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Thu, 17 Aug 2017 05:40:35 +0000


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
Lebanon: Deaths, Alleged Torture of Syrians in Army Custody

(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities should conduct an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation into the deaths of Syrians in military custody and allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 4, 2017, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying four Syrians died in its custody following mass raids in Arsal, a restricted access area in northeast Lebanon where many Syrian refugees live. On July 14, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that a fifth Syrian detainee had also died in custody.

A Lebanese soldier at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal

© 2016 Reuters

A doctor with expertise in documenting torture reviewed photos of three of the men provided by their family lawyers to Human Rights Watch, which showed widespread bruising and cuts. He said the injuries were “consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture” and that “any statement that the deaths of these individuals were due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.” Human Rights Watch also spoke with five former detainees, who said that army personnel beat and ill-treated them and other detainees. A military officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was investigating the deaths and would publish its findings.

“While the Lebanese army’s promise to investigate these shocking deaths is a positive step, the promise will be meaningless without transparent and independent accountability for anyone found guilty of wrongdoing,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone who supports the Lebanese army should support efforts to tackle such serious allegations of military abuse.”

Photos of the bodies of three Syrians who died in Lebanese military custody, provided to Human Rights Watch by their families' lawyers. © 2017 Private

On June 30, the Lebanese army announced it had raided two unofficial refugee camps in Arsal that day, and was met with suicide bombers, a bomb, and a grenade, resulting in the injury of seven soldiers. On July 15, the army released a statement saying that it detained 356 people following these raids. It referred 56 for prosecution and 257 to the General Security agency for lack of residency. A humanitarian organization official told Human Rights Watch that children were among those detained.

The Lebanese army regularly conducts raids on unofficial refugee camps in Lebanon, but has not responded to questions from Human Rights Watch about the purpose of these raids. The raids came amid calls from Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria and reports of an impending military operation against armed groups on the Syrian border near Arsal.

Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm reports that Syrians died during the raids themselves, but a source in Arsal said the municipality received nine bodies, not including the five men who were reported to have died in custody.

The army’s July 4 statement said that four detainees who “suffered from chronic health issues that were aggravated due to the climate condition” died before being interrogated. It identified them as Mustafa Abd el Karim Absse, 57; Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, 43; Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, 32; and Othman Merhi el-Mleis. The army did not specify where it had detained them.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a family member and a close acquaintance of two of the deceased, who said that they had no known serious health conditions. Both said that the army gave no reason for the arrests and did not notify the families of the deaths.

On July 14, Human Rights Watch received reports that a fifth Syrian detainee, Toufic al Ghawi, 23, died in detention after the army transferred him to the Elias Hrawi government hospital. A witness in Arsal who saw the body before burial said, “Toufic didn’t look human anymore. His flesh was torn apart.” Human Rights Watch has not received photographs of the body.

Additional evidence supports the allegations of abuse and torture during the arrests in Arsal and at military detention facilities. A witness in Arsal told Human Rights Watch that he had seen 34 former detainees with marks on their hands, legs, and backs, and in one case, on a former detainee’s head.

Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees who said they were mistreated, physically abused, and denied food and water, along with scores of other detainees during four to five days of detention without charge before being released.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the military on July 10 to verify the number of those arrested, injured, or killed during the army raids; those still in custody; and the conditions of their detention, but has not received a response. Human Rights Watch also requested permission to enter Arsal to interview witnesses, but has not received permission. An army officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was not allowing “media organizations” to enter Arsal. Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the military and military prosecutor.

Under international law, Lebanon has an obligation to investigate deaths in custody and hold those responsible to account. Human Rights Watch and local human rights organizations have long documented reports of torture and ill-treatment by security services including the army. Impunity for violence is a recurring problem in Lebanon. Even when officials have initiated investigations into deaths, torture, or ill-treatment, they have often not been concluded or made public. Human Rights Watch is not aware of cases where military personnel have been held to account.

“The Lebanese public and the Syrian families of those who died in detention deserve a clear accounting of what happened to them and punishment for those found responsible,” Whitson said. “Unfortunately, Lebanese authorities have a history of opening investigations in response to public pressure, but failing to conclude them or publish the results.”

Photographic Evidence of Torture
Human Rights Watch received 28 photographs of three of the deceased men, taken at the Elias Hrawi government hospital in Zahle, from the law firm representing the families of the deceased. The lawyers said they were not able to locate Othman el-Mleis’s body. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, who has expertise in documenting torture, reviewed the photographs and shared his report:

The photos reveal widespread physical trauma of the upper and lower extremities. The lack of defensive wounds suggests that these injuries were inflicted while the victims were restrained or otherwise incapacitated and the distribution of these injuries are consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture. Several of the photos are consistent with lacerations caused from being suspended by the wrists. It would be reasonable to conclude that the deaths of these men is the result of in-custody violence, although the precise cause of death cannot be predicted based on the information and photographs submitted. Any statement that the deaths of these individuals was due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.

Corroborating Evidence of Torture and Mistreatment of Arsal Detainees
Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees from Arsal who said they were detained without charge for four to five days. They said soldiers handcuffed them, hooded them with their shirts, put them on the ground in the sun, and stomped or hit anyone raising their head. “I moved my head up slightly, and immediately a soldier hit me with his boot,” one man said.

The men said soldiers then loaded them onto trucks “one over the other, as if they’re shipping potato bags,” and took them to multiple detention sites including Rayak Air Base in the Bekaa Valley and the military intelligence and military police bases in Ablah. At Rayak Air Base, they said, army personnel held more than 100 of them in one room overnight, denied them food and water, and did not allow them to use the bathroom. “They would beat whoever asked to go to the bathroom,” said a former detainee in his 60s.

They said that army personnel at Rayak beat, insulted, and threatened them and others. “They beat people, some with batons, others with the butt of a gun,” one said. “I saw one soldier on the outside poking one of the detainees from the window with a bent skewer. He beat him, then he started cutting his face…until blood came out.”

The men interviewed said they were finally transferred to General Security, the agency in charge of foreigners’ entry and residency, who did not mistreat them and released them. The former detainees said that the army never told them why they had been detained.

One former detainee, interviewed on July 11, said: “I had to leave my son behind [in detention]. To this day, I don’t know what has happened to him.” Lebanese law limits pre-charge detention to 96 hours.

Medical Reports
Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical reports for three of the deceased, dated July 1 and 2, and prepared by a forensic doctor at the request of the general prosecutor, concluding that they had suffered heart attacks and a stroke, and that the bodies did not show marks of violence.

A lawyer representing the families said she had received permission from a Judge of Urgent Affairs for a forensic doctor to examine the bodies, conduct an autopsy, and take medical samples to ascertain the cause of death. After she took the medical samples to the Hotel Dieu hospital in Beirut for analysis, the lawyer said, Military Intelligence personnel there demanded she turn them over, by order of the Military Information Directorate. She handed them over after the general prosecutor, Samir Hammoud, instructed her to do so. Following the military’s intervention, she said that the X-ray, CT scan, and autopsy results have not been released to her or made public.

The investigation into the men’s deaths is now before the military court, the family’s lawyer said. Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns about the independence, impartiality, and competence of the Military Tribunal, where the majority of judges are military officers who are not required to have law degrees, and where trials take place behind closed doors.


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
Whose Bastille Day?

President Emmanuel Macron is hosting President Donald Trump for Bastille Day to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I. The invitation is highly symbolic and ironic: the NATO- and EU-bashing Trump presiding over a military parade that celebrates the end of the splendid isolation that kept the United States out of the allied war effort through April 6, 1917, when Congress declared war on Germany.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump confer at the start of the first working session of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/John MacDougall/Pool

The nativist and isolationist agenda Trump preaches for the United States is squarely at odds with the legacy that will be commemorated on the Champs-Elysées. Trump’s views dismiss  historic allies and tarnish values and principles that are the foundation of the multilateral order first ushered in by the victorious allies at the end of World War I. His agenda  is also at odds with the values and principles that will be at the heart of the joint cabinet meeting Macron will be hosting alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel the eve of Bastille Day to mark the heightened entente between France and Germany on key issues from climate change to human rights to the future of the EU and the United Nations. On all of these fronts, as Merkel hinted in a veiled reference to Trump, “the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.”

Whereas Macron will be on comfortable ground when meeting Merkel, the encounter with Trump is more risk-laden. It also comes on the heels of a lack-luster-yet-protest-mired G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last week where, according to Merkel, “differences were not papered over, they were clearly stated.” Macron already navigated a similarly risky encounter with President Vladimir Putin quite skilfully, so here’s to him holding his ground and faithfully promoting the principles and values he has often defended in discourse if not yet in practice.

In a lofty and lengthy speech before an extraordinary joint session of congress in Versailles on July 3, Macron laid down the guiding principles for his administration. The first real foreign test since his attachment to these principles, absent other allies, will be his upcoming meeting with Trump. Regarding climate change and our common universal heritage, he is likely to insist on the “need to defend the planet from climate change” as he already did when Trump unsigned the Paris Climate Agreement. But, will Macron speak more generally of “the vice that poisons our public debate: the denial of reality” he warned against in Versailles, and take issue with Trump for propagating and feeding off the vice?

Regarding refugees, will Macron speak of them again “not as a burden but a chance” and advocate “fair, humane treatment and protection” to “welcome political refugees at risk,” including in the United States? Regarding multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, will he insist that “the multilateral order is without doubt more necessary today than ever before” and call on the United States to cease any ongoing efforts to weaken it? Regarding human rights, will he remain true to his call for the “concrete, tangible and visible application of the principles that guide us: liberty, equality, fraternity”?

Will he make clear to Trump that implementation of his administration’s draconian and expansionist “Global Gag Rule” against abortion will have a hugely negative impact on AIDS relief, efforts to stem the spread of infectious disease, and global health?

In short, will Trump be appeased or faced with the “resistance and coherence” that Macron promised would be his “only north”? Will Macron have the courage and spine to break through the nativist and isolationist walls that Trump seeks to create, under the flimsy guise of greater safety and security for the United States? It is not the ceremonial saber-rattling of the military parade but the face-to-face discussion between Macron and Trump that will determine whose Bastille Day it turns out to be.


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
France is addicted to the state of emergency. Put an end to it, Mr. President

“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) members secure a street as they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
What Do the UK Party Manifestos Say About Human Rights?

Human rights have so far barely featured in the British election campaign. Yet in their manifestos theConservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats as well as the Scottish National Party have set out distinctive positions on a range of rights issues relating to both domestic and foreign policy.  These policies warrant public attention and political debate. To help encourage this, we highlight the parties’ commitments in seven key areas, offer some brief context, and make links to other relevant material. 

 


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
'Every Year, I Give Birth': Why War is Driving a Contraception Crisis in Sudan

Under a huge baobab tree in Sudan’s Nuba mountains, I met Sebila, a 27-year-old mother of three. In March last year, her village had been attacked by Sudanese ground troops and bombed by government war planes. The assault forced Sebila and many other villagers to flee deeper into rebel-held territory.

She was just back in the village for the day with her children, two toddlers in tow and carrying a baby, to dig up sorghum she had buried. Sebila said food here is scarcer than it has been for years, because of poor rains and conflict fighting. “It’s exhausting, trying to feed them all [my family],” Sebila said of her children.

Aid obstruction in the rebel-held territories of Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile has been in force for nearly six years, and has had a devastating impact on the communities here. For Sebila – and all the women living across these territories – it has meant no access to contraception. “Every year, I give birth,” she told me. “It would be better if I could space it [out].” But Sebila cannot space her babies out, or have any control of her body. Like all women living in rebel-held territory here, she has zero access to contraception.

 In the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, access to family planning and maternal healthcare is severely limited by blocks on humanitarian supplies.

