GENEVA: A U.N. panel reported Thursday it believed the Syrian government was committing a crime against humanity by making people systematically vanish, and that rebels have also recently begun making their opponents disappear.
The expert panel said it found “a consistent country-wide pattern” of Syrian security, armed forces and pro-regime militia seizing people in mass arrests or house searches and at checkpoints and hospitals, then making them disappear – and denying that they even exist. Most of the victims have been young men.
The disappearances are “part of a widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population,” and amount to a crime against humanity, reported the U.N. Syria war crimes panel, chaired by Brazilian diplomat and scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. The panel pressed Damascus to provide information and called on both sides to stop the practice.
The U.N. panel doesn’t quantify the phenomenon, but says the accounts it has received “only hint at the scope of the crisis ... and the state of fear in which ordinary citizens live.”
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 Greater Syria (ISIS) 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 President Bashar Assad’s government usually differ because the victims tend to be taken as hostages for ransom or prisoner exchanges, and their existence isn’t concealed.
But in recent months the groups have also begun adopting the government’s practice of making people vanish.
Amnesty International also reported Thursday, based on interviews with former detainees, that ISIS had “ruthlessly flouted the rights of local people” at secret prisons in northern Syria at which torture and executions were common.
For his part, U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi demanded the release of leading Syrian women’s rights campaigner Razan Zeitouneh and three fellow activists who were abducted last week.
“We have all got to demand that they be released,” Brahimi told activists from Syria and other countries as well as diplomats at a meeting at the U.N.’s Geneva offices.
“Zeitouneh should have been here today, and I hope that she will be here on Jan. 12,” he added, referring to a gathering of Syrian women campaigners planned ahead of long-awaited peace talks between the regime and rebels starting in Switzerland on Jan. 22.
Zeitouneh was among the 2011 winners of the European Parliament’s top human rights prize for their role in the Arab Spring.
She, her husband Wael Hamada, and fellow campaigners Samira Khalil and Nazem al-Hamadi were seized on Dec. 10 by unknown attackers who raided the offices of a group documenting human rights abuses.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said it believed rebels were responsible for the kidnapping in Damascus province, not far from the capital.
Multiple rebel groups, including the jihadist Nusra Front and ISIS, operate in the area.
Zeitouneh, one of the conflict’s most prominent early supporters, has criticized abuses by all sides.
Brahimi also spotlighted the case of Raja Nasser, a high-profile member of a regime-tolerated opposition party arrested last month in Damascus allegedly by government agents.
Nasser was a likely delegate for next month’s peace talks.
“We were told first that he was arrested by mistake. Second we were told that he would be released soon. Third we were told that he has been released. But we see that he has not been released. And now we are told, ‘We don’t know where he is,’” Brahimi protested.