Detention and Abuse of Female Activists

News and Press Release
Originally published

Women Detail Torture and Abuse by Government in New Testimonies

(New York, June 24, 2013) – Syrian military and pro-government forces known as shabiha have arbitrarily detained female opposition activists as well as female relatives and neighbors of pro-opposition activists and fighters, and in a number of cases, subjected them to torture and sexual abuse, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 Syrian women who were detained, either due to their own engagement in activities related to government opposition, or that of their family members. Eight were themselves activists who had been detained, all of whom said that security forces and shabiha had abused or tortured them in detention. The abuse included electric shocks, keeping them in stress positions, and using metal rods, wires and nightsticks to beat and torture them. The eight women had attended peaceful demonstrations, created posters for opposition groups, provided humanitarian aid and medical care to those affected by the conflict, transported defectors from the Syrian military, and assisted displaced Syrians. All said security forces detained them at checkpoints or during home raids, and held them for periods lasting up to nearly 14 months between February 2012 and April 2013. In two cases, the women said their captors raped them while they were detained at the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous, and the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Mezze, Damascus.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed two women who were detained, and five who were physically abused, by government forces simply because of the suspected association of their relatives or neighbors with pro-opposition forces.

Human Rights Watch has not received information about opposition forces detaining and mistreating female government supporters or relatives of those associated with government forces.

“Beyond the daily gun battles, women have been a powerful voice in the opposition in villages and towns across Syria,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “In response, the Syrian government is punishing women for delivering humanitarian assistance, participating in protests, and supporting the opposition by subjecting them to detention, torture, and sexual assault.”

All 10 of the former detainees interviewed were arrested and detained arbitrarily, Human Rights Watch said. Eight of the women were held solely for activities related to their support of government opposition, including participating in peaceful protests, providing humanitarian assistance, and aiding Syrian army defectors and wounded opposition fighters. In two cases, women were detained solely due to their relatives’ activities in opposition to the government. Former detainees said that security forces conducting the arrests did not identify themselves, provide legal justification for arrests, inform the women of the charges against them, or tell them where they were being taken. One former detainee was held for about three months in pretrial detention, violating both international legal standards and legislation passed by the Syrian government, in April 2011, that limits detention without judicial review to 60 days.

The women reported torture in the following detention facilities: the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous, the Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus, the Military Intelligence Branch in Daraa, and Adra central prison in Damascus. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the government’s use of torture in 27 detention centers throughout Syria, including in these facilities.

Fatmeh (all names have been changed to protect interviewees), a 35-year-old activist who helped transport Syrian army defectors from Homs to Deraa, told Human Rights Watch that she was tortured every day during a 15-day stretch in detention at Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus, in March 2012:

One day it would be by electricity, the next by shabeh [being hung from the ceiling by one’s wrists with feet dangling or barely touch the ground]. The torture marks are still present. I would lose consciousness with the electricity… [T]hey were hitting me on my lower legs below my thighs and on my back. They tortured me until my body started bruising … Two men took me and carried me to the toilet because I couldn’t walk.

Fatmeh was released in March 2013, after nearly 14 months’ detention.

All eight women activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that security forces detained them because of their pro-opposition activities. They said that security forces interrogated them about their own involvement with pro-opposition groups, and asked them for names, locations, and activities of friends, relatives, and other suspected opposition supporters. Nasrin, 25, was detained in Daraa in February 2012, while helping to transport a Syrian army defector. She told Human Rights Watch that her interrogators asked about the identity of a Free Syrian Army leader in her village, and promised her release in exchange for his name.

Six of the women said that the authorities charged them with “terrorism” or “terrorist activities,” but released them after months in detention without adequate due process – including judges who refused to examine their case files based on instruction from security divisions, and who remanded them to prison for extended periods of time without instruction or ruling.

“National Security has looked over your file and we can’t do anything,” a judge in Damascus said to one of the women. “No one is allowed to see your file. You can’t be released by a judge.”