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

It has also meant a severe lack of maternal healthcare. There is no local midwife, and Sebila lives five hours’ drive from a hospital, in a region where cars are a rare luxury. Women told me of waiting hours for transport while in obstructed labour, or being held propped up, bleeding and falling in and out of consciousness, between two men on the back of a motorcycle to reach a hospital. Multiple and closely-spaced births can carry serious health risks for both mother and infant, and can be life-threatening without proper treatment.

Yet there is no coordinated international aid effort under way in the Nuba mountains. Funds are in place, but both the government and the rebel group are preventing supplies getting in. The conflict has left already-stretched health services in the region in a pitiful state. Most facilities are little more than a table with some basic medicines, and there are only five doctors and one blood bank for perhaps close to a million people.

Despite many rounds of peace talks since fighting began in 2011, the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North have failed to agree on how to allow aid – needs-based and impartially delivered – into the affected areas. Instead they are still arguing about whether aid can come through a third country, or, as the government insists, only from inside Sudan. Some aid groups have found ways to provide occasional help, unauthorised by the government but supported by the rebels, but this is no substitute for the large-scale effort needed. 

This has very serious consequences for reproductive health. None of the women I met in the Nuba mountains had any access to family planning. One clinic provides a three-month injectable contraception, but local rebel regulations require women to get their husband’s permission first. Despite evidence that gonorrhoea and syphilis are on the rise and hepatitis B common, condoms are scarce. Most of the women I met had never seen a condom, let alone any other form of contraception.

It is also feared that the number of women and girls dying in childbirth in the rebel-held areas of Southern Kordofan – already much higher than other states in Sudan – is rising yet further. And two major aid efforts, including a UN polio vaccination campaign for children, have failed.

Sudan has a long history of aid obstruction going back to the start of the conflict: denying travel permits; rejecting visas; blocking work permits; and expelling aid workers. Meanwhile, citing mistrust of the government, the rebels have still not agreed to an offer by the US to provide aid via Khartoum, and have instead called for yet more negotiations. 

Although aid saves lives, and warring parties in conflict have an obligation to allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians, preventing it from reaching people is rarely punished. The UN security council briefly threatened punitive action against Sudan in 2012, but never acted. The health crisis unfolding in the Nuba mountains should prompt a change of tack. The UN security council, the African Union and the EU should investigate and consider travel bans and asset freezes on rebel and government leaders found to have deliberately blocked such deliveries. 

International aid is often a lifeline to civilians trapped in conflict. And it would help women like Sebila to access contraception, avoid risky childbirth, and feed their children.


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
Military Might Alone Won’t Pull Mali From Quagmire

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
Latest Updates on Venezuela's Crisis

Police fire tear gas toward opposition supporters during clashes while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017.

© Reuters 2017

For a timeline of the most recent events in Venezuela, specifically related to Venezuela’s compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, please click here

 


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
The Struggle for LGBT Rights in France

“Today, in France, we still cannot live and love freely just as we are,” said Joël Deumier, president of the association SOS Homophobie. In its annual report published May 10, 2017, the organization stated it received 1,575 testimonies of anti-LGBT acts in 2016, an increase of nearly 20% compared with the previous year. It’s possible that the increase in reported incidents reflects a greater willingness of victims to speak out. Still, SOS Homophobie believes that many victims of anti-LGBT acts do not dare come forward.

Demonstration in support of same-sex marriage in Paris, 16 December 2012.

© 2012 Olivier Hoffschir

In 2016, SOS Homophobie received 26 reports from people who said they had a homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic encounter with justice or law enforcement officials. By this is meant that an officer refused to characterize an assault as homophobic in a complaint or to even file a complaint, or that a law enforcement officer himself discriminated against LGBT people.

While these incidents remain thankfully limited, they are no less unacceptable. France should take measures to determine how widespread these attitudes are among public officials, and to prevent subversion of their duties because of this attitude.

SOS Homophobie’s report also shows a correlation between debates over equal rights and the increase of anti-LGBT acts. The organization recorded a spike in reported incidents in 2013, the year France legalized same-sex marriage. In 2016, France adopted a law waiving the requirement for transgender people to provide proof of medical treatment to amend their legal gender. That same year saw a 76% spike in reported transphobic incidents.

While a majority of the French population is in favor of allowing same-sex couples to get married and adopt children, opponents of LGBT rights are a “vocal minority,” and are especially active on social media, where prosecution for homophobic statements remains difficult to carry out.

Several candidates for the 2017 presidential election expressed their intention to “rewrite the Taubira law” on same-sex marriage and adoption. One candidate even received the support of Sens commun, an organization openly opposed to the rights of LGBT people. When political figures take stands that are hostile to equal rights, they may “rekindle hate.”

It is high time to end discrimination against LGBT people and the French authorities have a key responsibility and role to turn this into reality.


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
Death by Chemicals

Summary

All available evidence strongly suggests that on April 4, 2017, a Syrian government warplane attacked Khan Sheikhoun, a town in the northwestern governorate of Idlib, with a nerve agent, killing at least 92 people, 30 of them children. The death toll likely makes this the deadliest chemical attack since an attack killed hundreds in Ghouta, near Damascus, in August 2013.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack sparked international outrage, but the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was not the only recent chemical attack by the Syrian government. Three developments since late 2016 show that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons has become widespread and systematic:

  • Government warplanes appear to have dropped bombs with nerve agents on at least four occasions since December 12, including in Khan Sheikhoun;
  • The government’s use of helicopter-dropped chlorine-filled munitions has become more systematic;
  • Government or pro-government ground-forces have started using improvised ground-launched munitions containing chlorine.

In at least some of the attacks, the intention appears to have been to inflict severe suffering on the civilian population, which would amount to crimes against humanity.

New evidence supports the conclusion that Syrian government forces have used nerve agents on at least four occasions in recent months: on April 4, 2017, in a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 92 people, and on three other occasions in December 2016 and March 2017. 

After the chemical attacks in Ghouta, the United Nations Security Council demanded that the Syrian government destroy its chemical stockpiles, weapons, and production capacity. In response, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013. In June 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that it had shipped Syria’s declared chemical weapons out of the country for destruction, though it continued attempting to verify the accuracy and completeness of the Syrian declaration.

But in fact, the Syrian government had already been using helicopters to drop improvised munitions filled with chlorine at least since April of that year. While the Chemical Weapons Convention does not ban chlorine because it has many civilian uses, the convention bans its use as a weapon. Yet, between April 2014 and late 2016, Human Rights Watch documented 16 Syrian government attacks with chlorine contained in improvised air-dropped munitions. The number of attacks reported in the media and on social media is much higher. A UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism found enough evidence in three attacks with chlorine in 2014 and 2015 to conclude that the government was responsible.

Expand

Human Rights Watch interviewed 60 people with first-hand knowledge of the chemical attacks and their immediate aftermath, and reviewed dozens of photos and videos of impact sites and victims that were posted online and provided directly by local residents, but was unable to conduct ground investigations of the attack sites.

Information from local residents in Khan Sheikhoun indicates that a warplane flew over the town twice around 6:45 a.m. on April 4, 2017. One resident said he saw the plane drop a bomb near the town’s central bakery in the northern neighborhood during the first fly-over. Several people, including the person who saw the bomb falling, said they heard no explosion but saw smoke and dust rising from the area, consistent with the relatively small explosive charge in a chemical bomb. Several people also confirmed that they saw people injured or heard reports of injuries immediately after the first fly-over. A few minutes later, they said, a warplane dropped three or four high-explosive bombs on the town.

Human Rights Watch identified 92 people, including 30 children, whom local residents and activists said died due to chemical exposure from this attack. Medical personnel said the attack injured hundreds more.

Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of photos and videos provided by residents of a crater from the impact of the first bomb. Local residents believed this site was the source of the chemical exposure because those who died lived nearby and people who came near it, including first responders, exhibited the strongest symptoms of chemical exposure. One of the first photos of the crater, taken by first responders, shows what appears to be liquid on the asphalt. That would be consistent with the use of a bomb containing sarin, which is in liquid form at room temperature.

The photos and videos of the crater show two remnants from the chemical weapon used: a twisted thin metal fragment with green paint and a smaller circular metal object. Green coloring is widely used on factory-produced weapons to signify that they are chemical weapons. The KhAB-250, for example, one of two Soviet-produced bombs specifically designed to deploy sarin from a warplane, has two green bands. The circular object seen in photos of the crater appears similar to the cap covering the filling hole on the KhAB-250.

These remnants, combined with witness observations, the victims’ symptoms, and the identification of sarin as the chemical used in the attack by the French[1] and Turkish[2] governments and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,[3] suggest that the Syrian warplane dropped a factory-made sarin bomb. According to open source material, the only Soviet-produced bombs designed specifically to deliver sarin are the KhAB-250 bomb, and its bigger version, the KhAB-500.

Evidence suggests that the Khan Sheikhoun attack is not the first time government warplanes have dropped nerve agents in recent months. Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents that they and other local residents experienced after warplanes attacked eastern Hama on December 11 and 12 and northern Hama, near Khan Sheikhoun, on March 30, 2017.

The December attacks were in territory controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which closely monitors communication, so it has been difficult to reach witnesses. But four witnesses interviewed by phone and two medical personnel interviewed via text message through intermediaries gave consistent accounts of the attacks. An opposition-affiliated activist and local residents provided the names of 64 people who died from chemical exposure in the December attacks.

The suspected nerve agent attack in northern Hama on March 30 caused no deaths, but injured dozens of people, both civilians and combatants, according to local residents, medical personnel, and first responders.

All four suspected nerve agent attacks were in areas where offensives by armed forces fighting the government threatened government military air bases.

Government forces’ use of chlorine-filled weapons has become more widespread and systematic. During the last month of the battle for Aleppo city, which ended on December 15, 2016, helicopters dropped multiple improvised chlorine-filled munitions in a pattern showing that the attacks were part of the overall military strategy to retake the city. Such attacks have continued more recently, for example, in al-Lataminah in northern Hama.

Since January 2017, Human Rights Watch has also documented, for the first time since August 2013, the use by government or pro-government ground forces of improvised surface-fired rockets containing chlorine to attack territory near Damascus controlled by armed groups fighting the government.

Some of the chemical attacks hit residential areas far from the frontlines without any obvious military target and appear to have killed and injured only civilians, suggesting the Syrian government forces directed at least some of the attacks against the civilian population.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons, including in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. While Russia has carried out aerial attacks in the areas where chemical attacks took place, Human Rights Watch has no information to indicate that Russian authorities have used chemical weapons. However, Russian forces continue to provide active military support to Syrian forces despite extensive evidence that the latter are using chemical weapons and targeting civilians.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and requires their destruction. The prohibitions also apply to toxic chemicals with civilian uses, such as chlorine, when they are used as weapons. Syria became a party to the convention in October 2013.

Crimes against humanity consist of specific criminal acts committed on a widespread or systematic basis as part of an “attack on a civilian population,” meaning there is some degree of planning or policy to commit the crime. Such acts include murder and “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” The prohibition of crimes against humanity is among the most fundamental in international criminal law and can be the basis for individual criminal liability in international courts, as well as in some foreign domestic courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Human Rights Watch calls on the UN Security Council to immediately adopt a resolution calling on all parties to the Syrian conflict to fully cooperate with OPCW investigators and facilitate their unimpeded access to locations of chemical attacks, as required by UN Security Council resolutions 2118 and 2235. In line with the Security Council’s pledges to impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN charter in the event of continued chemical weapons use in Syria, Human Rights Watch also calls on the Security Council to adopt sanctions against those responsible for chemical attacks that UN-appointed investigations have confirmed. Human Rights Watch also urges UN member states to support the Syria accountability mechanism established by the UN General Assembly in December 2016, including by providing funds.

 

Recommendations

Russia and China have repeatedly used their UN Security Council vetoes to block individual sanctions and a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). ISIS, which has also used chemical weapons, is already under UN sanctions, but so far the Syrian government has escaped accountability. The Syrian government has not fully cooperated with UN and OPCW investigations and has not provided all requested information.

