Since the Syrian regime imprisoned Yehya Hijazi and his two boys in 2012, their families have held out hope that they are still alive and would be liberated one day.
However, their expectations were dashed after a decade of silence from the government, when the independent monitoring organisation – Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) – contacted the Hijazi family to inform them that it had received death certificates for all three.
“You’re hoping every second that you’ll catch another glimpse of this person whom you love very much, that you’ll hear any news of him,” said Mohammad, Yehya’s brother, while speaking with Reuters over the phone from northwest Syria. “Then you hear he’s dead.”
The SNHR claimed the documentation verifying Yehya and his boys’ deaths were among the 547 inmate death certificates received from whistleblowers within government ministries since 2017.
The rights organisation said that the records gave answers to the fates of hundreds of missing persons. Activists hope that they may ultimately be used in international proceedings against the Syrian government, which has been accused of crimes against humanity by a United Nations committee of investigation for its imprisonment methods. The authorities did not reply to emailed queries regarding the death certificates received by the SNHR.
Previously, the Syrian government denied reports of extensive torture and mass deaths in jail. Reuters reviewed 80 of the death certificates, including the three for the Hijazi family, along with those of a three-year-old girl and her six-year-old sister.
A sampling of the documents was evaluated by a Syrian human rights lawyer who declined to be identified owing to the sensitivity of the situation. He stated that the structure, the language utilised, and information presented matched previous Syrian death certificates. Reuters was unable to independently confirm if the documents were legitimate.
Mohammad Hijazi stated that the family had not demanded death certificates from the government since they resided in opposition-controlled territories. He went on to say that acquaintances in government-held areas likewise declined to inquire about deaths in civil registers for fear of being perceived as anti-Damascus.
The Syrian conflict erupted after a 2011 revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which killed over 350,000 people, uprooting more than half the population, and forcing millions to flee abroad as refugees.
According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, tens of thousands of people are believed to have been imprisoned by the Syrian government in detention centres. According to the commission and prisoners’ families, people are frequently detained incommunicado, leaving their relatives wondering where they are or if they are even alive.
International human rights organisations are not allowed to work openly in Syria and are denied access to prison facilities. In August, the UN Secretary General’s office proposed establishing a system to discover the fate of missing Syrians, but it is yet to be set up.
According to the SNHR, the 547 certificates included those for 15 children and 19 women. Some of the 80 certificates seen by Reuters specified the site of death as military hospitals or military tribunals. Others were evasive regarding the location of the death, referring to “Damascus” or a town on the outskirts. Some fields were left unfilled.
Reuters also found huge gaps between the date of death and when it was entered in the registration, with most indicating a lag of several years and one showing a latency of ten years. It found no cause of death mentioned on any of the certificates analysed. According to the SNHR, this was true for all 547 people.
The rights organisation compared the names on the death certificates to larger lists of those arrested by Syrian authorities. The organisation was able to contact the relatives of 23 of those who died. According to the article, many people had assumed that their loved ones were deceased but only found out for sure when they read the death certificates.
Torture and ill-treatment in Syrian government prisons remain “systemic”, according to a 2022 report by the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, which noted abuses in detention centres run by non-government factions too. It said that the government was deliberately withholding information from the families of loved ones, and described its detention policies as amounting to crimes against humanity.
In the period between early May and mid-June this year, the SNHR documented the release of 547 detainees from Syrian prisons. Approximately 132,000 people were detained or held in regime prisons, according to a report on Saturday. In the period between May 1 and June 13, 61 women and 16 children were released, according to the report. According to a presidential decree of May, terrorist crimes committed by Syrians before April 30, 2022, will be forgiven, except if they result in death.
Network members urged the international community to pressure the Assad regime to release the detainees and prisoners still held, including 87,000 individuals believed to have been forcibly disappeared. In addition, it called on the regime to cancel its exceptional courts and nullify all its verdicts that violate the basic rights of Syrian citizens. In the absence of an end to the tyranny and brutality of the security services, they ruled out implementing any of these demands.
Civil registries were updated in 2018 with death certificates of people who died in custody but were not directly informed by relatives, as per the United Nations commission. The Syrian government did not respond to questions about why the government had not informed relatives of the deaths.
The civil registries in government-controlled areas facilitated the search for deceased loved ones by relatives. According to the commission and the SNHR, bodies were not allowed to be buried in cemeteries or where the remains were located. In other cases, people have found out about the deaths by recognising their relatives in leaked pictures taken by military photographers, one of whom is code-named Caesar. Caesar’s photographs were rejected by the Assad government in a 2015 interview as ‘allegations without evidence’. Former war crimes prosecutors have described the images from the war as clear evidence of systematic torture and mass killings.
In a statement, SNHR director Fadel Abdul Ghany said that they hoped the large batch of death certificates would provide some relief to people still awaiting news of the fate of their loved ones.