Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Use of Torture in Syria

With actions in Syria making the news on a nearly daily basis, I thought it was time to take a quick look at the recent coverage of the use of torture in Syria by Human Rights Watch followed by  examples of how the nation treats its dissidents from the country report on Syria by Amnesty International.

Through reports given by over 200 former Syrian detainees and defectors, Human Rights Watch has revealed the locations of torture centres located throughout the country and published them in a report entitled "Torture Archipelago".  This report looks at the arrests, torture and disappearances in Syria's detention system since March of 2011. 

Here is a map showing the locations and number of detention centres in the six major urban areas of Syria:

Reports show that, since the beginning of the anti-government uprising in March 2011, Syrian authorities have arrested and detained tens of thousands of people, holding them in a network of at least 27 military and intelligence agency-run detention centres.  These facilities are operated by Syria's four main intelligence agencies; the Department of Military Intelligence, the Political Security Directorate, the General Intelligence Directorate and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate.  All four agencies are collectively referred to as the mukhabarat, the Arabic term for "intelligence" or what we in the West would refer to as the "secret police".

To cope with the huge numbers of arrests, the authorities have established a network of temporary holding facilities in stadiums, schools, hospitals and military bases.  In these over-crowded facilities, inadequate amounts of food are often provided and medical assistance is denied.  In one case, 70 detainees were squeezed into a 4 by 5 metre (13 by 16 foot) cell, roughly the size of an average living room.  As well, more than 20 different overt methods of torture are used including beatings with batons, burning with car battery acid,  the use of stress positions, the pulling of fingernails, insertion of staples and nails, sexual assault and humiliation, the use of electricity and mock executions.

One of the detention centres is located at the Mezzeh military airport in Damascus shown on this Google Earth screen capture:

Here, in the words of a former intelligence officer, are the methods used to torture detainees at the Mezzeh location:

"The mildest form of torture is hitting people with batons on their arms and legs and not giving them anything to eat or drink.  Then they would hang the detainees from the ceiling by their hands, sometimes for hours or days....They used electric stun-guns and an electroshock machine, an electric current transformer.  It is a small machine with two wires with clips that they attach to nipples and a knob that regulates the current.  In addition, they put people in coffins and threatened to kill them and close the coffin....They pour hot water on people and then whip them.  I've also sen drills there, but I've never seen them being used...The put pins under your feet and hit you so that you step on them.  I also heard them threatening to cut off the detainees' penises."

From the report, here is a listing of detention centres where detainees are being abused:

Most of the former detainees interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report were young men in their 20s and 30s, however, local activists throughout Syria have recorded the detention of 635 children as young as eight years of age and 319 women by as of June 22, 2012.  Children in their early teen years are tortured as well, using electrocution and the pulling of nails using pliers among other methods.  Thirteen year old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb was tortured and killed while in custody, causing an international outcry.  As well, elderly Syrians are not immune from detention and torture.

According to Amnesty International's Country Report for Syria for the year 2011, at least 200 detainees are reported to have died while in custody under suspicious circumstances.  While, on one hand, President Bashar al-Assad lifted the national state of emergency that had been in force continuously since 1963 and granted five separate amnesties for prisoners of various types including prisoners of conscience, he introduced a law that allows detention without charge or trial for up to two months.  As well, he introduced a Peaceful Assembly Law that forces demonstrators to properly licence protests.

One of the problems with government use of lethal force appears to be the use of snipers on crowds of demonstrators or against Syrian civilians attending funeral processions of those killed in the preceding days.  On June 4th, 2011, up to 25 mourners were shot by security force snipers while attending the funeral of Basel al-Masri, a villager from Jisr al Shughour.

Security forces also appear to be targeting health care workers who have been killed for the act of treating wounded protestors or supporting the protests.  One physician who may have been targeted because he signed a petition that called for all physicians to be able to treat all injured Syrians, Dr. Sakher Hallak, was held at the Criminal Security Department in Aleppo for two days in May 2011.  When his body was returned to his family, he had broken ribs, arms and fingers along with gouged eyes and mutilated genitals. 

I think that's enough of that.  I would suggest that you take a few moments to go through the "Torture Archipelago" report.  It goes into more detail than I can cover in this short posting and may give you a sense of why it is rather urgent that something be done to help Syria's innocent civilian population.

Despite mounting evidence of what has amounted to decades of abuse of Syrian civilians under the al-Assad clan, the international community seems to have its hands tied.  While the international community was quick to act in the case of Muammar Qadafi and Libya, for some reason, actions against the despotic regime in Syria seem to be very slow in coming.  Is it possible that the reason for inaction is Syria's strategic lack of a dark-coloured liquid substance that is critical to keeping the world's economy humming along?  Oh yes, that and the billions of dollars worth of Russian MiG fighters, tactical missiles and other air defence systems along with Russia's use of the Syrian port of Tartus as its only naval base outside of the borders of the old USSR?


  1. Of course, if he had been one of "ours" and the weapons, training, ports etc were American, there would be little or no fuss. And you are right, lack of oil greatly decreases American interest in regime change.

  2. Believe me Amnesty International reports lack objectivity and are strongly biased to favor one side. I wish to see you writing about that...