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Counter-Terrorism Court in Syria: a Tool for War Crimes

Press release

April 2015

The Syrian government security agencies have referred over 80,000 people, most of them civilians, to the Counter-Terrorism Court (CTC) created in 2012 under a presidential decree, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) said in a a report it released today.   The VDC confirmed that over 2,400 people who had been arbitrarily arrested by various Syria security agencies could be referred to that court in one month in 2014.

The 41 - page report “ Counter-Terrorism Court in Syria: a Tool for War Crimes” also documents the cases of that thousands of arbitrarily arrested persons, mostly civilians, referred to the Military Field Court where they received inhumane judgments including around 80 death sentences. The VDC documented dozens of cases of severe beating and torture where detainees would appear before the judge with bleeding faces or bodies after severe beating by the security agents before being brought before the court.

On 21 April 2012, the Syrian government issued decree number (161) ending the state of emergency that had been continuously in effect in the country since 1962. A second decree followed, abolishing the Supreme State Security Court. In early July 2012, Counter-Terrorism Law No. 19 was issued, defining terms like “terrorist action, terrorist organization and financing terrorism” in addition to setting penalties for committing or promoting terrorist acts.

In fact, the Counter-Terrorism Court came to expand the definition of those it considers to be “threatening the state” security to include much wider groups in the Syrian society especially peaceful activists (including peaceful female activists and even children).

On February 22, 2014 the UN Security Council passed Resolution No. 2139 which strongly condemned the arbitrary detention and torture of civilians in Syria, namely in prisons and detention facilities, as well as the kidnappings, abductions and forced disappearances.  The resolution unequivocally demanded putting an immediate end to these practices and called for the release of all arbitrarily detained persons starting with women and children, as well as sick, wounded and elderly people,  UN and aid personnel and journalists.

Based on testimonials of former and present detainees and on interviews with lawyers, the VDC report reveals that the judges at the CTC build their judgments on charges filed against the detainees by security branches. More than 10 former detainees interviewed by VDC confirmed that they had faced pressures and coercion including severe torture during the interrogation process at the security branches to oblige them to admit to the possession of weapons or to their participation in military operations, although their activities had been fully peaceful. Although detainees told the judges about these forcibly extracted confessions, the judges paid no attention to these claims. They continued issuing their verdicts on the basis of forced confessions.

From the perspective on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and despite official use by the Syrian government of terms such as “law” or “legislative decree”, ill-treatment, torture and other such practices are illegal. And even if the adoption of laws, decrees and subsequent procedures remains within the Syrian legal and constitutional frameworks, they remain measures taken by a party to an armed conflict not of an international character. They are subject to evaluation in accordance with the provisions of IHL, especially Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and in view of the qualification, since July 2012, of the situation in Syria as a non-international armed conflict by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the main international body mandated to legally qualify a situation.

Building on the rules of IHL and Customary International Humanitarian Law, the VDC report concludes that issuing verdicts and carrying out executions outside the framework of constitutionally created courts that ensure all trial guarantees, is a gross violation of the International Humanitarian Law. It constitutes a war crime that holds the engaged judges and public prosecutors accountable individually. The report maintains that depriving civilians from their liberty, prosecuting them before the Counter-Terrorism Court and Field Court and issuing imprisonment and death sentences against them by these two courts may constitute crimes against humanity, especially as the report reveals a systemic and systematic pattern of facilitating and justifying individual acts such as killing and arbitrary detention against civilians across the country.. Consequently, the perpetrators of these acts may be held accountable for committing crimes against humanity.


Violations Documentation Center in Syria

April 2015

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