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'The blood was like a river': Syrian people speak of horrific torture they endured in prison

Many people witnessed prisoners dying in custody and some described being held in cells alongside dead bodies.

File photo of Syrian refugees at a refugee camp in Jordan.
File photo of Syrian refugees at a refugee camp in Jordan.
Image: Muhammed Muheisen/AP/Press Association Images

Warning: Some readers may find details in this article distressing. 

ACCOUNTS OF TORTURE, inhuman conditions and mass deaths in Syria’s prisons have been released in a new report by Amnesty International.

It breaks the human: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons estimates that 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria since the crisis began in March 2011 – an average rate of more than 300 deaths each month.

The report retraces the experiences of thousands of detainees through the cases of 65 torture survivors who described appalling abuse and inhuman conditions in security branches operated by Syrian intelligence agencies and in Saydnaya Military Prison, on the outskirts of Damascus.

Most of the people interviewed said they had witnessed prisoners dying in custody and some described being held in cells alongside dead bodies.

The majority of survivors told Amnesty International the abuse they endured would begin immediately upon their arrest.

Upon arrival at a detention facility, detainees described a “welcome party” ritual involving severe beatings, often using silicone or metal bars or electric cables.

Samer, a lawyer arrested near Hama, said:

They treated us like animals. They wanted people to be as inhuman as possible … I saw the blood, it was like a river … I never imagined humanity would reach such a low level … They would have had no problem killing us right there and then.

Such “welcome parties” were often described as being followed by “security checks”, during which women in particular reported being subjected to rape and sexual assault by male guards.

Torture 

At the intelligence branches, detainees said they endured torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation, generally in order to extract “confessions” or other information or as a punishment.

Common methods of torture used included dulab (forcibly contorting the victim’s body into a rubber tyre) and falaqa (flogging on the soles of the feet). Detainees also faced electric shocks, rape and sexual violence. Some had their fingernails or toenails pulled out and were scalded with hot water or burned with cigarettes.

Ali, a detainee at the military intelligence branch in Homs, described how he was held in the shabeh stress position, suspended by his wrists for several hours and beaten repeatedly.

syria1 File photo of the destruction smoke in the Saif Al Dawla district in Aleppo, Syria. Source: Manu Brabo/AP/Press Association Images

Amnesty International said the combination of poor conditions in the intelligence branches, including overcrowding, lack of food and medical care, and inadequate sanitation amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and are prohibited by international law.

Survivors described being held in cells so overcrowded they had to take turns to sleep, or sleep while squatting. “It was like being in a room of dead people. They were trying to finish us there,” Jalal, a former detainee, recalled.

Deaths 

Another detainee, Ziad (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), said ventilation in a military intelligence branch in Damascus stopped working one day and seven people died of suffocation, stating:

They began to kick us to see who was alive and who wasn’t. They told me and the other survivor to stand up … That is when I realised that … seven people had died, that I had slept next to seven bodies … I saw the rest of the bodies in the corridor, around 25 other bodies.

International response 

Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland. said: “The catalogue of horror stories featured in this report depicts in gruesome detail the dreadful abuse detainees routinely suffer from the moment of their arrest, through their interrogation and detention behind the closed doors of Syria’s notorious intelligence facilities. This journey is often lethal, with detainees being at risk of death in custody at every stage.

For decades, Syrian government forces have used torture as a means to crush their opponents. Today, it is being carried out as part of a systematic and widespread attack directed against anyone suspected of opposing the government in the civilian population and amounts to crimes against humanity. Those responsible for these heinous crimes must be brought to justice.

“The international community, in particular Russia and the USA, who are co-chairing peace talks on Syria, must bring these abuses to the top of the agenda in their discussions with both the authorities and armed groups and press them to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment,” O’Gorman said.

Amnesty International is also calling for all prisoners of conscience to be freed, and all others to be released or promptly tried in line with international fair trial standards, and for independent monitors to be allowed immediate access to all places of detention.

More than 290,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted over five years ago.

Read: Civilians celebrate in the streets as Islamic State is pushed out of Syrian city

Read: ‘Catastrophic’: Up to 2m people without running water for four days in Aleppo

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Órla Ryan

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