Syria: up to 100 dead in "new massacre"

What next for the conflict-torn country?

Last week, the Houla massacre shocked the world. In one of the worst moments of the Syrian war so far, 108 people – at least 49 of whom were children – were murdered by state-sponsored militia, who went from house to house slitting their throats or shooting them in the head.

It was clear at the time that this was not the first massacre Syria had seen, and nor would it be the last. However, the extremity of the incident seemed to mark a watershed in the escalation of the protracted and bloody conflict. That appears to have been borne out, with reports today of a “new massacre” of men, women and children, this time in Mazraat al-Qabeer, a small village near the city of Hama.

According to a spokesman for the opposition group, the Syrian National Council, 100 people were killed, including 20 women and 20 children. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights separately reported 87 deaths. While the lack of media access to Syria makes it difficult to independently verify the facts, there is little doubt that something happened here. The regime says that the military killed “terrorists”, but denied that a massacre took place. It appeared to blame the opposition for the killings, with state media reporting that terrorist groups had committed a “heinous crime”.

The opposition, however, claim that the village came under heavy tank fire, before shabiha (state-sponsored militia) fighters took to the ground, shooting, stabbing and burning people to death. The BBC quotes one activist from the area:

They executed [nearly] every person in the village. Very few numbers could flee. The majority were slaughtered with knives and in a horrible and ugly way.

Graphic videos and images of charred corpses are proliferating online.

This tragedy comes as the United Nations’ special envoy, Kofi Annan, returns from Damascus to address the General Assembly in New York about the progress of his peace plan for Syria. It would be difficult to argue that the plan has been anything but a failure.

Where does this leave the west? Inevitably, more atrocities will lead to further calls for military intervention from the west. Yet, as a New Statesman leader pointed out last week, this is fraught with difficulties. The opposition is by no means united in calling for western intervention, while a substantial percentage of the population unambiguously supports President Bashar al-Assad. Elsewhere, the on-going bloodshed in Libya acts as a living reminder of the dangers of military action. There is also the risk of triggering full blown civil war, as the conflict hardens along sectarian lines, compounded by the cold war being waged between Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

After the Houla massacre, Fawaz Gerges argued that military action remained unlikely:

Atrocities could make military intervention more likely, but the west, and particularly the US, believes that the disadvantages of intervention (increased carnage and a region-wide war) outweigh the advantages of saving civilian lives.

Already, up to 12,600 lives have been lost during the 15 month conflict, with comparisons being drawn to the early stages of Lebanon’s 15 year civil war. If the UN has any real hope of achieving its aim of a negotiated settlement, Russia must come on side. The question is: how many more massacres will it take for something to change for the better?
 

UPDATE 3pm:

The chief of the UN monitoring mission, General Robert Mood, has said that Syrian troops blocked UN observers from visiting the site of the massacre: "They are being stopped at Syrian army checkpoints and in some cases turned back. Some of our patrols are being stopped by civilians in the area." The Syrian government said this was "absolutely baseless" and accused rebels of carrying out the massacre to try and garner international attention.

A member of the Free Syrian Army, December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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It's time for police to admit their mistakes

Forces are not doing enough to protect the most vulnerable from harm.

Already this summer, four people have died after contact with the police. At least three of them were black men who died following police restraint. Last Saturday, 20-year-old Rashan Charles lost his life after being pinned to the floor of a convenience store, and restrained by an officer and another person in plain clothes.

These deaths aren’t included in the latest annual report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which covers the year ending 31 March 2017. But the deaths of Rashan, Edir Frederico da Costa, Darren Cumberbatch, and a 16-year-old boy, who died in a crash during a police pursuit, recall those who have lost their lives during or following police contact in the months preceding them: Mzee Mohammed, Dalian Atkinson, Mohammed Yassar Yaqub.

Between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, there were 32 road traffic fatalities involving police, an increase from the previous year and the highest since 2008-09. In the same period, there were 55 fatalities from "apparent suicides following police custody". Six people died from "police shootings", the highest since 2007/08. Fourteen people died "in or following police custody", and there were 124 "other deaths following police contact" independently investigated by the IPCC. 

