International Court Orders Syria to Stop Torture of Political Opponents

Judges at the U.N.’s highest court on Thursday ordered Syria’s government to stop torturing its imprisoned opponents, seeking to end the abuses that have become a notorious hallmark of the country’s long civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead.

In the first ruling from an international court on the abuses of the war, which began in 2011, the International Court of Justice in The Hague said Syria must “take all measures within its power to prevent acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The judges also ordered Syria to preserve all evidence related to torture, “including medical and forensic reports or other records of injuries and deaths.”

Syria did not send a representative to the court for the hearing, and also had boycotted earlier ones. It has not yet responded to the order.

But its efforts to delay the case for more than two years, lawyers at the court said, suggest that Syria recognized its potential to complicate the country’s recent push to end its status as an international pariah.

The order by the International Court of Justice is binding, although the court has no means to enforce it.

The ruling focuses in particular on the often deadly torture inflicted by President Bashar al-Assad’s henchmen as they used the country’s sprawling prison system to quash the opposition. Human rights groups and investigators have estimated that some 14,000 people have died from torture or were killed in prisons run by military intelligence and security forces.

Even as the conflict has waned, the torture and disappearances of perceived opponents continue on a regular basis, human rights groups and U.N. investigators said.

Efforts to bring Mr. Assad before the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals, have been repeatedly stymied by vetoes from Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council. Attempts by some Western countries to create a special tribunal for Syria have similarly failed.

But in June, Canada and the Netherlands filed a complaint at the International Court of Justice, which deals with disputes between nations, claiming that Syria had repeatedly and on “a massive scale” violated the Convention Against Torture. As all three countries have ratified the convention, the complaint opened the way to the present case, whose final resolution is expected to take months and for which no date has been set.

In the interim, the plaintiffs requested an emergency order to protect potential new victims, tantamount to an injunction, which was handed down on Thursday. The 15-judge panel approved it in a 13-2 vote; the two no votes were cast by China and Russia.

The ruling comes after French judges issued international arrest warrants on Tuesday for Syria’s president and three close associates, accusing them of complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity over chemical attacks against civilians in 2013.

Chances of any of the men landing in a French court are slim. But the stigma of the warrants, as with Thursday’s order to stop the torture, could complicate Syria’s diplomatic and business relations, which had recently improved after more than a decade of isolation.