SYRIA: Hostage to politics: Syria’s prisoners
By Leila Al Shami
The brutality of any regime can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners. Under a highly authoritarian regime such as Syria’s the prison, and with it the entire security apparatus, acts as the primary means of social control through both the perpetuation of fear and the delivery of punishment for acts of transgression. It is the apex of the repressive apparatus of the State; the means by which to crush dissent and debilitate and dehumanize those who dare to challenge the center of power. The imprisonment and brutalization of political opponents, a key strategy of the dictatorship of Hafez Al Assad, continued under his son Bashar. This has only intensified since the uprising began in 2011 to levels of inhumanity and sadism unparalleled in our time. The Syrian regime has proved itself devoid of any morality. It’s only interest being self-preservation, continuation of power, and the domination and subjugation of the Syrian people.
Bashar’s legacy of brutality
When Bashar inherited the dictatorship from Hafez Al Assad in 2000 there was initially a climate of optimism that he would not use the iron fist tactics of his father. This manifested itself in a movement known as the Damascus Spring. It was not a popular movement but led by intellectuals who would meet in discussion forums, often private homes, resulting in declarations calling for greater freedoms and political reform. It was an important movement nonetheless in a country where all political debate had been stifled for decades. By Autumn 2001 the Damascus Spring turned into winter and key figures from the movement were imprisoned. They were sentenced to between two and ten years, on trumped up charges such as “weakening national sentiment”, attempting to change the constitution, as well as accused of causing racial and sectarian tensions, which were common charges for political activists. A number of them were subjected to torture under interrogation, held for long periods in solitary confinement in detention and denied medical treatment which they required (such as diabetes medication). With their imprisonment hope for political reform in Syria under Bashar died.
Over the first decade of Bashar’s rule the arrest and detention of political and human rights activists was wide-spread. Activists lived in constant fear of the Mukhabarat (secret service). Those detained joined hundreds of other political prisoners, many of them long term detainees that had been arrested in the 1970s and 1980s for their involvement with the Arab Communist Party, Democratic Baath Party or Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a large number of Palestinians and Lebanese. Bashar did implement prisoner amnesties during his first few years in power. Those released tended to be people that had already been held long after their original sentence had ended or were crippled by age, disease or torture. Bloggers and journalists were also targeted for criticizing the regime. In 2009 the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria as the third worst country in the world to be a blogger, based on censorship, harassment and arrests.
Kurdish activists were another target of the totalitarian State and security forces regularly cracked down on Kurdish political and cultural gatherings. 2004 was the year of the Kurdish Intifada (uprising). Security forces had opened fire when clashes broke out at a football match in Qamishli between rival supporters of Kurdish and Arab teams. Some 35 people were killed (mainly Kurds) and over a hundred injured. Protests spread across Jazeera province (the Kurdish region of north eastern Syria). During the uprising more than 2,000 Kurds were arrested. Many of them were subject to torture in prison which led to the death of two Kurdish detainees.
There were also cases of detention relating to the US government’s illegal rendition programme. In 2002 Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin was deported to Syria by the US government as a possible terror suspect. Anyone who still believes the Syrian regime is an anti-imperialist regime should look more closely at how Bashar colluded with the US in the ‘war on terror’ and tortured suspects to extract information on the US’s behalf. Arar was completely innocent, he just had the misfortune of being arrested at a US airport and sent to hell whilst returning to Canada from a holiday in Tunisia. He was repeatedly tortured during the year he spent in detention in Syria.
Even at that time, prior to the uprising, the conditions in Syria’s prisons were brutal. Torture and ill treatment of political prisoners was systematic and systemic. It was particularly widely practiced in the detention centers of the security services where people would be held, often without anyone knowing where they were, for weeks or months of interrogation. Preferred methods of torture included beating, electrocution, suspending prisoners from the ceiling and the “German Chair”. This was a metal chair in which the prisoner would be strapped which had moveable parts enabling the torturer to place his victim in stress positions which would restrict breathing, often resulting in the loss of consciousness, or cause severe damage to the spine. Officials who carried out torture acted with impunity. Legal decree No.14 (1969) prohibited legal action against any employee of the General Intelligence Division for crimes committed whilst acting in an official capacity. This law was extended by Bashar in 2008 to cover all members of the security apparatus and police (Legal Decree No.69).
Emergency law, in place since 1963, effectively suspended all constitutional rights of citizens and gave the security forces unlimited powers of arrest and detention for suspected opponents of the regime. The justification for its continued application was the ‘war with Israel’ and it was probably this attempt to suppress internal dissent which was the main reason behind the Assad regime’s supposedly anti-Israel stance and rhetoric. Ironically, under emergency law Syria’s treatment of political prisoners differed little from Israel’s treatment of prisoners in occupied Palestine. Special courts were established to deal with issues ‘relating to national security’ which failed to apply any international standards of fair trial or due process. Civilians could be tried in military courts. Once prisoners were sentenced and transferred to prisons such as Sednaya or Adra they were often held incommunicado, sometimes in dark dank underground cells. Failing that they were often crammed into cells with so many other prisoners that they could not lie down to sleep at the same time and had to alternate between sitting and standing. They had poor food, poor sanitary conditions and little or no access to medications.
The prisoners of the revolution
Since Syria’s uprising began, arrest and detention has been one of the main methods of brutalization of a population who dared to call for freedom. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been detained by the regime since March 2011. Those released recount horrific stories of the conditions inside the prisons. Many families have had the corpses of loved ones (including children) returned to them, bearing the signs of torture. Around 50,000 detainees are currently missing and unaccounted for. The vast majority of those now rotting in Syria’s prisons are activists who participated in non-violent acts of civil disobedience.
