Syrian authorities urged to seek justice for men killed by security forces

Sami Ma’touq and Joni Suleiman were both killed by Syrian security forces in the village of al-Mishrefeh, near the city of Homs, on 14 October 2008. A year on, little has been done to bring their killers to justice. In anticipation of the first anniversary of the killings, Amnesty International has written to the Syrian authorities calling on them to uphold accountability and to ensure that legal action is taken against those alleged to be responsible. The Syrian General Military Prosecutor opened an investigation into the killings a few days after they happened. The investigation’s report, submitted to the former Syrian Minister of Defence earlier this year, recommended that legal action be taken against those allegedly responsible for the deaths, namely Military Security officers identified by eyewitnesses as the perpetrators. To date it appears that no legal proceedings have been instituted by the Syrian authorities as a result of the report’s recommendations. The Military Security officers alleged to have committed the killings have not been summoned for interrogation, neither have they been suspended from their positions. Amnesty International has learned that Syrian Military Security officers have subjected some of those connected to the case, including witnesses to the killings, to harassment and intimidation, apparently in order to dissuade them from pursuing justice for Sami Ma’touq and Joni Suleiman and testifying against Military Security officers. Khalil Ma’touq, who is a lawyer active on human rights issues and Sami Ma’touq’s uncle, is facing legal proceedings before the Military Court in Damascus on charges of inciting sectarian or racial strife, insulting the president and defaming a public administration. Khalil Ma’touq had publicly criticized aspects of the investigation and what he perceived to be a lack of will on the part of the authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the two deaths. According to reports, the charges brought against him are based on statements obtained by force from detainees held at the Military Security branch in Damascus who were being held on suspicion of smuggling across the Syrian-Lebanese border and who come from al-Mishrefeh village. Two of the eyewitnesses to the killings, Hussam Moussa Elias and Qaher Deeb, are reported to have been detained incommunicado at the Military Security branch in Damascus, without charge or trial, since October 2008 and April 2009 respectively. Hussam Moussa Elias sustained gunshot wounds at the time that Sami Ma’touq and Joni Suleiman were killed. Qaher Deeb helped transport the bodies of the two dead men to hospital. Both men are said to have been detained because they refused to comply with a demand by Military Security officers that they testify that there was an exchange of fire between the security patrol and Joni Suleiman and/or other individuals at the scene of the incident. Amnesty International has expressed concern that the killings of Sami Ma’touq and Joni Suleiman were unlawful and an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life, and that in particular the killing of Joni Suleiman may have been deliberate – that is, an extrajudicial execution. The organization has also voiced its concern about the Syrian authorities’ apparent failure to act on the General Military Prosecutor’s findings and by reports that several individuals connected with the case and who gave evidence to the official’s investigators have since been detained and/or charged with political offences, apparently in an attempt to silence or intimidate them. Amnesty International has called on the Syrian authorities to implement the recommendations of the General Military Prosecutor’s report and bring to justice the Military Security officers alleged to be responsible for the killings of Sami Ma’touq and Joni Suleiman, in accordance with Syria’s obligations under international law. The organization has strongly urged the authorities to ensure such measures are taken without delay and that the full report of the General Military Prosecutor’s investigation is made public, as relevant international standards require. Amnesty International has also asked the Syrian authorities to ensure that:

Hussam Moussa Elias and Qaher Deeb are released immediately and unconditionally if they are being detained as a form of coercion to change their testimonies or for any other reason if they are not to be brought to trial promptly and fairly on recognizably criminal charges; charges brought against Khalil Ma’touq are dropped without delay if they have been brought as a form of coercion or to punish him for his criticism of the authorities’ failure to ensure justice in this case; Hussam Moussa Elias and Qaher Deeb are allowed immediate access to their lawyer, their families and to any medical treatment that they need; allegations of torture of suspects held by the Military Security branch in Damascus are promptly and independently investigated; Military Security officers or other officials found responsible for torturing or otherwise ill-treating prisoners or for attempting to subvert justice are held to account.