Last month, as brave human rights activists in Damascus held protests calling for the release of political prisoners, picking up on the revolutionary movements sweeping the Middle East, and challenging the iron rule of the Ba’ath party and the emergency laws that have been in place since 1963, I picked up on the story, publishing an article, Revolution in the Middle East: Brave Protestors in Syria Call for Freedom, and then following up with another, entitled, Political Prisoners in Syria: An Urgent Crisis Now!, after many of the activists were themselves seized and imprisoned. Even so, a revolutionary spark had been ignited, and protests then began taking place in towns and cities throughut Syria, as I reported in another article, perhaps hopefully entitled, Syria: Amazingly, The Next Crucible of Revolution in the Middle East?.
Since then — just three weeks ago — I confess that I have not had time to follow the story as closely as I was doing, although it is clear that the movement for radical reform, and an end to the hated emergency laws, has not come to an end. In an attempt to quell the continuing dissent, which has led to the deaths of at least 200 protestors, President Bashar al-Assad sacked the entire Cabinet two weeks ago (a largely cosmetic gesture that failed to placate the protestors, as power is concentrated in the President’s hands), and, on Friday, while protests involving thousands of people took place in a number of towns and cities in the north of Syria, promised to release hundreds of those detained in the last month, with the exception of those involved in “criminal acts.”
The announcement, which does not yet appear to have led to the release of anyone, was followed by a promise on Saturday to bring the emergency laws to an end within a week, but it is uncertain whether the President is committed to genuine change, or is just trying to disarm the protestors with words, Within hours, as Al-Jazeera reported, “About 2,000 protesters staged a sit-in in the suburb of Douma, demanding the release of relatives arrested on Friday during a major day of nationwide protests, activists said,” and the official SANA news agency also reported that around 2,000 people demonstrated in the volatile southern city of Daraa, calling for freedom.
Protestors continued to demonstrate today (Sunday) — ironically, on Syria’s Independence Day, which commemorates the departure of the last French soldiers 65 years ago. As Al-Jazeera explained, “The Damascus Declaration, an opposition umbrella group, called for peaceful protests in all Syrian cities and abroad to ‘bolster Syria’s popular uprising and ensure its continuity,’” and “Other activists also called for protests through social network sites.”
In addition, President al-Assad’s promise to free prisoners came on the same day that Human Rights Watch issued a news release describing the arbitrary detention of hundreds of protestors (and some journalists), who were seized in a variety of towns and cities across the country. Human Rights Watch secured the testimony of released prisoners, who told them about the widespread use of torture at the hands of the mukhabarat, the feared secret police, and the result is an important article that can only encourage those interested in justice, fairness and human rights to continue supporting the efforts of the Syrian people — including the long-oppressed Kurdish minority — to either topple the al-Assad regime, or to force it to undergo an unprecedented process of reform.
Syria: Rampant Torture of Protesters
Activists and Journalists Also Arrested and Mistreated
Human Rights Watch, April 15, 2011
Syrian security and intelligence services have arbitrarily detained hundreds of protesters across the country, subjecting them to torture and ill-treatment, since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-March 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The security and intelligence services, commonly referred to as mukhabarat, have also arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists who endorsed or promoted the protests, Human Rights Watch said.
Syrian authorities should immediately stop the use of torture and free arbitrarily detained demonstrators, activists, and journalists, Human Rights Watch said. The government of President Bashar al-Asad should order prompt and impartial investigations into serious abuses against detainees and ensure all those responsible are brought to justice.
“There can be no real reforms in Syria while security forces abuse people with impunity,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “President al-Asad needs to rein in his security services and hold them to account for arbitrary arrests and torture.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 people who had been detained in Daraa, Damascus, Douma, al-Tal, Homs, and Banyas, as well as several families of detainees. Those interviewed who had been detained included two women and three teenagers, ages 16 and 17. Human Rights Watch also collected information from Syrian activists about dozens of people detained in Daraa and Banyas, and reviewed the footage of some detainees released from Daraa, whose bodies appeared to have marks from torture. Those interviewed were held by various branches of mukhabarat, including state security (Amn al-Dawla), political security (Amn al-Siyasi), and military security (Amn al-Askari).
