Eye Witness Accounts and Stories from within the Syrian Regime’s Prisons
Omar al Asaad
Dr Mohammad flips his new ID card, looks at this neighbour in the bed next to his bed and breaks out into a fit of laughter. The ID card which the detained doctor now holds in Adra prison includes a sentence that points out his crime: “weakening the national feelings!” He shares the same crime with Feras who is lying on the top bunk bed. The doctor ascertains that “this lad [Feras] is a simple naive guy, he isn’t crazy or mentally disabled but he does not fully comprehend what is happening around him. He even demonstrates speech problems and his facial features from a medical standpoint look abnormal.
Whether or not Feras has a medical problem or not, that is not the main issue. In the end he is just one out of many detainees held inside Syrian prisons. The campaigns of indiscriminate arrests carried out by Syrian Security Forces (SSF) do not take his condition into consideration. Unfortunately, even some judges did not give him special consideration. There are many cases similar to Feras inside the prisons and each detainee has his own story to tell.
The continuous bloodshed in Syria resulted in many of its sons and daughters ending up in detention centres and many were held in the dungeons of the SSF branches where they are held “pending investigation” forgetting their names as many detainees emphasis. This is because their names are quickly replaced with a swear word that will stay with them for the duration of their imprisonment period so it becomes unnecessary to introduce themselves by their real names.
Radwan an 18 year old young man, stresses that he has not even participated in the demonstrations [against the government] as he was busy preparing for his senior high school exams. A campaign of illegal and unfair rounding up of people has led to his arrest. He was charged of “terrorising the city” which automatically landed in the interrogation and torture rooms. He believes that this charge was only laid against him just because he is related to one of the Syrian Opposition figures abroad and hence only considers it as a “revenge charge with no legal basis or evidence to support it”.
An entire wing of the Damascus Central Prison, commonly known as Adra prison after the area in which it is located, is used to house detainees from the recent events and isolate them from the rest of the inmates. Due to the intense crackdowns it is estimated that between 400 to 600 detainees are housed in this wing out of 6800 prisoners locked up for various criminal, financial, moral and other reasons.
The general atmosphere of this wing is different from the rest of the wings because those who are housed in it insist that they “belief in a cause” and thus refuse to adopt the behaviours of the other inmates especially the criminals. So they try to overcome the harsh conditions of detention which prisoners often complain about such as the dirtiness of the place and the over-crowded cells as well as the negligence of medical and health care and the resultant respiratory and skin infections among inmates. In addition to the ban on visits and/or restricting those visits to one day per week which is carried out in the same visits area used by those who have committed ethical offenses (Prostitution). All this in addition to limits on the prisoners movements and placing some of them under surveillance and agitating them with corrupt security guards who always demand bribes in return for what are their lawful rights.
The prisoners find nothing to fill up their time other than talking about the ongoing revolution in the country. The prison lacks any facilities to help pass time other than a single library which prisoners of this wing are not allowed to use and hence resort to asking someone else to borrow books on their behalf.
Despite these harsh conditions, the prisoners in Adra prison consider themselves to be the lucky ones. They have arrived at this prison alive and have survived the torture during the interrogation stage in the SSF branches. In Syria, and especially after the lifting of the state of emergency, it is illegal for the SSF agencies to hold a citizen for interrogation for more than 60 days. They must the transfer the detainee to the judicial system. However the SSF agencies do not always abide to this law and therefore many citizens have been held at the SSF for three or four months without being transferred to the judicial system. Physical and psychological torture is the norm during this period and its details do not escape prisoners’ conservations.
Maan points out that “he was ghosted for three days straight”. “Ghosting” is a torture technique where the person is hanged by chains in his hands to the ceiling such that they are left standing on their tiptoes and the chained hands have to carry the entire body’s weight.
There are many other “arts” of torture in addition to the “art” of “ghosting”. These include electric shocks delivered from electric batons which Syrians in general have come to know well these days. Also topping the list of painful torture techniques which the Syrian citizen can be subjected to in the SSF branches is the “wheel”, as well as the “flying carpet” which the torturers can drag the detainee to a tour onto. The later technique is a wooden board to which the person is tied to after they are forced to lie stretched out on the ground. The board is flexible and can be bent at the pelvic region. After the person is bent over the beatings starts all over the body whereas the bending alone could sometimes cause their backs or hip to break. These torture techniques are always accompanied by the most horrific insults to the detainee’s honour and the most intimate of human dignity and feelings as well as the constant threats of making up charges against the detainee.
The detainees are thankful for their revolution which has put an end to the longest state of emergency in history which extended for close to half a century. It was the twin brother of the Baath ruling of the country since 1963. Previously, before lifting the state of emergency, the period for which a person can be held was not limited to two months. Authorities were able to detain a citizen indefinitely and be able to legally renew the detention period every six months. But even now the change in laws does not mean that all detainees are released from the SSF detention centres within the two months period. There have been many disappearance cases during the course of the Syrian revolution where the fate of individuals is still unknown till this very moment after being abducted by the SSF agencies.
The suffering of the detainees does not stop with the SSF branches and the interrogation rooms but it also extend to the kind of charges that could be laid against them. Although the State Security Court has been shut down, the charges that used to be brought against political opposition figures in that court still exist and are used now in front of the civil and military courts. These charges range from weakening national feelings, infringement on the prestige of the State, weakening the peace of the State, spreading false news, instigating sectarian rifts and they could go as far as membership of banned groups, armed disobedience, terrorising the city and many others.
While many detainers insist that the charges against them are baseless and are just pre-fabricated by the SSF and all are based on confessions taken under torture or reports to the secret police filed in revenge. A single video file of a demonstration or even a popular revolutionary song “Ya Haif” found on a mobile phone is enough to land its owner the charge of “spreading false news”. This charge statement is immediately followed by the phrase “which can weaken the spirit of the nation”. This can result in the detention of the mobile phone owner for up to three years according to the penal laws. Similarly, a comment on the Facebook page of any of the Local Coordination Committees [grassroots activism organisations which sprang up in many neighbourhoods, cities and regions of Syria since the start of the revolution] is enough evidence that a young man is a member of a banned organisation which aims at changing the structure of the State.
Syrian law states that a citizen can be subjected to military trials only if any of the parties involved in the case are from the military or if the crime was targeted against a military establishment or an establishment affiliated with the military. However this law has been transgressed on many occasions by the SSF agencies who refer the person in holding to the court of their choice. Lawyers and legal activists point out that “now the military courts have about 10,000 cases related to the recent events lodged to them. We try to segregate and redirect many of them to the civilian judicial system on the ground that they are outside the jurisdiction of the military judicial system”.
All what is written above is only a small part of what the author has witnessed and experienced during his two detention periods inside the Syrian regime’s prisons. Perhaps what is hidden inside those prisons which I could not discuss is much more horrific.
Original article in Arabic: