A young woman was found beheaded and mutilated, reportedly by Syrian security agents, underscoring what witnesses and the U.N. human rights office said Friday was a new tactic of retaliating against protesters’ families to snuff out the 6-month-old uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The 18-year-old, Zeinab al-Hosni, is believed to be the first woman to die in Syrian custody since the uprising began in mid-March. Amnesty International said Friday she had reportedly been detained by security agents to pressure her activist brother to turn himself in.
The violence serves as a grim reminder of the Assad family’s iron grip on power in Syria for more than 40 years.
Witnesses and activists say retaliation against families of those involved in the uprising has ranged from threatening phone calls to beatings and in some cases killings.
The U.N. human rights office said Friday that the harassment was extending beyond Syria’s borders.
“Prominent human rights defenders, inside and outside the country, are reported to have been targeted,” U.N. human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva. “We are also concerned by reports of the targeting and attacking of families and sympathizers of the protesters by security forces.”
She offered no details and did not elaborate on the activists or their families being targeted outside the country.
According to U.N. estimates, more than 2,700 civilians have been killed in the crackdown since March and thousands more have been detained since protests began in mid-March.
The teenager was from the central city of Homs. She was seized by men in plainclothes on July 27, apparently to pressure her brother Mohammad, who was organizing protests in the city, Amnesty said.
After her arrest, he was contacted by telephone and told that she would only be released if he stopped his activities, the New York-based group said. Her brother was eventually arrested earlier this month.
His mother was summoned by security forces on Sept. 13, to pick up his body, which showed bruises, burns and gunshots, the group said.
At the same morgue, her mother happened to find her daughter’s body. The family said Zeinab had been decapitated, her arms cut off, and skin removed, according to Amnesty. After Zeinab’s burial last weekend, women held a protest in Homs, hailing her as the “flower of Syria” and chanting “Syria wants freedom” and “The people want the president’s ouster,” according to video footage posted on the Internet by local activists.
“They plucked the flower, and she said, ‘After me, a bud will rise up.’ Rejoice in eternal paradise, Zeinab,” read a sign held by one of the women.
The deaths of Zeinab and her brother bring to 103 the number of people who have been reported killed in Syrian custody since the uprising began in March, Amnesty said.
“If it is confirmed that Zeinab was in custody when she died, this would be one of the most disturbing cases of a death in detention we have seen so far,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The Syrian government has banned many foreign journalists and placed heavy restrictions on local coverage, making it difficult to independently verify events on the ground. But there have been growing reports in recent months of activists’ families facing bloody retribution, including parents of Syrian pianist Malek Jandali.