All but two of the detainees arrested during the protests told Human Rights Watch that mukhabarat officers beat them while arresting them and in detention, and that they witnessed dozens of other detainees being beaten or heard screams of people being beaten. In addition to the three children interviewed by Human Rights Watch, witnesses reported seeing children detained and beaten in the facilities where they were held.
Many told Human Rights Watch that they and other detainees were subjected to other forms of torture, including electro-shock devices, cables, and whips. Most also said they were held in overcrowded cells, and many were deprived of sleep, food, and water – in some cases, for several days. Some said they were blindfolded and handcuffed the entire time.
Most detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported being forced to sign confessions without being allowed to read them, as well as pledges not to participate in future protests. Some also had to provide detailed personal information about themselves and their families, including family members’ addresses and places of employment. None were allowed to have any contact with relatives or lawyers while in detention, and their families were not informed of their whereabouts.
Most were released after several days with no charges against them, while others were released on bail with charges pending. The number of people who remain in detention is impossible to verify, but several individuals told Human Rights Watch that a number of people from their communities who had been arrested during the protests had not returned and that their families had no information about their fate or whereabouts.
Beatings, Torture in Detention
Many of those interviewed shortly after their release still had traces of bruises on their faces and heads. One, a 17-year-old, could hardly move — he needed assistance sitting down and standing up. Human Rights Watch reviewed video footage showing evidence of severe beatings on the face and arms of another child, described in the footage as a 12-year-old from Douma, a town near Damascus.
A protester detained on March 25 after taking part in a protest in al-Tal, also near Damascus, said the security services beat him and put him in a bus with five or six other detainees and drove them to Damascus. He said he was first taken to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence and later to a branch of State Security on Baghdad Street:
[At State Security,] they lined us up in the corridor along the wall, and beat us. Then they dragged us to the basement — I lost consciousness for some time, they beat me very hard on my head. They first kept all 17 of us in one room, and took [us] out for interrogations from there — they beat us with a cable, and accused us of being Israeli and Lebanese spies. I was hooded at the time.
Another protester arrested during the same protest told Human Rights Watch that he was brutally beaten and tortured by three mukhabarat agencies: State Security, Political Security, and the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence. He described his ill-treatment at the hands of Political Security, where he spent four days:
The security personnel took us out for interrogations in a room in front of the cell. We constantly heard the sounds of whipping and screams from that room. When they took me in, they put me face down on the floor, and started beating me with a cable on the soles of my feet, my legs and back. They were asking, “Why did you go to the demonstration? Who paid you to go? Who made you go?” They just wanted me to confess to something, did not matter what.
Another protester from al-Tal also reported that officers of the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence used electric shock to torture him and others detained with him:
They beat us in the courtyard, and then took us into the basement. It was a big room, with about a hundred detainees in it, from different towns. They stripped us down to our underwear and poured cold water on us, beat us with cables, and shocked us with electric batons — those were cylindrical sticks that looked like a torch, they pressed them toward our arms and stomachs, each time for three to four seconds. The low-ranking soldiers did the beatings, and higher officers used the electro-shock devices. They were in uniforms, but without identifying signs.
A lawyer detained by State Security in Damascus told Human Rights Watch that he shared a cell with two detainees who were tortured with electro-shock devices, and another whose legs and feet were beaten so badly that he could not move. After one interrogation session, security personnel brought him back to the cell, hung him by his hands, and prohibited his cellmates from giving him food or water, or even talking to him. One detainee recalled a cellmate who had been beaten so badly on the soles of his feet that his toenails had fallen out. Another detained in a State Security facility in Damascus estimated that he heard approximately 30 people being beaten one Friday night after the security forces had brought in a new batch of protesters.
Protesters detained in other parts of the country reported similar experiences. A man detained during protests on April 1 in Douma told Human Rights Watch that a group of about 10 security officers beat him on the head until he collapsed and then dragged him into a bus with about a dozen other protesters, all badly beaten and bleeding. He said:
They took us to State Security in Damascus — I knew this place. They brought some 10 or 15 buses full of protesters from Douma there. They dragged me and others into the basement, and beat us there with sticks, accusing us of being terrorists. They also used electric batons on us — these are black and blue cylindrical sticks with a button that releases electric shocks on one end. They pressed them on the back side of our necks, and shocked us for a few seconds. It was incredibly painful.
