Thursday, January 12, 2012

Syria: Arab League Observers Flee "Freedom Square"

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, January 12, 2012  -  The Arab League should urgently condemn the Syrian security forces for shooting peaceful protesters who were attempting to reach its observers in the northern city of Jisr al-Shughur, Human Rights Watch said today. In light of these and other blatant violations of the agreement it brokered with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, the Arab League should report publicly on its findings and assess whether its mission should continue.

Two protesters who were wounded in Jisr al-Shughur and fled to southern Turkey told Human Rights Watch in face-to-face interviews that around 11 a.m. on January 10, 2012, they marched towards the Baath party square (re-named "Freedom Square" by the protesters) to meet with Arab League observers present there. According to the witnesses, when they approached a checkpoint on the way to the square, army personnel barred them from proceeding and, after the protesters refused to disperse, opened fire on the crowd, injuring at least nine protesters. The Arab League observers were in the Baath party square, but left in a car after the shooting began, the witnesses said. Despite several attempts, Human Rights Watch has not been able to contact the Arab League observers to confirm whether they witnessed the incident.

"Such incidents, and the ever rising death toll, clearly demonstrate that the presence of Arab League observers has done little to compel the Syrian authorities to stop their crimes," said Anna Neistat, associate emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. "As President Assad derides the Arab League in his speeches, his troops are making a mockery of its observers' mission on the ground."

"Abu-Ahmad," one of the protesters injured in the attack, told Human Rights Watch:

We were about 300-500 people, I walked in the front row. We carried olive branches and chanted "peaceful, peaceful." When we were some 100 meters away from the checkpoint, we shouted to the army that we just wanted to meet with the observers. But they opened fire at us  -  it seemed like they received the orders from the mukhabarat officers who stood behind them.

Soldiers placed three machine guns on the ground and pointed them toward us. I saw them firing from Kalashnikov and sniper rifles. One of them pointed a sniper rifle at me and then I felt I was hit in my right leg. Several people next to me were hit as well.

I could see the observers, and we were communicating with them on cell phones [to coordinate a meeting], but when the army opened fire they just got into their cars and left.

Another witness, "Mustafa," who was also injured, told Human Rights Watch that when the protesters started running away, the army chased them and continued to shoot. He was in the middle of the group and sustained two bullet wounds in his back and one in his left arm. According to him, five people were injured when the army first opened fire at the protesters, and four others, including him, were hurt as the people were trying to flee.

Another witness from Jisr al-Shughur, "Ali," told Human Rights Watch that over the past weeks the military had not withdrawn from the city as per the Arab League agreement, but rather had maintained a heavy presence in the city, controlling all entrances to the town and patrolling the streets along with mukhabarat (intelligence services) personnel and shabeeha (pro-government militias). He said that on January 8, from noon to midnight, the security forces raided mobile phone shops in Jisr al-Shughur and arrested approximately 30 owners. Ali said he witnessed one of these raids. According to him, the military blocked the street while mukhabarat agents entered the mobile phone shop and detained the owner, beating him with batons.

In the agreement it signed with the Arab League on December 19, the Syrian government pledged to end violence against peaceful protests, release detained protesters, withdraw armed elements from cities and residential areas, and allow Arab and international media unhindered access to all parts of Syria. Syria also pledged in the agreement to grant Arab League monitors unhindered and independent access to all individuals they wish to interview to verify Syria's implementation of these measures, including victims, detainees, and nongovernmental organizations. Syria guaranteed the safety of witnesses from reprisals.

Attacks by security forces against peaceful protests have been reported every day since the Arab League mission began. According to media reports, the United Nations has estimated that 400 people have been killed since the Arab League mission arrived in Syria on December 26.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented what seem to be efforts by the Syrian government to deceive the Arab League monitors by transferring hundreds of detainees to improvised holding centers at military sites that are off limits to Arab League observers. Authorities have also issued police identification cards to military officials apparently in order to give the impression that military forces have, under the agreement with the Arab League, withdrawn from civilian areas.

The mission's credibility had already been clouded by the appointment as its chief of Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, a former head of Sudan's military intelligence. Al-Dabi oversaw an intelligence agency well known for serious abuses in Sudan and is a close political ally of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, against whom the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

"The time has come for the Arab League to call out the Syrian government on its failure to abide by the agreement," said Neistat. "Allowing the mission to continue without effective and clear efforts to protect the civilians will only lead to more deaths."

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