September 30, 2011 / 11:32 AM / 8 years ago

U.N. human rights inquiry demands access to Syria

GENEVA (Reuters) - A U.N.-backed rights commission urged Syria to let it into the country to investigate reports of killings and torture, including of children, during six months of protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

“We have received many scary reports about the situation of children during the conflict,” Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian human rights expert heading the commission of inquiry, told a news conference on Friday.

“At this very moment we are trying to have access from the Syrian government,” he said.

Pinheiro did not refer to any specific cases, but a YouTube video of the bloodied corpse of a 13-year-old boy sparked international outrage earlier this year.

Hamza al-Khatib, who activists say was tortured and killed by security forces, had emerged as a powerful symbol in protests against Assad’s rule which have been met with a bloody crackdown.

Syrian authorities deny he was tortured, saying he was killed at a demonstration in which armed gangs shot at guards.

“In any case, with or without the cooperation of Syria we will have a report. It is always better if a member state cooperates with a commission of inquiry,” Pinheiro said.

At least 2,700 people have been killed in the crackdown, the U.N. says. Syria says more than 700 soldiers and police have been killed in the uprising, which it blames on armed groups backed by foreign powers.

Amnesty International says it has video evidence of people — including boys as young as 13 — found killed with injuries indicating that they had suffered beatings, burns, whipping, electric shocks and other abuse.

Several Western diplomats doubt that the increasingly isolated Syrian government would allow entry to a three-member panel, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council last month to look into alleged crimes against humanity by Syrian forces.

The full team of 15, which includes forensic and legal experts, hopes to meet Syrian authorities in Geneva next week to discuss their visit, Pinheiro said.

They also planned to visit neighboring countries including Turkey to gather testimony from refugees and witnesses before preparing their report by the end of November.

“We are an independent commission with full independence and impartiality,” Pinheiro said.

An initial U.N. investigation said it had found evidence of crimes against humanity and drew up a confidential list of 50 alleged perpetrators for possible prosecution.

“Credible recent reports indicate that the Syrian government is not only brutally repressing activists but also targeting their family members, imprisoning, torturing and killing relatives of dissidents,” Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, U.S. human rights ambassador, told reporters in Geneva on Thursday.

“We stand by the idea that Syria must give them access. We will continue to put pressure on Syria to do so and the commission is pushing hard too,” she said.

Pinheiro, asked whether the new probe would have access to the confidential list of names, said: “Legal experts at office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights are examining this issue.”

Earlier, he said: “For the sake of our investigation we are not working for Security Council or the International Criminal Court. We working for the Human Rights Council.”

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Karolina Tagaris

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