One example is Ghiyath Matar from Darayaa, known as the ‘Little Ghandi’ for handing out flowers to the soldiers who came to shoot on peaceful protesters. He was killed under torture in the cells of the Syrian Air-force intelligence in September 2011, 3 days after being arrested. He was 24 years old. Likewise the four ‘Brides of Peace’ who walked in wedding dresses through a Damascus market calling for an end to military operations in Syria in November 2012 were immediately arrested by security services. They were released as part of a prisoner exchange in January 2013.
There is the case of Bayan Reehan, a university student and revolutionary activist who established the committee ‘Revolutionary Women Towards Victory’ in Eastern Ghouta. She was detained by Military Security Branch 215 on 25 October 2012 and released a month later. She was beaten and electrocuted whilst in detention and regularly heard the screams of other prisoners that were being tortured. There is the case of Palestinian-Syrian activist Oday Tayem who as well as participating in civil disobedience also undertook relief work by taking food and medical supplies into the besieged camp of Yarmouk. He was arrested in August 2013 and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some 119 Palestinian detainees have died in Syrian regime prisons since the start of the uprising (more than the number of deaths of Palestinians held in Israeli occupation jails since 1967) whilst many Palestinian solidarity activists have remained shamefully silent.
In January 2014 a defector, who had worked as a military police photographer responsible for recording deaths in regime custody between 2011 and 2013, released 55,000 photos of corpses to human rights investigators. They provide evidence of the ‘industrial scale’ killing of 11,000 detainees, despite only covering one part of the country. Some of those photographed bore the marks of electrocution on their bodies, strangulation, gunshot wounds, or had had their eyes gorged out. One of the cruelest methods of torture has been the slow and painful starvation of political prisoners. The regime has locked numerous prisoners in cells with no access to food until they wither to an emancipated corpse. Ex-detainees have also recounted stories of sexual abuse in detention. Men, women and children have suffered rape, sexual groping, penetration with objects, forced nudity and electroshocks and beatings to genitalia.
Our passion for freedom is stronger than their prisons
The regime’s brutality has not managed to crush the resistance movement in Syria. A number of campaigns have also emerged specifically in solidarity with detainees and their families and to remind the world that Syria’s prisoners will not be forgotten. In August 2012 the ‘I am Not Just a Number’ campaign was launched. The campaign calls on people both in Syria and across the world to participate in events to remember Syria’s detainees through the organization of vigils, flash mobs and graffiti campaigns as well as protests calling for the release of detainees. Activists also archive and record information relating to Syrian prisoners. In July 2013 a campaign was launched in solidarity with female prisoners in Adra prison who had gone on hunger strike protesting the conditions of their detention. Many of the female prisoners had been held for months without trial and had been denied contact with their families. A number of solidarity protests were held across Syria as well as in other countries. In November 2013 the ‘No to their Arrest’ campaign was launched by Syrian activists. It’s a creative campaign which makes posters to tell the stories of specific detainees and share messages and poems from their families and friends. It is an important act of remembering.
No ideology, no cause, no threat, can ever justify the inhumanity that has been meted out to the Syrian people by the Assad regime. Syria’s prisoners (and people at large) remain hostage to both domestic tyranny and a world that has abandoned them to their fate. Through acts of solidarity we can remind them that their courageous struggle, and their suffering, has not been forgotten. That the screams of the tortured do not fall on deaf ears.
1 Amongst their demands were the release of political prisoners and the right to form political parties and civil organizations (which are either banned or subject to strict control) as well as for the regime to allow the return of political exiles. They also called for the cancellation of the State of Emergency in place since 1963.
2 The prisoners of the Damascus Spring were Ma’mun Al Homsi, Riad Seif, Aref Dalia, Riad Turk, Kamal Al Labwani, Fawwaz Tello, Habib Isa, Habib Salih and Hasan Sa’dun.
3 See the case of comrade Fares Mourad (may he rest in power). Fares was a Palestinian-Syrian member of the Arab Communist Organization. He spent more than 29 years in jail including in the notorious Tadmour prison where over a thousand inmates were executed in June 1980 by forces loyal to Hafez Al Assad’s brother. Fares was released in 2004, his body broken with illness but his spirit untouched. He fought for a just world to the end; an inspiration to all that knew him. The Syrian regime refused him permission to travel abroad for the medical treatment he needed and he died in 2009. A tribute to his life can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-zXaCKsLog (There are 3 parts to the video on youtube).
4 Committee to Protect Journalists, ’10 Worst Countries to be a blogger’, http://www.cpj.org/reports/2009/04/10-worst-countries-to-be-a-blogger.php
5 Bayan’s testimony to the Violations Documentation Center can be found here: http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/1386976827#.Uxdt015QN69
6 Budour Hassan, ‘Oday Tayem, Son of the Two Intifadas’, (January 2014) http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/oday-tayem-son-of-the-two-intifadas/
7 The report can be found here: http://static.guim.co.uk/ni/1390226674736/syria-report-execution-tort.pdf WARNING: contains graphic images
8 Human Rights Watch, ‘Syria: Sexual Assault in Detention’, (June 2012) http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/15/syria-sexual-assault-detention
9 ‘I’m not just a number’ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Syrian.Detainees.not.Numbers
10 For more information see: https://www.facebook.com/events/620676057956103 and Syria Untold, ‘Campaign in Solidarity with the Female Prisoners of Adra,’ http://www.syriauntold.com/en/content/campaign-solidarity-female-prisoners-adra
11 ‘No to their arrest’ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/%D9%84%D8%A3-NO/387996371215792