To the UN Security Council

  • Immediately reiterate its demand that the Syrian government and other parties to the conflict fully cooperate with UN and OPCW investigators, including by providing requested information, as required by UN Security Council resolutions 2118 and 2235;
  • Impose a travel ban and asset freeze on those in the Syrian government and military chain of command responsible for chemical attacks that UN and OPCW investigations have confirmed;
  • Impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government and refer the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Syrian government has used chemical weapons on numerous occasions since at least 2013. Despite pledges to cooperate with OPCW and UN inspectors, it has withheld requested information.[4] The cases documented in this report strongly suggest that the Syrian government provided the OPCW with an incomplete declaration of its chemical weapons stocks and/or production capabilities in 2013.

To the Syrian Government

  • Immediately stop using chemical weapons;
  • Fully cooperate with OPCW investigators, including facilitating access to sites of chemical attacks and provide investigators with all information they request;
  • Amend the declaration to the OPCW to reflect its remaining chemical weapons stockpile and facilities, enable the OPCW to verify and destroy both the stocks and precursors, and permanently disable any remaining chemical weapon production facilities.

To Non-State Armed Groups

  • Fully cooperate with OPCW investigators, including facilitating access to sites of chemical attacks and provide investigators with all information they request.

Both Russia and Iran are close military allies of the Syrian government and are therefore in a position to influence military decision-making. This close alliance also raises the possibility that Russian and Iranian military personnel could have been aware of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. In the case of the battle for Aleppo in late 2016, the government repeatedly used chlorine in a pattern that appeared coordinated with the military strategy to retake the city. Both Russia and Iran participated in that battle, Russia in the air, and Iran on the ground.

To the Russian Government

  • As required by UN Security Council resolution 2235, assist the UN and OPCW in investigating the origin of any Soviet or Russian-made munitions that may have been used in Khan Sheikhoun or any other chemical attacks;
  • Stop using the veto to block an ICC referral and individual sanctions on senior Syrian government and military personnel credibly implicated in past chemical attacks confirmed by the UN and OPCW;
  • As an essential military partner, put pressure on the Syrian government to stop using chemical weapons and fully cooperate with UN and OPCW investigators, as required by UN Security Council resolutions 2118 and 2235;
  • Ensure that Russian military personnel cease cooperation with all Syrian military personnel and units suspected of involvement in chemical attacks and other serious crimes.

To the Iranian Government

  • As a close ally and whose citizens were once victims of chemical weapons, put pressure on the Syrian government to stop using toxic agents and fully cooperate with UN and OPCW investigators;
  • Ensure that Iranian military personnel and allied militias cease cooperation with all Syrian military personnel and units suspected of involvement in chemical attacks.

Because Russia and China repeatedly vetoed resolutions referring the situation in Syria to the ICC, the UN General Assembly, in December 2016, created a mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes under international law in Syria.[5] In response to findings by the OPCW that chlorine had been used in attacks in Syria in 2014, the UN Security Council established a UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism to identify perpetrators where the OPCW determined that an incident involved or likely involved the use of chemicals. In line with the provisions of Security Council resolution 2235, all UN member states are required to cooperate with the joint mechanism.

To UN Member States

  • Support and fund the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism created by the UN General Assembly to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes under international law in Syria;
  • Support ongoing documentation efforts by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria into serious crimes by all sides to the conflict;
  • Provide UN and OPCW investigators with any and all information and intelligence on chemical attacks in Syria to support their investigations, as required by UN Security Council resolution 2235;
  • Investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of committing serious crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with national laws;
  • Take all available steps to encourage Russia to drop its opposition to the ICC’s involvement in Syria, including by publicly stating support for an ICC referral;
  • Publicly condemn Syria’s violations of international humanitarian, criminal, and human rights law;
  • Acting individually, or jointly through regional mechanisms where appropriate, adopt, maintain, or strengthen targeted sanctions against Syrian officials credibly implicated in the ongoing serious violations.

To the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism

  • The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism should investigate whether any other governments, including Syria’s military allies Russia and Iran, aided or abetted the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces. Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention are prohibited from doing anything that could assist, encourage, or induce violation of the convention.

To Member States of the Chemical Weapons Convention

  • Move to restrict or suspend Syria’s rights and privileges as a member due to its repeated violations of the treaty;
  • Convene a special session on Syria’s repeated violations of the treaty and move to recommend that the UN Security Council impose individual sanctions on those in Syria’s government and military responsible for the use of chemical weapons.

Methodology

For the cases described in this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 60 people with first-hand knowledge of the attacks and their immediate aftermath, including victims, witnesses, first responders, journalists, local opposition-affiliated activists, and medical personnel. Human Rights Watch also consulted experts on chemicals and weapons. Human Rights Watch interviewed eight witnesses to the Khan Sheikhoun attack in person in Turkey, the rest by phone. Human Rights Watch was unable to conduct on-the-ground investigations on any of the attack sites.

Human Rights Watch identified the witnesses through existing contacts in the area or by reaching out to people who posted information about the attacks on social media. Almost all of the interviews were conducted in Arabic. Human Rights Watch gave interviewees the option of requesting that identifying information be omitted if they were worried about their security. The report contains identifying information only if the interviewee agreed to publication of such information and if Human Rights Watch did not separately assess that it would put the interviewee at risk.

To corroborate information from witnesses, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos and videos posted online and shared directly by witnesses, in particular to see whether clinical signs and symptoms were consistent with witness statements and exposure to chemicals. Keith Ward, an independent expert on the detection and effects of chemical warfare agents, reviewed and assess information about clinical signs and symptoms witness statements, videos, and photos.

Human Rights Watch also obtained photos and videos of remnants of the munitions used in the attacks. Specialists in weapons identification and chemical weapons inside and outside the organization analyzed the remnants. Forensic Architecture, a group specializing in spatial analysis, created a model of a crater related to the Khan Sheikhoun attack from videos and photos, allowing for exact measurement of its size.

Human Rights Watch has not had access to Syrian government documentation or interviewed government or military officials.

I. Legal Framework: Chemical Weapons

Several international treaties prohibit the use of chemical weapons, including the 1899 Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases, the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and the 1998 Statute of the International Criminal Court. The International Committee of the Red Cross considers the prohibition a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflict.[6]

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and requires their destruction. The prohibitions of the convention also apply to toxic chemicals, such as chlorine, when they are used as weapons. With 192 state parties, the Chemical Weapons Convention is the most universal weapon ban in international law. Only four member states of the UN are not parties: Egypt, Israel (signatory), North Korea, and South Sudan. Syria became a party to the convention in October 2013.[7]

The UN Security Council has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria. After a UN investigation found that sarin had been used in the August 2013 attack in Ghouta near Damascus, the UN Security Council condemned in the strongest terms any use of chemical weapons in Syria and decided that “the Syrian Arab Republic shall not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to other States or non-State actors.”[8] The UN Security Council also said that it would impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, in the event of non-compliance with the resolution, “including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic.”[9] The UN Security Council similarly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria in subsequent resolutions.

Under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity are certain acts, including murder, and other inhumane acts of a similar character, intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury, committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

The Rome Statute defines an “attack against a civilian population” as a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of criminal acts such as murder or other possible crimes against humanity against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack.[10]

The use of prohibited weapons with criminal intent, deliberately or recklessly, is a war crime.

II. Helicopter-Delivered Munitions

Human Rights Watch has documented repeated instances in which Syrian government helicopters dropped improvised munitions filled with chlorine since April 2014.[11] A Joint Investigative Mechanism between the UN and the OPCW also concluded, in a report published on October 21, 2016, that Syrian government forces had used chlorine as a weapon in three incidents in 2014 and 2015.[12] The investigation determined that helicopters from Syria’s 63rd helicopter brigade, operating from Hama and Hmeimim airbases, carried out the attacks.

During the final month of the battle for Aleppo in late 2016, government helicopters dropped chlorine-filled improvised munitions on at least eight occasions. The attacks appeared coordinated with the military strategy for retaking the city.[13] In addition to the eight attacks in Aleppo, Human Rights Watch documented two recent attacks in which government helicopters dropped chlorine-filled munitions. These attacks killed 12 civilians due to chlorine exposure, and injured hundreds.

Government forces have used several types of helicopter-delivered chlorine-filled improvised munitions. In some cases, the munitions consisted of oil barrels filled with a variety of chemical containers and explosives. In other cases, and more common recently, helicopters have dropped large, yellow-colored gas cylinders. Local residents often refer to the chlorine-filled improvised munitions dropped from helicopters as barrels or barrel bombs.

Pure chlorine is a pale, yellowish-green gas, and witnesses often report seeing an unusual “yellow smoke” at the attack site, which is consistent with the release of chlorine gas from the rupture of industrial compressed gas cylinders. Chlorine gas also has a distinct odor, which witnesses recognize as household cleaning products containing bleach as well as from frequent use of improvised chlorine munitions in Syria./p>

Mild exposure to chlorine causes reddening and itchiness of the eyes and difficulty seeing. More severe exposure leads to breathing difficulties and complaints of shortness of breath. Even higher levels of exposure can lead to vomiting, severe respiratory distress, uncontrollable coughing, and even suffocation, as the chemical injuries inflicted by the hydrochloric and hypochlorous acids produced from the dissolution of chlorine in the pulmonary airways result in severe buildup of fluid in the lungs. The sensation would be similar to that of drowning. High levels of chlorine exposure can be deadly.

Al-Lataminah, April 3

On April 3, 2017, a helicopter appears to have dropped at least one munition with chlorine on al-Lataminah, a town about 15 kilometers southwest of Khan Sheikhoun that used to have about 30,000 residents before the war, but now has many fewer, according to a local journalist, a first responder, and a local resident, each of whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, as well as a statement by the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate.

Fayed al-Satouf, a local journalist in al-Lataminah, told Human Rights Watch that the sentries, a network of monitors tracking aircraft movement, reported a helicopter above al-Lataminah on the evening on April 3. Because he documents airstrikes, he said, he went out to follow it. Around 9:45 p.m., the helicopter dropped two barrels about 300 meters away from him, he said:

I could smell the chlorine gas. My chest felt tight, like I was suffocating. Also, my eyes started reacting like I was having an allergic reaction. And my body was shaking. The smell got stuck inside my nose all night. It was like I was breathing chlorine. It’s like what we use at home for cleaning toilets.[14]

A local resident who was close to the impact site also described smelling chlorine:

I got dizzy; my eyes started tearing, and my chest became heavy. I started choking, and then I collapsed. I don’t know what happened next, but I woke up in the hospital. I stayed sick for two days, coughing.[15]

Al-Satouf said that the chlorine exposure injured 12 people, including women and children. Munaf al-Saleh, the al-Lataminah head of Syria Civil Defense, a search and rescue group operating in territory controlled by armed groups fighting the government, also said that two chlorine barrels hit the village in the evening on April 3, injuring about 12 civilians.[16] During a filmed press conference, the director of the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate said that the April 3 attack injured 22 people.[17]

Al-Saleh said that the barrels that landed on April 3 had a similar odor to those he found after the March 25 attack on al-Lataminah hospital (see below).

Al-Lataminah Hospital, March 25

On March 25, 2017, a helicopter dropped at least one improvised munition filled with chlorine on a makeshift hospital in al-Lataminah, a village in the northern Hama countryside, according to five witnesses whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, and photographs of remnants of munitions.

According to Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohammad, the manager of the hospital in al-Lataminah, because previous attacks had twice hit buildings used as hospitals in the village, they had moved the hospital to a building outside the village and reinforced the roof with steel covered by soil.

