Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
27 November 2018
In the wake of recent information released in bulk by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic on the deaths of numerous detained and/or missing persons, the Commission of Inquiry stresses the need to account for the fate and whereabouts of detained and missing individuals countrywide. The Commission further recommends a number of essential steps to address the most pressing concerns of both the victims and their families on this matter, including acknowledging the truth about how victims perished and revealing the whereabouts of their remains.
While arbitrary detention throughout the Syrian Arab Republic continues to be perpetrated by all parties on the ground, nowhere has the phenomenon been more pervasive than in areas under Government control. The Commission has previously documented a widespread and systematic pattern in which men above the age of 15 years had been arbitrarily arrested and detained by Government security, armed forces, or militia acting on their behalf during mass arrests, at checkpoints, or during house searches.2 After being taken to Government-run detention facilities, detainees were often severely beaten, many of whom later perished due to torture, inhuman living conditions, lack of adequate medical assistance, or wilful neglect. In several instances, families were compelled to pay bribes to learn the whereabouts of their detained relatives. On other occasions, they were never informed of their whereabouts and never saw them again.
Many of these families learned the fate of their fathers, spouses, and sons for the first time in May 2018,3 when State entities4 provided Government civil registry offices – administrative bodies operating under the Syrian Ministry of Interior and located in each governorate countrywide – with information in bulk5 that individuals were deceased. Civil registry offices then registered their deaths and subsequently updated family records. In some cases, lists referencing the deaths were released by these offices. In other cases, the offices confirmed deaths to individuals who requested their family status. These offices provide confirmations of death, though families must still obtain a death certificate (see paras. 6-7).
Many individuals whose statuses were updated to reflect their deaths are believed to have been detained by State authorities between 2011 and 2014,6 and most custodial deaths are thought to have occurred in places of detention run by Syrian intelligence or military agencies. The Commission has not documented any instance, however, where bodies or personal belongings of the deceased were returned.
These notifications or information upon which they were based have been issued by military hospitals.7 In nearly every instance, the records indicated natural causes of death such as “heart attack” or “stroke.” In other cases, the deceased were reportedly executed as a result of a decision by either the First or Second Field Court (including reportedly at Sednaya Prison). Some individuals from the same geographic area share common death dates, possibly indicating group executions.
In a pattern previously documented by the Commission, death certificates issued by staff at Tishreen military hospital (Damascus), for example, contained the name and date of birth of the victim, as well as the alleged date and cause of death. These certificates bore the stamp of Tishreen military hospital, and appeared to be signed by one or more officials.8 In stark contrast to the common causes of death of prisoners documented by the Commission,9 most of these death certificates recorded the cause of death as being a “heart attack.” Hospital officials did not provide information regarding the place of detention, with place of death in most cases stated to be Tishreen military hospital. Similar attestations were also issued at Mujtahid hospital (Damascus).10
Obtaining death certificates: national legislation and human rights implications
In Syria, the registration of birth, death, and marriage is organised on the basis of family units and therefore undertaken by a family member within one month of the event, in this case the receipt of a death notification.11 Under Syrian law and for deaths occurring inside the country, families thereafter have one month after obtaining a confirmation of death to apply for an official death certificate with the civil registry office. Without one, they are unable to move forward on legal aspects of the death. If they fail to apply for a death certificate within one month, they could be fined 3,000 Syrian pounds,12 and if they fail to apply within one year, a police report is required and the fine increases to 10,000 Syrian pounds.13 Taking into account the number of refugees and internally displaced persons countrywide,14 many displaced Syrians are currently not in a position to perform such obligations under law.
The lack of an official death certificate has many potential deleterious effects for the human rights of relatives of the deceased, including their housing, land, and property (HLP) rights. Given that HLP documents often exclude the names of women, female-headed households may face further challenges to secure tenure or prove inheritance rights or marital status.