Syrian activist held incommunicado at risk of torture

Amnesty International has expressed its concern for a Syrian political activist, held incommunicado since 15 November and believed to be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

Yousef Dheeb al-Hmoud was arrested at his home in the city of Deir az-Zawr, eastern Syria. His family were unable to identify the security force that the arresting officers belonged to.

The authorities have not revealed where Yousef Dheeb al-Hmoud is being held, why he was arrested or whether he will be charged. He had previously been summoned for questioning by Syrian security forces on several occasions, most recently by Political Security earlier this month.

Yousef Dheeb al-Hmoud is a member of the Islamic Democratic Current, an Islamist political group which demands democratic reform in Syria and is opposed to the use of violence. It is part of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC), an unauthorized umbrella body comprising opposition groups in Syria.

There are widespread reports of torture and other ill-treatment in Syria’s detention and interrogation centres. People suspected of affiliation to unauthorized Islamist groups are at particular risk of arbitrary detention, torture or other ill-treatment. Syrian security forces personnel generally benefit from impunity for such violations.

Scores of people were arrested in August 2008, mostly in Deir az-Zawr, but also in the cities of Aleppo and Hama. One of those arrested, Mohammed Amin al-Shawa, died in custody in January 2009; according to Syrian human rights organizations, he died as a result of being tortured.

At least nine others are still detained incommunicado at an unknown location. According to Syrian human rights organizations, many appear to have been arrested because the authorities interpreted their appearance and lifestyle as indications of their affiliation to unauthorized Islamist groups.

Freedom of expression and association is strictly controlled in Syria, aided by “state of emergency” laws which have been in force since 1964. Only the Ba’ath Party and some parties linked to it are officially recognized as political parties in Syria and human rights organizations are not authorized to operate.

Peaceful critics of the Syrian authorities, members of human rights organizations and others suspected of being political opponents risk arrest, harassment and persecution.

Twelve individuals are serving two-and-a-half-year prison sentences for their involvement in the DDDNC. The 12 were convicted by the Damascus Criminal Court on 29 October 2008 of “weakening national sentiment” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”. They were all arrested between 9 December 2007 and 5 February 2008 and initially held incommunicado at the State Security Branch in Damascus, where at least eight of them were beaten.

They were punched in the face, kicked and slapped and forced to sign false “confessions”. Amnesty International said it considers them to be prisoners of conscience and has called for their immediate and unconditional release. Two of the 12, Dr Yasser al-‘Eiti and Ahmad To’meh, belong to the Islamic Democratic Current.

Amnesty International has called on the Syrian authorities to ensure that Yousef Dheeb al-Hmoud will not be tortured or otherwise ill-treated.

The organization has urged the authorities to immediately allow him visits from his family, a lawyer of his choosing, and any appropriate medical treatment he may require.

It has also called on the Syrian authorities to release Yousef Dheeb al-Hmoud unless he is to be charged with a recognizably criminal offence and tried promptly in proceedings which meet fair trial standards.