Dr. al-Mohammad, who said he arrived at the hospital shortly after the attack, told Human Rights Watch that the attack happened around 3 p.m. on March 25. A helicopter dropped two barrels, he said. One barrel with explosives fell about fifty meters from the hospital, the other hit the roof of the hospital.[18]

“Alaa,” the hospital anesthesiologist, told Human Rights Watch that he stepped out of the hospital to check on a patient who had just arrived with a head wound when an object crashed through the hospital’s roof: “Within two or three seconds, gas started spreading and caused suffocation among all medical staff. It had a yellow color. It caused tearing in the eyes, nose, and mouth.”[19]

“Bilal,” a nurse, said: “We were shocked when the barrel managed to pierce the reinforced roof. The smell of chlorine was very strong. Its color was yellow and voluminous. It wasn’t the first time we were hit with chlorine. So we knew what it was. But this time, the smell was stronger than usual.”[20]

Dr. al-Mohammad, the hospital manager, said that the attack killed three people due to chlorine exposure: Dr. Ali Darwish, the hospital’s orthopedic surgeon who was conducting a surgery at the time of the attack, the patient in surgery, and one first responder. The chlorine seriously injured Dr. Darwish’s assistant, who was still receiving treatment in Turkey as of April 8. In total, 32 people suffered medium to critical injuries due to the chlorine exposure.[21] Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, the head of Syria Civil Defense in al-Lataminah, confirmed that the attack killed three people.[22]

A local journalist said he went to the hospital immediately after the attack and that there was a strong smell of chlorine when he arrived.[23] “Hatem,” a hospital employee, said that he did not hear any helicopter sound prior to the attack, but heard sentry reports over the radio that two helicopters were in the air nearby.[24]

Remnant of yellow gas cylinder that struck a make-shift hospital in al-Lataminah on March 25, 2017 according to a Syria Civil Defense member. 

© 2017 Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh

While witnesses gave different information as to how many gas cylinders struck the hospital and surrounding area, there are photos of at least two different cylinders. Munaf al-Saleh from Syria Civil Defense shared a photo of a deformed yellow gas cylinder that he said was the one that had hit the hospital roof.[25] A reverse image search indicated that the photo had not been published online anywhere before.

Thiqa News Agency, a pro-opposition news source, posted a video on YouTube of what it said was the hospital with a hole in the roof and a yellow gas cylinder in a pile of rubble.[26] Syria Civil Defense also posted photos on Twitter of a gas cylinder that they said fell near the hospital.[27] The cylinder that Thiqa News Agency and Syria Civil Defense posted online appears different from the one in the photo that al-Saleh provided, which could reflect the use of multiple cylinders.

The opposition-run Hama Health Directorate released a statement in the evening of March 25 saying that a barrel bomb containing chlorine gas had hit al-Lataminah hospital, killing Dr. Darwish.[28]

III. Warplane-Delivered Munitions

Human Rights Watch has documented four attacks since December 12, 2016, in which government warplanes appear to have carried out aerial attacks with nerve agents, a group of chemicals that includes sarin: on Jrouh and al-Salaliyah in eastern Hama governorate on December 12, 2016; near al-Lataminah village in Hama governorate on March 30; and on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4. Human Rights Watch has identified 159 people who reportedly died in the four attacks from chemical exposure. Hundreds were injured.

Evidence shows that local residents were exposed to toxic chemicals. In all four attacks, witnesses, including medical personnel, described clinical signs and symptoms that indicate exposure to toxic chemicals. For two of the attacks, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos taken after the attack showing injured people with constricted pupils. In all four attacks, first responders and others trying to help said they began to manifest the clinical signs and symptoms of exposure to chemicals when they came near the impact sites. Such examples of “secondary exposure” are characteristic of the presence of a nerve agent, such as sarin. Some symptoms suggest that other toxic chemicals were present as well.

With regards to the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Turkish authorities have said that analysis of biomedical samples from four victims who received treatment in Turkey showed the presence of a degradation product of sarin. OPCW has said that analysis of biomedical samples from victims showed the presence of “sarin or sarin-like substances.”

The evidence regarding what toxic chemical was used is less conclusive for the December 12 attacks in eastern Hama. Many of the clinical signs and symptoms are consistent with exposure to nerve agents, including one doctor’s statement that he observed pinpoint pupils. The other witnesses, however, said that injured people had dilated, not constricted pupils. Dilated pupils can sometimes be seen when victims are exposed to high levels of nerve agents, depending upon the route of exposure, but it is not a common symptom.

The evidence also indicates that warplanes dropped the toxic chemicals. In all four cases, witnesses heard or saw warplanes in the vicinity immediately before the explosions. For each of the attacks, Human Rights Watch interviewed at least one witness who saw the warplane drop the suspected chemical bomb. In all four attacks, witnesses say they became sick immediately after the bombs impacted. In all four cases, some of the witnesses said that at least one explosion was less loud than the sound they normally hear from the use of explosive weapons, which would be consistent with the smaller detonation of the bursting charge in a chemical bomb.

For the Khan Sheikhoun attack, photos and videos of weapon remnants, posted online and provided to Human Rights Watch by local residents, as well as the identification of sarin as the chemical used, suggest that the Syrian warplane dropped a factory-made sarin bomb. According to open source material, the only Soviet-produced bombs designed specifically to deliver sarin are the KhAB-250 bomb, and its bigger version, the KhAB-500. The Syrian government’s use of such bombs would mean it retained some of its chemical weapons despite the UN Security Council’s demand and its obligation under the Chemical Weapons Convention to declare and destroy them. Human Rights Watch has not found photos of fragments from the other three attacks that would allow it to identify a weapon.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence to support claims by Syrian and Russian officials that a high-explosive bomb had struck a chemical weapons production facility or chemical weapons depot in the vicinity in the April 4 Khan Sheikhoun attack. Human Rights Watch also did not find evidence to support claims that armed groups on the ground had detonated a chemical weapon, causing the chemical exposure.

That government warplanes appear to have conducted chemical attacks on three different dates in four different locations undermines Syrian and Russian officials’ claims that the chemical exposure in Khan Sheikhoun was due to an airstrike hitting a chemical weapons production facility or depot on the ground. That, and the fact that ISIS controlled two of these locations and other groups fighting ISIS controlled the two others, makes it highly unlikely that an armed group staged the attacks.

Khan Sheikhoun, April 4

All evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch suggests that a Syrian government warplane dropped a bomb with sarin on Khan Sheikhoun around 6:45 a.m. on April 4, 2017, killing at least 92 people and injuring hundreds. Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 witnesses of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, eight in person in Turkey, and the rest by telephone. Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery; photos and videos of the victims, the impact site, weapon remnants, and the immediate aftermath of the attack; and information about aircraft movements.

Khan Sheikhoun, a town in southern Idlib, has been under the control of armed groups fighting the government since 2012. Local residents estimated that there were about 60,000 people in the town at the time of the attack, many of them displaced from other places due to the war.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack and chemical attacks on and near al-Lataminah took place in the context of heavy fighting near Hama city, about 20 kilometers south of al-Lataminah and 35 kilometers south of Khan Sheikhoun. On March 21, armed groups led by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham launched an offensive against government positions near Hama. Over the next several days, the anti-government forces made significant advances, coming within three kilometers of the city and threatening the Hama Military Airport. By the time of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, the battle was still raging back and forth.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that they heard or saw a warplane fly over Khan Sheikhoun early in the morning on April 4. Several witnesses said that the warplane flew over the town twice, dropping a chemical bomb the first time and explosive bombs the second time.

Ahmad al-Helou, who was tending the fields that morning, told Human Rights Watch that he looked up when he saw a shadow on the ground and saw a plane fly towards Khan Sheikhoun from the east.Al-Helou said that because of his high vantage point he saw the plane drop a bomb and the bomb falling until it hit the ground. The bomb fell in front of the bakery, he said. Al-Helou said that he did not hear an explosion, but that he saw the bomb kick up yellowish smoke that spread in the prevailing wind.[29]

Other witnesses gave similar accounts. Ismail Raslan, a Syria Civil Defense member who lived about 100 meters from the bakery, told Human Rights Watch that he heard a warplane fly over some time after 6:30 a.m. He told Human Rights Watch: “I heard the wind and the roar from a bomb falling, but there was no explosion, just a thump. I thought that it either fell far away or failed to explode. I looked out from the balcony and was surprised to see white dust in the air.”[30]

Adham al-Hussein, a local journalist, told Human Rights Watch that he woke up when sentries and the Syria Civil Defense reported over the radio network that a warplane was heading north from the Shayrat airbase in Homs. At 6:37 a.m., he said, he heard the warplane fly over Khan Sheikhoun. He went to the roof of his building where he saw the plane fly away towards the north. Over the radio, one of the sentries said that the warplane had not attacked because there was no explosion, but al-Hussein could see white smoke over the northern neighborhood. From his roof, al-Hussein filmed the smoke, which he showed to Human Rights Watch.[31]

Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member, said that he was reporting that there had been no explosion to the civil defense center when he saw a child in the street. “He ran ten meters, then collapsed. He got up, trying to run, but collapsed again,” said Raslan, who then asked the civil defense center to send an ambulance.[32]

A Syria Civil Defense member at the base confirmed that they heard no explosions during the first fly-over, but that a colleague had called for an ambulance: “We got a call from one of our colleagues living in the northern neighborhood who asked us to send ambulances because there were unconscious people on the ground. We were surprised because we had not heard any explosions.” He said that they immediately sent a team to the area.[33] Mohammad Juneid, a Syria Civil Defense member who was on the team, confirmed that they were dispatched to the northern neighborhood immediately after the first fly-over.[34] Al-Hussein also said there were radio reports of injured after the first fly-over.[35]

A few minutes after the first attack, and while the Syria Civil Defense team was on its way to the northern neighborhood, a plane flew over Khan Sheikhoun in the same direction,from east to west, witnesses said. It is not clear whether it was the same plane. This time, the plane dropped three or four high explosive bombs on the town.

Composite of screenshots from video of the immediate aftermath of the attack during the second fly-over showing four smoke columns. Bellingcat, a group specializing in analyzing information posted online, including videos and photographs, has concluded that the video was filmed from a location to the north of Khan Sheikhoun. 

© 2017 Mohammad Saloum/Bellingcat

Al-Hussein said that the plane dropped two bombs in the northern neighborhood, both to the west of the bakery. These two bombs created loud explosions. The plane then dropped another bomb about one kilometer from the others, near the market area. He filmed plumes of smoke from the three strikes during the second fly-over, which he showed to Human Rights Watch.[36]

The Syria Civil Defense member said: “The second attack was with three or four vacuum bombs, which we can tell because the explosions were so strong. We’re not sure [if it was three or four bombs] because they fell almost at the same time. They could be heard all over, and shook the city.” Mohammad Saloum, a local journalist, filmed the immediate aftermath of the second fly-over and posted a video on YouTube showing four smoke columns rising from Khan Sheikhoun.[37]

Through interviews with local residents, and analysis of photographs and video footage posted on the internet and provided by local residents and satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified three impact sites in the northern neighborhood: in the middle of a paved road close to the central bakery (“Impact Site 1”); the house of the al-Omar family (“Impact Site 2”), about 240 meters southwest; and near Mustafa al-Youssef’s house (“Impact Site 3”), another 100 meters southwest. All three sites are visible on satellite imagery from April 6.

Information about aircraft movements corroborate claims that a warplane flew over Khan Sheikhoun twice. Human Rights Watch reviewed an audio recording of a sentry message, which said a warplane took off from the Shayrat airbase at 6:26 a.m.[38] In addition, the US government released a map that it says plots the flight path of a Syrian warplane that took off from the Shayrat airbase and flew over Khan Sheikhoun at two different times, 6:37 and 6:46 a.m.[39]

Many local residents said that they woke up or became aware of the attacks only when they heard the loud explosions after the second fly-over. Many said they immediately felt sick. A young teacher who lived about 300 meters from the bakery told Human Rights Watch that she woke up from the sound of a loud explosion that blew the windows in her house open:

It felt like the air had weight. It got harder to breath; tears were running down our faces, and our eyes were burning. My son, who is one year and ten months, was running around. I couldn’t see because of the tears. He was screaming “mom, dad!”[40]

Fatima Abdel-Latif al-Youssef, who lived about 100 meters west of bakery, said:

My cousin went to the balcony. She is 16, and she was choking. I tried to help her. We poured water on her but she passed out. My aunt passed out. At that point I also passed out, but I came to later. My uncle's wife, who lives in the same building, knocked on the door of the apartment. She said, “let me in, help me!” I tried to drag her in, but I couldn’t carry her because I am small and she was heavy. I left her on the floor by the door to go up to the second floor, to get my uncle to come and help me…[He] went down to help her, but he never came back.[41]

Fatima and her cousin, who lived in the same home, said that seven people in the house died during the attack due to chemical exposure, including Fatima’s uncle, Abdul Kareem al-Youssef; his wife; Fatima’s uncle, Yasser al-Youssef; his wife, Sanaa Haj Ali; two of their children Mohamed, 10, and Ammar, 7, and Fatima’s cousin Shaimaa Ibrahim al-Jawhar, 16[42]

A doctor at a hospital that received many of the injured said that the symptoms included constriction of the pupils, trembling, sweating, extreme respiratory excretions, foaming of the mouth, and pale skin color.[43]

First responders and people trying to evacuate victims said that many suffered the same symptoms. Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member who lived near the bakery, said that he eventually lost consciousness: “My chest got tight, and I had no breath left. I wanted to stand up but couldn’t. Then I lost consciousness. I did not wake up until 11 hours later in the hospital.”[44]

Abdelaziz al-Youssef, who said he arrived near the bakery to help his relatives five minutes after the attacks, said:

People were trying to flee, moving into basements. But as they walked, they collapsed. And those who came to their help collapsed as well. The gas spread up to 500 or 600 meters. Casualties were not only in the place that was hit. There were martyrs over the entire neighborhood. Those who stayed asleep did not wake up. Those who were in basements suffocated and died. Those who woke up and went out were affected. I swear, those who survived can’t describe what happened. It was like Judgment Day — people were collapsing everywhere.[45]

Seeing that the bombs had hit his neighborhood, al-Helou, the witness who saw the bomb land in front of the bakery, at Impact Site 1, went there to see what had happened:

People had blood and foam coming out of their mouths, and there was a strong smell. The smell was really disgusting, but I am not able to compare it to anything else. We helped one person and then another, but then we passed out as well. I don’t know what happened next. I woke up in the hospital.[46]

Members of the Syria Civil Defense team that responded to reports of injured after the first fly-over were also injured. Juneid, one of the team members, said that they started to suspect the use of chemicals when they found a man unconscious in his car on their way towards the bakery, near Impact Site 1. They decided to return to the base to get protective equipment. On the way, they saw a woman in the street: “Blood was coming from her mouth. As I tried to pull her up, I started shaking. I couldn’t see anymore, and then I lost consciousness. I woke up in the civil defense center.”[47] A civil defense member at the base confirmed: “One of the volunteers called me saying ‘I’m sleepy. I’m losing consciousness. I don’t know what they hit us with.’ And then we lost connection.”[48]

Clinical signs and symptoms that witnesses described, especially constricted pupils, indicate exposure to a nerve agent. Recep Akdağ, the Turkish minister of health, said that analysis of blood and urine samples from four victims who received treatment in Turkey showed the presence of isopropyl methylphosphonic acid, a degradation product of sarin.[49] Referring to victims of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, the OPCW said that four different OPCW-designated hospitals analyzed bio-medical samples from three victims during their autopsies and from seven individuals undergoing treatment, and that the results indicated exposure to “sarin or a sarin-like substance.”[50]

Witnesses consistently said that those affected by chemical exposure were in the northern neighborhood and that those exhibiting the strongest symptoms were located near the bakery, or Impact Site 1. This is also consistent with al-Hussein’s account. He said that he saw smoke in the northern neighborhood after the first fly-over. When he heard that people had been injured, he immediately went to help. As he was moving towards the bakery, near Impact Site 1, he helped several people along the way who were shaking, had trouble breathing, and had foam coming from their mouths. About 20 minutes after the first attack, he said, he was around 200 meters from the bakery at Impact Site 1: “It looked like it was winter, there was so much fog. The gas was one or two meters high, all over the place.”[51]

Human Rights Watch has reviewed dozens of photos and videos of the crater at Impact Site 1 posted online and provided directly to Human Rights Watch by people who took them. Syria Civil Defense in Idlib posted online some of the first photos of the crater shortly after noon on April 4.[52] Human Rights Watch reviewed the original photos and interviewed the photographer. Based on landmarks visible in the photos and videos, Bellingcat geolocated the crater, showing that it was located near the central bakery in northern Khan Sheikhoun.[53] Satellite imagery confirms that a crater appeared in that location between February 21, the date of the most recent available reference image, and April 6, the first available satellite image after the attack. A reverse image search shows that none of the photos were posted online before April 4.

These photos and videos show that the crater contained two objects that are likely remnants of the weapon that was used: a twisted thin metal fragment with green paint and a smaller circular metal object. The first photos, taken a few hours after the attack, show the twisted metal remnant sticking up from the crater, but most of the crater is not visible

because the photo is taken from a distance. A second set of photos, taken closer to the crater in the early afternoon, show more of the crater, including the circular object.

The Soviet Union produced several types of chemical bombs for warplanes. According to open source materials, two Soviet-produced bombs were specifically designed to deploy sarin: the KhAB-250, which can contain 44.1 kilograms of sarin, and the KhAB-500, which can contain 177.1 kilograms of sarin. The KhAB-250 bomb also has a filler hole in its body through which the sarin is loaded into the bomb prior to use. Open-source reference materials on Syria’s arsenal do not list Soviet-produced chemical bombs, but they are often not complete.

Photos of the KhAB-250 posted on VKontakte, a Russian social media platform, show that the bomb has two green-colored painted bands. Green coloring is widely used on factory-produced weapons to signify that they are chemical. These green bands appear consistent with the green paint on the remnant in the crater at Impact Site 1, seen in photographs provided to Human Rights Watch. The circular object in these photos appears similar to the cap for the filler hole on the body of a KhAB-250 bomb.[54] Human Rights Watch has not found any reference photos of the KhAB-500.

In a chemical bomb, an explosive charge busts open the body of the bomb and disperses the chemical as an aerosol cloud, either upon impact or in the air. The ideal explosive charge would be large enough to disperse most of the chemical, but not so large that the heat from the explosion would degrade the chemical. A small explosive charge means that significant remnants of a chemical bomb, including the tail fin, should survive and be found near the impact site.  While Human Rights Watch has not seen photos or videos of larger pieces of remnants from the Khan Sheikhoun attack, photos of the two remnants in the crater at Impact Site 1 appear to be consistent with the characteristics of the KhAB-250.

The first photos taken of the crater at Impact Site 1 a few hours after the attack also appear to show liquid on the asphalt around the crater. Several witnesses described it as a black, oily substance. Such liquid is consistent with the use of a sarin bomb, as some of the sarin, which is a liquid, will fail to turn into aerosol and vapor.[55]

Based on photos and videos, Forensic Architecture, an organization specializing in spatial analysis, created a three-dimensional model of the crater. Based on the model, the organization calculated that the crater was about 1.60 centimeters wide and 0.42 centimeters deep. Since there is no public information about how much explosive is contained in the bursting charge for KhAB-250 and KhAB-500 bombs, it is not possible to assess whether the size of the crater is consistent with the use of these bombs. The lack of blast and fragmentation damage on nearby objects as shown in the photos and videos is consistent with the use of a low-blast, non-fragmenting munition like a chemical bomb.

Chemical exposure from the attack killed at least 89 people, including 33 children and 19 women, and injured 541, according to the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate, which published a list of the names.[56] Human Rights Watch confirmed 35 of them through interviews with local residents and family members of the dead. A few people appear to have died from blast and fragmentation injuries from the attacks during the second fly-over. Raslan, the Syria Civil Defense member, said that the attacks with explosive weapons killed his neighbor, the neighbor’s son, and the 15-year-old boy he had tried to help.[57]

Two Syrian organizations compiled a list of 103 people who had died, but it is not clear from the report whether all died from chemical exposure.[58] Local residents, first responders, and medical personnel confirmed that the vast majority of casualties in the morning attacks were killed and injured by chemical exposure.

Many of the dead belonged to the same families. Members of the al-Youssef family said 25 of their family members who lived in houses near Impact Site 1 died due to chemical exposure.[59] Local residents also said that the victims were civilians, and that armed groups did not have any bases in the town, but Human Rights Watch cannot exclude the possibility that some of the victims were members of armed groups.

Two theories have been presented to provide an alternative explanation to the allegation that a Syrian government warplane dropped a chemical bomb in Khan Sheikhoun: that an explosive bomb hit a chemical weapons production facility or depot in a warehouse; or that armed groups detonated a chemical weapon on the ground. Human Rights Watch has not found any evidence to support either theory.

Both Russian and Syrian officials have claimed that the chemical exposure occurred because a Syrian airstrike hit an armed group’s weapons depot that contained chemical bombs. On April 7, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said that Syrian forces had not used chemical weapons and that a Syrian airstrike around 11:30 a.m. on April 4 had hit an ammunition depot belonging to an armed group, causing the chemical exposure.[60] A Russian military official gave a similar account, saying that the airstrike took place between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.[61] But there is overwhelming evidence to show that local residents started exhibiting signs and symptoms of chemical exposure several hours earlier, which means that the 11:30 a.m. attacks that Syrian and Russian officials cited cannot explain the chemical exposure.

Human Rights Watch also investigated whether the strikes at Impact Sites 2 and 3 could have dispersed the chemical. Local residents who visited the impact sites said that there were no signs that any chemicals had been stored near the sites. Mohammad Saloum, a local journalist who examined Impact Site 2, the house that was struck closest to Impact Site 1, said: “There were three rooms containing pillows and carpets for sleep. There was nothing else inside. It looked like any other house.”[62]

Satellite imagery shows damage to a warehouse and a grain silo near the bakery, but local residents said they were struck before April 4. Photographs of the warehouse that were taken after the April 4 attack show that large sections of the walls are open, allowing people to see inside. Local residents said that the warehouse had been empty and out of use for months except as a volleyball court. A journalist for the Guardian who visited the warehouse said that he found a volleyball net there, which he filmed.[63] Local residents said that they did not know about any chemicals being stored anywhere in the neighborhood.

Al-Lataminah, March 30

On March 30, 2017, a warplane attacked the outskirts of al-Lataminah, according to four witnesses. Information from the four witnesses, including medical personnel, and photos and videos of the injured indicate that a nerve agent was used in the attack. The Syrian American Medical Society said that its affiliated hospitals in the area treated 169 people for injuries due to chemical exposure, but that there were no fatalities.[64] One of the witnesses said that the majority of those injured were members of armed groups, but that civilians in the area were injured as well.

The local residents said that aircraft from the Syrian-Russian coalition had carried out multiple aerial attacks in the area, including near al-Lataminah.

Anwar Rahmoun, a farmer who lives on the outskirts of al-Lataminah, told Human Rights Watch that people in his area were on their way to work sometime after 6 a.m. when the attack happened. A warplane dropped two bombs that landed about 100 meters away. The first was not very loud, but the second shook the whole area.

