HRW: Torture Archipelago
Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances in Syria’s Underground Prisons since March 2011
The guards hung me by my wrists from the ceiling for eight days. After a few days of hanging, being denied sleep, it felt like my brain stopped working. I was imagining things. My feet got swollen on the third day. I felt pain that I have never felt in my entire life. It was excruciating. I screamed that I needed to go to a hospital, but the guards just laughed at me.
—Elias describing how he was tortured in Branch 285 of the Department of General Intelligence in Damascus
Since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian authorities have subjected tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment, and torture using an extensive network of detention facilities, an archipelago of torture centers, scattered throughout Syria.
Based on more than 200 interviews with former detainees, including women and children, and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, this report focuses on 27 of these detention facilities. For each facility, most of them with cells and torture chambers and one or several underground floors, we provide the exact location, identify the agencies responsible for operating them, document the type of ill-treatment and torture used, and name, to the extent possible, the individuals running them. The facilities included in this report are those for which multiple witnesses have indicated the same location and provided detailed descriptions about the use of torture. The actual number of such facilities is likely much higher.
In charge of Syria’s network of detention facilities are the country’s four main intelligence agencies, commonly referred to collectively as the mukhabarat:
- the Department of Military Intelligence (Shu`bat al-Mukhabarat al-`Askariyya);
- the Political Security Directorate (Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi);
- the General Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-`Amma); and
- the Air Force Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya).
Each of these four agencies maintains central branches in Damascus as well as regional, city, and local branches across the country. In virtually all of these branches there are detention facilities of varying size.
Syria’s intelligence agencies have historically operated independently from each other with no clear boundaries to their areas of jurisdiction. Relying on the country’s overbroad emergency law, the mukhabarat has a long history of detaining people without arrest warrants and denying detainees other due process safeguards. Lifting the emergency law in April 2011 changed little in practice. Legislation limiting the time that a person can be lawfully held in detention without judicial review to 60 days for certain crimes, simultaneously introduced in April 2011, does not meet the requirement in international law that judicial review should take place “promptly.” Furthermore, several former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had been held without judicial review even longer than the 60 days permitted by Syrian law.
To manage the thousands of people detained in the context of anti-government demonstrations, the authorities also established numerous temporary unofficial holding centres in places such as stadiums, military bases, schools, and hospitals where the authorities rounded up and held people during massive detention campaigns before transporting them to branches of the intelligence agencies.
All of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described conditions of detention—extreme overcrowding, inadequate food, and routine denial of necessary medical assistance—that would by themselves amount to ill-treatment and, in some cases, torture. But almost all the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said they had been subjected to torture or witnessed the torture of others during their detention. Interrogators, guards, and officers used a broad range of torture methods, including prolonged beatings, often with objects such as batons and wires, holding the detainees in painful stress positions for prolonged periods of time, often with the use of specially devised equipment, the use of electricity, burning with car battery acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails, and mock execution. Altogether Human Rights Watch documented more than 20 different methods of torture used in Syria’s archipelago of torture centers.
© 2012 Human Rights Watch
Most of the detainees interviewed said they had been subjected to several forms of torture, often inflicted with escalating levels of pain. At times detainees were forced to remain naked or in their underwear while they were tortured. Several former detainees interviewed for this report told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed people dying from torture in detention. Human Rights Watch also received information about deaths in custody from families or friends of the victims.
A former intelligence officer described to Human Rights Watch the various methods used at the Air Force Intelligence base at the Mezzeh airport in Damascus:
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. I saw it while I was talking to the interrogators. 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. People were wearing underwear. They pour hot water on people and then whip them. I’ve also seen drills there, but I’ve never seen them being used. I’ve also seen them using martial art moves, like breaking ribs with a knee kick. They 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.
A 31-year-old detainee who was detained in Idlib governorate in June described to Human Rights Watch how intelligence agents tortured him in the Idlib Central Prison:
They forced me to undress. Then they started squeezing my fingers with pliers. They put staples in my fingers, chest, and ears. I was only allowed to take them out if I spoke. The nails in the ears were the most painful. They used two wires hooked up to a car battery to give me electric shocks. They used electric stun-guns on my genitals twice. I thought I would never see my family again. They tortured me like this three times over three days.
While most of the torture victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch were young men aged between 18 and 35, interviewed victims also included children, women, and elderly individuals. Defecting members of the intelligence agencies told Human Rights Watch that they either witnessed or participated in the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, corroborating accounts by former detainees.
