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Syrian humanitarian volunteers, known as the White Helmets, carry a body retrieved from the rubble following a reported government airstrike on the town of Ariha, one of the locations mentioned in Amnesty's report. (file photo)

Amnesty International says it has documented 18 attacks in northwest Syria carried out by Syrian government and Russian forces over the past year that amounted to war crimes.

The rights group said in a report published on May 10 that the 18 attacks were on medical facilities and schools, and were carried out by either the Syrian government or its Russian ally between May 2019 and February 2020 in Idlib and areas adjoining the rebel stronghold.

Evidence of the attacks entails multiple serious violations of international humanitarian law, according to Amnesty International.

"These violations amount to war crimes," the report says.

The attacks included three ground attacks and two barrel-bomb attacks by Syrian government forces. The remaining 13 attacks were air strikes -- two by Syrian government forces, seven by Russian government forces, and four by Syrian or Russian government forces.

It said the majority occurred in January and February 2020, during the latest onslaught, which Amnesty International said “subjected civilians in opposition-held areas in north-west Syria to a new wave of horrors.”

Since December around 500 civilians have been killed and almost 1 million people have been displaced.

The recent escalation apparently is a continuation of an earlier offensive that began in April 2019 targeting the last pocket under the control of armed opposition groups.

A cease-fire has largely held since early March, but hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced and highly dependent on aid even as the region braces for a possible outbreak of the coronavirus.

'Systematic Attacks'

Among the documented attacks in Amnesty International’s report are Russian air strikes near a hospital in the town of Ariha on January 29 that flattened at least two residential buildings and killed 11 civilians.

Amnesty also blamed the Syrian regime for an attack on a school using banned cluster munitions that killed three people in Idlib city on February 25.

"The latest offensive continued an abhorrent pattern of widespread and systematic attacks aimed at terrorizing the civilian population," Amnesty's regional director Heba Morayef said.

The report said that, even by the standards of the nine-year war, “the resulting displacement and humanitarian emergency were unprecedented.”

It said the attacks must be viewed in the context of a well-established pattern of Syrian government forces targeting civilian infrastructure and civilians that is "part of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population, therefore constituting crimes against humanity."

Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.

Amnesty International’s findings are based primarily on remote research conducted between January and April 2020. Researchers interviewed 74 people, including direct witnesses of attacks, displaced people, local and international aid workers, and UN staff members.

Researchers also reviewed videos and photographs, analyzed satellite imagery, and obtained logs of aircraft observations by flight spotters on the ground, as well as intercepted aircraft radio communication, to assess consistency with witness accounts.

Amnesty International has sent letters summarizing its findings to the permanent missions of the Syrian and Russian governments to the United Nations in New York and to the largest coalition of armed groups in northwest Syria.

It had not received a response as of 4 May, when its report was finalized.

With reporting by AFP
Khadija Ismayilova

BAKU -- The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Azerbaijan failed to protect investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova’s right to privacy, saying the country’s courts should have sanctioned a local newspaper for an article making salacious claims and commentary about her private and sexual life.

The Strasbourg-based court on May 7 held that the Azerbaijani state was to pay Ismayilova a total of 6,000 euros ($6,500) for damages, costs, and expenses.

This is the ECHR’s third decision in favor of Ismayilova in relation to an alleged campaign of intimidation against her because of her journalistic activity.

The journalist -- who has conducted investigations into high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, including cases involving the family of President Ilham Aliyev -- was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison in 2015 on what human rights groups called trumped-up tax-evasion charges. She was conditionally released in 2016 but is still subject to a travel ban.

Amnesty International’s South Caucasus researcher, Natalia Nozadze, said the ECHR’s latest judgement “exposes the complicity of Azerbaijan’s judicial system in silencing a prominent journalist and attacking the right to freedom of expression in the country.”

“Not only has Khadija Ismayilova served a prison sentence under false charges, she has suffered years of harassment by the authorities, intrusion into her personal life, and vilification in state-run media,” Nozadze added.

In March 2012, a video filmed secretly with a camera planted in Ismayilova’s bedroom and showing scenes of a sexual nature was posted online.

Months later, a pro-government newspaper published an article containing derogatory remarks about Ismayilova, saying she should be considered a porn star and suggesting that she should engage in sexual liaisons with opposition-oriented journalists.

The reporter sued the newspaper, saying the article was insulting and damaging to her honor and dignity, her right to privacy, and her right to freedom of expression.

But Azerbaijani courts dismissed her claim and appeals in 2013, arguing, among other things, that the statements made in the article in question were a manifestation of the author’s freedom of expression.

The ECHR on May 7 ruled that the Azerbaijani authorities failed to protect Ismayilova’s right to privacy, contrary to their obligation under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The only discernible intent behind the statements made in respect of the applicant was to attack her or set her up for attack on grounds of morality,” the court said. “By further exploiting the previous breach of her privacy, the article in question sought, by using offensive and derogatory language, to attribute to the applicant characteristics and behavior in a manner calculated to negatively and radically influence how she was viewed in society.”

In January 2019, the ECHR ruled that Azerbaijan failed to investigate the sex-tape case, violating Ismayilova’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

And in February 2020, the court ruled that the actual goal of her arrest and detention was to “silence and punish her for her work.”

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