US and UK complicit in detentions at Syrian camps where torture rife, says Amnesty

The US and UK are complicit in the detention of thousands of people, including British nationals, in camps and facilities in north-east Syria where disease, torture and death are rife, according to Amnesty International.

In a report, the charity says the western-backed region’s autonomous authorities are responsible for large-scale human rights violations against people held since the end of the ground war against Islamic State (IS) more than five years ago.

Amnesty says the US is “involved in most aspects of the detention system”, which consists of at least 27 little-reported facilities, where suspected IS affiliates are held, and al-Hawl and Roj camps.

According to the report, 56,000 detainees include 30,000 children and 14,500 women, more than 20 UK nationals, as well as people stripped of their British citizenship – most notoriously Shamima Begum (in Roj), who was 15 when she left her east London home to travel to IS territory.

The UK has provided more than £15m to help expand a large Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) facility called Panorama, which detains men and boys who have been denied access to adequate food and medical care, leading to illnesses and diseases, including a severe outbreak of tuberculosis, which is killing one or two people a week, says Amnesty.

Sacha Deshmukh, the charity’s UK chief executive, said: “Continued inaction from the government amounts to connivance in the unlawful detention of UK nationals amid misery, disease and possible death.

“The UK government has a responsibility for all its citizens, including Shamima Begum, which it can’t cast off when that might suit it.”

He said the UK should stop blocking its citizens’ return and help establish a fair process to identify who should be released and bring IS criminals to justice.

The report, which includes interviews with 126 current or former detainees, contains harrowing details of torture.

Yusuf (not his real name), one of eight men detained in an SDF detention facility on the outskirts of al-Shaddadi city who spoke to Amnesty, said: “The worst was when they came inside the room … carrying plastic pipes, cables, steel pipes, and they beat us everywhere … Every 15 days, they would take us out, in the yard, all naked … [The guards] were raping people with [a] stick … Once they took me [out of the cell] with another guy … They brought an electricity cable from the generator, and they kept torturing us by electricity … I think the guy next to me died. He stopped moving and screaming.”

Another detainee said when US soldiers visited the facility in December 2021 “they were able to see the blood on the wall”.

The report says there are high levels of gender-based violence in al-Hawl, including attacks against women by IS affiliates for perceived “moral” infractions, and sexual exploitation by members of the security forces and private individuals, while women have also been unlawfully separated from their children.

Among those held in the detention system are IS victims, including victims of the Yazidi genocide, of forced marriage to the armed group’s members and of child recruitment, according to Amnesty.

It says most people have not been charged, while prosecutions that have taken place have been reliant on “confessions” extracted by torture, without legal representation.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said: “The US government has played a central role in the creation and maintenance of this system in which hundreds have died preventable deaths, and must play a role in changing it.”

The autonomous authorities told Amnesty they would act on evidence of violations but had not received any complaints “and if this happened, they are individual actions”. They criticised the international community for failing to “fulfil their legal and moral obligations”, and countries with nationals in the detention system for leaving them “alone in dealing with the consequences” of the fight against IS.

The UK government said it had “robust processes in place to ensure that projects funded by the UK meet our human rights obligations and values”. It added that it was extremely concerned about the threat of tuberculosis, while stressing that “ultimately, responsibility for detention and camp facilities and the wellbeing, detention, transfer or prosecution of detainees is a matter for authorities under whose jurisdiction individuals are detained”.

The US state department said it urged all groups in Syria to “uphold human rights”, and worked with “appropriately vetted” groups and individuals. It said the only solution was the “repatriation and return of displaced persons and detainees to their countries of origin”, so that the perpetrators can “be held responsible for their crimes by competent rights-respecting judicial processes”.


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