Canada and The Netherlands Take Syria to Top UN Court. They Accuse Damascus of Widespread Torture

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- Syria boycotted a hearing at the United Nations' top court on Tuesday where the Netherlands and Canada accused Damascus of a years-long campaign of "institutionalized" torture against its own people.

The hearing was focused on a preliminary Dutch and Canadian request for the court to impose orders -- known as provisional measures -- on Syria to halt torture immediately to protect potential victims while their case accusing Damascus of breaching the torture convention proceeds through the International Court of Justice.

"Every day counts," said Dutch government lawyer René Lefeber.

"The persistent and recurring practice of torture in Syria only serves to underscore the pressing need for the court to indicate provisional measures to manifest threats to life and bodily and psychological integrity," Lefeber said.

Syria's conflict started with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's government in March 2011 but quickly morphed into a full-blown civil war after the government's brutal crackdown on protesters. The tide turned in Assad's favor against rebel groups in 2015, when Russia provided key military backing to Syria, as well as Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Canadian government lawyer Teresa Crockett underscored the request's urgency, saying that "Syria has systematically committed torture and subjected its population to other ill treatment on a massive scale. Since 2011, tens of thousands of have died while in Syrian custody."

"If left unchecked, Syria will continue its violations," she added.

As the case opened in the court's Great Hall of Justice, the 15-judge panel was faced by a row of empty white seats reserved for Syria's delegation.

"The court regrets the non-appearance of the Syrian Arab Republic," the court's president, Joan E. Donoghue said.

The head of Canada's legal team, Alan Kessel, told judges that "Syria's decision not to participate in today's proceedings does not shield it from the court's directives."

"We have given Syria an opportunity to be here today. They chose, regrettably, to be absent," Kessel told reporters outside the court. "This doesn't mean that the world is absent."

Both Canada and the Netherlands "are of the view that the Assad government must respond and stop the torture that is rampant in that country," he added.

A group of Syrians gathered outside the court ahead of the hearing, carrying photos of people they claim are victims of torture and enforced disappearance, and holding banners emblazoned with the text "End torture now!" and "Where are they."

Among them was 43-year-old Yasmen Almashan, who said she lost five brothers in Syria.

"We just asked for freedom," she said. "Assad's regime is criminal. This trial maybe (will) bring a little bit of justice."

In a written filing to the court in June, the Netherlands and Canada said torture in Syria includes "severe beatings and whippings, including with fists, electric cables, metal and wooden sticks, chains and rifle butts; administering electric shocks; burning body parts; pulling out nails and teeth; mock executions; and simulated drownings."

Lefeber highlighted another torture method known as "dulab," in which a victim is forced into an car tire and beaten, sometimes for hours. He also noted the use of sexual and gender-based violence as an instrument of torture targeting women, girls, men and boys.

Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said the case "provides an important opportunity to scrutinize Syria's long-standing heinous torture of countless civilians."

Lefeber said that "the institutionalized nature" of torture in Syria was clear from the number of victims and the "striking consistency of the methods of torture" throughout Syria.

"In view of the country-wide patterns of recurrent torture and other ill treatment, there can be no question that this practice extends from the highest levels of the Syrian government."

Orders by the court are legally binding, but are not always adhered to by countries involved in proceedings. Last year, the judges issued such an order in another case calling on Moscow to cease hostilities in Ukraine.

Canada and the Netherlands are accusing Assad's administration of breaching the United Nations Convention Against Torture and argue that the convention's conflict resolution mechanism gives the Hague-based court jurisdiction to hear the case.

The war in Syria has so far killed half a million people, wounded hundreds of thousands and destroyed many parts of the country. It has displaced half of Syria's prewar population of 23 million, including more than 5 million who are refugees outside Syria.