Syria’s un­known ca­su­al­ties

Civil­ians were de­tained at Is­lamic State pri­son, then killed in airstrike

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske

MANSOURA, Syria — The stench grew un­bear­able as Ab­dul Aziz Ali walked closer to the heap of shat­tered con­crete and twisted metal beams that was once a pri­son. Pulling his scarf over his nose, he pointed out a de­com­pos­ing leg pro­trud­ing from the rub­ble. Per­haps an in­mate, or a guard.

“No one rec­og­nized him,” said Aziz, a 40-year-old un­em­ployed driver who lives in the neigh­bor­hood. “Maybe there are more un­der here.”

The pri­son was run by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants who con­trolled this city of 12,000 in eastern Syria. Then on May 27, the first day of the Mus­lim holy month of Ra­madan, wit­nesses said, war­planes de­stroyed it.

Peo­ple in the town said they didn’t know most of the pris­on­ers, who were of­ten brought from other parts of the coun­try for crimes that

in­cluded smok­ing, us­ing God’s name in vain, and wear­ing beards, pants or abaya gowns too short. Beat­ings and other forms of tor­ture are com­mon in Is­lamic State pris­ons.

“I think 100% those peo­ple were in­no­cent,” said Ab­dul Sameh, a 53-year-old sheik.

It is un­clear who is re­spon­si­ble for de­stroy­ing the pri­son. The U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing Is­lamic State re­ported one strike in Mansoura that day, on what it clas­si­fied as an Is­lamic State head­quar­ters build­ing, coali­tion spokesman Col. Joe Scrocca said. It was pos­si­ble that was the pri­son strike, he said, but — based on GPS data — un­likely.

He also said that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment or its Rus­sian al­lies — also fight­ing Is­lamic State — might be to blame, or that the build­ing could have been dam­aged by some­thing other than an airstrike, such as ar­tillery or an ex­plo­sion.

Chris Woods, di­rec­tor of the Lon­don-based mon­i­tor­ing group Air­wars, said cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence points to the coali­tion, in­clud­ing the pre­ci­sion of the at­tack and re­ports from wit­nesses who have been un­der bom­bard­ment for years and have learned to iden­tify air­craft.

Since its cam­paign to re­move Is­lamic State from Syria and Iraq be­gan in 2014, the coali­tion has strug­gled to bal­ance tar­get­ing mil­i­tants and shield­ing civil­ians. Pris­ons, like schools, hos­pi­tals and places of wor­ship, are pro­tected sites un­der the Geneva Con­ven­tion lay­ing out hu­man­i­tar­ian law dur­ing wartime. That makes them po­ten­tial cover for Is­lamic State.

Air­wars has eval­u­ated re­ports of 12 airstrikes on pris­ons over the course of the war in which the coali­tion is sus­pected — and in eight cases, in­clud­ing Mansoura, de­ter­mined there is at least “fair” ev­i­dence that it was re­spon­si­ble. The group es­ti­mates that the 12 strikes killed at least 66 mil­i­tants — but also at least 164 civil­ians, many likely held for vi­o­lat­ing the strict re­li­gious codes en­forced by Is­lamic State.

Scrocca dis­missed those tal­lies as “un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions.”

The coali­tion makes “ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­forts to pro­tect non­com­bat­ants,” he said, and “does not tar­get pris­ons.”

In some cases cited by Air­wars, the build­ings tar­geted were for­mer pris­ons that no longer held in­mates, Scrocca said.

“When a for­merly pro­tected site is no longer used for its orig­i­nal pur­pose and is in­stead used for a mil­i­tary pur­pose, it loses its pro­tected sta­tus [and] may be­come a le­git­i­mate mil­i­tary tar­get,” he said. “If a for­mer pri­son build­ing is used as an in­tel­li­gence head­quar­ters or weapons stor­age fa­cil­ity, it is no longer a pro­tected site.”

The coali­tion said that was the case in the Syr­ian city of Mayadeen, 140 miles east of here. On June 26, the coali­tion struck what it de­scribed as a sin­gle-story for­mer pri­son that Is­lamic State was us­ing as a mil­i­tary head­quar­ters and in­tel­li­gence center to in­ter­ro­gate mil­i­tants “who had bro­ken the ter­ror­ist group’s rules.”

The coali­tion said it was in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether civil­ians were killed in the strike but sug­gested that was un­likely: “This mis­sion was metic­u­lously planned and ex­e­cuted to re­duce the risk of col­lat­eral dam­age and po­ten­tial harm to non­com­bat­ants.”

But at a camp for about 3,000 dis­placed peo­ple north of Mayadeen — which re­mains un­der Is­lamic State con­trol — for­mer res­i­dents of the city said in interviews last month that the build­ing was still be­ing used as a pri­son when it was de­stroyed.

Hasan Mo­hamed Ha­mad, a 68-year-old brick­layer, said he lived near the pri­son and rou­tinely heard pris­on­ers scream­ing.

“At night, we couldn’t sleep be­cause of the noise of the peo­ple,” he said. “They were tor­tur­ing them.”

Other for­mer res­i­dents said many of the pris­on­ers ar­rived in blind­folds.

“They were not im­por­tant peo­ple,” said Mo­hammed Khar­bon, a 33-year-old baker who mil­i­tants once threat­ened to im­prison for show­ing up late to pray. “They were just pris­on­ers. They were jailed be­cause they were against Is­lamic State.”