He said he saw a neighbor’s 15-year-old son collapse when he went outside. As Rahmoun ran to the car, he saw another relative collapse. Rahmoun soon started feeling the symptoms as well:

It felt like I was being drugged. I was running, my legs were touching the ground, but I could no longer feel them. Eventually I collapsed and lost consciousness. My brother-in-law said that they had to remove a lot of foam from all over my face when they found me. They took me to a hospital, thinking I was dead, but thankfully I regained consciousness seven hours later.[65]

Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, a first responder working for Syria Civil Defense, said that they were watching warplanes flying above al-Lataminah when the attack took place about 700 meters away at about 6:30 a.m. on March 30. He rushed to the scene:

When we got there, people were suffocating, some critically. They were trembling, had extreme difficulty breathing, redness in their eyes; some had foam coming out of their mouth. People were going unconscious. Some of them started hallucinating, saying weird things, when they got to the hospital. The chemicals in the missiles had a very mild smell but a strong effect.[66]

He said that he had not seen helicopters in the air at the time of the attack. He also said that they could only find very small pieces of the munition on the ground. He did not take photos of the remnants.

Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohamad, a doctor at al-Lataminah hospital, said that the hospital started receiving people injured in the attack in the morning on March 30. The symptoms were different from those they had observed from previous attacks with chlorine:

At first, we didn’t know what it was. There was no chlorine smell. The injured had pinpoint pupils, extreme foaming from the mouth, in an unsteady condition, with muscle cramps, shivers and shaking. Most of them were unconscious. Some people’s hearts had slowed down to the point where we thought they were dead.[67]

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) provided a photo that it said was of one of those injured in the March 30 attack on al-Lataminah. The photo shows that the man has severely constricted (“pinpoint”) pupils.

Severely constricted (“pinpoint”) pupil of a man injured in attack near al-Lataminah on March 30 according to the Syrian American Medical Society. 

© 2017 SAMS

SAMS, which runs two hospitals in the area and supports two others, said that their hospitals had treated 169 people injured due to chemical exposure in the attack, including seven medical staff and two ambulance workers who suffered from secondary exposure. The group said that nobody had died in their hospitals, but that four people had been placed in the intensive care unit.[68] On April 11, Rahmoun said that his neighbor’s son was still unconscious and connected to a breathing machine. The doctor said that both civilians and combatants were among the injured, and that one was a woman.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the four local residents from al-Lataminah by phone between April 8 and 11, after the Khan Sheikhoun attack. However, local residents and medical personnel described clinical signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent in media interviews and statements before the Khan Sheikhoun attack on April 4. The opposition-run Hama Health Directorate issued a statement about the attack on March 31, noting that the injured had symptoms such as pinpoint pupils, suffocation and nausea, muscle cramps, and loss of consciousness.[69] Medical personnel and victims made similar claims in filmed interviews posted on YouTube. In a video published by the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate on April 1, two injured people say that they started experiencing the symptoms after a warplane attacked their area.[70]

Villages in Uqayribat Subdistrict, December 11-12, 2016

In several posts on its Facebook page on December 11 and 12, 2016, the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee (SRCC) in Eastern Hama reported that warplanes had carried out chemical attacks in five villages in the Uqayribat subdistrict in eastern Hama, about 40 kilometers east of Salamiyah.[71] Human Rights Watch interviewed four witnesses of attacks on two of the villages, Jrouh and al-Salaliyah. The witnesses said that warplanes had attacked the villages, described clinical signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals, and identified 67 local residents who died from chemical exposure after the attacks. Human Rights Watch also communicated indirectly with two medical personnel via messages sent to intermediaries, a local activist and a medical charity worker, who provided similar accounts.

Uqayribat is a subdistrict in eastern Hama with about 21,000 people. About 2,500 people live in Jrouh, and 250 in al-Salaliyah, which is about five kilometers from Jrouh. The Dawood Brigade, which controls the area, declared its allegiance to ISIS in December 2013.

The attacks in Uqayribat took place in the context of an ISIS military offensive in the region. On December 8, ISIS launched an attack on government forces in Huwaysis, a village about 30 kilometers southeast of Uqayribat, from the direction of Uqayribat.[72] After heavy fighting, ISIS took control of Palmyra city about 60 kilometers further south on December 11. The battle then moved to the Tiyas airbase, about 50 kilometers west of Palmyra. Syrian pro-government media had previously reported that Russian and Syrian warplanes had been targeting ISIS along the highway from Uqayribat to Palmyra.[73]

Because ISIS controls the area and monitors communication, it has been difficult to reach witnesses. The witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed said that it had not been possible to take photos. One local resident said: “We didn’t take any photos. If you take photos, ISIS will kill you.”[74] Human Rights Watch interviewed three of the witnesses after they left ISIS-controlled territory, and communicated indirectly with the two medical personnel in December and January, before the Khan Sheikhoun attack.

The witnesses believed that Russian or Syrian warplanes carried out the attacks because there had been aerial attacks in the area in the days before and after the attack, including attacks using cluster munitions and barrel bombs, weapons that only the Syrian-Russian coalition have used in Syria. All attacks listed in the December 11 and 12 daily reports from the US-led international coalition fighting ISIS were far from Uqayribat.

The three residents and two medical personnel from Jrouh said that a munition struck the street near the roundabout in the village around 7 a.m. in the morning on December 12.

“Salim,” a Jrouh resident, said that he went to nearby olive groves that morning when he heard the sound of a warplane because he was afraid of hiding in the underground shelter in his home. From the olive groves, he said he saw the plane attacking the village. When he went back to his house 30 minutes later, after the plane left, he found that a munition had hit the roundabout in front of his house. He said he found his wife, three children, brother, brother’s wife, and brother’s three children dead in the basement of their house, where they had sought shelter.[75]

“Salim” said that the attack also killed his neighbors, his uncle, and the families of his uncle’s two sons. “Everyone within 100 meters died,” he said. “There was no one else left.” “Salim” buried his family in the village and left the same day.

“Khaled,” also from Jrouh, gave a similar account. He said he was at home around 7:30 a.m. on December 12 when he heard somebody shouting that his family had died. He ran out and followed the man to a house about 80 meters northeast of the roundabout. He said that they found 70-year-old Abd al-Razak al-Hussein, his wife, and their two sons unconscious in the house. They took the four to the hospital. “Khaled” said that al-Hussein and his wife died, while their two sons survived. He then ran to a home about 25 meters south of the roundabout, where the al-Mhawesh and al-Hassan families had sought shelter in the basement. They all were dead.[76]

A SRCC member provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 25 people, including 9 children, who died in Jrouh due to chemical exposure. “Salim” and “Khaled” confirmed many of the names. A relative who was not in the area at the time of the attacks provided photos and names of 15 people killed in the attack.[77] SRCC posted photos of at least eight young children, apparently lifeless, some of whom had foam around their noses, saying that they had died in the attack.[78]

Human Rights Watch also interviewed “Abu Ali,” who said he witnessed a similar attack with two munitions in al-Salaliyah, one kilometer from al-Khdera, where he lived, at approximately 7:30 a.m. on December 12. The explosion from the first munition was loud and created black smoke, while the explosion from the second, about 10 minutes later, was more subdued. He said he drove to the second impact site, which was near caves where people from the village had sought shelter from the attacks: “I entered one of the caves. There were about 20 people in it. A lot of them were unconscious, some vomited, and they were weak. Most of them were women and children. Some of the injured completely lost their sight after the attack.”[79]

“Abu Ali” said that the attack killed 42 people in al-Salaliyah due to chemical exposure. Most of the people who died had been hiding in two caves. A woman from the village provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 41 people who died in the attack.Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the names or the death toll.

A local activist passed on questions from Human Rights Watch to a medic in Jrouh in December who corroborated “Abu Ali’s” account about the attack in al-Salaliyah, saying that the hospital in Jrouh, which had been treating victims from the Jrouh attack, eventually also received injured from al-Salaliyah: “At first, nobody knew about this attack. We were too busy treating the injured in Jrouh. And almost all the remaining people in the village had been poisoned. A few hours later we started receiving injured people from there as well.”

The six witnesses in both Jrouh and al-Salaliyah described similar clinical signs and symptoms that they observed in people near the impact sites. The medic in Jrouh said that he arrived at the impact site five minutes after the attack. Several people were in the street, exhibiting symptoms including convulsions, shortness of breath, hysteria, red eyes, swollen faces, and foaming and bleeding from the mouth.

Four of the witnesses said that they experienced symptoms as well. “Khaled” described how he felt by the time he got to al-Hassan’s house in Jrouh:

When I arrived at the door, I could not stand, I could not breathe, and I could not see anything. Somebody helped me walk away because I couldn’t walk on my own. I began to vomit. My body was hot and cold at the same time. Somebody took me to the hospital where I stayed for five days, vomiting all the time.[80]

“Salim” also described his symptoms: “My eyes were swollen. My chest hurt, and I was coughing. My head hurt, and I became dizzy. I threw up. The doctor said my pupils got big – they filled the whole eye.”[81] Abu Ali said: “Afterward, I started vomiting and my head started hurting as well. Almost everybody who helped transport the injured got sick.”[82]

Four of the witnesses said that they or the people they saw experienced dilated pupils. While dilated pupils are not a common symptom of exposure to a nerve agent, it can be seen occasionally, depending upon the degree and route of exposure. One doctor said that the injured exhibited constricted pupils, a symptom of exposure from a nerve agent.

The witnesses differed in their description of the odor at the sites and whether there was any visible smoke. Some said that they saw yellow or white smoke, but others did not. Some also said that there was a strong odor, although they could not describe it, while others said that they could not detect any. All said that they saw dead animals such as cattle and cats after the attack.

Human Rights Watch has not seen any photos of remnants used in the attacks.

IV. Ground-Launched Munitions

Since at least January 30, 2017, photos and videos of weapon remnants and information from witnesses show that government forces have used improvised ground-launched rockets filled with chlorine on territory near Damascus controlled by armed groups fighting the government on at least six occasions in four different areas. While several of the attacks injured members of armed groups near the frontlines, witnesses said that all of the injured in at least two attacks – 79 people in total – were civilians.

These attacks took place in the context of the government’s renewed offensive to wrest control from armed groups. In Wadi Barada, northwest of Damascus, a January 8 attack took place after government forces launched a military offensive on December 23. In eastern Ghouta and the adjacent eastern part of Damascus, multiple attacks took place before and after government forces launched a military offensive on February 18.[83] Eastern Ghouta, together with western Ghouta, was the site of the 2013 chemical attack that led to Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroying its declared chemical weapons stockpile and program.

For the six attacks listed below, Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses who described a distinctive odor and the clinical signs and symptoms consistent with use of chlorine, and said that government ground forces had fired the chlorine munitions. For two of these attacks, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos and videos of remnants of the weapons allegedly used in the attacks that were posted online and provided by local residents. Videos and photos from a seventh attack show similar remnants, but Human Rights Watch was not able to interview witnesses to this attack.[84]

The photos and videos of the remnants show deformed gas cylinders and rocket remnants, indicating a type of weapon sometimes referred to as a lob bomb or improvised rocket assisted munition (IRAM). An IRAM is an improvised device made from a large metal canister, often a propane gas tank, placed on top of a rocket. In Iraq, where the device has been used since 2007, insurgents filled the canister with explosives, scrap metal, and ball bearings.[85] Because they are pressurized gas canisters, they can also contain chemical products.

Analyzing photos of remnants from a January 30 attack in Marj al-Sultan posted online, Bellingcat identified them as Iranian-made 107mm rockets, typically launched from a Type-63 multiple rocket launcher, a system that both government forces and armed groups fighting the government have used in Syria.[86] The design of the weapon indicates that it has a relatively short range and is highly inaccurate. The relatively short range is consistent with the fact that most attacks near Damascus have taken place close to frontlines.

The IRAMs recently reported as used in eastern Ghouta are similar to weapons used in the 2013 sarin attack on Ghouta, but smaller.

Qaboun, March 29 and April 7

On March 29 and April 7, 2017, ground-launched improvised rockets with chlorine struck the Qaboun neighborhood in eastern Damascus, injuring dozens, according to a doctor, a first responder, and a local journalist, as well as photos of weapon remnants they shared with Human Rights Watch.

Obeida Abu Omar, a member of the Syria Civil Defense, said that he was on his way to the civil defense center around 5 p.m. on March 29 when he heard that there had been a chlorine attack in Qaboun. He was there five minutes later and said: “When I arrived, I could smell the gas. The chlorine smell was clear, very clear. It was all over.”

