SYRIA: Detention and killing of children prompt charges and countercharges

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Anti-government protesters in Syria have championed the cases of children detained and killed during the past month, trying to raise awareness and prevent more deaths.

In response, President Bashar Assad’s regime launched a propaganda a campaign of its own, denying that children have been tortured and blaming their deaths on protesters.

Timeline: Uprising in Syria

Thamer Sahri, 15, disappeared April 29 during mass arrests near the embattled southern city of Dara, where the uprising began. His body was returned to his family last Wednesday with an eye and teeth missing, neck and leg broken and multiple bullet wounds, according to a video posted online. (Note: This video contains graphic images.)


The video could not be independently verified due to the Syrian government’s media blackout.

“The violent deaths suffered by Thamer Sahri and other children are utterly shocking, as is the Syrian authorities’ apparent lack of action to rein in the security forces accused of being responsible for them,” said Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program in a statement last Friday.

Thamer is the fourth youth reported to have died in custody since March, Amnesty International officials said.

At least 32 Syrian children, ages 12 to 17, remained in detention this week and could be at risk of torture, Amnesty officials said.

Last month, Syrian activists posted numerous Facebook pages for children killed and wounded in the conflict. They organized “Friday of the children of freedom” marches in several cities to honor children killed.

Opposition leaders say they hope the stories and photographs will motivate more middle-class Syrians to speak out against what they call an abusive police state.

“The detention of children represents the extreme of these abuses, demonstrating the lawless and cruel nature of the security forces,” said Beirut-based activist Rami Nakhle.

More than 1,400 people have been killed during the uprising, including about 80 children, Nakhle said.

While the figures could not be independently checked due to the media blackout, activists provided names, ages, dates of death and a description of the circumstances to support their claims. They included:

-- Four-year-old Marwa Hassan Shakhdo, reportedly shot by security forces searching her home in Rastan last Tuesday.

-- Mahmoud Kadri, 12, shot four times and killed by security forces when he went out to buy bread in the Damascus suburb of Duma on April 25.

-- Ibtisam Masalmeh, 11, shot and killed by police as she stood on the terrace of her home in the southern city of Dara on March 23.

-- Hajar Khatib, 10, killed when her school bus was shot at by Syrian security forces last week in the central Syrian city of Rastan, an attack that wounded at least nine other children and has spawned a Facebook page and numerous videos posted online.

In the video below, titled, ‘This is how Syrian security forces killed the little girl Hajar Khatib,’ a youth who says he is Hajar’s cousin appears to be laying in a hospital bed with his arm in a sling as he describes how a tank opened fire on the bus at a checkpoint, killing Hajar and his uncle. The youth says the children who survived had to crawl from the bus and take shelter in a nearby home.

An activist in the southern city of Suwayda who asked not to be identified said most of the children killed so far have died in Homs and Dara. At least nine of the children in detention
are from Dara, according to Amnesty officials.

The Syrian activist said it was difficult to speak with parents whose children have been killed because Assad’s regime monitors them and blocks media access. In some cases, he said security forces and police delayed or refused to release children’s bodies to prevent the deaths from being reported.

He said activists in Syria have been frustrated at the lack of response to children’s deaths from international leaders, particularly in the U.S., Europe and the International Criminal Court.

“Such crimes cannot be hidden forever,” he said.

Among the first and most publicized cases was Hamza Khatib, a 13-year-old detained during a protest in Dara, according to relatives and activists. Hamza was allegedly tortured and killed in police custody, his body mutilated, including his genitals.

A forensic specialist consulted by Amnesty International analyzed a video of Hamza’s body last week and concluded that he had been shot twice at close range, in the arm and the chest, and had “suffered repeated violence with a blunt instrument while still alive.”

Syrian court records tell an entirely different story.

According to the records, Hamza was shot and killed as he approached an army checkpoint on a motorcycle. Security forces took his body to the morgue at Tishreen Military Hospital, where it remained for 10 days, allegedly because he could not be identified.

Hamza’s body was never mutilated, officials noted in the court records, insisting he suffered a hormonal condition that made his genitals appear small, and that his body deteriorated while it was stored, making cuts appear deeper postmortem.

After Hamza’s story began to circulate widely, Syrian state television also fired back with a report on the ‘exploitation of children’ by demonstrators.

The report alleged protesters took children out of school and, ‘pushed [them] into the streets of violence under the slogan of freedom,” using “children as barricades and human shields behind which the muzzles of their treacherous guns hide to fatally hit these same children, other citizens, and army and security elements.”

“This way, they exploit the child twice: In his life if he survives and in his death if he is killed by their bullets, as they use his blood to fabricate a human story that rouses everyone’s sorrow and anger.’

The report said protesters ‘trade in the pictures and blood of children after they caused their death’ and that protesters are responsible for such children and “for any harm they face and every drop of blood they lose.”

‘For childhood to blossom in the homeland’s gardens and future, children must enjoy a safe and stable life in their classrooms where they learn the love of the country and the values of tolerance, constructive freedom, equality, and brotherhood,” it said.

The reporter, Ibrahim Hasan, interviewed several unidentified people who accused protesters of coercing children to attend demonstrations.

‘Someone is leading them, convincing them, or offering them incentives’ to participate, a woman said.

A man added: ‘I believe these children either need money -- and those who use them take advantage of this need -- or are ignored by their families.’

The report showed how much the regime fears children’s deaths are “eating into their support,” said Maha Azzam, a fellow at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs research institute.

The counter-propaganda does not appear to be working inside or outside Syria, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“I don’t think people are buying it,” in Syria, said Tabler, who said he is in touch with residents who have persisted in protesting. “They’re coming out in larger numbers.’

The United Nations Security Council has so far resisted intervening in Syria, at the urging of Chinese and Russian leaders, but Tabler and Azzam said international pressure is likely to mount as more images of young victims of violence circulate online and in the media.

“It’s going to be difficult for the international community to ignore,” Azzam said.


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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo, Alexandra Sandels and Roula Hajjar in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus

Top video: One of nine children wounded in an attack on a school bus by Syrian forces in the central Homs city of Rastan on May 29. Credit: YouTube.

Bottom video: A youth who says he is Hajar Khatib’s cousin describes how a Syrian tank opened fire on their school bus at a checkpoint May 29, killing his uncle and Hajar. Credit: YouTube.

Top photo: Facebook pages and online videos memorialize Hajar Khatib, 10, killed when her school bus was shot at by Syrian forces May 29. Credit: Facebook.