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David Mepham, HRW: Syria Has 'Archipelago' of Torture Centers

Selah Hennessy

July 03, 2012

Syrian authorities have built an “archipelago” of at least 27 torture centers, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report published Tuesday, the advocacy group says abuse at the centers constitutes a crime against humanity.

“The kinds of torture that we are talking about are really appalling types of abuse," said David Mepham, the United Kingdom director of Human Rights Watch.

"We've had people put in stress positions, we've had people who have been electrocuted, we've had people burned with acid, we've had people subject to sexual abuse – terrible crimes have been committed,” Mepham said.

Human Right Watch began researching the report in March 2011 and has since conducted more than 200 interviews. The report has maps showing the location of the alleged detention centers. It also lists the agencies and, in many cases, specific commanders involved in the abuses.

Mepham said the aim of the report is to identify those responsible for abuse and where it has taken place so that one day individuals can be held accountable.

"We've had people put in stress positions, we've had people who have been electrocuted, we've had people burned with acid, we've had people subject to sexual abuse - terrible crimes have been committed,” Mepham said.

Human Right Watch began researching the report in March 2011 and has since conducted more than 200 interviews. The report has maps showing the location of the alleged detention centers. It also lists the agencies and, in many cases, specific commanders involved in the abuses.

Mepham said the aim of the report is to identify those responsible for abuse and where it has taken place so that one day individuals can be held accountable.

He said responsibility ultimately rests with those at the top of the Syrian government.

“Under what's called command responsibility, even if a more junior person in the Syrian intelligence agency or the Syrian military was responsible for this abuse, one would expect that the commanders responsible for that unit or that branch of the intelligence agency would know what was going on, would take steps to address it," Mepham said. "So the accountability and criminal responsibility for this abuse goes very high in the Syrian regime.”

The Syrian government thus far has not responded to the report’s allegations.

Human Rights Watch said the ill treatment carried out at the prisons constitutes a crime against humanity. The organization wants the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. It also wants targeted sanctions against officials implicated in abuse.

Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics said it is unlikely the report will sway the U.N. Security Council. “I think that Russia and China have neutralized the Security Council and thus the human rights report will not be able to bring about any qualitative change in how the Syrian crisis is basically viewed regionally and internationally,” he said.

For China and Russia, he said, the situation in Syria is viewed as a civil war in which both sides commit abuses.

“You cannot compare what the Syrian authorities have been doing to what the opposition has done so far," he said. "And yet the abuses are there and that's why the more the violence continues, the more human rights violations will be carried out in Syria by both the Syrian authorities and the armed wing of the opposition.”

In response to the Human Rights Watch report, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday that there is “no hiding place” for those committing abuses in Syria.

He said Britain will work with its international partners to ensure those responsible face justice.

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