Based on re­ports from res­i­dents, mon­i­tor­ing groups and me­dia, Air­wars said mul­ti­ple strikes at the site that day killed 42 to 100 civil­ian pris­on­ers, 11 jailed op­po­si­tion fighters, 15 to 20 Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, five women kept as sex slaves and four guards.

Ryan Goodman, a law pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity and a Pen­tagon of­fi­cial dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, said it would be un­usual for the U.S. to tar­get a place where civil­ians or for­mer com­bat­ants might be held.

“The mil­i­tary tar­geters and the coali­tion would have to take into ac­count loss of lives of cap­tives within th­ese fa­cil­i­ties as part of the strict le­gal obli­ga­tion to en­sure that any strikes don’t have an ex­ces­sive loss of life of peo­ple who are no longer part of the con­flict,” Goodman said.

Hu­man Rights Watch said it was pre­par­ing a re­port calling on the coali­tion to in­ves­ti­gate strikes that killed civil­ians and take greater pre­cau­tions.

Mansoura res­i­dents were well aware of the pri­son and did their best to avoid it.

It had once been a house. Af­ter Is­lamic State mil­i­tants seized con­trol of the area in Jan­uary 2014, they turned it into what lo­cals called the Be­doui Jail, named af­ter its for­mer owner, who fled to Saudi Ara­bia.

“For­bid­den to en­ter,” said a sign on the gate.

Res­i­dents said the pri­son was run by a mil­i­tant named Abu Abaidi Tu­nisi, a lo­cal emir named af­ter his na­tive Tu­nisia who quickly earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a strict en­forcer of Is­lamic State rules.

“If peo­ple left the area, he would order them killed,” said Sameh, the sheik, who de­scribed the emir as “too harsh.”

“He was al­ways telling peo­ple, ‘You are not ed­u­cated, you are like an­i­mals,’ ” the sheik said.

Mil­i­tants had also been stor­ing weapons at the jail, Sameh said. Home­made mor­tars were left at the scene af­ter the at­tack. Res­i­dents pointed out the charred re­mains of a car that was out­fit­ted with the dis­tinc­tive ar­mored pan­els of ve­hi­cles used in sui­cide at­tacks.

It is un­clear how many in­mates were be­ing de­tained in the pri­son at the time of the strike. Sheik Fawaz Beik, a lo­cal leader who spoke with wit­nesses soon af­ter the strike, said seven to 10 pris­on­ers were killed. He said res­i­dents saw mil­i­tants bring­ing peo­ple to the jail be­fore the strike to use as hu­man shields.

Af­ter the strike, a 16-yearold res­i­dent, Sami Ibrahim Mas­cana, said he saw mil­i­tants pull at least two dead bod­ies from the rub­ble. At least one woman sur­vived, he and other wit­nesses said. She had been dis­placed from the western city of Homs to Mansoura and later left the area, neigh­bors said.

Hu­man rights groups and news me­dia named two civil­ian de­tainees who died: Hus­sein Hamoud Sha­heen, whose photo was in­cluded with some re­ports, and Az­zouz Askar Obaid Ashour, who had been ar­rested on charges he had pho­tographed the home of a rel­a­tive that had been de­stroyed by an airstrike. The re­ports of­fered few other de­tails.

The Times and in­ves­ti­ga­tors for Hu­man Rights Watch re­cov­ered sev­eral doc­u­ments from the wreck­age of the build­ing, in­clud­ing ar­rest, wit­ness and court ap­pear­ance forms marked “Is­lamic po­lice,” “Is­lamic State ju­di­ciary” and “In the name of God.”

Some in­cluded names and charges: caus­ing a car ac­ci­dent, fe­male hys­te­ria, fight­ing, traf­fick­ing and smug­gling. But not all of the dates were current.

“We know from what peo­ple are say­ing that there were still some civil­ians in that pri­son, but we haven’t been able to track down the names,” said Nadim Houry, who vis­ited the site as di­rec­tor of the ter­ror­ism and counter-ter­ror­ism pro­gram at Hu­man Rights Watch.

Hasan Ahmed Ab­dul Khader, a 34-year-old driver, said he could iden­tify with the vic­tims be­cause he had re­cently been ac­cused of smug­gling peo­ple to “in­fi­del” ter­ri­tory and was wor­ried an airstrike might tar­get the pri­son where he was be­ing held. He said an Is­lamic State of­fi­cial told him, “If you are killed, that is your des­tiny.”

As for the leg stick­ing out of the rub­ble, no­body could say whether it be­longed to a civil­ian or a mil­i­tant. Weeks af­ter the at­tack, with Mansoura lib­er­ated from the ter­ror­ist group and the coali­tion fo­cused on the fight 15 miles east for Raqqah, Is­lamic State’s self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal, no one had claimed the body.

Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske Los Angeles Times

A BOY stands among the re­mains of an Is­lamic State pri­son, the site of a May 27 airstrike, in Mansoura, Syria. It is un­clear who was re­spon­si­ble for the at­tack.

Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske Los Angeles Times

AB­DUL AZIZ ALI, 40, stands amid the rub­ble of an Is­lamic State-run pri­son in Mansoura, Syria. It is un­clear how many in­mates were be­ing de­tained at the pri­son at the time of the May 27 airstrike.

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