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Torture ‘rampant’ in Syria: HRW chief tells Al Arabiya

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The executive director of Human Rights Watch told Al Arabiya that torture was “rampant” in the Syrian regime prisons and urged the rebel forces to adhere to international human right laws.

Leading the largest human rights organization in the United States with offices in over 90 countries, Kenneth Roth, said the organization did a detailed report on the various secret detention centers maintained by the Syrian government.

“In the 27 centers that we identified, yes, torture is rampant, it is the way it is done, so I think it is really as bad as you can get, now it is worth nothing that there is also are concerns on the rebels side and we think it is particularly important that the rebels not only pledge to strictly adhere to international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions and the like – but that they act that way,” he said.

Roth said that while many people look to the rebels as a credible alternative to President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the standards of human rights violations, namely the Geneva Conventions, do not differ for the government and the rebels, despite the latter seen as predominantly defending themselves.

“These [rules] apply to both sides equally. It does not matter whether your side is the right side or the just side, the aggressor or the defender,” he said.

“I don’t know any soldier who thinks he is fighting for the wrong side, everybody always thinks they are fighting for the right side, that is why it is critical that the rules apply regardless of the justice of your case, that is the way they are written,” he continued.

While Roth thinks that the two are on different levels in terms of abuse, with Assad’s forces responsible for “large-scale atrocities,” the organization is worried of emerging abuse cases by the rebels.

“I think it is important that those be nipped in the bud and that the rebel leadership, even though it is dispersed, it is not as coherent as people might want, that the rebel leadership as it exists makes clear that it wants to respect these standard and it is going to do everything it can to halt its troops to these standards,” he said.

Roth mentioned that Human Rights Watch has been pushing for a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for “a long, long time.”

“None of us believe that the threat of an indictment is going to dissuade Assad from committing atrocities, but we are hoping that it will signal the next layer down, that if they want a future, they better break with the murderous path that Assad has set his nation on.”

With regards to Russia’s reaction in the Security Council regarding the crisis, Roth said that all that Russia has succeeded in doing is building hatred among the Arab people for its indifference to the killing in Syria.

“Russia’s obstinacy is an intransigence at the Security Council and has unfortunately rendered the Security Council irrelevant, and increasingly what we see is that this is being fought in the battlefields in Syria, and Russia is becoming increasingly irrelevant. So this effort to stay on center stage led by Putin has been an utter failure, thousands of Syrians have died as a result and Russia is going to be worse off, not better off, for the effort,” Roth said.

The Human Rights Watch has been actively encouraging the Security Council to impose tough sanctions, such as oil and weaponry embargoes. While most members wanted to do it, Russia and China rejected the idea, Roth said.

“We would like to see the Arab League do more, they have pledged to impose sanctions but a lot of those sanctions have not actually been enacted and it has been difficult because apparently to enact sanctions, they need unanimity and there are still certain members of the Arab League that are not really on board the decision to try to pressure Assad,” he added.

Moreover, the Arab League is to propose a resolution to be put up to a vote on Friday in the General Assembly, which would grant Assad and his family safe exit in exchange for relinquishing power, something Roth opposes.

“A formal amnesty should never be given for crimes of that magnitude,” he said.

“This is what happened in Yemen when President Saleh was said, ‘You know, don’t worry, we will let you leave the country without any prosecution, and that was said months before he left. The effect of that message was basically to tell him: go ahead, kill as many Yemenis as you want, if you succeed, you will stay in power and you are obviously not going to prosecute yourself but if you fail we will not prosecute you.

“So I think it’s absolutely wrong to send a message, you know, ‘don’t worry President Assad, if this doesn’t work out for you in Damascus, we will find you a nice safe haven in Moscow or Tehran.”