REPORTING FROM BEIRUT –- Syrian military commanders and officials in the country's intelligence agencies gave orders to use lethal force against unarmed protesters and to beat and torture detainees in the crackdown against a 9-month-old uprising, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
The 88-page report released Thursday identifies 74 people who the New York-based group said should be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, based on testimony from 63 military and intelligence defectors.
According to the report, President Bashar Assad and other high-ranking officials also bear responsibility for abuses committed by their subordinates.
"Try as he may to distance himself from responsibility for his government's relentless brutality, President Assad's claim that he did not actually order the crackdown does not absolve him of criminal responsibility," Anna Neistat, one of the report's authors, said in a statement. "As the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he must have known about the abuses –- if not from his subordinates, then from U.N. reports and the reports Human Rights Watch sent him."
The group's findings echo those of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has accused Syria of gross human rights violations. But this is the first time that an international rights organization has accused commanders by name of specific violations.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay called on the Security Council this week to refer Syria to the international court in the Hague for investigation of alleged crimes against humanity, saying more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major anti-government protests in March. However, Syria's allies, Russia and China, have used their veto power to block the Security Council from taking action.
Syrian officials have denounced what they describe as foreign conspiracies against the government.
In an interview this month with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Assad acknowledged that mistakes had been made by some individuals but said he did not order a crackdown. Syrian authorities blame the bloodshed on armed terrorist gangs, which they say are incited and sponsored from abroad. Assad said most of the casualties have been among the security forces.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that as many as 27 security force members were killed during clashes with insurgents in the southern province of Dara on Thursday. The claim could not be independently verified, as Syria has restricted the access of journalists.
Human Rights Watch said it has documented attacks on the security forces by protesters and by neighborhood groups that have taken up arms against Assad's regime. Although such attacks have increased significantly since September, the overwhelming majority of the protests have been peaceful, the organization said.
The group said the defectors interviewed for the report provided detailed accounts of their units' participation in abuses and the orders they received.
"Defectors gave us names, ranks and positions of those who gave the orders to shoot and kill, and each and every official named in this report, up to the very highest levels of the Syrian government, should answer for their crimes against the Syrian people," Neistat said.
All of those interviewed said they received standing orders to stop the protests "by all means necessary," which they understood as permission to use live ammunition, especially as they were not given other means of crowd control, the group said.
About half said they were also given direct orders to fire at protesters or bystanders and were told they would not be held accountable. In some cases, officers themselves participated in the killings, the group said.
The report quotes a defector who said he was told by the commander of his regiment, a brigadier general, to fire at an April 25 demonstration in the southern region of Dara.
"He said, 'Use heavy shooting. Nobody will ask you to explain,'" the defector was quoted as saying. "And when somebody asked what we were supposed to shoot at, he said, 'At anything in front of you.'"
About 40 protesters were killed that day, according to the report.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Refugees who fled the violent crackdown in Syria receive humanitarian aid in the Jordanian city of Al Ramtha on Thursday. Credit: Majed Jaber / Reuters