REUTERS / Shaam News Network / Handout
Smoke rises from Bab Sabaa neighborhood of Homs on Monday.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s deadly crackdown on opposition to his regime is turning once peaceful protesters into “terrorist people,” an activist hiding in a city shattered by an army bombardment told msnbc.com.
Sami Ibrahim, of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, was reacting to an open letter written by New York-based Human Rights Watch, claiming opposition members were carrying human rights abuses such as kidnappings, torture and executions.
Ibrahim spoke Tuesday by satellite phone from Homs, a rebel stronghold until it was hit by a sustained bombardment by government troops, forcing the Free Syrian Army to withdraw earlier this month.
He said people had witnessed their wives being raped, children killed, people being tortured to death in prisons and shelling of civilian areas by tanks.
“This will cause a lot of awful reaction,” he said.
“We are dealing with humans and they have feelings,” Ibrahim added. “Thousands of people, they will change into terrorist people.”
“What he [Assad] is doing is generating a generation to go to the dark way, to go to the darkness. The Assad regime, this criminal dictatorship, transfers the people from normal people, peaceful people, to another side we cannot control,” he said.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights is not politically aligned, but has been documenting abuses mainly committed by Assad's forces since the start of the uprising just over a year ago.
Syria's rebel fighters are desperate for arms and ammunition. Members of the Free Syrian Army were forced from Idlib - one of the last rebel strongholds. ITN's John Irvine reports from outskirts of Idlib, the north western city which rebels surrendered last week.
He said the opposition was trying to be “very careful” about human rights and tried to convince people to “control their feelings,” but not everyone listened.
Ibrahim, who said he would be tortured and killed if found by Assad’s forces, said Human Rights Watch had “made a mistake” in issuing the statement because the Assad regime’s violence was ultimately responsible for the backlash and it should instead by pressing for international action against the Syrian government.
In its letter, dated Monday and addressed to the “Leaders of the Syrian Opposition,” Human Rights Watch said it was concerned about the “increasing evidence” of abuse and urged the opposition’s leadership to work to stamp it out.
“While the protest movement in Syria was overwhelmingly peaceful until September 2011, since then Human Rights Watch has documented apparent crimes and other abuses committed by armed opposition elements,” the letter says.
“These crimes and abuses include the kidnapping and detention of security force members, individuals identified as government allies or supporters. They also include the use of torture and the execution of security force members and civilians,” it adds.
The letter says some attacks against Shiite and Alawite communities appeared to be “motivated by sectarianism.”
Human Rights Watch noted that a United Nations commission had found evidence of abuses in February. The commission’s report included information supplied by Assad’s regime.
The letter said it recognized that it was not always easy to identify those involved in the abuses and that they might not follow the orders of opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council.
It also said that criminal gangs claiming to be opposition members might be responsible.
However, in its letter, Human Rights Watch said the Syrian National Council’s military bureau in particular should “condemn and forbid these abuses.”
Emails to the Syrian National Council seeking comment Tuesday did not immediately receive a response.
Mousab Azzawi, the London-based chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said there had been reports of abuses by opposition members, but that they were often difficult to verify.
Azzawi told msnbc.com by telephone that one recent case that the Network had verified was of three Assad militia members who were executed by opposition fighters in Homs on March 9. He said the three men had been part of a larger group of Assad “thugs” who had been raping women in Homs as a form of punishment.
Regarding human rights violations generally, he said that “we cannot accept them under any circumstances, regardless the perpetrator.”
The Network includes doctors, lawyers and academics in Syria who follow up reports and attempt to corroborate allegations of abuses with a view to holding those responsible accountable to the International Criminal Court.
Azzawi said Syria was on the verge of a full-scale civil war that would see many more abuses committed by both sides.
But he said he was “a bit optimistic, to a small extent” that this would not happen because the leaders of the peaceful uprising “are refusing the principle of civil war.”
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