings – the government objects, citing national security concerns.

Such is the absurdity of the seemingly endless proceedings at Guantanamo.

Although the case against the five men accused of plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US has been going on for more than seven years – and their detention nearly two decades – the pretrial hearings taking place this week are significant. Mitchell and his partner, John Bruce Jessen, the psychologists who were the architects of the CIA’s systematic use of torture, are testifying in public for the first time. Despite this monumental event, a protracted fight over what evidence was deemed too sensitive for disclosure occupied much of the commission’s first day.

The US government, the prosecution, controls what information may be shared in open court. In this week’s pretrial hearing, the classification guidelines for evidence have been updated repeatedly, with the prosecution invoking national security privilege to classify information already publicly available – such as information from Mitchell’s own book, which had already been cleared by the CIA’s publication review board years prior.

Earlier this week, James Connell III, defense counsel for Ammar Al-Baluchi, asked if detainee Abu Zubaydah had been in a public hospital when Mitchell met him (Zubaydah was among the first detainees to be tortured under the CIA program designed by Mitchell in 2002, and remains at Guantanamo and has not been charged). The prosecution objected, asserting national security privilege and claiming that the existence of a public hospital would be identifying information as to the location of the country of the CIA “black site” where Abu Zubaydah was held. It’s widely known that Thailand was the location, a fact first reported in 2002.

These new rules are indicative of the problems that have faced the military commissions since their inception at Guantanamo. Defense attorneys are constantly given new rules, their clients’ own experiences are considered classified, and the government has infringed on the attorney-client privilege, bugging meeting rooms and confiscating materials. Walter Ruiz, counsel for Mustafa al Hawsawi, compared it to football: what if right before the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers gave the Kansas City Chiefs a new rule book to follow? The public wouldn’t stand for it – but here at Guantanamo, it’s the status quo.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

General Shavendra Silva is seen at the Ampara Air Force camp in eastern Sri Lanka August 24, 2009. 

© 2009 Reuters/Stringer/Files
(New York) – The Sri Lankan government should abide by its commitments to replace the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that respects its international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The cabinet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced on January 4, 2020 that it would withdraw a proposed replacement law, reneging on pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Union.

Rajapaksa, who took office on November 18, 2019, has also taken other steps that threaten human rights protections in Sri Lanka. He appointed army commanders implicated by the UN in attacks on civilians and other grave abuses during the civil war to defense secretary and other senior positions. He placed the police and other civilian agencies under the Defense Ministry. In addition, he appointed a military officer as the head of the civilian intelligence agency without requiring him to resign from the armed forces, and repeatedly said he would place the intelligence agencies at the heart of his administration.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and senior appointees linked to wartime abuses are wasting no time dismantling the human rights gains of recent years,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The EU, which offers Sri Lanka preferential trading terms in return for human rights guarantees, should demand the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.”

The PTA, introduced in 1978 as a temporary measure, has resulted in countless arbitrary detentions and facilitated torture of detainees. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism found that the law “has fostered the endemic and systematic use of torture. Entire communities have been stigmatized and targeted for harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention.”

In 2015, then-President Maithripala Sirisena joined a unanimous resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that committed Sri Lanka to a series of measures to uphold human rights that included replacing the PTA with counterterrorism legislation that respects international legal standards. Many of these undertakings were never met, but in early 2019 the government and UNHRC renewed the commitment.

In 2018, an alternative counterterrorism law, the Counter-Terrorism Act, was submitted to parliament. Despite shortcomings, the draft act would have replaced many of the most abused provisions of the PTA, but it was never passed into law. The new Rajapaksa government has declared its intention to keep the PTA in force. The cabinet spokesman, Minister Bandula Gunawardana, said: “The PTA is back in the statute book, empowering the police and armed forces to face any threat posed to national security from any quarter.”

In 2010, the EU withdrew Sri Lanka’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), its preferential trading arrangement, due to “significant shortcomings in the country’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions.” The arrangement gives Sri Lanka largely tariff-free access in exchange for undertakings to ratify and put into effect international human rights conventions. During the Sirisena government, the EU restored the preferential trading arrangement.

However, the scheme includes a monitoring component to ensure that human rights obligations are effectively met. At the annual meeting of the EU and Sri Lanka in February 2019, the joint communique stated that “the EU reiterated the need to repeal and replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in order to bring counterterrorism legislation in line with international standards.”

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary from 2005 to 2015, under the administration of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed prime minister in November. The UN, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups, and the media, found that under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, the Sri Lankan army shelled civilians and hospitals, and raped and executed prisoners during the final months of the civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The UN found repeatedly in its reports that some military abuses during the conflict amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The previous Rajapaksa government was also implicated in numerous human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. In a number of cases, including the 2008 abduction of Keith Noyahr, the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, and the 2010 enforced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, evidence produced in court implicated military intelligence officers under the authority of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the defense secretary. There has been no final verdict in any of these cases.

