Syria: Turkish occupation of Afrin has led to widespread human rights violations

August 1, 2018

Afrin residents detained and tortured, with houses and businesses looted and confiscated, and schools destroyed or taken over.

'I saw men being beaten in front of me … just for fun’ - detained man from Afrin

‘Turkey is the occupying power in Afrin, and is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population’ - Lynn Maalouf

Turkish forces have been giving Syrian armed groups free rein to commit serious human rights abuses against civilians in the Syrian city of Afrin, Amnesty International said today, following an in-depth investigation into life in Afrin under Turkish military occupation.

Amnesty’s research shows that Afrin residents are enduring widespread human rights violations, mostly at the hands of Syrian armed groups equipped and armed by Turkey.

Violations include arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and confiscation of property and looting to which Turkey’s armed forces have turned a blind eye. Some of these groups, and Turkish armed forces themselves, have also taken over schools, disrupting the education of thousands of children.

In January, Turkey and allied Syrian armed groups launched a military offensive in Syria against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military force of the autonomous administration led by the Syrian Kurd Democratic Union Party (PYD). Three months later, Turkey and its allied forces seized control of Afrin and its surrounding areas, forcibly displacing thousands of people who fled and sought safety in the nearby al-Shahba region where they are now living in dire conditions.

According to several Afrin residents, Turkey’s armed forces have a significant presence in the centre of the city, and in several surrounding villages.

On 1 July, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that its armed forces will stay in Afrin to continue working on the development of the area.

Between May and July, Amnesty interviewed 32 people, some of whom were still living in Afrin and others who had fled to other countries or different areas of Syria. Interviewees named pro-Turkey armed groups - including Ferqa 55, Jabha al-Shamiye, Faylaq al-Sham, Sultan Mourad, and Ahrar al-Sharqiye - as responsible for serious human rights violations.

On 16 July, Amnesty communicated to the Turkish government a summary of its preliminary findings, requesting a response. On 25 July, the Turkish government responded questioning Amnesty’s impartiality without providing a concrete response to the findings.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said:

“We heard appalling stories of people being detained, tortured or forcibly disappeared by Syrian armed groups, who continue to wreak havoc on civilians, unchecked by Turkish forces."

Turkey is the occupying power in Afrin, and is therefore responsible for the welfare of the civilian population and maintaining law and order. So far, its armed forces have failed utterly in these duties."

“It cannot evade responsibility by using Syrian armed groups to carry out its dirty work. Without further delay, Turkey must end violations by pro-Turkish armed groups, hold perpetrators accountable, and commit to helping Afrin residents rebuild their lives."

“The Syrian government and YPG are exacerbating the suffering of people who have been displaced from Afrin, by trapping them in the al-Shahba region for no apparent reason and depriving them of adequate access to education, food and medical care."

“We are calling on Syria and the YPG to respect the freedom of movement of civilians, and to facilitate the safe and voluntary return of the displaced.”

Arbitrary detention and torture

Amnesty interviewed several residents and internally displaced people who reported that armed groups had arbitrarily detained civilians for ransom, as punishment for asking to reclaim their property, or on baseless accusations of affiliation to the PYD or YPG. Local sources told Amnesty of at least 86 instances of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance.

A woman displaced from Afrin told Amnesty that her uncle had been taken away by members of a pro-Turkey armed group after he’d returned to his village three months earlier. She said:

“We don’t know where he is. He was head of the local committee. He is not affiliated with the PYD or YPG. He went back to Afrin because he was afraid he would lose his house. He stayed with his wife in another house because our village became a military base for the Turkish forces. One night he decided to ask the armed groups to take him to check on his home. The armed group escorted him to his house, but he hasn’t returned since then. They wouldn’t tell his wife where they took him.”

Two former detainees Amnesty interviewed said they had been held by Sultan Mourad and accused of being affiliated with the YPG. They told Amnesty they’d seen journalists, teachers, engineers, activists, as well as former employees of the PYD and YPG fighters in the prison in Azaz where they were held. One said:

“I was taken to the al-Ra’i prison in Azaz operated by Soultan Mourad. I wasn’t tortured, but I saw men being beaten in front of me by members of Sultan Mourad just for fun, and at night the sound of men screaming echoed through the building. I was released without seeing a judge. I thought I would never make it out of there.”

Property confiscation