June 1, 2021-Today, Synergy for Justice, a non-governmental organization focused on advancing accountability for torture and sexual violence, published two reports on the continued suffering of women and girls in Syria. Their findings are based on the experience of 80 women and girls, as young as 10 and as old as 65, some of whom had been arrested multiple times. Relying on the detail and rigour of medical expert evaluations, the reports establish a pattern of arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence against female victims who opposed the Syrian regime or whose male relatives did. The reports also indicate the direct involvement and knowledge of senior members of the State security apparatus and the judiciary and demonstrate patterns of collaboration and knowledge across different branches and institutions as a whole system of torture, ill-treatment, and violence.
Christy Fujio, the Executive Director of Synergy said: “As the news cycle moves on to different topics and a number of influential states engage in the normalization of the Syrian regime and attempts to repatriate Syrian refugees, these reports serve as a stark reminder that torture and sexual violence are still occurring on a massive scale in Syria. We urge states and others with influence to use these reports and findings to mobilise the political will to reignite the pressure and debate around women and girls in Syrian detention and to do everything in their power to secure their immediate release.”
The reports were done in collaboration with Lawyers & Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR), a Syrian grass-roots NGO dedicated to civilians in crisis and working to stop human rights violations and assist victims and survivors in seeking justice and rehabilitation. LDHR doctors performed all the forensic medical evaluations of the 80 women and girls who comprise the data set of these two reports, and LDHR lawyers contributed to the data entry and data analysis that underpins the findings in the two reports.
The first report, titled “Lacking Legal Basis,” is an analysis of arbitrary arrest and detention of women and girls in Syria and the second, titled “The Whole World Has Let Me Down,” focuses on the particular horrors they face in arbitrary detention. They follow a report Synergy and LDHR issued earlier this year on the knowledge, attitudes and stigma surrounding sexual violence and its survivors in Syrian communities. Together, the reports describe what life is like for women and girls who are victims of arbitrary detention and sexual violence in Syria – from the legal uncertainty regarding authority to make arrests, to the arbitrariness of the arrest itself, to the torture, cruel treatment and sexual violence in detention, to the stigma they face afterwards.
The two reports document myriad violations of the Syrian Constitution and laws, international human rights instruments ratified by Syria and international customary law. These violations constitute torture as well as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The findings demonstrate that sexual violence perpetrated against women in Syrian detention centres is pervasive, repetitive, and dehumanising, and that it is implemented as a state policy and a weapon of the regime to attack, suppress, and break its opponents. The medical expert evaluations and victims’ testimonies will support criminal prosecutions for crimes against humanity, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and forcible transfer, unlawful arrest, torture, cruel and inhumane treatment, sexual violence including rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence as well as persecution based on gender, politics, and religion, and other inhumane acts.
Dr. Ingrid Elliot MBE, Synergy Director and author of “The Whole World has Let Me Down” added: “The courage of these women and girls make it a moral imperative for us to read on, to bear witness, to demand justice and to do whatever we can to prevent repetition. Each one of these women and girls deserve to have their whole stories told in court to bear witness to their stories and ensure that they have access to safe and effective justice in its broadest forms - criminal accountability, acknowledgement, truth telling, reparations and non-repetition.”
On the methodology
The reports launched today are based on clinical interviews and forensic medical evaluations of 80 very courageous women and girls, some of whom had been arrested multiple times. The youngest was only 10 years old at the time of arrest and the oldest 65. They had been detained in different parts of Syria, by different entities and institutions and spent an average of nine and a half months in detention. Earlier findings which showed high levels of stigma associated with shame, blame, and myths about sexual violence makes their courage to come forward even more remarkable. For the victims’ protection, the reports do not use their real names. In order to ensure due process, fair trial standards, and full criminal accountability in the future, no individual perpetrators have been named or identified in the reports.
Doctors trained by Synergy and LDHR conducted medical expert evaluations in accordance with the highest international standards and procedures on how to recognise and document the signs and symptoms of torture to serve as valid evidence in court. These standards are laid out in the Istanbul Protocol – the United Nations Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Each medical expert evaluation included a clinical interview, a physical examination, a psychological assessment and any relevant diagnostic tests or consultations. The specialists recorded all findings in a standardised fashion and provided their expert opinion as to the degree of consistency between the narrated events and the medical findings.
The reports detail the impact of the lasting trauma from these women’s lived experiences on their long-term physical, sexual and reproductive health and their psychological, social, and economic well-being. This data is important to inform the effective provision of short, medium, and long-term support. The impact of these conditions may also have relevance to criminal accountability, to fully understanding the nature of the crimes committed and to assisting with appropriate sentencing. Some of the impacts may also shed light on the motivations and policies behind the commission of such crimes.
These reports are especially important because they describe the particular experiences of women and girls in these circumstances. The 100 cases on which the reports are based demonstrate the widespread and systematic use of arbitrary arrest, torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, sexual violence and gendered persecution against women and girls as a weapon to break political opposition to the Syrian government, and to a much lesser extent, other de facto powers in areas outside regime control.
To date, much of the discussion and depiction of methods and tools of torture in Syrian detention centres has centred on images, reports, and artwork almost exclusively portraying men as the victims. Less is known about the collective experience of women and girls, and whether they face similar or different forms or levels of torture and violence in detention centres. For women and girls, the focus tends to rest predominately on sexual violence, and often other experiences and forms of violence disappear from the story. It is important to consider this broader experience of women and girls in detention, to recognise the brutality they face and to consider these crimes through a gender lens. It is also important to understand that not all women and girls face sexual violence in detention, despite assumptions to the contrary. This will also assist in understanding what response is needed to help these women, their families and communities to heal.
For more information on Synergy for Justice: https://synergyforjustice.org
For more information on Lawyers & Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR): http://ldhrights.org/en/
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