Some viewers may find images in this report on atrocities allegedly committed by security forces disturbing
More than 70 Syrian army commanders and officials have been named by former soldiers as having ordered attacks on unarmed protesters in that country, a US-based rights group says.
The report from Human Rights Watch names 74 commanders and military and intelligence officials as having allegedly "ordered, authorised, or condoned widespread killings, torture, and unlawful arrests" during the country's nine-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's government.
The group urged the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to impose sanctions against officials implicated in the report.
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Those named should be investigated "for their command responsibility for crimes against humanity," the report said.
Senior officials mentioned include Imad Dawoud Rajiha, the country's defence minister; Imad Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij, the army chief of staff; and the heads of various intelligence agencies, Abdul Fatah Kudsiyeh, Jamil Hassan and Ali Mamlouk.
Syria's government has not yet responded to the report.
The report is based on more than 60 interviews conducted with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence services.
'By all means necessary'
"Defectors gave us names, ranks, and positions of those who gave the orders to shoot and kill, and each and every official named in this report, up to the very highest levels of the Syrian government, should answer for their crimes against the Syrian people," said Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch, one of the authors of the report.
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The defectors' statements suggested that their commanders had given them orders to control the largely peaceful protests "by all means necessary" during regular briefings and prior to deployments.
They said that they understood this phrase to be an authorisation of lethal force, an understanding bolstered by the fact that they were issued live ammunition rather than rubber bullets or other means of crowd control.
The rights group says that about half of the former soldiers and officials it spoke to had been given direct orders to fire on protesters.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has termed the situation in Syria "intolerable", putting the death toll since March at more than 5,000. The Syrian government has disputed this figure, saying the country is the victim of a "huge conspiracy", according to its ambassador to the UN.
The government has consistently said that the violence is the result of "armed groups" sowing unrest and attacking security forces.
HRW said it had documented "several incidents" where anti-government demonstrators or neighbourhood groups had engaged in violence, and that attacks on Syrian security forces by defectors had increased significantly since September.
In the latest such incident, 27 members of the Syrian military and security forces were killed in a series of clashes in the restive province of Deraa on Thursday.
Allegations of torture
Defectors also told HRW of their involvement in "large-scale arbitrary arrests" during protests and at checkpoints, in addition to carrying out "sweep" operations in neighbourhoods across the country.
They said that they had routinely beaten and mistreated detainees, including with electric cattle prods, and that they were encouraged to do so by their commanders.
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"My unit was also involved in beating people. My heart was boiling inside, but I couldn’t show it because I knew what would happen to me," said Hani (not his real name), a member of the Air Force Intelligence's Special Operation Branch.
Defectors also alleged that soldiers and security forces personnel had been killed for refusing to follow orders to act against protesters and described alleged incidents of summary executions and deaths from torture in which 19 people were killed.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ghassan (not his real name), who served in the Presidential Guard, said that around August 7 he was witness to the summary execution of a detainee at a checkpoint in Douma.
"Seven soldiers were beating the man whom they had arrested. When I came, he was still alive. He was screaming, and the soldiers were swearing and laughing. It lasted for about five minutes longer, and then he died. He stopped moving, and I saw blood coming out of his mouth," Ghassan told HRW.
Local activists say that more than 197 people have been killed in detention by security forces.
Witness testimony in the HRW report alleges that Syrian intelligence services physically abused prisoners (at both detention centres and hospitals), and that soldiers had been involved in looting homes.
Some also alleged that intelligence agents had sexually assaulted female detainees by "touching [them] inappropriately".