BEIRUT – An international rights group said Thursday that Kurdish authorities ruling three enclaves in northeastern Syria have committed abuses, including arbitrary arrests of political opponents, and have failed to address abductions and unresolved killings in areas under their control.
Human Rights Watch said in a new 107-page report that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party also has used children in its armed wing known as the People's Protection Units.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country's prewar population of 23 million. They are centered in the impoverished northeastern province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq.
President Bashar Assad's forces largely pulled out of Hassakeh in late 2012 when the Syrian military was stretched thin by fighting with rebels elsewhere in the country, effectively ceding control of the area. Their withdrawal sparked a fierce competition between rebels and the Kurds.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement in Turkey, which long fought for autonomy in the southeast. The PYD declared its own administration in the northern Kurdish areas in 2012, after driving out Islamic militant fighters allied with rebels trying to overthrow Assad.
While there are still clashes between Kurdish forces and Islamic militants of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the fighting has declined slightly in the area as militants moved on to other rebel-held parts of the north.
"The Kurdish-run areas of Syria are quieter than (other) parts of the country, but serious abuses are still taking place," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The PYD is firmly in charge, and can halt the abuse."
Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which the PYD-run police, known as the Asayish, have arrested members of Kurdish opposition parties because of their political activity. In some cases, Kurdish opposition members have been convicted in apparently unfair trials, on trumped-up charges of being involved in a bomb attack, the report said.
At least nine political opponents of the PYD have been killed or have disappeared over the past two and a half years in areas the party partially or fully controlled, the group said. Security forces controlled by the PYD have carried out mass arrests in raids that followed bombings.
Human Rights Watch said its report was based on interviews with former detainees, local lawyers and activists. The PYD gave Human Rights Watch access to the three areas under their control, but the rights groups said it only visited one of them because of security concerns. In February, HRW researchers visited two prisons under the party's control and had unrestricted access to officials, prisoners, and others.
In addition to a police force and an armed wing, PYD-run courts are also part of the Kurdish administration. While party officials and civil administration officials say that the local courts, known as the People's Courts, are independent, lawyers and rights activists told Human Rights Watch of political interference in investigations and trials. In some cases, judges have apparently convicted people based only on their confessions, and disregarded complaints of abuse during interrogation, the report said.
Several detainees told HRW activists that the security forces had beaten them in custody. In two recent cases involving the Asayish, the beatings victims died, the report said.
The PYD has denied responsibility for these incidents but has apparently failed to conduct genuine investigations, HRW said.
Now in its fourth year, Syria's conflict has killed more than 160,000 people and forced another 2.7 million to flee the country.
On Thursday, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, visited Lebanon, where he met with some of the more than 1 million Syrians who have round refuge abroad.
Speaking to reporters south of Beirut, Antonio Guterres appealed for compassion and solidarity with both the Syrian refugees and the countries hosting, saying this is "needed more than ever."
"What the international community is doing is very little compared with the suffering and the needs of the people," he said.