UN war crimes investigators yesterday called for the Syrian government to inform families of the fate of their relatives who were disappeared or detained by the regime, after officials confirmed that a Syrian-American woman who went missing in 2015 was executed a year later.
No progress can be made towards a lasting peace to end the nearly eight-year-old war without justice, the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a report released and delivered to the UN Security Council.
After years of government silence, in May this year, the Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad started to release tens of thousands of names of detainees that have died, mostly between 2011 and 2014, reportedly at the instruction of Russia.
"Most custodial deaths are thought to have occurred in places of detention run by Syrian intelligence or military agencies. The Commission has not documented any instance, however, where bodies or personal belongings of the deceased were returned," it said.
In nearly every case, death certificates for prisoners that were provided to families recorded the cause of death as a "heart attack" or "stroke", the independent panel led by Paulo Pinheiro said.
"Some individuals from the same geographic area share common death dates, possibly indicating group executions."
Families had the right to know the truth about their loved one's deaths and be able to retrieve their remains, the report concluded.
The UN's demand comes amid news of the death of Syrian-American activist Layla Shweikani, who died in 2016 while detained by intelligence services. Raised in Chicago, Shweikani travelled to Damascus in 2015 to help displaced people in Eastern Ghouta. She was detained in February 2016 and tortured for eight months before the US State Department approached Syrian Presidential Security Advisor Ali Mamlouk as to her whereabouts.
Shweikani was then transferred to Adra prison, a notorious facility known for its torture of female inmates. She reportedly met with a US delegate on 18 December 2016, who promised to do her best to help her. Yet a week later a military judge ordered her execution after she was charged with "supporting terrorism". According to Shweikani's death certificate, she died two days later; the activist-run Syrian Revolution Network reported that she was tortured to death in prison.
In a 2016 report, the UN Commission found that the scale of deaths in prisons indicated that the government of President Bashar Al-Assad was responsible for "extermination as a crime against humanity".
In Syria, a family member must register a death within a month after receiving a death notification, the report said. Failure to do so results in a fine which grows after a year, yet for the millions of Syrians displaced inside and outside the country, such a requirement proves near impossible.
In a report released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights earlier this year, the group estimated that at least 14,000 people had died in custody between March 2011 and August 2018, with a further 85,000 still in detention.
"The Syrian regime denied those detainees the right to an attorney and barred their families from visiting them. Eighty-five per cent of all detainees have become enforced disappearances cases as the Syrian regime never informed their families of their whereabouts," the report concluded.