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Harrowing accounts of torture, inhuman conditions and mass deaths in Syria’s prisons

The horrifying experiences of detainees subjected to rampant torture and other ill-treatment in Syrian prisons are laid bare in a damning new report published by Amnesty International today which 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.

‘It breaks the human’: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons documents crimes against humanity committed by government forces. It 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 said they had witnessed prisoners dying in custody and some described being held in cells alongside dead bodies.

“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,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“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, which 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.”

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 and unfettered access to all places of detention

The report highlights new statistics from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), an organization that uses scientific approaches to analyse human rights violations, which indicate that 17,723 people died in custody across Syria between March 2011 when the crisis began and December 2015. This is equivalent to an average of more than 300 deaths each month. In the decade leading up to 2011, Amnesty International recorded an average of around 45 deaths in custody in Syria each year – equivalent to between three to four people a month.

However, the figure is a conservative estimate and both HRDAG and Amnesty International believe that, with tens of thousands of people forcibly disappeared in detention facilities across Syria, the real figure is likely to be even higher.

For the launch of this report Amnesty International has also partnered with a team of specialists at Forensic Architecture to create a virtual 3D reconstruction of Saydnaya, one of Syria’s most notorious prisons. Using architectural and acoustic modelling and descriptions from former detainees, the model aims to bring to life the daily terror they experienced and their appalling detention conditions.

“Using 3D modelling techniques and the memories of those who survived horrendous abuse there, for the first time we are able to get a true glimpse inside one of Syria’s most notorious torture prisons,” said Philip Luther.

Abused at every stage

The majority of survivors told Amnesty International that the abuse would begin instantly upon their arrest and during transfers, even before they set foot in a detention centre.

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

“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,” said Samer, a lawyer arrested near Hama.

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.

At the intelligence branches detainees endured relentless torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation, generally in order to extract “confessions” or other information or as a punishment. Common methods 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, or rape and sexual violence, had their fingernails or toenails pulled out, 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.

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,” said Jalal, a former detainee.

Another detainee, “Ziad” (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), said ventilation in Military Intelligence Branch 235 in Damascus stopped working one day and seven people died of suffocation:

“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 realized that… seven people had died, that I had slept next to seven bodies… [then] I saw the rest of the bodies in the corridor, around 25 other bodies.”

Detainees also reported that access to food, water and sanitation facilities was often very restricted. Most said that they were prevented from washing properly. In such environments, infestations of scabies and lice, and diseases thrived. As most detainees were denied access to proper medical care, in many cases detainees were forced to treat each other with only the most rudimentary supplies, further contributing to the dramatic increase in deaths in custody since 2011.

Detainees generally have neither access to their doctors, nor their families or lawyers while in these branches, and as such this treatment in many cases amounts to enforced disappearance.

Saydnaya Military Prison

Detainees often spend months or even years in the branches of the various intelligence agencies. Some eventually face outrageously unfair trials before military courts – often lasting no more than a matter of minutes – before being transferred to Saydnaya Military Prison where conditions are particularly dire.

“In [the intelligence branch] the torture and beating were to make us ‘confess’. In Saydnaya it felt like the purpose was death, some form of natural selection, to get rid of the weak as soon as they arrive,” said Omar S.

The torture and other ill-treatment in Saydnaya appears to be part of a relentless effort to degrade, punish and humiliate prisoners. Survivors said prisoners there are routinely beaten to death.

Salam, a lawyer from Aleppo who spent more than two years in Saydnaya, said: “When they took me inside the prison, I could smell the torture. It’s a particular smell of humidity, blood and sweat; it’s the torture smell.”

He described one incident when guards beat to death an imprisoned Kung Fu trainer after they found out he had been training others in his cell: “They beat the trainer and five others to death straight away, and then continued on the other 14. They all died within a week. We saw the blood coming out of the cell.”

Detainees at Saydnaya are initially held for weeks at a time in underground cells which are freezing cold in the winter months, without access to blankets. Later they are transferred to cells above ground where their suffering continues.

Deprived of food some detainees said they ate orange rinds and olive pits to avoid starving to death. They are forbidden from speaking or looking at the guards, who regularly humiliate and taunt detainees apparently just for the sake of it.

Omar S described how on one occasion a guard forced two men to strip naked and ordered one to rape the other, threatening that if he did not do it he would die.

“The deliberate and systematic nature of the torture and other ill-treatment at Saydnaya prison represents the basest form of cruelty and a callous lack of humanity,” said Philip Luther.

“The international community must make it a priority to end this kind of appalling and entrenched abuse. For years Russia has used its UN Security Council veto to shield its ally, the Syrian government, and to prevent individual perpetrators within the government and military from facing justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. This shameful betrayal of humanity in the face of mass suffering must stop now.”

Most survivors of torture and other ill-treatment have been left physically and psychologically scarred by their ordeals. The majority have fled after their release and are among the more than 11 million Syrians displaced from their homes.

Amnesty International is calling on the international community to ensure that torture survivors receive the medical and psychological treatment, as well as social support, necessary for their rehabilitation.