Human Rights Organization: Children among 547 Syrian detainees declared dead

Since the Syrian government arrested Yahya Hijazi and his two sons in 2012, his relatives have held out hope that they are still alive and could one day be released. However, after ten years of silence from the authorities, their hopes were dashed when the Syrian Network for Human Rights contacted the Hijazi family to inform them that it had obtained death certificates for the three.

“Every moment you hope to see that person you love so much again or to hear any news about them,” Yahya’s brother told Reuters in a telephone call from northwestern Syria.

The network, an independent group, said the documents confirming the deaths of Yahya and his two sons were among 547 death certificates for detainees issued by authorities since 2017, which the network obtained from internal sources in government departments.

The human rights group added that the documents answer questions about the fate of hundreds of missing persons. Activists hope the documents will one day be used to take international legal action against the government, which is accused by a United Nations commission of inquiry of crimes against humanity over its detention policy.

The government did not respond to emailed questions about the death certificates received by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Syrian officials have previously denied allegations of systematic torture and mass executions in prisons.

Reuters reviewed 80 death certificates, including those of the Hijazi family, along with those of a three-year-old girl and her six-year-old sister.

A Syrian human rights lawyer, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, reviewed a sample of the documents. He said the format of the documents, the language used and the information contained in them were identical to what is common in Syrian death certificates. Reuters could not independently confirm the authenticity of the documents.

Muhammad Hijazi said his family did not request death certificates from the authorities because they live in opposition-controlled areas. He added that their acquaintances, who live in government-controlled areas, refused to ask the death registers for fear of being seen as opponents of the regime in Damascus.

no cause of death

Syria’s war erupted after a 2011 uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, killing more than 350,000 people, displacing more than half the population and forcing millions to flee the country and live as refugees abroad.

According to estimates by the United Nations Committee, tens of thousands of people are imprisoned in centers linked to the Syrian government. The commission and families of detainees say detainees are usually not allowed to communicate with their families, leaving families wondering where they are and whether they are still alive.

International human rights groups do not operate openly in Syria and do not have access to detention centers. The UN Secretary-General’s office recommended in August that a mechanism be established to determine the fate of missing Syrians, but this has yet to be done. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said the death certificates it received included those of 15 children and 19 women.

Some of the eighty or so testimonies reviewed by Reuters state that the place of death is military hospitals or military courts, while some of them do not specify a specific place, because only “Damascus” or a village on its outskirts is mentioned, while the place of death was left blank in others. testimonies.

Testimonies reviewed by Reuters also included large time gaps between the date of death and the date it was recorded, reaching several years in most testimonies, and in one case the difference was ten years.

No cause of death was given in the documents reviewed by Reuters. The Syrian Network said it applied to all the other 547 testimonies. The human rights group said it had matched the names on the death certificates with the lists of detainees held by the Syrian authorities.

The group managed to reach the families of 23 deceased persons. She said that many of them had the feeling that their loved ones had died, a feeling that was confirmed after examining the death certificates.

According to a report issued by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria 2022, torture and ill-treatment in Syrian prisons remains “systematic”. The report indicated the existence of violations in detention centers of non-governmental factions. He said the government was deliberately withholding information about detainees from their families, describing the detention policies as crimes against humanity.

And the wait continues

The United Nations committee said that in 2018, Syrian authorities began updating the registers with a large number of death certificates of people who died in custody, but did not directly notify their families. The government did not answer questions about why the relatives of the deceased were not informed.

Relatives who lived in government-controlled areas could find out if their loved ones had died by requesting their family records from registry offices. However, they were not allowed to receive the bodies for burial or were not told where the remains were, according to the committee and the network.

Others learned of the death by identifying their relatives in leaked photographs taken by military photographers working in prisons, the most prominent of whom bears the pseudonym (Caesar).

During an interview in 2015, Al-Assad denied the authenticity of the photos Caesar published, saying they were claims without evidence. Former war crimes prosecutors described the images as clear evidence of systematic torture and mass killing.

Fadel Abdel-Ghani, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said he hoped families still waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones would find solace in the death certificates.

But the wait for Mohamed Hegazy continues. Although he now knows his brother’s fate, he says the government is holding 40 other relatives in central Syria and the family knows nothing about them. “I couldn’t tell my mother that Yahya was dead,” he said. “I just told her she was still in jail.”

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