For a year families have been waiting to be reunited while rebel groups and the government negotiate over their fate. Civilian lives are not pawns for fighters to trade. The hostages should be let go immediately.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director
(New York) – Non-state armed groups should immediately release the at least 54 women and children they have held hostage since opening a military offensive in rural Latakia governorate over one year ago, on August 4, 2013.
In May 2014, the groups released 40 people they were holding after negotiations with the Syrian government, but are still holding women and at least 34 children, according to four videos published on YouTube on May 30. Each video shows people identifying themselves as hostages held by “the Mujahadeen room in Latakia countryside.”
“For a year families have been waiting to be reunited while rebel groups and the government negotiate over their fate,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Civilian lives are not pawns for fighters to trade. The hostages should be let go immediately.”
The 40 hostages freed in May were released in two groups, 15 on May 7 and 25 on May 8, as part of a well-publicized agreement between the armed groups and the Syrian government. In exchange for their release, government forces allowed opposition fighters safe passage out of the Old City of Homs, which the government had under siege. The groups are apparently holding the remaining hostages with the intention of compelling government actions, including exchanging the hostages for detainees in government custody.
Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions bans hostage taking. The International Criminal Court’s “Elements of Crimes” defines a hostage taking as the seizure or detention of a combatant or civilian, combined with threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain the person, with the intention to compel a government, international organization, or group to act or to refrain from acting as a condition for the person’s safety or release.
Human Rights Watch spoke to the father of two children who were among the hostages released. He said that his daughter told him that a gunman had killed her mother and one of her sisters and an unknown number of other women and girls hours after their abduction, while holding them in the village of Blouta. She told him their captors separated the women and older girls from the younger children, and herded them into a room where a lone gunman shot them dead. Human Rights Watch has obtained the names of 17 women and girls who are believed to have been killed shortly after their abduction by armed opposition fighters in Latakia, but is unable, as of yet, to confirm their deaths or who caused them. The source, an activist in Latakia working on behalf of the hostages, said the victims were between 13 and 75 years old.
The father said his children told him that opposition fighters took civilian hostages from their villages and held them at various places in the town of Salma and surrounding villages in Latakia. The captors allegedly told the hostages they were part of a group of over 100. In addition to the 40 released in May, three others were released earlier because they were elderly and in failing health, and three other elderly hostages had died, apparently from natural causes, while still held captive according to the father and the activist.
The father also told Human Rights Watch that, according to his daughter, the captors repeatedly struck her brother, 5, in the face when he cried for his mother, and that both children had seen the captors tie their mother’s arms and legs before killing her. He said that his son now suffers from nightmares, calls out for his mother, and asks: “Where is she? Why did the terrorists kill her?”
He said the children told him they had seen their captors beating other hostages and whipping them with electricity cables, and that they had given the hostages insufficient and poor quality food.
The four videos published on YouTube on May 30, apparently filmed earlier that day, show 54 women and children. In each video, one woman hostage gives the date and says she and other hostages are being held by “the Mujahadeen room in Latakia countryside.”
Human Rights Watch investigations found that at least 20 separate non-state armed groups participated in the military operation that began on August 4, 2013, in Latakia countryside, variously proclaiming it the “campaign of the descendants of Aisha, the mother of believers,” the “Barouda offensive,” and the “operation to liberate the coast.” The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, held between 110 and 120 hostages in September, an opposition military leader from Latakia involved in negotiating the hostage exchange told Human Rights Watch, and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar then held 105 hostages. Later in September, he said, the armed group Ahrar al-Sham assumed control of the hostages’ file.
A video published on YouTube on September 7 showed some of the hostages being held by Abu Suhaib, the Libyan local leader of al-Muhajireen. Three people told Human Rights Watch they saw their relatives in the background, confirming the authenticity of the video.
Taking hostages is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. When civilians are taken hostage in a widespread or systematic way, as in Latakia, it amounts to a crime against humanity under both international customary law and the Rome Statute.
UN Security Council Resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, demands an immediate end to arbitrary detention, torture, kidnappings, abductions, and forced disappearances, and the release of everyone arbitrarily detained in Syria.
Largely based on information posted by individuals in the groups who participated in the “operation to liberate the coast” and their supporters on social media sites, Human Rights Watch has identified several people, principally from Gulf countries, who actively raised funds for the operation and for support to the groups involved. Individuals or countries that continue to support the groups responsible for the hostage taking may be complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.
Groups that hold hostages should ensure they are treated humanely and immediately released, Human Rights Watch said. Governments with influence over these groups should also urge them to release the hostages. Gulf states should increase monitoring and restrict money transfers from Gulf residents to groups credibly implicated in systematic or widespread human rights abuses and Turkey should, through increased border patrols, restrict entry of fighters and arm flows to groups credibly implicated in the hostage taking and other systematic human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch has urged the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting the people who bear the greatest responsibility for serious crimes and of offering a measure of justice for victims in Syria.
“Referring Syria to the ICC would send a clear message to all combatants that they must abide by the laws of war,” Whitson said. “Civilians in Syria on all sides have paid dearly for Russia and China’s obstructionism on the council.”
Names of hostages that appear in videos published on May 30, 2014
An activist in Latakia working on behalf of the abducted residents identified the individuals that appear in the four videos released on May 30, 2014 as: