Syria's crackdown

Tue, May 31, 2011, 01:00

HAMZA ALI AL-KHATEEB was a typical 13-year-old before he disappeared for a month into a Syrian jail where he died an agonising death. Torture is routine in Syria but even by its standards, this child’s purgatory defies belief: they appear to have burned him with cigarettes, shot bullets through his young flesh, smashed his kneecaps and jaw, broke his neck, and then cut off his penis. His crime was to attend an opposition rally with his father.

Following the al-Jazeera broadcast of a video of his mutilated body, Hamza’s fate has become a new rallying cause for the country’s battered opposition, much as the the beating to death of Khaled Said, an ordinary Alexandria resident, set a spark to Egypt’s opposition movement last year. Protesters throughout Syria at the weekend chanted “Hamza!, Hamza!”, while a dedicated Facebook page has drawn more than 40,000 members. The authorities dispute the claims and say they have ordered an investigation. Al-Jazeera has also aired an amateur video of five wounded Syrian troops in a hospital, quoting activists saying they had been shot by fellow soldiers after refusing to shoot protesters.

Human rights groups now put civilian deaths at the hands of both army and gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad at some 1,000 in the 10 weeks of the country’s uprising, with up to 10,000 arrested. Local human rights groups say security forces shot dead 12 demonstrators on Friday during protests in as many as 91 locations across the country, a remarkable testimony to the spread and depth of protests and tenacity of demonstrators in the face of overwhelming force.

Over the weekend and yesterday another 11 died as tanks and troops using heavy machine guns surrounded and then moved into the towns of Talbiseh and Rastan and several villages near the city of Homs. In Talbiseh security forces fired at a school bus driving on a main road, killing a driver and wounding several children, four critically, according to local activists. Journalists remain barred from reporting from most of Syria.

Meanwhile the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has renewed a call to the regime to allow a fact-finding mission to visit the country, while diplomats at the UN Security Council are negotiating the terms of a resolution condemning the crackdown. Its increased ferocity appears not to have been tempered yet either by EU and US sanctions or growing international criticism even from one of Syria’s few friends, Turkey. That international pressure must be escalated.