BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian boy, who activists say was tortured and killed by security forces, has emerged as a powerful symbol in protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad which have been met with a bloody crackdown.
A childhood snapshot of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib has been emblazoned on posters by protesters across Syria after a YouTube video of his bloodied corpse sparked international outrage.
Syrian authorities deny he was tortured, saying he was killed at a demonstration in which armed gangs shot at guards.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “very concerned” about Khatib’s case.
“I think what that symbolises for many Syrians is the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work with and listen to their own people,” Clinton told a news conference. “I can only hope that this child did not die in vain...”
Khatib, like the market-seller Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself alight in Tunisia and Neda Agha Soltan whose dying moments were filmed and distributed in Iran, has become a potent symbol to protesters demanding more freedom.
Some rights officials believed the case would inject new life into the protest movement.
The video shows the bloated body of a boy, with bullet wounds to his arms, stomach and chest as well as facial and leg bruises. Two men who seem to be medical examiners then say Khatib’s penis was cut off. That image was pixilated.
“Look at these reforms that the treacherous Bashar has called for,” one of the examiners is heard saying in the video, apparently taken on May 25. A U.S. spokesman described the boy’s reported treatment as “horrifying” and “appalling.”
Khatib disappeared during a protest on April 29 and his body was returned to his family about a month later.
“Uprisings need symbols ... These individual cases are symptomatic and represent hundreds of other cases that may go unreported that are just as horrendous,” said Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) senior Syria and Lebanon researcher, Nadim Houry.
“What’s more important is that this is part of a broader pattern of rampant torture which shows how systematic torture has been for people detained in (the city of) Deraa, including children. It raises alarm bells that there are still hundreds of people, if not more, whose fate is still unknown,” Houry said.
Rights groups say more than 10,000 people have been arrested in 10 weeks of protests raging in many parts of Syria.
Some 1,000 civilians have been killed in the unrest, causing the United States and the European Union to impose sanctions on Assad. They, along with Syria’s close neighbour Turkey, have all condemned Assad’s repression of protests.
“The regime commits two types of torture, the systematic, which we see accompanying mass arrests, and the particularly gruesome to spread fear on an even larger scale,” said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “The Hamza case belongs to the latter.”
Khatib was from Deraa, an agricultural city in the south near the border with Jordan, where the protests first erupted on March 18, calling for greater freedoms.
HRW published on Wednesday a report based on more than 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuse that show “systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces in the city of Deraa,” which it said strongly suggested they qualified as crimes against humanity.
“They need to stop — and if they don’t, it is the (U.N.) Security Council’s responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.
Syrian authorities say that armed groups backed by Islamists and foreign powers are responsible for the violence and have killed civilians and security forces.
Syrian state television aired on Tuesday night a programme about Khatib in which Judge Samer Abbas said Khatib’s death was due to “a number of bullet wounds without any indication of torture or beating on the body.”
He said the body was handed to the family on May 21.
Coroner Akram al-Shaar verified the claims, saying, according to a transcript on the state news agency:
“There are no marks on the surface of the body that show violence, resistance or torture using the nails or scratching or bruises, or fractures, or joint-dislocation,” Shaar said.
A man who identified himself as Khatib’s father on Syrian television said he had met with Assad who “engulfed us with his kindness, graciousness and promised to fulfil the demands which we’ve called for with the people.”
“The president considered Hamza his own son and was deeply affected,” the man said, adding Assad had promised reforms would start from the next day.
Syrian authorities have banned most foreign media from operating in the country, making it difficult to verify official and witnesses’ accounts.
Assad on Tuesday issued a general amnesty that covers “all members of political movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood,” the latest in a series of reforms aimed at addressing protesters’ grievances but which they were unlikely to find satisfactory in the face of a sustained crackdown.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the amnesty had come too late and called for a more fundamental change in policy to the protests.
Wissam Tarif of the Insan human rights group said Khatib’s killing would spur more people to take to the streets.
“Hamza is a symbol now, definitely,” he told Reuters.
“There are no red lines, the regime can be as brutal as it wants, it will kill and torture children. People are aware of that, but what can they do, go back home? The wall of fear cannot be built again. The protests are not reversible.”
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Antalya, Turkey, and Vicky Buffery in Paris