Assad’s dungeons

Peaceful protesters tortured in Syrian detention

Marwan had trouble sitting down during our interview. He had bruises all over his body and bandages on his head from the beating security officers subjected him to during his two-day detention by the Amn Al Dawla — one of Syria’s notorious mukhabarat, or secret security services. His crime was participating in a peaceful protest in Douma on April 1, calling for reforms.

Marwan’s case is not unique. Syria’s mukhabarat have detained more than a thousand anti-government protesters since mid-March and many of those recently released have reported that security forces tortured them in detention. Often, like Marwan, they have the scars to prove it. 

Particularly disturbing is the pervasiveness of ill treatment by security forces, the routine beatings, torture and humiliation that hundreds of protesters incurred in dozens of security detention facilities. Of the 22 released protesters interviewed by Human Rights Watch, almost all reported being beaten and tortured. Three of them were children, who were treated no differently from the adults. One protester detained at an unknown facility in Damascus vividly recalled that he could not sleep during his first three days of detention because of screams emanating from the interrogation room next door.  “The screams pierced my ears. I could not sleep, could not eat,” he recalled.

A shopkeeper from the coastal village of Banias, one site of anti-government protests, described his treatment at the local military security facility: “They beat me during each one of my four interrogations. 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.”

A protester from Al Tal, a suburb of Damascus, reported that officers of the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence used electric shocks to torture him. Another protester from the town of Douma felt lucky that his Amn Al Dawla interrogators just beat him with cables. “Many others in my cell told me that they had used electric batons on them,” he said.  In one particularly gruesome testimony, a detainee described how he helped his cellmate, another protester, walk to the bathroom after his cellmate’s toe-nails had fallen off following a vicious session of beatings on the soles of his feet.

The beatings were meant to punish the protesters and elicit information. Released protesters repeated that interrogators kept asking them about who paid them to protest. “They simply did not believe that we were doing this out of our own free will,” a Douma resident told me over the phone. After most interrogation sessions, protesters had to sign a confession that they could not read. Some detainees even reported being filmed by state television crews while they confessed to being “terrorists and killers.”

Brutality by Syria’s mukhabarat is not new. Human rights groups have documented such practices for years, prompting the UN Committee against Torture, tasked with monitoring compliance with the Convention against Torture, to say in May 2010 that it was “deeply concerned about numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by law enforcement and investigative officials” in Syria.

What is new, however, are the increasing numbers of people across the Arab world who will no longer keep silent about this brutality. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were both sparked by abuses committed by security forces. And Syria is no exception — it was the mukhabarat’s torture of a group of Daraa school children who had scribbled graffiti criticizing President Bashar al-Assad that originally drove people to the streets.  And now that they are on the streets, we hope that their chants once and for all will end the screams emanating from the mukhabarat’s dungeons. For if this ‘Arab Spring’ is to usher in a new era, the torture chambers of today need to become a relic of the past — or better yet, museums that bear witness to the crimes committed against ordinarycitizens.

Nadmim Houry is director of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch

Nadim Houry is deputy MENA director at Human Rights Watch. He is also the director of the Beirut office.

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