Tuesday, April 23, 2024

  • Estimated 56,000 men, women and children held in system of detention; most arbitrarily and indefinitely detained
  • Torture methods include beatings, stress positions and electric shocks
  • “The US government has played a central role in the creation and maintenance of this system” – Agnès Callamard

People detained following the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS) armed group are facing systematic violations and dying in large numbers due to inhumane conditions in north-east Syria, Amnesty International said in a new report.

Aftermath: Injustice, Torture and Death in Detention in North-East Syria documents how the region’s autonomous authorities are responsible for the large-scale violation of the rights of more than 56,000 people in their custody. This includes an estimated 11,500 men, 14,500 women, and 30,000 children held in at least 27 detention facilities and two detention camps – Al-Hol and Roj. The autonomous authorities are the principal partner of the US government and other coalition members who defeated IS in north-east Syria. The USA is involved in most aspects of the detention system. 

More than five years after the territorial defeat of IS, tens of thousands of people remain arbitrarily and indefinitely detained. Many are held in inhumane conditions and have been subjected to torture, including severe beatings, stress positions, electric shocks, and gender-based violence. Thousands more have been forcibly disappeared. Women have been unlawfully separated from their children.

Children, women and men held in these detention camps and facilities suffer shocking cruelty and violence

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General

Among those held in the detention system are IS victims. Scores, if not hundreds, of Yezidi victims are among those detained. Many other detained women and girls are victims of forced marriage to IS members, and many detained boys and young men are victims of child recruitment by IS.

“The autonomous authorities have committed the war crimes of torture and cruel treatment, and likely committed the war crime of murder,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“Children, women and men held in these detention camps and facilities suffer shocking cruelty and violence. 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.

“This detention system violates the rights of people with perceived IS affiliation, and has also failed to deliver justice and accountability for the victims and survivors of IS crimes.

“While the threat of IS remains real worldwide, the violations ongoing in north-east Syria only entrench further grievances and mean a generation of children have known only systematic injustice. The autonomous authorities, members of the US-led coalition, and the UN must act to remedy these violations and end the cycles of abuse and violence.”

Illustration by Colin Foo. © Amnesty International.

Role of US-led coalition

Those detained include Syrians, Iraqis and foreign nationals from an estimated 74 other countries. The majority of people detained came into the custody of the autonomous authorities during the final territorial battles with IS in early 2019. These people are now deprived of their liberty in two types of settings: closed buildings, referred to here as “detention facilities”, and closed open-air camps, referred to as “detention camps”.

The system is run by the Autonomous Authorities of the North and East Syria Region, comprised of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); other security forces affiliated with the SDF; and the SDF’s civilian wing, the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES).

The US government has played a central role in the creation and maintenance of this system

Agnès Callamard

In 2014, the US Department of Defense established the US-led coalition to “degrade and destroy” IS. While the coalition is technically made up of 29 states, the US government is by far its most influential member, leading on the strategy, planning, resourcing and implementation of its mission. The US-led coalition, with funding from the US Congress, has refurbished existing detention facilities, constructed new ones, and frequently visits them. The US Department of Defense has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the SDF and affiliated security forces. The US-led coalition has also played a key role in ongoing joint operations that result in the transfer of people to SDF custody and in facilitating the repatriation of people held in north-east Syria to third countries, including Iraq.

“The US government has contributed to establishing and expanding a system of largely unlawful detention, characterized by systemic inhumane and degrading conditions, unlawful killings, and the widespread use of torture. While the US may have provided support for the purpose of improving prison conditions or mitigating violations, these interventions fell far short of what was required under international law,” said Agnès Callamard.

“The US-led coalition, along with the international community more generally, has also failed the victims of IS crimes and their families who are still waiting for effective investigations and justice. Instead, people swept up following the regional defeat of IS have been detained unlawfully for years, and the autonomous authorities – a non-state actor with limited resources, operating amidst ongoing conflicts – has shouldered the greatest burden of the crisis.

“The autonomous authorities, the US government, other members of the coalition and the UN must all work together and prioritize the urgent development of a comprehensive strategy to bring this shameful system into compliance with international law and identify justice solutions to finally hold perpetrators of IS’s atrocity crimes to account.

“They should conduct an urgent screening process to identify individuals in detention who should be immediately released, with a particular focus on victims of IS crimes and at-risk groups. While this is underway, they must ensure that the violations being committed are stopped immediately, and reports of torture and death are independently investigated.”

Amnesty International researchers travelled to north-east Syria on three occasions, between September 2022 and August 2023, to conduct interviews at both camps and in 10 detention facilities. In total, Amnesty International interviewed 314 people for the report. Amnesty International engaged extensively on its findings, in briefings and in written communications, with the autonomous authorities and the US government. Each responded in writing.