Abu Omar and his team found several injured people in the area, whom they helped to the hospital. He described their symptoms:

They included suffocation, difficulty breathing, extreme coughing, and liquid dripping from the nose. No one was unconscious but they were dizzy. The last one I found was fifteen minutes later. At that point, I started getting sick myself: suffocation, difficulty breathing, and dizziness.[87]

Dr. Nizar al-Madani, who works in a hospital in Qaboun, said that the hospital received about 35 injured people around 5 p.m. on March 29 who suffered from chemical exposure. He said that the attack took place not far from the hospital. “The odor even reached the hospital. There was a clear odor from the injured people’s clothes. It smelled like chlorine. We know it well. When it’s concentrated, it causes suffocation. They use it in cleaning products and in pools.”[88]

Both Abu Omar and Dr. al-Madani said that the area attacked on March 29 was residential and those injured were civilians; Abu Omar said there were no armed groups present in the area.

Deformed gas cylinder that a Syria Civil Defense member said was found at the site of a March 29 attack in the Qaboun neighborhood in eastern Damascus, which is controlled by armed groups fighting the government.

© 2017 Obeida Abu Omar

Both Abu Omar and Dr. al-Madani said that another attack happened on April 7 around 2 p.m. on the border between the Qaboun and Tishreen neighborhoods. Both said that the area hit had been largely destroyed in previous attacks and that few people still lived there. Dr. al-Madani said that the hospital received two people injured in the attack. The two injured told Dr. al-Madani that they were seeking shelter in a basement when gas started seeping in and they started suffocating. By the time they got to the hospital there was a clear chlorine odor coming from their clothes.[89] Dr. al-Madani and Abu Omar said that they did not know whether the injured were civilians or combatants. A video posted on YouTube claims to show the two men receiving treatment.[90] Abu Omar said there was noindication that the two people injured on April 7 were fighters, but he is not sure that they were civilians.A local journalist went to the site of the April 7 attack the following day. “Even the day after the attack, the odor made me dizzy,” he said.[91]

Dr. al-Madani described the clinical signs and symptoms of the patients: “In both instances, there were clear respiratory symptoms: extreme coughing, difficulty breathing, drooling from the nose, tearing in the eyes, and headaches. At some points, the lack of oxygen would cause shaking.”[92]

Abu Omar said that he did not see or hear aircraft flying in the air at the time of the March 29 attack.[93] He shared with Human Rights Watch photographs of remnants of the munition that he found at the impact site.[94] The photos show a gas cylinder deformed by impact, which is consistent with other chemical IRAM remnants. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify what munition was used on April 7.

Irbin, February 9 and 10

On February 9 and 10, 2017, at least six members of an armed group were injured from exposure to chlorine, according to a hospital employee. In a filmed interview, a member of the armed group gave a similar account.

An employee at Irbin hospital said the hospital received three injured people around 7 a.m. on February 9: “They were unable to breathe, suffocating, and shaking uncontrollably. All they wanted was to get air. It was like their eyes were about to pop out. One of them was in critical condition and did not regain consciousness until the evening.”[95] The hospital employee said that another man had apparently fallen into a fire when the attack happened and arrived at the hospital with severe burns and later died from the wounds. The hospital employee said that the hospital received three more injured people around 4:30 p.m. on February 10 with similar, but milder injuries.

Several videos posted on YouTube claim to show two or three people receiving oxygen in the Irbin hospital following the attack.[96] In a video posted on YouTube on February 10, a fighter from the Faylaq al-Rahman Brigade says that an attack with poisonous gas injured three and killed one, but does not specify whether it was ground-launched or dropped from the air. The title of the video indicates that the injured and killed were fighters.[97]

The hospital employee said that the injured told him that the attacks took place near the Ghubair mosque, near the frontlines, and that the munitions were ground-launched. He said that the injured in both cases were members of an armed group.[98]

Human Rights Watch has not been able to locate photos or videos of the remnants from these attacks.

Marj al-Sultan, January 30

A member of the al-Marj media office told Human Rights Watch that 12 rockets containing chlorine gas hit al-Neshabiyeh village around 2 p.m. January 30, injuring eleven, two of them critically. He said local residents had given him the information when he visited the site after the attack.[99]

He said he saw two rockets, one that had been excavated and one that was still buried in the ground. The rockets had hit farming land within the village. He said he could still smell the chlorine when he visited.[100]

The al-Marj media office posted a video on YouTube of a man showing weapon remnants, explaining four rockets hit an area with civilians, injuring ten. Seven or eight rockets hit the frontline.[101] The media office also posted three photos of the same weapon remnants on its Facebook page.

The Unified Medical Office of Eastern Ghouta published a statement on January 31 saying that the hospital in al-Marj treated eleven people injured by chemical exposure, three of whom were in critical condition. It said symptoms included extreme difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth, and pinpoint pupils.[102]

Basimah village, Wadi Barada, January 8 and 9

Three local residents, including a nurse, said dozens of civilians in Basimah village in the Wadi Barada valley were injured from exposure to chlorine after three attacks on January 8 and 9, 2017.

On December 23, pro-government forces launched a military offensive against territory held by armed groups fighting the government in the Wadi Barada valley.[103] At the time of the attack, pro-government forces were stationed on mountains around the village, according to the three witnesses said. Pro-government forces captured Basimah village on January 13 and established control over the entire valley on January 30.[104]

The three witnesses gave different accounts as to when the attacks happened on January 8 and 9. One said that the first attack happened in the morning on January 8, another said it happened in the afternoon. However, all three witnesses said that they smelled chlorine and described clinical signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine gas. Ali Nasrallah, who was the head of the media council in Wadi Barada, said that the first attack on January 8 struck the Hasra neighborhood, a residential area with no fighters:

I went out as soon as I heard the explosion. People were shouting: Careful, it is chlorine gas! I ran to the underground shelter. There were between 10 and 15 civilians there with breathing problems. We wanted to take the injured to a higher place, but we couldn’t. The people were really, really scared.[105]

Nasrallah said that there was a strong odor of chlorine in the area and that he saw yellow smoke in the area.[106]

A nurse at the Basimah medical point, also named Ali Nasrallah, told Human Rights Watch that he could smell chlorine on the injured people’s clothes. He said the injured suffered from suffocation, irritation of the eyes, nausea, and vomiting. Nasrallah said the medical staff treated 46 people who were injured in the attacks due to chemical exposure.[107]

V. Acknowledgments

This report was written by Ole Solvang, deputy director of the Emergencies Division at Human Rights Watch and researched by Lama Fakih, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division, Charbel Salloum, research assistant of the Middle East and North Africa Division, Solvang, and Priyanka Motaparthy, senior researcher of the Emergencies Division. Interns in the Middle East and North Africa Division and the Emergencies Division provided support. The report was edited by Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division. Clive Baldwin and Iain Levine provided legal and program reviews. Mark Hiznay from the Arms Division provided specialist review.

Production and editorial assistance was provided by Michelle Lonnquist, associate in the Emergencies Division. Production assistance was provided by Olivia Hunter, photography and publications associate, Jose Martinez, senior coordinator, and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch is grateful to the many witnesses, family members, journalists, first responders, and others whose assistance made this report possible.

 

[1] “National Evaluation: Chemical Attack of 4 April 2017 (Khan Sheikhoun), Clandestine Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” Government of France, April 26, 2017, http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/170425_-_evaluation_nationale_-_anglais_-_final_cle0dbf47-1.pdf .

[2] Zehra Melek Cat, “Turkey says evidence of sarin gas in Syria attack found,” AA.com.tr, April 11, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-says-evidence-of-sarin-gas-in-syria-attack-found/794620 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[3] “OPCW Director-General shares incontrovertible laboratory results concluding exposure to sarin,” OPCW news release, April 19, 2017, https://www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-director-general-shares-incontrovertible-laboratory-results-concluding-exposure-to-sarin//.

[4] “Syria: Stop Undermining UN Investigation,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 28, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/28/syria-stop-undermining-un-investigation.

[5] “Syria: UN General Assembly Adopts Resolution on War Crimes Investigations,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 21, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/21/syria-un-general-assembly-adopts-resolution-war-crimes-investigations.

[6] “Rule 74: Chemical Weapons,” ICRC, Customary IHL, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule74.

[7] “Status of Participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention as at 17 October 2015,” OPCW, October 19, 2015, https://www.opcw.org/about-opcw/member-states/status-of-participation/.

[8] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2118 (2013), S/RES/2118 (2013) http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_res_2118.pdf, art. 4.

[9] Ibid., art. 21.

[10] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted July 17, 1998, A/CONF.183/9, entered into force July 1, 2002.

[11] “Syria: Strong Evidence Government Used Chemicals as a Weapons,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 13, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/13/syria-strong-evidence-government-used-chemicals-weapon; “Syria: Chemicals Used in Idlib Attacks,” April 13, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/13/syria-chemicals-used-idlib-attacks; “Syria: New Chemical Attacks in Idlib,” June 3, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/03/syria-new-chemical-attacks-idlib; “Syria: New Deadly Chemical Attacks,” September 28, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/09/28/syria-new-deadly-chemical-attacks.

[12] Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Fourth Report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism,” S/2016/888, October 21, 2016, http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2016_888.pdf.

[13] “Syria: Coordinated Chemical Attacks on Aleppo,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 13, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/13/syria-coordinated-chemical-attacks-aleppo.

[14] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Fayed al-Satouf, April 11, 2017.

[15] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with local resident (name withheld), April 21, 2017.

[16] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Munaf al-Saleh, head of al-Lataminah Syria Civil Defense, April 13, 2017.

[17] “Dr. Munther Khalil, Director of Idlib Health Directorate…” (الدكتور منذر خليل مدير صحة ادلب يتحدث عن الغارات الجوي المحملة بغاز السارين والتي استهدفت خان شيخون), April 4, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-GhbtRn450&feature=youtu.be (accessed April 14, 2017).

[18] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohammad, April 8, 2017.

[19] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Alaa,” hospital employee, April 8, 2017.

[20] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Bilal,” hospital employee, April 8, 2017.

[21] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohammad, April 8, 2017.

[22] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, April 8, 2017.

[23] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Fayed al-Satouf, April 11, 2017.

[24] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Hatem,” hospital employee, April 13, 2017.

[25] Photo on file with Human Rights Watch.

[26] “The moment…” (“لحظة إلقاء الطيران المروحي براميل غاز الكلور على مشفى اللطامنة وخروجه عن الخدمة”), March 26, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MCiIMFG1uU (accessed April 13, 2017).

[27] Tweets from the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defense, March 25, 2017, https://twitter.com/SyriaCivilDef/status/ 845712375462420480 (accessed April 14, 2017); March 26, 2017, https://twitter.com/SyriaCivilDef/status/ 846053794303660032 (accessed April 13, 2017).

[28] Announcement from the Hama Health Directorate, March 25, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/latamenh.h2/photos/ a.655052357992256.1073741828.654197224744436/777807462383411/?type=3&theater (accessed April 13, 2017).

[29] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ahmad al-Helou, April 20, 2017.

[30] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[31] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017.

[32] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[33] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a Syria Civil Defense member (name withheld), April 4, 20, and 21, 2017.

[34] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mohammad Juneid, Syria Civil Defense member, April 21, 2017.

[35] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017.

[36] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017. Video on file with Human Rights Watch.

[37] “The moment Khan Sheikhoun was targeted…” (لحظة استهدف مدينة خان شيخون بالقنابل السامة من قبل الطيران السوري), April 3, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYOMEDK_uVs (accessed April 17, 2017). The date of publication on YouTube is April 3, 2017, the day before the Khan Sheikhoun attack. YouTube assigns all videos a date based on the time in California when the upload begins. Because California is 10 hours behind Syria, videos uploaded before 10 a.m. in Syria will be given the previous day's publication date. The timestamp of the video shows that it was uploaded at 7:59 a.m. local time on April 4, so about an hour after the attack.

