'It breaks the human' - Torture, disease and death in Syria's prisons

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Torture and other ill-treatment have been perpetrated by the Syrian intelligence services and other state forces for decades, fostered by a culture of impunity that is reinforced by Syrian legislation. However, since the current crisis in Syria began in 2011, the situation has become catastrophic, with torture committed on a massive scale.

The Syrian authorities have attempted to keep information about what is going on inside their detention facilities secret. They have refused access to human rights monitors and – both in the media and in international forums such as the UN Security Council – deny that violations take place despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Monitoring bodies, such as the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry for the Syrian Arab Republic (UN Commission of Inquiry), have collected sufficient evidence to estimate that “tens of thousands of people are detained by the Syrian government at any given time” and to show that torture and other ill-treatment are a routine occurrence in government detention facilities. Their evidence, which is corroborated by Amnesty International’s research, includes testimony from former detainees and families of detainees; it also relies on civilians and military personnel who previously worked in detention facilities, courts and state-operated hospitals and who have, after escaping the country, provided credible evidence to complete the gruesome picture of the reality for Syrian detainees.

These widespread abuses in detention are taking place in a context in which Syria’s human rights situation, in general, has deteriorated disastrously following the brutal repression of peaceful protests calling for political change in March 2011. Following the evolution of the situation into an internal armed conflict by mid-2012, civilians have been caught in the middle as Syrian government forces and non-state armed groups violate the laws of war. At the current time, no justice is in sight for the overwhelming majority of those whose rights have been violated.

This report focuses on the experience of 65 torture survivors interviewed by Amnesty International. It charts their journeys through what many, such as the UN Commission of Inquiry, consider to be Syria’s most lethal detention facilities, including the detention centres operated by Syria’s four intelligence services – Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Political Security and General Intelligence – and Saydnaya (also spelt Sednaya) Military Prison. In doing so, it reveals the changing patterns of torture and other ill-treatment that detainees face through the phases of arrest, interrogation by intelligence services and imprisonment. It also shows the challenges faced by those who survive the ordeal following release.

The research for this report took place between December 2015 and May 2016. The majority of interviews were carried out in person by Amnesty International staff members in southern Turkey, though some were also conducted over the phone or via electronic communications with interviewees based in Lebanon, Europe and the USA.

Of the 65 torture survivors interviewed for this report, 54 are men, one of whom was under 18 at the time of his arrest, and 11 are women. Five of the men interviewed were members of the Syrian militaryat the time of their arrest, while two were engaging in activities that could be perceived as supporting the military activities of a non-state armed group. The remaining 58 persons interviewed were civilians and had not engaged in any military activities, as far as Amnesty International is aware. Their occupations span Syrian society and include accountants, lawyers, teachers and academics, students, engineers, electricians, architects, business owners, gym managers, sales assistants, writers and journalists, actors, artists, NGO staff, human rights defenders, farmers and day labourers.

This diversity reflects Amnesty International’s research findings since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, which indicate that anyone perceived to oppose the government is at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and death in custody. Grounds for arrest on suspicion of opposing the government are often extremely flimsy and can include having provided humanitarian support to those displaced by the conflict, or being “reported” to a member of the security forces by an informer.

These 65 men and women, who were detained between 2011 and 2015, exemplify the suffering of tens of thousands of others. Despite the risks they or their families still face from the Syrian authorities, they spoke to Amnesty International to share their experiences with the international community and give a voice to those who remain detained and who the Syrian government is attempting to silence.

The abusive events that the people interviewed for this report experienced or witnessed began in each case with their arrest. The witnesses were all detained by members of the security forces or militias under the effective control of the Syrian authorities. They were mostly picked up at their homes, their work places, their university or similar such places while going about their daily business. Some were arrested at government-operated checkpoints; others were asked to report to one of the security forces’ branches for questioning. In almost all cases, their arrests were accompanied by torture or other illtreatment, including what was described by many witnesses as the “welcome party” – a term commonly used to refer to the severe beatings received upon their initial arrival at a detention facility.

In every case, the torture and other ill-treatment continued during their interrogations. Every interviewee said they had been tortured or otherwise ill-treated during at least one of their interrogations, in most cases during almost every interrogation. Shiyar described to Amnesty International an interrogation in which he was subjected to the torture technique known as shabeh, which involves the victim being suspended by their wrists, which are usually manacled to a hook or over a door or pipes in the ceiling, often for several hours:

“They had me stand on the barrel, and they tied the rope around my wrists. Then they took away the barrel. There was nothing below my feet. They were dangling in the air. They brought three sticks… [They were] hitting me everywhere… After they were done beating me with the wooden sticks, they took the cigarettes. They were putting them out all over my body. It felt like a knife excavating my body, cutting me apart.”

Most were interrogated repeatedly over several days or weeks, and in many cases interrogations started again if they were transferred to a different facility. The incidents of torture documented in this report cover a variety of methods, which are often used in combination, for example, being held in a stress position while being beaten or subjected to electric shocks, as well as psychological torture. Sexual violence was reported by men and women. Umm Omar described her experience while detained by Military Intelligence in Aleppo:

“They beat me until I was lying on the ground and then they kicked me with their military boots, in the places where I have had my hip operations, until I passed out. When I woke up, I was back in the solitary cell – they had dragged me back there from that room – but my trousers had been opened and moved down a bit, my abaya [fulllength robe] was open and my undershirt was moved up. Everything was hurting, so I couldn’t tell if I had been raped. It was overwhelming pain everywhere.”

Torture is used routinely to extract false confessions. Most of the former detainees interviewed for this report eventually “confessed” to whatever they were accused of by the interrogator in an attempt to end their suffering or to protect their friends or family. Some said that they thought a “confession” would mean that they would be taken to a court and subsequently be placed in a civilian prison and thus their suffering in the appalling conditions in the security branches would end. Hani described his experience in detention: “You would think we were praying to get released only, but actually most of us were praying just to escape from the hell that we were in, even if that meant ending up in ‘Adra [a civilian prison near Damascus]. In ‘Adra, at least there is a better life.”

In addition to the violations they experienced during their interrogations, all of the former detainees reported appalling detention conditions across all of the detention centres operated by the security forces. Survivors spoke of prolonged periods of solitary confinement; severe overcrowding of cells; lack of adequate access to medical treatment, sanitation, food and water; exposure to extreme temperatures; and prolonged detention for hours or days in cells containing the bodies of deceased detainees.

Noman developed an infection in his leg while detained by Military Intelligence in Damascus, where he could not access medical treatment. He said:

“There was another detainee who was a nurse. He said that the wound would need to be opened, otherwise I would get gangrene. He had a razor… He managed to empty the two toilets for a short while. He and another detainee took me there and gave me a towel to put in my mouth. I bit on it. They burned the razor with a lighter, then they cut open the wound from two sides. All the dirty blood came out. Then they brought a shirt and ripped it into pieces to tie up my leg.” All of the former detainees interviewed for this report described being regularly humiliated by guards, while the women interviewees in particular reported either witnessing or being subjected to sexual harassment and assault by prison guards. Bayan described an incident which occurred while she was detained by General Intelligence in Aleppo:

“[One of the guards] touched my body inappropriately, and aggressively forced me to touch him. I started crying and shouting. My hands were tied; he tried to attack me. I refused, and he got angry. He sent me back. I knew he was angry. He came back to ask for me at lunch the next day. He hit me in the face and hit my head against the wall and I started bleeding... [A doctor later confirmed] I had lost 70% of my hearing in my left ear.”

None of the survivors interviewed for this report were allowed any contact with the outside world, including their families or lawyers, while they were detained by the security forces. Only in cases where relatives were able to bribe someone inside or close to the security forces was it possible for families to obtain information about the fate and whereabouts of the detained person, and even then it was impossible for the families to verify whether the information they were given was correct.

Following months or even years spent in the branches of the various intelligence agencies, some of the interviewees were transferred to Saydnaya Military Prison. Such transfers often took place following a flagrantly unfair trial before a Military Field Court. Others arrived at the prison without having been before a judge or without knowing the alleged charges against them or the length of their sentence. This happened to Shappal: “They didn’t tell us the judgment of the court. But after I was released, I got my document from the prison, and I found out that they [had sentenced] me to 15 years in prison.”