© ESRI, OSM, Google Places, Lead Inspector General Report to the US Congress.

The autonomous authorities’ response highlighted the difficult conditions they face, including ongoing armed conflicts. They criticized the “international community and global partners” for failing to “fulfill their legal and moral obligations”, and stated that countries with nationals in the detention system and the international community had left them “alone in dealing with the consequences” of the fight against IS.

The US State Department’s response identified US efforts to address the “dire humanitarian and security challenges” in north-east Syria. It urged all actors in Syria, including the SDF, to “uphold human rights”, and said it works with groups and individuals in the SDF who are “appropriately vetted”. It said the only solution is 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”.

US role in the detention system

Leads military coalition to counter IS in Syria and Iraq.
Provided hundred of millions of dollars to the SDF and affiliated forces.
Assisted in screening process when people were leaving last IS-held areas
Interrogates detainees in the system
Provides trainings to security forces working at detention camps and facilities
Conducts unilateral and joint military operations with the SDF and affiliated forces, bringing new people into the detention system.
Provides stipends for security forces working at detention camps and facilities
Funds the organisation managing the two camps
Facilitates transfer of people inside the system to third states

‘I could not scream any more’: torture and death in security force facilities

The SDF-run Sini detention facility is on the outskirts of Al-Shaddadi city, in Hasakah governorate. Amnesty International interviewed eight men detained at Sini between 2019 and 2023.

According to their testimony, detainees were regularly subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, including beatings, whipping with electrical cables, suspension from the wrists in stress positions, sexual violence, and electric shocks.

Yusuf* told Amnesty International: “There was no specific day or specific hour, or a way of torture… 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… I reached a point where I could not scream any more.”

All eight former detainees said the SDF deprived them of adequate food and water. All faced inhumane conditions in their cells, including overcrow­­­ding, lack of ventilation and extreme temperatures. They said the combination of physical abuse, inhumane conditions and lack of medical care caused outbreaks of disease and other health conditions, and led to the deaths of hundreds of people.

Detainees recounted episodes where friends and cellmates died in front of them. One detainee said that 17 people in his cell died when the authorities turned off the exhaust fan one day in 2020. According to three detainees, the corpses of those who died in Sini were deposited in a mass grave referred to as a “ditch”.

Google Earth © 2024 CNES/Airbus

Abbas* told Amnesty International that US soldiers visited the facility in December 2021: “We know the Americans, they come with their weapons and their dogs… [They] checked on the prison, and they searched us, and all of our rooms… They were able to see the blood on the wall. They could see the people who were injured from torture.”

The second main SDF facility detaining men and boys is Panorama, located in Hasakah city. The facility was purpose-built in a project managed by the US-led coalition. Detainees in Panorama have been denied access to adequate food and medical care, leading to illnesses and diseases, including a severe outbreak of tuberculosis that has been ongoing for years. If left untreated, tuberculosis is fatal in 50% of cases.

In August 2023, SDF representatives told Amnesty International that an extremely high percentage of men and boys were infected, and that one or two men or boys were dying from tuberculosis each week. The representatives confirmed they were not treating active cases or isolating sick detainees.

According to available information, adult men infected with tuberculosis have only received limited medical treatment, if any, in the past, and were not receiving medical treatment for tuberculosis at the time this report was finalized. The US State Department told Amnesty International they were “working with partners to address medical needs such as tuberculosis”.

Amnesty International found that torture is being carried out systematically in detention facilities run by the SDF and affiliated security forces. The organization conducted interviews with 46 men, women, and children held in security force detention facilities other than Sini and Panorama who also experienced some form of torture or other ill-treatment. The majority were Syrian and had been tortured to extract forced confessions. Amnesty International interviewed two people who were subjected to torture immediately after being transferred from the custody of the US-led coalition to the SDF and affiliated security forces.

Regarding Amnesty International’s findings on systematic torture or other ill-treatment, the autonomous authorities said they would act on evidence of such violations, but stated: “We have not received any information or complaints in this regard, and if this happened, they are individual actions.”

Illustration by Colin Foo. © Amnesty International.

‘If he were taller, they would take him’: children in detention facilities

An estimated 1,000 Syrian and foreign boys, and young men detained as boys, are held in the detention facilities, including youth “rehabilitation” centres. They are subjected to some of the same violations as adults including, in some cases, torture and ill-treatment. Only an estimated one in 10 have been charged with committing a crime.

The number of boys in the detention facilities is expanding. Syrian boys continue to be arrested for their perceived IS affiliation, sometimes with the support of the US-led coalition.

The autonomous authorities are also forcibly separating foreign national boys from their mothers or guardians in the detention camps, and transferring them to detention facilities. The removals do not appear to be based on individual assessments of the boys’ best interests, but rather a desire by the autonomous authorities to guard against an increasing and aging camp population they believe could pose a future threat.

