This profile refers to human rights activists, i.e. persons who individually or with others act to promote or protect human rights. For guidance on political opposition activists, see 1.2. Political activists, opposition party members and protesters seen as opposing the government. See also the profile on Journalists, other media professionals and citizen journalists.
[Main COI reference: Targeting, 8]
Human rights defenders in Syria have been facing an increased risk of targeting after 2011, including reports of arbitrary arrests and detention, abductions, forced disappearance, prosecution, death threats, restriction of movement, defamation, as well as other forms of intimidation and harassment.
Different actors may be responsible for the targeting of human rights activists in Syria:
a. Targeting by government forces and affiliated armed groups
Since the start of the conflict in 2011, the four main intelligence agencies were responsible for most arrests and detentions of persons perceived to oppose the government, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. [Targeting, 1.1.1]
According to the CoI, covering the period from 11 July 2018 to 10 January 2019, activists were amongst the most likely individuals to be arbitrarily detained in Syria by the GoS forces in areas under their control. [Targeting, 8.1] In some cases, human rights activists are seen as political opponents, especially if they criticise the GoS. Arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killing of civilians, human rights defenders and humanitarian workers are also documented. [Targeting, 1.1.1]
In August 2019, after recapturing the Dar’a governorate from armed groups, government forces requested civilians to sign an oath of loyalty as part of the government-imposed ‘reconciliation’ process. In reconciled areas, civilians are required to report the contact details of human rights activists. In other areas recaptured by the government and in cities like Douma, Dar’a and the northern part of Homs, the GoS proceeded to carry out arbitrary arrests and detentions. One of the main groups targeted were human rights activists. The GoS monitored the phones of activists and sources reported that ‘they might be regularly taken in for questioning’.
Human rights activists were amongst those detained without access to a fair public trial. After the government forces ceased the siege of Eastern Ghouta, the security forces forcibly disappeared many of the individuals they had detained, activists included. These activists were also tortured or subjected to other forms of ill-treatment.
It is reported that human rights activists are included in the ‘wanted lists’, along with others seen by the GoS as involved in opposition-related activities [Targeting, 1.3.6].
b. Targeting by the SDF/YPG
In September 2019, at least seven forced disappearances or arbitrary arrests of civilians including human rights activists were reported. Those individuals were perceived as critical towards the SDF in the areas under their control. The activists were intimidated and arrested for reporting on alleged violations committed by the SDF and their allies in Raqqa city, Tall Abyad and Tabqa. There were cases of the SDF arresting and detaining relatives of activists in order to obtain information about the location of activists and to pressure them to come out of hiding. The SDF, after claiming areas in the governorates of Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor, targeted activists amongst other groups. The activists were subjected to beatings and deprived of food and access to healthcare.
c. Targeting by the SNA
The FSA-affiliated armed groups displayed patterns of arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, detention and beatings in the areas under their control, targeting also activists. In February 2018, the Turkish air force launched an attack against a convoy of vehicles allegedly carrying weapons, terrorists and ammunition, resulting in at least one fatality and twelve injuries. The convoy appeared to have carried activists, nurses, a doctor and demonstrators.
Activists were also targeted by the pro-Turkey armed group Sultan Murad. The activists were arbitrarily detained, and some were tortured and subjected to other forms of ill-treatment by members of this armed group.
d. Targeting by HTS
Since September 2018, there is an escalation of violations in the north of Syria, particularly in Idlib, where the group was conducting raids in villages, targeting and arresting local activists among other individuals. There were at least 184 incidents of abductions and arbitrary arrests in the period of September until mid-October 2018 in Aleppo and Idlib. Activists who were perceived to violate the group’s interpretation of the Islamic law (Sharia) were regularly kidnapped, detained arbitrarily, tortured and mistreated. In November 2019, HTS arrested a ‘civilian activist’ at the checkpoint of al-Bayda, amongst arrests of other individuals that opposed the group in the areas under its control.
e. Targeting by ISIL
During the period July 2017 to January 2018, across the governorates of Raqqa, Deir Ez-Zor, and Hama, ISIL detained and tortured, among other civilians, activists who were accused of reporting on alleged violations the group had committed. In the time ISIL controlled territory, the group ‘took into custody’ at least 8 000 people in Syria, including activists. There are many documented cases of individuals, including activists, who had disagreements with local ISIL members, were detained by ISIL and whose whereabouts remain unknown.
The acts to which individuals under this profile could be exposed are of such severe nature that they would amount to persecution (e.g. killing, arbitrary arrest, detention, kidnapping, torture, forced disappearance).
In the case of human rights activists perceived as critical of the actor in control of the particular area, well-founded fear would in general be substantiated.
In the case of other human rights activists, not all individuals would face the level of risk required to establish well-founded fear of persecution. The individual assessment of whether or not there is a reasonable degree of likelihood for the applicant to face persecution should take into account risk-impacting circumstances, such as: the topic they work on, regional specifics, visibility, etc.
Nexus to a reason for persecution
Available information indicates that persecution of this profile is for reasons of (imputed) political opinion. In the case of persecution by extremist groups such as the HTS it may also be for reasons of religion.