"Deaths in or following police custody" is not as high compared to other categories, however deaths that happen while a person is being arrested or taken into detention are some of the most controversial. That there was no reduction in the number who died in or following police custody, compared to the previous year, suggest past mistakes are being repeated and systemic failures persist.

Over half of the 14 deaths were of people with schizophrenia, depression or self-harming or suicidal tendencies. Similarly, two thirds of the 124 who died following other police contact had mental health issues.

The most common reason for this other type of police contact was related to the safety or wellbeing of those who lost their lives. Twenty-six people died from the police responding to their health, injuries, intoxication, or a "general" incident, while 23 people died from the police responding to a concern about their self-harm, risk of suicide, or mental state. Of these 23 people, 35 per cent were black and minority ethnic (BME).

The individual stories show an even more disturbing picture than the raw numbers. Officers often encounter people with mental health conditions, yet treat them as criminals. In the case of Mzee Mohammed, he remained in handcuffs even when he finally received medical care. The police should be called as a last resort to deal with someone having a mental health crisis, but in many cases of deaths in custody, evidence shows they take it upon themselves to intervene.

In 2014, Staffordshire police handcuffed and detained Darren Lyons, who had a history of mental illness and alcohol dependency, instead of getting him medical help. An inquest heard he died after being left half-naked on a cell floor, covered in his own faeces. Similarly in 2012, Thomas Orchard was left lying unresponsive, after being put in restraints and having an emergency response belt wrapped around his face.

Although the police do not have the expertise of mental health workers, they are trained in using force proportionately, reasonably and when necessary. Members of the public experiencing a mental health episode have complex needs and it can be hard to understand the condition they are suffering from to provide appropriate assistance. This is a challenge for police officers, however using force can exacerbate a situation and even lead to death. In 2016, Dalian Atkinson, at the time suffering a mental health crisis, died after being Tasered and physically restrained by West Mercia officers.

The charity Inquest reports that the majority of its police-related cases in recent years “have involved the death of vulnerable individuals in some form of mental health crisis”. Its analysis in November 2016 of deaths in police custody since 1990 suggested that the “use of force/restraint is more likely to be a feature of the circumstances of BME deaths in police custody” and “the proportion of BME deaths in custody where mental health-related issues are a feature is nearly two times greater than it is in white deaths in custody”.  

Earlier this year, an inquest jury criticised the Metropolitan Police for excessive, unreasonable, unnecessary and disproportionate restraint on Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old black man, who died in 2010 at a psychiatric hospital.

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, drew attention to the fact that the “evidence heard at this inquest begs the question of how racial stereotyping informed Seni’s brutal treatment”. Met officers, instead of attending to Seni’s welfare, left him once he was unresponsive after prolonged restraint, because they believed that he may have been "faking it". This disregard of a black life recalls the institutionally racist death of Roger Sylvester in 1999.

Seni’s case was pivotal in leading to the independent review into deaths in police custody, conducted by Dame Elish Angiolini QC. The publication has been postponed, on many occasions. The delay follows a common experience bereaved families constantly have with the police, the IPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service in their struggle for justice.

Despite deaths related to Tasers, spit hoods and firearms, the police have recently called for increases in such equipment and weapons. The Police Federation say they are necessary to protect the protectors. But the protectors are not protecting everyone.

The figures and individual stories show that some officers are threats to vulnerable people, in particular those with mental health issues and from ethnic minorities. Forces have failed to implement recommendations, while the CPS has failed to prosecute unprofessional and abusive police officers. "The officers involved in the restraint have not been able or willing to offer any word of condolence or regret in their evidence,” Seni’s parents responded after the inquest into their son’s death.

To prevent more needless lost lives, the police must first take responsibility and admit their mistakes.

Carson Cole Arthur is policy and communications co-ordinator at the campaign group StopWatch. He is writing in a personal capacity