After not being allowed into Syria for more than a year, Amnesty International decided to venture in without government permission, tired of being told its investigations of abuse were merely hearsay.
Inside the bloodied country, the human rights group heard many of the same horrors that Syrian refugees had related after fleeing to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan: lawless executions, torture, torched shops and homes. Dozens of towns believed to back the rebels were subjected to revenge attacks in which men were dragged from their homes, killed and burned.
The organization's new report, released Wednesday, shares vivid testimonies about such abuses, obtained from more than 200 interviews done in 23 towns between April and the end of May, shedding further light on the suffering endured by Syrians through the crisis. In one of many grim incidents laid out by witnesses in the report, three boys were grazing sheep in the village of Bashiriya in April when the army came.
A relative tried to bring the boys home, but the soldiers caught up with them, a witness told the rights group. “Little Jumaa, 8 years old, was shot in the throat and in the palms of both hands,” the man told Amnesty International. “He was holding his hands up when he was shot.”
In another harrowing episode recounted in the report, a mother in the town of Sarmin said her three sons were rousted from their home by soldiers in the early morning.
“I tried to go after them, but a soldier pushed his rifle against me and told me to go back,” she told Amnesty International. About an hour later, their neighbors called for water to put out a fire. “My daughter, who had run out ahead of me, screamed, ‘My brothers are burning!’”
The three young men had been shot and then set ablaze -- a pattern that Amnesty International said emerged in witness accounts. The attacks have targeted villages and towns said to support the opposition.
Syria has repeatedly denied charges that it has committed human rights abuses, saying it is defending itself from armed terrorists, its usual term for the rebels. It has blamed the recent massacre in Houla on its opponents. State media reported Wednesday that terrorists had assassinated the former head of the Syrian Football Union and kidnapped at least 30 people from buses.
Though rebels have also been found to have kidnapped, tortured and killed Syrians fighting for the government or backing it, the vast majority of abuses were carried out by Syrian government forces and allied militias, Amnesty International said, in a widespread and systematic campaign against civilians.
Donatella Rovera, who traveled to Syria to investigate, said she saw government forces firing shots into protesting crowds and surrounding villages, shooting at them indiscriminately.
“This cannot possibly be the action of some rogue elements that take the law into their own hands,” said Rovera, senior crisis response advisor for Amnesty International. For example, she said, chemicals that soldiers wouldn’t ordinarily carry were used to help burn homes. “It quite clearly points to state policy.”
Despite global condemnations since the Syrian government cracked down on the uprising against President Bashar Assad more than a year ago, the violence continues, even in the face of a United Nations-brokered peace plan. The U.N. peacekeeping chief and the French foreign minister now say the violence has resulted in a civil war, a label that Syrian officials reject as overblown.
Amnesty International accused the U.N. Security Council of dithering and argued that it should impose an arms embargo on Syria and bring its abuses before the International Criminal Court. Because Syria hasn't signed the treaty creating the court, it can be prosecuted only if the Security Council acts. China and Russia, which have blocked past moves against Assad, are expected to veto any such action.
The human rights group also argued that the U.N. monitors should be empowered to investigate human rights abuses, not just monitor the peace plan. It called on Russia and China to stop sending weapons and policing equipment to Syria; Russia says it sends only weapons that can't be used in civil conflicts.
“Pretty much everywhere there was this despair,” Rovera said of her recent trips to Syria. “People were asking, ‘Are we not human? Why isn't anybody doing anything?’ ”
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: College students gather outside U.N. offices in Katmandu, Nepal, on Wednesday to demonstrate against human rights abuses in Syria. Credit: Narendra Shrestha / European Pressphoto Agency