A legal counselor in Damascus told Human Rights Watch that she is currently assisting 15 female detainees held at Adra central prison, following their transfer from security branches in governorates including Idlib, Daraa, and Damascus:

Most of the women have been arrested during the revolution because of their own activities – demonstrating, providing humanitarian assistance or medical assistance, even [for just] being active on the Internet or Facebook ... They are being charged with helping or working with an armed group, as terrorists – but it is not true.

She said that her clients have reported that some 150 women are currently held at Adra, a number corroborated by two former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Based on her work with female detainees since the start of the Syrian uprisings, the legal counselor believes that the majority of these women are being detained for political participation and activities in support of opposition groups. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria estimates that the Syrian government detained more than 5,400 women between March 2011 and April 2013; they estimate that 766 women and 34 girls under age 18 remain in government detention facilities. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), 24 female detainees have been tortured to death since March 2011. Human Rights Watch is unable to independently verify the number of female detainees or those who have died in detention, because of denial of access to detention facilities in Syria.

Two of the former detainees reported to Human Rights Watch that security forces and prison guards raped and sexually abused them while in detention. Amal, 19, told Human Rights Watch that she was raped on two different occasions: first by an investigator and two officers in October 2012, at the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous, and a second time by two officers in the Military Intelligence Branch 235 (Palestine Branch) in Damascus, in November 2012. Maysa, 30, told Human Rights Watch about being beaten, threatened with torture, and raped on two separate occasions in June 2012, by a security officer while she was detained in the Investigation Branch at Air Force Intelligence in Mezze, Damascus. After the first rape, Maysa reported the attack to a commanding officer who was interrogating her. The officer slapped the attacker in front of Maysa after she identified him as the perpetrator of the rape, but did not remove him from his post. Maysa told Human Rights Watch that the attacker raped her again the following evening. On two other occasions, in July 2012, a prison guard at the same branch forced Maysa to perform oral sex on him. Brigadier General Abdul Salam Fajr Mahmoud is the director of the Investigation Branch at this facility.

Human Rights Watch has previously identified the locations, agencies responsible, torture methods, and, in many cases, commanders who were in charge of the 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies where the organization has documented torture. Human Rights Watch has documented systematic patterns that point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment, and therefore constitute a crime against humanity. Human Rights Watch has also [previously documented+( the use of sexual violence by Syrian security forces against male and female detainees in more than 20 incidents. The degree to which sexual violence is used in detention remains unclear, due to lack of access to detention facilities by human rights monitors and the reticence of many victims to come forward for fear of stigma or reprisals.

Human Rights Watch does not have evidence that high-ranking officers commanded their troops to commit sexual violence in detention, or that sexual violence is widespread and systematic in government detention facilities. However, information received by Human Rights Watch indicates that commanding officers in most cases took no action to investigate or punish those committing acts of sexual violence, or to prevent them from committing such acts. This was despite the assaults taking place in circumstances in which commanding officers knew or should have known the crimes were occurring. In the one case documented by Human Rights Watch where officers appeared to punish a perpetrator through physical violence – the case of Maysa – these actions were inadequate in protecting the detainee from abuse. In no case is there evidence to suggest that perpetrators were prosecuted for their crimes.

Human Rights Watch calls for the immediate release of all nonviolent activists and detainees held arbitrarily, including those detained for opposition activity or suspected activity of relatives. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the United Nations Security Council to demand that Syrian authorities grant unrestricted access to all detention facilities for international monitors, including the Commission of Inquiry mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. Internationally recognized, trained human rights monitors must be permitted and equipped to investigate arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual abuse of both men and women. Human Rights Watch reiterates its call to the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and urges other countries to join the calls for accountability by supporting a referral to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria.

Human Rights Watch continues to call on international nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian assistance providers, the United Nations, and local organizations to develop, expand, and improve access to medical, psychological, social, and legal assistance to Syrian female victims of torture, including sexual assault, inside and outside of the country.

“Torture and attacks against female activists have gone on for more than two years, and the Syrian authorities continue to turn a blind eye,” Gerntholtz said. “The Syrian government must immediately stop abusing female activists and put in measures to protect them. Those who have committed these crimes must be held accountable.”

To read the report “Torture Archipelago: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances in Syria’s Underground Prisons since March 2011,” please visit:

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Syria, please visit:

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on women’s rights, please visit:

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