- J. DAVID GOODMAN
Human rights groups protest shocking video of Free Syrian Army rebels carrying out an execution in Aleppo.
- Documentary: Homs: City Under Siege [Not available in US]
Syrian insurgents’ execution of several members of a prominent Aleppo family with close ties to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, captured on video and circulated widely, appeared to constitute a war crime, according to human rights activists.
“As the opposition gains more territory, it is important to hold them to the same standard we would apply to all sides.”
While the details remained murky, the killings appeared to stem from the pitched battles that have raged for days in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and its commercial hub. Rebels accused members of the Barri family, a large Sunni clan well known for suppressing opposition to Mr Assad, of killing 15 anti-government fighters after initially pledging to let them pass through an area the Barri family controlled.
Video posted by anti-government activists showed more than a dozen men, some with bloodied faces and torn clothing, who are said to be members or associates of the clan. Held in what appeared to be a room at a school, they were made to state their names and accused of being pro-government militiamen known as shabiha. The man sitting in the centre, described as a leader of the group, said his name was Ali Zein El Abidin Barri, also known as Zeino.
video, posted to YouTube on Tuesday, appeared to show several of the men, including an older man bleeding from his face and wearing only black underwear, being led by rebels with assault rifles onto an Aleppo street, where a crowd had formed. The men, prisoners of the rebel fighters, were forced to sit along the wall of a local school, decorated with a painted mural of Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants and other cartoon characters kicking a soccer ball.
“The Free Syrian Army forever,” the crowd chanted. “Stepping on Assad’s head.”
Then, seemingly without warning, someone among the armed rebels fired a single shot. That set off a hail of bullets that continued for nearly 45 seconds. Many in the crowd, including the videographer, backed away from the ad hoc firing squad. As a cloud of dust cleared, the lifeless bodies of the captured men could be seen. A reporter with al-Jazeera in Aleppo identified one of the dead as a local politician, Zeino al-Barri.
A third video clip showed masked gunmen inside a home said to have belonged to Mr Barri, smashing, stomping on and shooting at pictures of Mr Assad.
The execution clip has prompted a vigorous debate online, with some foes of the government objecting to the executions, with others welcoming it. Others justified the executions as the consequence of the government’s brutal response to the 17-month-old uprising.
“Intentionally killing anyone, even a shabiha [thug], once he is outside of combat is a war crime, regardless of how horrible the person may have been,” said Nadim Houry, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview. “As the opposition gains more territory, it is important to hold them to the same standard that we would apply to all sides.”
Mr Houry was quick to point out that Human Rights Watch had, in an April report, documented scores of extrajudicial killings by the Syrian government during the conflict, as well as in previous reports of human rights abuses by the rebels. None of those acts of brutality justified executions without judicial process, he said.
But after making a similar point on Twitter about war crimes, Mr Houry found himself in a debate.
Shakeeb al-Jabri, a Syrian activist in Beirut, said expectations that rebels would adhere to international law were idealistic. Someone using the Twitter handle @rinno33 responded, “How is it a war crime if he had killed over 15 Syrians that day alone?”
Other activists criticised the expressions of approval posted on the video of the executions. “The video is disturbing but the supporting comments are really shocking,” Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Avaaz wrote on Facebook. “Few condemned and most commentators approved and congratulated. This is not what Syrians or at least most Syrians are fighting for.”
The circumstances leading to the capture and execution of the Barri clan members have not been made clear, but they appeared to follow a street battle on Tuesday.
Underscoring the decentralised nature of the rebels under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, a battalion in Homs posted a video this week proclaiming that it would adhere to international law in the treatment of detainees. “We are committed as best we can to applying the articles and subarticles of the Geneva Convention No.4 that details the treatment of prisoners of war,” read a man who was identified as a fighter with the Farouq Brigade in Homs.
“We are committed to treating them in a humane way, and we tell everyone that we are revolting against a barbarous regime that always tortured and treated detainees and arrestees in brutal ways that led to the death of many,” he said. “That is why we can never adopt the behaviour of that very entity we are revolting against.”