A 17-year-old detained in the coastal town of Banyas described his ordeal during his five-day detention at a local branch of Military Security:
When we got to Military Security, they put us in a small cell … They kept us there with no food from Friday, when they arrested us, until Monday. They gave us one bottle of water after we all begged for water. The guards would say “share,” and some of us didn’t get to drink because it was not enough. They interrogated me five times, once each day. During the interrogations, they would beat me. I think it was with sticks and with whips but I don’t even know, I couldn’t see anything. They beat me on my head, on my back, on my shoulders. They especially beat me on my face. With every word, they would beat me. They asked me why I was trying to destroy the regime, if I was a terrorist from Israel.
Two witnesses who were detained in a facility on Baghdad Street in Damascus reported hearing a woman scream as if in pain and cry in their facility, but they never saw her.
Most of those detained following protests told Human Rights Watch that they were forced to sign and put their fingerprints on papers without being allowed to read the document. A teenager from Douma detained for two days by the mukhabarat — he was blindfolded and so did not know which security branch — told Human Rights Watch:
I asked, “What is this paper?” and one of the security men grabbed my head, and pushed my mouth open, and the other one squeezed my tongue with something that felt like pliers and started pulling it. And when I refused to sign it, one of the interrogators took a hammer and started pounding on my toes. In the cell, they also beat me on the face with their Kalashnikovs [AK-47 assault rifles].
Another detainee, a non-Syrian Arab, told Human Rights Watch that he signed and put his fingerprints on a piece of paper after each day of interrogation: “I never saw what I signed,” he said. “My eyes were blindfolded. And I was afraid so I did not even dare ask read it.” A Western detainee recalled that the security services made him sign two pieces of paper but would not let him read them.
Activists and Journalists
Syria’s security services have also arbitrarily arrested and tortured activists, writers, and journalists who have reported on or expressed support for the anti-government protests, detaining at least seven local and international journalists since protests began on March 16.
A Syrian writer described how security services “kidnapped” him off the street in Damascus after he spoke about Syrian protests and the government response in the media. “I saw a white unmarked van on the street, and when I came directly beside it, the sliding door opened and three big men grabbed me,” he told Human Rights Watch. “They did not say anything to me, just grabbed me.” On the way to what he later learned was a State Security building, his captors beat and kicked him. During interrogation they also beat him: “They brought a whip and started to beat my shoulders, legs and arms. They were cursing me and accusing me of things.”
A non-Syrian Arab journalist told Human Rights Watch that he was beaten during interrogation.
State Security also arrested one of the lawyers who represented the protesters detained at the March 16 demonstration calling for the release of political activists. He spent a week at the State Security detention facility in Damascus, where the security personnel on several occasions beat, threatened, and humiliated him. He spent most of his time handcuffed and hooded. Before being transferred into a cell, he was held for four days in an unheated corridor, apparently because the cells were jammed. The lawyer said that throughout his detention he heard sounds of beatings and screams of other detainees.
“By silencing those who write about events, Syrian authorities hope to hide their brutality,” Stork said. “But their crackdown on journalists and activists only highlights their criminal behavior.”
All former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch described appalling detention conditions, with grossly overcrowded cells where at times detainees could only sleep in turns and suffered various forms of humiliation and verbal abuse. One person detained at State Security in Damascus said he shared a 30-square meter cell with about 75 other people.
Several told Human Rights Watch that they were put in small solitary confinement cells about 1 by 1.5 meters — too small even to lie down. Officers sometimes forced two or even three detainees into these cells. One person detained in Damascus said that he shared a cell that was about half a meter by 1.75 meters with another person for four days. “When we slept we had to coordinate our movements to turn,” he said. Another protester detained at a State Security facility on Bagdad Street in Damascus said that he shared a cell about three-quarters of a meter by 1.8 meters with two other men:
We spent four days there, although at that time we couldn’t tell — there were no windows, an electric lamp was on all the time, and we lost track … We could only sleep in turns — one person could lie down, and then the other two had to stand.
“Throwing peaceful protesters in dungeons, beating them, denying them access to the outside world, will only increase the chasm between Syria’s rulers and its people,” Stork said. “The terrible torture methods of the mukhabarat need to become a relic of the past.”