GENEVA // A United Nations panel probing war crimes in Syria reported yesterday that people around the country are systematically vanishing without a trace as part of a widespread campaign of terror against civilians.
The expert panel said it found “a consistent countrywide pattern” of Syrian security, armed forces and pro-government militia seizing people in mass arrests or house searches and at checkpoints and hospitals, then making them disappear – and denying that they even exist.
Among the cases were a 60-year-old woman put in Homs prison for asking about her missing son, and a peaceful protester’s brother taken in a house raid by political security agents.
An air force defector has described orders not to provide information about the whereabouts of detainees or to speak to their relatives, the report said.
The four experts’ report said that rebel groups such as the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that control large parts of northern Syria also have begun seizing people and running secret prisons.
It said the opposition’s abductions of human rights advocates, journalists, activists, humanitarian workers, religious leaders and perceived supporters of the president, Bashar Assad, usually differ because the victims tend to be taken as hostages for ransom or prisoner exchanges, and their existence isn’t concealed.
However, in recent months the groups have also begun adopting the government’s practice of making people vanish.
Amnesty International also reported yesterday, based on interviews with former detainees, that ISIL has “ruthlessly flouted the rights of local people” at secret prisons in northern Syria at which torture and summary killings are common.
In an 18-page report, the Britain-based watchdog said children as young as eight are held along with adults in seven ISIL-run detention facilities in Syria’s Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. Many are held for challenging ISIL’s rule, petty crimes like theft or for committing purported “crimes against Islam” such as smoking cigarettes.
The disappearances are “part of a widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population,” and amount to a crime against humanity, reported the UN Syria war crimes panel.
The panel pressed Syria’s government to provide information and called on both sides to stop the practice.
Syrian human rights monitors have said the number of those gone without a trace is in the thousands and the targets often are doctors, aid workers, lawyers and other peaceful regime opponents.
* Associated Press