Human Rights Watch recognizes Sri Lanka’s international legal obligation to protect everyone on its territory. However, any counterterrorism measures should reflect international best practice and uphold basic principles of the rule of law.

“For decades, Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act provided a legal fig leaf for grotesque human rights abuses and the suppression of peaceful dissent,” Ganguly said. “The new Rajapaksa government’s embrace of this abusive law is just one of many signs that the rights of Sri Lankans are at grave risk.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A campaign poster showing environmental activists Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been detained since early 2018 in Iran. An Iranian court in November 2019 sentenced Bayani, Tahbaz, Jokar, Ghadirian, Khaleghi and Kashani to prison terms of 6 to 10 years. 

© 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign
Protecting the endangered Asiatic cheetah. Tweeting a satirical poem. Attending a climate conference. Campaigning against a power plant. These actions hardly conjure images of suicide bombers or coup plotters. Yet, they have been labelled “eco-terrorism,” “extremism,” or “threats to national security” by governments and businesses that seek to block the work of environmental activists.

As young people around the world gather for a global climate strike on Friday, and as the 25th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) begins in Madrid on Monday, conference delegates would do well to consider that one important way to protect the environment is to protect environmental defenders.

Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal.

© 2018 Rob Symons
To be sure, environmentalists face dangers beyond being labelled security threats. From the Amazon rainforest to South African mining communities, activists defending ecosystems and ancestral lands are threatened, attacked and even killed with near-total impunity. But the unjust labelling of environmentalists as dangerous criminals or threats to national security is often more insidious, as it is generally carried out under the aegis of the law.

Authorities have an obligation to prosecute criminal acts. But typically, environmental defenders peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Only in exceptional cases would their acts meet a generally-accepted definition of terrorism. And when environmentalists engage in civil disobedience, they do not usually aim to undermine the rule of law. Yet, we should consider the following:

  • In Poland, days before hosting the COP24 in December 2018, authorities issued a terrorism alert and denied entry to at least 13 foreign climate activists registered to attend, calling them security threats. Poland also empowered the police to collect data about conference participants without judicial oversight or participants’ knowledge.
  • In France, days before hosting the COP21 in November 2015, authorities placed at least 24 climate activists under house arrest using emergency counterterrorism measures enacted after the deadly Paris attacks that month. The activists were accused of flouting a ban on COP21 protests.
  • In Iran, eight members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, imprisoned since early 2018, were just handed prison terms of up to 10 years for allegedly spying for the US. During a flawed trial, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards accused them of using their work protecting the endangered Asiatic cheetah as a cover. The group’s founder, also arrested in 2018, died in custody under suspicious circumstances.
  • In Kenya, authorities have unjustly accused environmental activists opposing a mega-infrastructure project of ties to the extremist armed group al-Shabab and threatened, beat, and arbitrarily detained them. In July, a court suspended the project’s coal-fired power plant. Activists contend the development will still destroy forests, kill fish, and displace communities.
  • In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 placed 600 civil society activists, including environmentalists, on a list of alleged members of the country’s communist party and its armed wing, which he declared to be a terrorist organisation. Until a court intervened, the list included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous Filipina who is the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and has protested Philippines mining projects.
  • In Ecuador, eight years passed before environmental activist José “Pepe” Acacho was cleared of “terrorism” charges for opposing mining and oil exploration in the Amazon.
  • In the US in 2018, the then-interior secretary blamed wildfires on “environmental terrorist groups” that opposed logging. In 2017, a pipeline operator sued Greenpeace and other environmental groups for a “rogue eco-terrorist” campaign against an oil pipeline. A court dismissed the lawsuit in February. Largely peaceful protesters said the underground pipeline threatened Native American sacred sites and drinking water.
  • In Russia, since 2012, at least 14 environmental organisations have had their work curtailed and in June, the head of the group Ecodefence!, fled the country to avoid being targeted under an abusive “foreign agents” law. In April, a court fined an environmental activist for “mass distribution of extremist materials” for posting a satirical poem about mining oligarchs.

During the COP25, participating governments should encourage activists to air their concerns about the climate crisis and their own safety, and draw on their combined expertise to help identify solutions.

They should also commit to rigorously implementing treaties that protect environmental defenders. One is the Aarhus Convention, which the European Union and Poland have been criticised for flouting. Another is Latin America’s Escazu Agreement, which requires just five additional ratifications to enter into force. Chile, which will preside over the COP25, should lead by example and ratify it.

COP25 delegates should recognize that to genuinely protect the environment, they also need to protect its defenders—including those unjustly targeted in the name of security.

Also check out this web essay by Letta ,Cara, and Katharina Rall.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am