A girl in one of the camps told Amnesty International: “Because of this policy I keep pushing my brother’s head down, so he does not grow up… If he were taller, they would take him.”

Violent detention camps and transfer of women to detention facilities

As of December 2023, the autonomous authorities were holding more than 46,600 people –  the overwhelming majority (roughly 94%) children and women – in Al-Hol and Roj detention camps. No one in these camps has been charged or given the opportunity to challenge their detention before an independent judicial authority. People in both camps face unsanitary, inhumane and life-threatening conditions, with inadequate access to food, water and healthcare. Layla*, a 30-year-old woman, said: “Living here is a slow, painful death.”

There are high levels of gender-based violence in Al-Hol camp, including attacks against women by IS affiliates for perceived “moral” infractions, and sexual exploitation by members of the security forces and private individuals. There is no adequate system of protection or support in place for women who are at risk.  

Scores of Syrian women and a small number of girls have been transferred from the camps to detention facilities. Many women convicted of IS-related crimes described to Amnesty International being tortured to extract “confessions”; accounts indicated some women were convicted in relation to non-violent acts of survival in Al-Hol camp. Foreign national women are also taken to detention facilities, where they are interrogated and held incommunicado for protracted periods.

Eight women described being subjected to acts of gender-based violence amounting to torture or other ill-treatment in detention facilities. One woman said: “I was given electric shocks. I was pregnant at the time. The [interrogator] knew, he told me: ‘I am going to force you to have a miscarriage’, and that’s what he did.” Other women described being subjected to sexual threats and humiliation.

Syrian and foreign national women described being forced to leave their children behind when they were taken to detention facilities from the camps, without any alternative care arrangements.


IS victims forgotten

Despite efforts by the autonomous authorities to identify and repatriate Yezidi victims of what the UN recognised as a genocide, it is estimated that scores, if not hundreds, remain among those detained. Many other women and children held in the detention camps and facilities are also survivors of IS atrocity crimes and trafficking in persons.

Amal*, a foreign national, described being deceived to travel to IS-held territory, where she was imprisoned in a woman-only guesthouse (madafa) until she gave in to demands that she marry. The man to whom she was forcibly married subjected her to sexual violence and other abuse.

Twenty-seven other women and children also gave accounts indicating they were victims of trafficking by IS, including through madafas or forced marriage of young girls. Many of the boys were forced to work or fight for IS. Despite widespread trafficking by IS, no system exists to identify these victims and provide them with protection and support.

Flawed trials

According to the autonomous authorities, specialized courts have finalized cases of more than 9,600 individuals allegedly connected to IS in the last 10 years, including women and children. Almost all of the individuals prosecuted are Syrians, although a small number of Iraqis have been tried.

These trials have been severely tainted by human rights violations, including a reliance on “confessions” extracted by torture or other ill-treatment, and the absence of lawyers at all stages.

Due to the absence of fair trial safeguards, simply the accusation that a person is affiliated with IS can condemn them to years of arbitrary detention. Amnesty International documented 18 such accounts in which people said they were falsely accused of IS affiliation.

Women were also convicted of “terrorism” crimes in relation to the acts of their husbands, including for “failing to inform” authorities, without adequate consideration of any coercion. Children were left to navigate the same flawed criminal proceedings without contact with their parent or guardian.

None of the individuals detained in north-east Syria has been prosecuted for crimes under international law, including war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. Prosecutions have instead mostly been for broadly worded “terrorism” offences. Many serious crimes perpetrated by IS, such as sexual enslavement, have not been investigated at all.

Illustration by Colin Foo. © Amnesty International.

Transfers to Iraq

According to multiple sources, the SDF, the Iraqi authorities, and the US-led coalition came to a new agreement in January 2022 that 50 Iraqi men from detention facilities in north-east Syria would be transferred to Iraq each month. Since then, hundreds of Iraqi men have been transferred under this deal, with the support of the US-led coalition.

Amnesty International documented the cases of seven Iraqi men who were transferred from north-east Syria to Iraq. Six were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment during interrogations in Iraq; the seventh man “confessed” due to threat of torture. Four of these men are now awaiting execution, including two who were transferred under the 2022 deal.

Amnesty International concludes that the autonomous authorities and the US government have likely violated the international law principle of non-refoulement in these transfers, as well as the rights to life and to freedom from torture.


During visits to Syria and through additional remote interviews, Amnesty International interviewed a total of 126 people suspected of IS affiliation who are currently or have previously been held in detention facilities or camps. Amnesty International’s other interviews included 39 representatives of the autonomous authorities, 53 staff members of national and international NGOs, and 25 representatives of the United Nations.

Tags: Syria, Human Rights, Freedom of expression.