The United Nations human rights office said today that images shown by a British news program of the alleged torture of patients in Syrian hospitals were “shocking” and similar to those received by UN-mandated investigators.
“The pictures shown on Channel 4 last night are truly shocking, and unfortunately very much in accordance with evidence that has been accumulated in the Human Rights Council-mandated fact-finding mission and commission of inquiry reports on Syria,” said Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The OHCHR fact-finding mission and the independent Commission of Inquiry that investigated the violations in Syria concluded that crimes against humanity may have been committed since March last year when the popular uprising – similar to the Arab Spring protests seen across North Africa and the Middle East – began.
Mr. Colville noted that gross human rights violations, including torture, under the cloak of emergency legislation, have been documented in Syria since 1963.
“The brutality of the country’s security forces is notorious, and a number of the security and intelligence agencies act as independent entities and are involved in matters beyond their official functions. They enjoy immunity from prosecution by law,” he told reporters in Geneva.
Methods of torture, most of which are known to have been used in Syria over many years, include severe beatings, electric shocks, suspension for long periods by the limbs, psychological torture and routine humiliation, he stated.
The November 2011 report by the commission of inquiry documented cases of injured people taken to military hospitals, where they were beaten and tortured during interrogation, said Mr. Colville.
Torture and killings reportedly took place in the Homs Military Hospital – the hospital shown in the Channel 4 images – by security forces dressed as doctors and allegedly acting with the complicity of medical personnel.
Consistent testimonies received by both the commission and the fact-finding mission described how members of the security forces tracked down wounded protesters in both public and private hospitals. In early June and late July, security forces allegedly conducted raids in hospitals in Hama, and injured demonstrators were arrested and taken to military hospitals, where they were reportedly interrogated and tortured.
“When widespread and systematic, torture amounts to a crime against humanity,” Mr. Colville stated.
Fadéla Chaib, a spokesperson for the UN World Health Organization (WHO), stressed that hospitals should remain places where people could seek help in a secure environment, where health workers could go about their business neutrally and securely.
While very little information from the ground was available, she added, it was presumed that conditions in hospitals were “difficult.”
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos is scheduled to arrive in Syria tomorrow to urge parties to the conflict to allow in humanitarian assistance, while the Joint Special Envoy of the UN and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan, is due in the region to begin efforts to end the crisis.
Meanwhile, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that as many as 2,000 refugees from Syria may have crossed into Lebanon in the past two days but it was unclear how many had remained.
The agency is currently assessing the situation, spokesperson Sybella Wilkes told reporters, adding that the majority were fleeing violence in Al Qusayr, south of Homs, and many of them were accommodated with host families and a few families were in a mosque in Aarsal. UNHCR and partners are undertaking needs assessments, and essential food and non-food items are being sent to the area.
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