[38] Audio recording of the sentry message on file with Human Rights Watch.

[39] Luis Martinez and Paul Blake, “US releases flight path of plane used in Syria chemical attack,” ABC News, April 7, 2017, http://abcnews.go.com/International/us-releases-flight-path-plane-syria-chemical-attack/story?id=46651125.

[40] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with local resident (name withheld), April 5, 2017.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with Fatima Abdel-Latif al-Youssef, Antakya, Turkey, April 9, 2017.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with doctor (name withheld), April 4, 2017.

[44] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[45] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abdelaziz al-Youssef, April 6, 2017.

[46] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ahmad al-Helou, April 20, 2017.

[47] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mohammad Juneid, Syria Civil Defense member, April 21, 2017.

[48] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Syria Civil Defense member (name withheld), April 4, 20, 21, 2017.

[49] Zehra Melek Cat, “Turkey says evidence of sarin gas in Syria attack found,” AA.com.tr, April 11, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-says-evidence-of-sarin-gas-in-syria-attack-found/794620 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[50] “OPCW Director-General shares incontrovertible laboratory results concluding exposure to sarin,” OPCW news release, April 19, 2017, https://www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-director-general-shares-incontrovertible-laboratory-results-concluding-exposure-to-sarin//.

[51] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Adham al-Hussein, April 7, 2017.

[53] “The Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack, the Evidence So Far,” Bellingcat, April 5, 2017, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/04/05/khan-sheikhoun-chemical-attack-evidence-far/.

[54] The similarities between the remnants in the crater and the KhAB-250 bomb were first identified by the twitter accounts @elemcee69 and @Mortis_Banned. See e.g., tweet from @elemcee69 on April 14, 2017, https://twitter.com/elemcee69/status/852809433570615296.

[55] Dan Kaszeta, “Anatomy of a sarin bomb explosion (Part I),” Bellingcat, April 13, 2017, https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/articles/2017/04/13/anatomy-sarin-bomb-explosion-part/.

[56] Publication on the official Facebook of the Idlib Health Directorate, April 8, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/Idleb. Health.Directorate/photos/a.648305141939511.1073741828.648124961957529/968373753265980/?type=3 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[57] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ismail Raslan, April 21, 2017.

[58] “A Special Report on the Chemical Attack in Khan Sheikhoun – Idlib on April 4, 2017,” Syrians for Truth and Justice, April 22, 2017, https://www.stj-sy.com/en/view/123.

[59] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abdelaziz al-Youssef, April 6, 2017.

[60] “Walid Muallem exposes the secrets of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical ‘attack’” (وليد المعلم يفضح أسرار "هجوم" خان شيخون الكيماوي), al-Alam, April 6, 2017, http://www.alalam.ir/news/1948704 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[61] Statement on the Khan Sheikhoun attack posted on the official Facebook of the Russian Ministry of Defense, April 4, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/1492252324350852/videos/1903420036567410/ (accessed April 17, 2017).

[62] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mohammad Saloum, April 6, 2017.

[63] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Kareem Shaheen, April 7, 2017.

[64] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohamad. April 8, 2017.

[65] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anwar Rahmoun, April 11, 2017.

[66] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abd al-Munaf Faraj al-Saleh, April 8, 2017.

[67] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mahmoud al-Mohamad. April 8, 2017.

[68] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Mohamad Katoub, advocacy manager, Syrian American Medical Society, April 9, 2017.

[69] Publication on the official Facebook of the Hama Health Directorate, March 31, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/ latamenh.h2/photos/a.655052357992256.1073741828.654197224744436/780609392103218/?type=3&theater (accessed April 17, 2017).

[70] “An English version of the report on the chemical attack on Lataminah on Thursday 30 March,” April 1, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huhn-4Zbe1c (accessed April 17, 2017).

[71] In the first post, SRCC reported that warplanes had attacked the villages with chlorine. Subsequent posts refer to chemical attacks with Sarin. Publication on the official Facebook of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee in Eastern Hama, December 11, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/hama.east/posts/1178624038886863 (accessed April 17, 2017); December 11, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/hama.east/posts/1178805135535420 (accessed April 17, 2017); December 12, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/hama.east/posts/1179416542140946 (accessed April 17, 2017).

[72] Leith Fadel, “ISIS suffers heavy casualties in failed offensive north of Palmyra,” al Masdar News, December 8, 2016, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/isis-suffers-heavy-casualties-failed-offensive-north-palmyra/.

[73] Leith Fadel, “Russian, Syria air forces hunt ISIS terrorists along Hama-Palmyra Highway,” al Masdar News, June 6, 2016, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-air-force-hunts-isis-terrorists-along-hama-palmyra-highway/.

[74] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Salim” (not his real name), April 9, 2017.

[75] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Salim,” April 9, 2017.

[76] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Khaled” (not his real name), December 22, 2016.

[77] Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[78] Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[79] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Abu Ali” (not his real name), April 11, 2017.

[80] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Khaled,” December 22, 2016.

[81] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Salim,” April 9, 2017.

[82] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “Abu Ali,” April 11, 2017.

[83] “Syrian government forces press attack on Damascus outskirts – monitors, medic,” Reuters, February 19, 2017, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-idUKKBN15Y08C?il=0 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[84] On February 21, the armed group Jaysh al-Islam posted a filmed interview with one of its members on their website, saying that eight munitions with chlorine had struck the group in the area between Hawsh al-Dawahira and Hawsh Nasri. “Assad targets al-Ghouta with chlorine gas again” (الأسد يستهدف الغوطة بغاز الكلور مجدّداً), jaishalislam.org, February 21, 2017, https://www.jaishalislam.org/subject/487 (accessed April 14, 2017). On February 24, journalists embedded with the group published photos of the same remnants. Tweet from the Twitter account of journalists and photographers embedded with Jaysh al-Islam, February 24, 2017, https://twitter.com/Azm_Lens/status/835057867770191872 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[85] “Improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAM),” Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), https://www.jieddo.mil/content/docs/JIEDDO_IED_Tri-fold_v3sm.pdf.

[86] Hady al-Khatib, “New Visual Evidence about Chlorine Gas Attacks in Eastern Ghouta,” Bellingcat, February 14, 2017, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/02/14/new-visual-evidence-chlorine-gas-attacks-eastern-ghouta/ (accessed April 14, 2017).

[87] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Obeida Abu Omar, member of the Syria Civil Defense, April 11, 2017.

[88] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Nizar al-Madani, April 9, 2017.

[89] Ibid.

[90] “Cases of suffocation after Chlorine gas was dropped on al-Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus” (“حالات اختناق نتيجة "القصف بغاز الكلور على حي القابون بدمشق 7-4-2017”), April 7, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vEYA0Ss-BA (accessed April 14, 2017).

[91] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with journalist (name withheld), April 13, 2017.

[92] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Nizar al-Madani, April 9, 2017.

[93] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Obeida Abu Omar, April 11, 2017.

[94] Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[95] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with hospital employee (name withheld), March 10, 2017.

[96] “Several injuries caused by chlorine gas…” (العديد من الإصابات جراء استهداف اطراف عربين بغاز الكلورمن قبل تنظيم الأسد), February 9, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUMDOKP4yQY&feature=youtu.be; “Irbin hospital…” (مشفى عربين الجراحي استهداف اطراف المدينة بغاز الكلور), February 9, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mdt-QyUyQ2s&feature=youtu.be.

[97] “Deaths and injuries from poisonous gas attack on Irbin” (قتيل وإصابات من الفصائل جراء قصف بغاز سام للنظام على عربين ريف دمشق) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdMMi7VLLD0&feature=youtu.be (accessed April 14, 2017).

[98] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with hospital employee (name withheld), March 10, 2017.

[99] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abou Mu’tassem, member of the al-Marj media office, April 19, 2017.

[100] Ibid.

[101] “Eastern Ghouta, al-Marj” (الغوطة الشرقية _منطقة المرج), January 31, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HXZjvHxdJE&feature=youtu.be (accessed April 14, 2017).

[102] Publication on the official Facebook of the Unified Medical Office of Eastern Ghouta, January 31, 2017, https://www.face book.com/Medical.Office.alghota/posts/1026007784209219:0 (accessed April 14, 2017). Pinpoint pupils is not a symptom of chlorine exposure. Human Rights Watch has not been able to clarify the discrepancy between this symptom and reports of chlorine odor.

[103] “Damascus water supply cut after rebels pollute it: authority,” Reuters, December 23, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-water-idUSKBN14C20Q?il=0.

[104] Leith Fadel, “Syrian Army reaches gates of Wadi Barada springs,” al Masdar News, January 13, 2017, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-army-reaches-gates-wadi-barada-springs/ (accessed April 17, 2017).

[105] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali Nasrallah, media activist, April 13, 2017.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali Nasrallah, nurse, April 18, 2017.

[108] The fatality list has been compiled from a range of sources including the Syria Civil Defense, the Idlib Health Directorate, and the relatives of the deceased.

[109] The fatality list was compiled by a local resident.

[110] The fatality list was compiled by an activist from the Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee and many names were corroborated by local residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch.


01/01/1970 01:00 AM
Israel: Human Rights Watch Granted Work Permit

An EL AL Airlines aircraft taxies at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 14, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities on April 26, 2017, granted a work visa to Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Human Rights Watch said today.

The approval of a one-year work visa reverses a February 20 Interior Ministry decision to deny a work permit to Human Rights Watch.

“We welcome this opportunity to work in Israel and Palestine alongside vigorous national human rights organizations,” said Iain Levine, executive deputy director for program at Human Rights Watch. “Israeli authorities do not always agree with our findings, but, in facilitating the ability of our staff to carry out our research and documentation, they have taken an important step to safeguard the principle of transparency and demonstrate their openness to criticism.”

Human Rights Watch applied to the Israeli Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority on July 14, 2016, for a work permit on behalf of Shakir, a United States citizen who is a lawyer by training. The Interior Ministry initially denied the work permit for Shakir, but allowed him to enter the country on tourist visa on March 6, 2017, for a 10-day visit.

In a March 12 letter, which Human Rights Watch received on March 27, the Interior Ministry notified Human Rights Watch that it had granted it permission to employ a foreign expert in Israel. The Interior Ministry accepted the paperwork and payment for Shakir’s work visa under the organization’s work permit on April 20, and Shakir received the visa upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on April 26.

Human Rights Watch has had regular access to Israel and the West Bank for nearly three decades, with staff and offices in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza for much of this period. Human Rights Watch staff have regularly met and corresponded with Israeli government officials. Since 2008, Israel has refused Human Rights Watch access to Gaza, except for one visit in 2016.

Human Rights Watch is an independent, international, nongovernmental organization that promotes respect for human rights and international law. It monitors rights violations in more than 90 counties across the world. To carry out its work, Human Rights Watch relies on rigorous research from professional researchers on the ground and regular engagement with government officials, as well as others with first-hand information.

Israeli authorities have in recent years limited the space for local and international human rights defenders operating in Israel and Palestine. A law passed by the Knesset in July requires Israeli nonprofit groups that receive more than half their funding, indirectly or directly, from foreign governments to note that information in communications with the public and with government officials. Data from the Population and Immigration Authority obtained by Haaretz via a Freedom of Information Law in February 2017 indicates a ninefold increase in the number of visitors to Israel denied entry over the past five years. In March, the Knesset passed a law barring entry to those who call for or support a boycott of Israel or Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“Having our country director based in Israel and Palestine will allow us to closely engage Israeli and Palestinian officials, partners, and those directly affected by human rights abuses,” Levine said. “We hope that this decision reflects a larger recommitment by the Israeli government to allow international and domestic rights groups to work freely and to improve access to and from Gaza, in particular for human rights workers.”
 


 

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