Report: Syrian Soldiers Ordered to 'Shoot and Kill' Protesters

PHOTO: A Syrian soldier shouts slogans in front of a picture of President Bashar al-Assad during a pro-regime rally in Damascus in this Dec. 2, 2011 file photo.PlayLouai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH Assad: Deaths Were 'Individual Mistakes'

A report published Thursday named more than 70 Syrian high-ranking military commanders and officials who "allegedly ordered, authorized, or condoned widespread killings, torture, and unlawful arrests." Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of defectors from Syria's military and intelligence agencies, providing detailed accounts of abuses against protesters during the nine-month uprising.

"Defectors gave us names, ranks, and positions of those who gave the orders to shoot and kill," said Anna Neistat, associate director for emergencies at Human Rights Watch. "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."

The report gives 74 names, from President Bashar al-Assad on down. HRW recommends that "The [United Nations] Security Council should ensure accountability by referring Syria to the International Criminal Court."

It comes on the same day that Russia, a staunch ally of Syria, circulated a new UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the violence. Russia and China, Syria's most powerful allies on the Council, had vetoed a draft resolution last month condemning the violence in Syria.

Those interviewed for the HRW report gave harrowing accounts from the front lines, HRW says around half of the 63 interviewed were given direct orders to fire protesters and bystanders. Every interviewee reportedly had standing orders from their commanders to stop the protests "by all means necessary."

"They [the protesters] held olive branches. They had no arms," a soldier HRW called "Jalal" said. "There were 35 army soldiers and about 50 mukhabarat [intelligence] personnel at the checkpoint. We also had a jeep with a mounted machine-gun. When the protesters were less than 100 meters away, we opened fire. We had previously received the orders to do so from the Brigadier General."

Another said that a Brigadier General named Ramadan Ramadan told his brigade to "use heavy shooting. Nobody will ask you to explain."

"Normally we are supposed to save bullets," said "Amjad." "But this time he said, "Use as many bullets as you want." And when somebody asked what we were supposed to shoot at, he said, "At anything in front of you." About 40 protesters were killed that day."

The Assad regime has blamed armed gangs and terrorists for the violence, claiming their forces are merely keeping the people safe. In an exclusive interview with ABC News last week, President Assad said that individual mistakes have been made but that he hasn't given any orders for a crackdown.

A former military intelligence officer whom HRW calls "Afif" said that during a conference call with high-ranking military and intelligence officials and protest leaders, Assad said to his officials, "What's going on over there?! Get the situation under control by all means necessary!"

Another soldier was reportedly told by his brigade commander, Brigadier General Ali Mohamed Hamdan that the orders to invade the town of Rastan came "straight from President Bashar al-Assad."

The United Nations said this week that more than 5,000 people have died since March, including 300 children. A western official told ABC News the report is "incredibly well researched…we haven't had that kind of visibility before."

The report also goes into detail about "sweeps" of arbitrary arrests, followed by beatings and torture. Defectors said that they "routinely beat and mistreated detainees and that their commanders ordered, encouraged, or condoned these abuse."

"We were beating people inside the buses, and then at the detention facility at the base," said one defector from Air Force Intelligence Special Operations who said the orders came from a colonel named Suheil Hassan. "We would first put people in the yard, and beat them randomly, without any interrogation," he said. "My heart was boiling inside, but I couldn't show it because I knew what would happen to me."

The Syrian embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Earlier this week, the UN Security Council heard a presentation on Syria that diplomats called the "most horrific briefing" the Council has heard in the last two years on human rights. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who gave the briefing, described "widespread" killing and torture of children by Syrian security forces and put the death toll since the start of the uprising at close to 5,000.

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