Assad regime begins releasing death certificates for Syria’s detained and disappeared

Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, more than 81,500 people have been forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime.* For months, and in some cases years, their families have repeatedly sought information about their missing loved ones, only to be met with silence. Now the regime is claiming that some of the disappeared have died in its prisons, of “heart attacks” or “a virus”.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 161 cases since May 2018 of family members going to their local civil registry office and being presented with death certificates for their missing relative. Deliberately sparse on information, the death certificates do not reveal the true cause of death, which is likely to be tortured or neglected.

It is not clear why the regime has begun issuing these death certificates, nor why some families have received them while others—who have been informed by former detainees that their relative is dead—still lack official proof.

Mazen Darwish, a Syrian lawyer, and activist who was himself arrested by the regime believes that it is little more than a PR move. “I believe that the regime is trying to give a lawful face to the crimes committed toward Syrian detainees,” he says. “It is also due to the Syrian regime’s allies, who have asked the regime to find solutions to the problem of forcefully disappeared people.”

Though the certificates reveal little about what exactly happened to the disappeared while in detention, families across Syria have begun visiting their civil registry offices to see if certificates for their loved ones have arrived for them.

One family, whose two relatives have been missing since 2012, went to a registry office in the Damascus suburbs to see if there was any news of them. They were told that both men had died in detention.

A member of the family, who asked to remain anonymous, said the certificates were hard to comprehend. “We can’t believe them because we didn’t get to see their bodies, there isn’t any proof that supports the regime’s allegations except these pieces of paper. The reasons given are not convincing—how could all of these young people die from a heart attack? We want to have at least accountability and proper funerals for our beloved ones. Ending their lives with a piece of paper is not acceptable. The international community must pressure the Syrian regime to provide more concrete information and reliable lists.”

The family member also echoed Mazen’s suspicions about why the certificates are being issued. “We believe that the Syrian regime is trying to pretend that the issue of disappeared people is being solved. All they have to do is declare the death of detainees and release maybe a few others to make the international community look away from all the crimes committed by the regime.”

Noura Ghazi, a Human rights lawyer and founding member of Families for Freedom, a movement of Syrian families demanding the freedom of their sons and daughters, says:

“As families we demand to know the causes of death of our loved ones and where they are buried. We will not accept the regime’s cover for its brutal treatment of our loved ones by presenting fake causes. It is our right to know every detail.”

Though Assad is retaking more ground in Syria, there cannot be a peaceful path to reconstruction while the fates of the detained and disappeared remain unknown. Laila Kiki, Executive Director of the Syria Campaign, joins Syrian families in demanding that the regime free the imprisoned and release more information about the dead.

“We call upon the Syrian Government to immediately release a list of names of all detainees, along with their current locations and statuses, and to immediately stop their torture and mistreatment. In cases where a detainee has died, a full death certificate along with a report into the causes of their death and their burial location must be presented to the families.”