All interviewees who had been held at Saydnaya reported systematic daily beatings, grossly inhuman detention conditions and degrading treatment, leading to detainee deaths on a daily basis. The survivors said that no interrogations take place at Saydnaya: detainees are tortured and otherwise ill-treated not to obtain information, but seemingly as a way to systematically and relentlessly degrade, punish and humiliate them. Some of the interviewees reported being allowed to receive family visits at Saydnaya; others remained detained in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance. Prisoners at Saydnaya do not have access to a lawyer. In several cases, relatives of a prisoner were incorrectly told by government officials that the prisoner had died.

The experiences faced by detainees in Syria’s detention system are often lethal. Of those former detainees interviewed by Amnesty International for this report, most had witnessed at least one death in custody while detained in the facilities covered in this report.

The Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), an NGO that uses scientific approaches to analyse human rights violations, in particular in the context of armed conflicts, estimates that at least 17,723 people were killed in custody across Syria between 15 March 2011 and 31 December 2015. HRDAG further found that this is likely a conservative estimate with the real numbers being higher.
For those very few detainees who survive and are released, the ordeal is not over. All of the survivors interviewed for this report said that the trauma they experienced during their detention fundamentally impacted their lives and the lives of their families and loved ones. Three of the women who spoke to Amnesty International said that, since their release, their families are no longer in contact with them as the result of the social stigma that is attached to women who have been detained. Most of the survivors continue to face difficulties, in particular with their health, both psychological and physical, long after their release, although some also say that the experience has made them stronger.

Based on the evidence presented in this report, as well as prior research by Amnesty International and the documentation of credible national and international monitoring groups, Amnesty International considers that the torture and other ill-treatment of detainees carried out by the Syrian government since 2011 have been perpetrated as part of an attack against the civilian population, pursuant to a state policy, that has been widespread, as well as systematic, and therefore amounts to a crime against humanity.

An end to these violations is not yet in sight. The Syrian authorities continue to degrade, arrest, torture, and kill anyone perceived to be opposing them, even in the face of demands from the UN Security Council, for example resolution 2139 of 2014, and other UN bodies to release those detained arbitrarily and end the use of torture and other ill-treatment as well as the practice of enforced disappearances.
Accountability for the victims and their families remains all but impossible at the national level. At the international level, only limited attempts are being made to ensure justice, truth and reparation for the war crimes and crimes against humanity that are being committed in Syria. The Syrian government also remains shielded from facing the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court by their ally, Russia, which has vetoed several resolutions on Syria from being passed in the UN Security Council.

This report therefore contains an urgent call on the international community to pressure the Syrian authorities to abide by their international obligations and end the use of torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, and prevent further deaths in custody.

The Syrian government is fully aware of the actions it needs to take to stop the crimes against humanity, including systematic torture and other ill-treatment, being carried out by the security forces. Amnesty International has called on the Syrian government repeatedly to undertake the following:

  • End enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions and make clear to all government forces and militias that such violations will not be tolerated;

  • Ensure that all persons deprived of their liberty are protected from torture and other ill-treatment and are treated humanely in accordance with international standards, including the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) and the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules);

  • End the use of unfair trials, abolish Military Field Courts and reform the Anti-Terrorism Court in line with international fair trial standards in law and in practice.

In light of their role in the negotiations between the conflicting parties in Syria, members of the International Syria Support Group and the UN Special Envoy for Syria must play a more prominent role in addressing the widespread, as well as systematic, use of torture in Syria. Amnesty International urges these states, as well as the Special Envoy, to do the following:

  • Prioritize the issue of torture and other ill-treatment in discussions with the Syrian authorities and other parties relevant to the situation in Syria;

  • Call on the Syrian government to immediately guarantee that detainees will be protected from torture and other ill-treatment, ensure they have unrestricted access to their family and lawyers, reveal the whereabouts of all detainees who have been subjected to enforced disappearance and publish the names of all those detained by Syrian government forces;

  • Call on all parties to provide immediate and unhindered access for recognized international detention monitors to all persons deprived of their liberty, without prior notification; ‘IT BREAKS THE HUMAN’ TORTURE, DISEASE AND DEATH IN SYRIA’S PRISONS Amnesty International

  • Call on all parties to the conflict to immediately and unconditionally release all those who are currently arbitrarily detained as a result of their peaceful activism, promotion and protection of human rights, and humanitarian and media work.