Middle East

Profile: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

Demonstrators protesting against Syria"s President Bashar al-Assad gather during a march through the streets after Friday prayers in Baba Amro in Homs December 16, 2011.
Image caption Thousands have died since the Syrian uprising broke out in March

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has emerged as a prominent campaign group amid the country's revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, releasing daily casualty figures for the international media. But who is behind the organisation and what does it do?

Although the UK-based organisation has gained a high profile since the uprising began in March, it has been working covertly in Syria for more than five years.

It was started in May 2006 by a businessman, Rami Abdul Rahman, in an effort to raise awareness of human rights and freedom of speech in a country where those who spoke out frequently found themselves arrested.

The group of mainly professionals, many of them lawyers, monitored changes to the law and the judicial system, and worked to highlight cases of human rights abuses to international organisations such as Amnesty International.

'Random bullet'

When the uprising broke out in March, the Observatory switched its focus to report developments on the ground, rapidly building up its network to do so.

It now has more than 200 members and affiliates, covering every province in Syria, with some volunteers aggregating and publicising information from the UK.

Those in Syria work to confirm casualty reports of people that have come from activists or been cited in the media, checking with family members, witnesses or medics on the ground.

As foreign journalists are unable to operate freely in Syria to verify reports themselves, the media are increasingly reliant on such information.

The group says it is impartial in its reporting, recording the deaths of soldiers as well as civilians and protesters.

The names of all those killed are carefully documented, along with the circumstances surrounding their death, including videos if they are available.

Hivin Kako, a volunteer with the Observatory, says the reporting process is difficult given the situation, but that it has never had a case where it has listed someone as dead who was later found out not to be.

"If we don't know how they were killed we will say so. If it was a random bullet we will say that - we won't say they were killed by the security forces."

All those involved work on a voluntary basis, paying their own costs, while ties between members are kept to a minimum in case any one individual is captured and interrogated.

It is dangerous work; six people who worked for the group have so far been "martyred", according to the group, and several others arrested.

Similarly, the organisation stresses that all those who join are monitored to ensure they are not from the security forces, or have a strong political allegiance.

Ms Kako says that the organisation works for "justice, freedom and democracy" in Syria.

As such, while the organisation is not political in nature, she says, it wants President Assad to step down to allow for transparent elections and a transition to democracy.

The organisation has also expressed its opposition to foreign intervention, saying it prefers the more peaceful approaches taken by the Arab League, who this week sent observers into Syria as part of a deal to end the violence.