Growing concerns over HRs abuses by Turkish-backed rebels in Afrin

Torture cases against civilians have been increasingly reported in the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin since the Kurdish-majority area has fallen under the control of Turkish-backed rebels, raising concerns among locals and rights groups.

Ahmed Sheikho, the vice president of the local council in the town of Shiyeh in Afrin, was tortured to death last week by a rebel group that is in control of the town, according to local sources and family members.

Contacted by Ahval, Sheikho’s family in Afrin confirmed his death, but refused to give details for fear of retribution. His Beirut-based brother, however, said in a video posted on social media that his brother was arrested and killed by rebels.

“My brother was a vocal critic of the rebels who have occupied Afrin,” said Mustafa Sheikho.

“They arrested him several days before his death to silence him. And because he refused to cooperate with them, they began torturing him. They only released him when they were certain he would die. Indeed after one day of his release, he died in front of his wife at home. Signs of torture were clearly visible all over his body,” he added.

The Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNC), a group that has ties Turkey, issued a statement following Sheikho’s death, accusing the rebels of committing crimes in Afrin.

“We are strongly condemning this criminal act and other abuses perpetrated by these gangs that are in contrast to human rights treaties and amount to war crimes,” the KNC statement said.  

“Since these [rebel] groups have entered Afrin, there have been many incidents of looting, burning properties and landmarks and kidnapping and torturing civilians,” the statement added.

The Kurdish group said its representatives in Afrin are collecting information and evidence about ongoing abuses in the region.

“Based on the findings, our legal committee will prepare reports and send them to international organisations and governments,” Hasan Salih, a top KNC official, told Ahval. “The perpetrators must be held accountable,” he said.

On Jan 20, 2018, Turkey and allied rebel forces began a major military campaign, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, to oust Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Afrin. The operation ended on March 18 after the Turkish military and its Syrian allies took complete control of the Kurdish city.

Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a three-decade conflict with Turkish armed forces for greater autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast.

Rights groups said they have been following these developments in Afrin since the start of the operation against Kurdish fighters in January.

“We are closely following what’s going on in Afrin,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“We made a trip to northern Syria in May to document what’s really happening in Afrin,” she told Ahval. “It’s difficult to talk to people inside the city because they are afraid of the rebels, so we interviewed many of Afrin residents who have fled their homes and are now in other areas such as Kobani and Qamishli.”

The HRW released a report last week in which it said Turkish-backed rebels “have seized, looted, and destroyed property of Kurdish civilians in the Afrin district of northern Syria.”

Ahrar al-Sharqiyah and Jaish al-Sharqiyah were among the rebel groups that participated in these actions against civilians, according to Afrin residents HRW researchers spoke to.

Two days following the death of Ahmed Sheikho, another civilian was reportedly tortured after being arrested by a group of armed men affiliated with the Sultan Murad Division, one of the largest rebel groups in Afrin.

Mohamed Ibrahim was selling grape leaves in his truck in downtown Afrin when the armed men approached him and demanded to take over his vehicle and any money he had on him.

When the 54-year-old Kurdish resident gave them the money but refused their hand them his truck, he was snatched from the scene and taken to a building used by the group as an interrogation center, according to his relatives.

Jwan Ibrahim, Mohamed’s relative who lives in London, has been in contact with the family after Mohamed was taken to a hospital in Turkey’s Hatay province for treatment.

“They took him back to his car only after he lost consciousness under torture,” he told Ahval, adding that Moahmed’s is currently in critical condition.

He said that Mohamed was kept in detention for one day during which they used batons and cables for beating him up. Ibrahim is farmer who has no political opinions, his cousin Jwan said.

Some opposition figures have voiced their criticism of the ill-treatment of civilians in Afrin.

“The biggest disservice to the Operation Olive Branch and to the sacrifices of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkish military is our ‘silence’ about the crimes committed by those who are hiding in the cloak FSA.,” Mustafa Sejari, a top FSA commander, said in a tweet.  

“They are intimidating, stealing and dishonoring our civilian people, traders and farmers. They are accusing everyone who raise voice among civilians of being members of ISIS and PKK,” he added.

The KNC called on Turkey to put an end to these violations against the local population in Afrin.

“These acts are being committed under the watch of the Turkish military, which, as an occupying state, is legally responsible for protecting civilians and their properties [in Afrin]” the KNC added.

Human rights experts too believe that Turkey should take on the responsibility of  protecting civilian lives in Afrin.

“Turkey has an obligation to ensure law and order in Afrin, including restraining rebel fighters from committing unlawful acts against civilians,” said Motaparthy of HRW.



The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.