UN: armed groups commit war crimes of hostage-taking, torture, and rape in occupied Afrin

A report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has found widespread evidence of torture and sexual and gender-based violence targeting civilians who have been kidnapped by Turkish-backed armed groups in occupied Afrin, and warned that many of these violations amount to war crimes.

In its Key Findings for Mandate Report A/HRC/45/31, which covered the period from January 11 to July 1, the Commission noted that: “The situation for other Kurdish women remains precarious. In addition to harassment, women and were  detained by Syrian National Army fighters, and subjected to rape and sexual violence – causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms…there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian National Army members committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment and torture and rape, which may also amount to torture.”

The Commission cited disturbing examples of these violations targeting kidnapped civilians in Afrin, Ras al-Ain/Sere Kaniye, and Tel Abyad . This is the first time that the United Nations has put forward concrete evidence of these kinds of violations since the Turkish occupation of northern Syria began.

“In detention, civilians – primarily of Kurdish origin – were beaten, tortured, denied food or water, and interrogated about their faith and ethnicity…two women were detained by the Syrian National Army in November 2019, at a checkpoint operated jointly with Turkish officials in the Ra’s al-Ayn region, when returning to their homes. One of the victims described how, during interrogation, she had been threatened with rape and beaten on the head by Syrian National Army members, in the presence of Turkish officials,” noted one section of the report.

“During the period under review, cases of sexual violence against women and men at one detention facility in Afrin were documented. On two occasions, in an apparent effort to humiliate, extract confessions and instil fear within male detainees, Syrian National Army Military Police officers forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor. On the first day, the minor was threatened with being raped in front of the men, but the rape did not proceed. The following day, the same minor was gang-raped, as the male detainees were beaten and forced to watch in an act that amounts to torture. One eyewitness recalled that Turkish officials had been present in the facility on the first day, when the rape was aborted, suggesting their presence may have acted as a deterrent. Another detainee was gang-raped in the same facility some weeks after this incident,” the Commission said.

“The Commission also received reports of forced marriage and the abduction of Kurdish women in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn, which primarily involved members of Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade) of the Syrian National Army. In January, a woman was abducted by a member of the Brigade, who forcibly married her and divorced her shortly thereafter.”

“The Commission received further information that families from Tall Abyad chose not to return to their homes, fearing rape and sexual violence perpetrated by Syrian National Army members. At least 30 women had reportedly been raped in February alone. A former judge in Afrin confirmed that Syrian National Army fighters had been charged with rape and sexual violence carried out during house raids in the region, however none had been convicted, but rather had been released after a few days.”

To date, the Missing Afrin Women Project has documented over 150 reports of women and girls who have been kidnapped in occupied Afrin. Allegations of torture or sexual violence were reported in more than 25 of those cases.

The Missing Afrin Women Project encourages governments and international organizations to further investigate kidnappings and disappearances of women and girls in occupied Afrin, along with all other rights violations carried out by occupying forces, and to hold all perpetrators accountable.