Cases of torture

A torture setting A torture setting © Shutterstock/Phase4Photography

04-10 November 2019 weekly digest, by Federica Pira

1)    Arrests in Germany for abuses committed in Syria

German prosecutors have charged two Syrians with crimes against humanity, including the torture and killing of people. Efforts to prosecute members of Mr Assad’s government have repeatedly failed, as Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Furthermore, Russia and China have vetoed attempts to give the ICC a mandate to set up a special tribunal for Syria. German authorities have however approached the cases under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of crimes in one country even if they happened elsewhere.

Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib were arrested in February, in a coordinated operation by German and French police. Raslan allegedly led an investigative unit within a prison known as Branch 251, near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Prosecutors claimed at least 4,000 opposition activists were tortured by his subordinates during interrogation there between April 2011 and 2012, with guards using bars, cables and whips to beat prisoners during interviews. Some prisoners were subjected to electric shocks, while others were “hung from the ceiling by their wrists, with only their toes touching the ground”, according to a statement by the German prosecutor. Many died as a result, and Raslan has been charged with 59 counts of murder, as well as rape and aggravated sexual assault. Gharib allegedly reported to Raslan, arresting protesters and delivering them to the Branch 251 jail. He is charged with a role in the abduction and torture of at least 30 people in the autumn of 2011. 

Raslan and Gharib left Syria in 2013 and entered Germany as asylum seekers in July 2014 and August 2018 respectively. The trial, set to start in 2020, would be the first of its kind for state-sponsored torture in Syria.



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2)    Torture and Abuses committed in Myanmar 

On 21 December 2018, the Myanmar military announced a unilateral ceasefire in northern and eastern Myanmar. However, while there may have been a reduction of the number of clashes involving the military, Myanmar soldiers have continued to commit serious violations against ethnic minority civilians. 

In light of the above, Amnesty International undertook research missions to northern Shan State in March and August 2019, to document international human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law committed since mid-2018 by parties to the ongoing internal armed conflicts in northern Shan State. In total, Amnesty International interviewed 88 people, including victims and direct witnesses to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The organization also met with local and international humanitarian officials, human rights defenders, community leaders, journalists, and political analysts, and analysed satellite imagery and photographs related to specific documented incidents.

The final report documents arbitrary arrests accompanied by ill-treatment that often amounted to torture. In particular, the research found that the Myanmar military subjects civilians to arbitrary detention, often arresting men and boys on the basis of their ethnic identity and a perceived link with a particular armed group. Arrests and detention were often accompanied by torture and other ill-treatment. Soldiers beat, kicked, and punched detainees in order to obtain information about ethnic armed groups, or else to force detainees to “confess” to being members of such groups. In some cases, detainees were taken to military bases where they were held for up to three months. Detainees were usually held in incommunicado detention, without access to lawyers or – for the most part – family members. 

Myanmar’s military has been repeatedly implicated in serious crimes in recent years, in particular in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States. A UN-established independent investigation has called for senior military officials to be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States, and genocide in Rakhine State. Despite this, members of the Myanmar military continue to enjoy impunity and the freedom and power to commit further crimes. The civilian-led government remains unable or unwilling to independently investigate serious violations, let alone push for prosecution or even suspension of suspects, and has repeatedly refused to cooperate with international bodies in uncovering the truth and delivering justice.



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3)    Torture in Saudi Arabia 

On 23 January 2015, following a protracted illness, Saudi Arabia’s 90-year-old King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud passed away, leaving the country in serious struggle with its deteriorating economy and totally unable to meet the employment and livelihood demands of Saudi Arabia’s growing youth population. As a result, King Abdullah’s successor – King Salman bin Abdulaziz, a half-brother - firstly appointed his then 29-year-old son Mohammed as the Head of the newly established Council of Economic and Development Affairs, making him the face of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to reform the country’s economy; then, on the following year (2017), elevated him to crown prince, making him next in line to the Saudi throne and de facto day-to-day ruler of the country. 

Progressive changes immediately bolstered a positive image for the crown prince. However, a “darker reality” was laying behind Prince Mohammed’s newfound fame. In particular, in the summer of 2017, around the time of his promotion to crown prince, authorities removed former security and intelligence officials and quietly reorganized the country’s prosecution service and security apparatus, the primary tools of Saudi repression, placing them directly under the royal court’s oversight. With the security apparatus completely under royal court control, the authorities then launched a series of arrest campaigns, targeting dozens of critics and potential critics of Saudi government policies. These arrest waves targeted prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics, and human rights activists.

As Human Rights Watch Reports explains, detaining citizens for peaceful criticism of the government’s policies or human rights advocacy is – regrettably - not a new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Thus, what has made the post-2017 arrest waves notable and different, is the introduction of new repressive practices, never seen under previous Saudi leadership. These new tactics include cases of holding detainees at unofficial places of detention, where allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees were rampant. Abusive practices also have included long-term arbitrary detention – over two years – without charge, trial, or any clear legal process.

Despite global condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s escalating domestic repression, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has continued to enjoy the unwavering support of several key world leaders, including US President Donald Trump. 

In light of the above, Human Rights Watch urges the Government of Saudi Arabia to inter alia: immediately release all prisoners held solely for their peaceful practice of their rights to free expression and association; investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by an independent body and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable and survivors are provided with redress; allow international monitors to enter the country and grant them unfettered access to detainees.



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