Human Rights Watch has documented the use of torture and ill-treatment in the following detention facilities:
|Agency||Name of Branch||City||Head of Branch|
|Military Intelligence||Branch 215||Damascus||Brig. Gen. Sha’afiq|
|Military Intelligence||Branch 227||Damascus||Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazali|
|Military Intelligence||Branch 291||Damascus||Brig. Gen. Burhan Qadour (Replaced Brig. Gen. Yousef Abdou in May 2012)|
|Military Intelligence||Branch 235 (“Palestine”)||Damascus||Brig. Gen. Muhammad Khallouf|
|Military Intelligence||Branch 248||Damascus||Not identified|
|Military Intelligence||Branch 245||Daraa||Col. Loai al-Ali|
|Military Intelligence||Aleppo Branch||Aleppo||Not identified|
|Military Intelligence||Branch 271||Idlib||Brig. Gen. Nawfel al-Hussein|
|Military Intelligence||Homs Branch||Homs||Muhammad Zamreni|
|Military Intelligence||Latakia Branch||Latakia||Not identified|
|Air Force Intelligence||Mezzeh Airport Branch||Damascus||Brig. Gen. Abdul Salam Fajr Mahmoud (director of investigative branch)|
|Air Force Intelligence||Bab Touma Branch||Damascus||Not identified|
|Air Force Intelligence||Homs Branch||Homs||Brig. Gen. Jawdat al-Ahmed|
|Air Force Intelligence||Daraa branch||Daraa||Col. Qusay Mihoub|
|Air Force Intelligence||Latakia Branch||Latakia||Col. Suhail Al-Abdullah|
|Political Security||Mezzeh Branch||Damascus||Not identified|
|Political Security||Idlib Branch||Idlib||Not identified|
|Political Security||Homs Branch||Homs||Not identified|
|Political Security||Latakia Branch||Latakia||Not identified|
|Political Security||Daraa Branch||Daraa||Not identified|
|General Intelligence||Latakia Branch||Latakia||Brig. Gen. Khudr Khudr|
|General Intelligence||Branch 285||Damascus||Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Ma’ala (Replaced Brig. Gen. Hussam Fendi in late 2011)|
|General Intelligence||Al-Khattib Branch||Damascus||Not identified|
|General Intelligence||Aleppo Branch||Aleppo||Not identified|
|General Intelligence||Branch 318||Homs||Brig. Gen. Firas Al-Hamed|
|General Intelligence||Idlib Branch||Idlib||Not identified|
|Joint||Central Prison – Idlib||Idlib||Not identified|
In the vast majority of detention cases documented by Human Rights Watch, family members could obtain no information about the fate or whereabouts of the detainees and detainees were not allowed any contact with the outside world. Many of the detentions can therefore be qualified as enforced disappearances.
Human Rights Watch calls on the UN Security Council to ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Human Rights Watch also calls on the United Nations Security Council to ensure that the Syrian government grants recognized international detention monitors access to all detention facilities, including those mentioned in this report.
To the UN Security Council
- Demand that Syria grant recognized international detention monitors access to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification, including those mentioned in this report;
- Ensure that the UN supervisory mission (UNSMIS ) deployed to Syria includes a properly staffed and equipped human rights component with staff with expertise in detention monitoring that is able to identify the use of arbitrary detention, visit detention centers, and to safely and independently interview victims of human rights abuses while protecting them from retaliation. The mission should include among its personnel people trained to identify gender-based violence and other gender-specific human rights violations and personnel trained to work with children;
- Demand that Syria enforce its commitment under point 4 of the Annan plan by releasing all arbitrarily detained persons, “including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities,” and provide without delay “a list of all places in which such persons are being detained”;
- Refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC);
- Adopt targeted sanctions on officials credibly implicated in abuses;
- Require states to suspend all military sales and assistance, including technical training and services, to the Syrian government, given the real risk that the weapons and technology will be used in the commission of serious human rights violations;
- Demand that Syria cooperate fully with the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry and with the UNSMIS;
- Demand access for humanitarian missions, foreign journalists, and independent human rights organizations.
To All Countries
- Acting individually, or jointly through regional mechanisms where appropriate, adopt targeted sanctions against Syrian officials credibly implicated in the ongoing serious violations of international human rights law;
- Under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with national laws, investigate and prosecute members of the Syrian senior military and civilian leadership suspected of committing international crimes;
- Call for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria.
To the Arab League
- Acting individually and jointly, maintain and strengthen targeted sanctions against Syrian officials credibly implicated in the ongoing grave, widespread, and systematic violations of international human rights law in Syria since mid-March 2011;
- Support a strong UNSMIS human rights component (as described in the recommendations above);
- Call for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.
To Russia and China
- Support UN Security Council action on Syria (as described in the recommendations above), including referring the situation to the ICC;
- Suspend all military sales and assistance to the Syrian government, given the real risk that weapons and technology will be used in the commission of serious human rights violations;
- Condemn in the strongest terms the Syrian authorities’ systematic violations of human rights;
To the Syrian Government
- Release all arbitrarily detained persons, “including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities,” and provide without delay “a list of all places in which such persons are being detained” in accordance with point 4 of the Annan plan.
- Immediately halt the practice of enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the use of torture;
- Conduct prompt, thorough, and objective investigations into allegations of arbitrary detention, use of torture, enforced disappearances, and deaths in custody, including the ones described in this report, and bring the perpetrators to justice;
- Suspend members of the security forces against whom there are credible allegations of human rights abuses, pending investigations;
- Annul Legislative Decree No. 14, of January 15, 1969, and Legislative Decree 69, which provide immunity to members of the security forces by requiring a decree from the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces to prosecute any member of the internal security forces, Political Security, and customs police;
- Publish lists of all detainees;
- Provide immediate and unhindered access for recognized international detention monitors to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification, including those mentioned in this report;
- Provide all UNSMIS staff with the necessary permissions, including visas to Syria or use of UN air assets, to carry out their mandate;
- Provide immediate and unhindered access and cooperation to independent observers, journalists, and human rights monitors, including the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on Syria; and the special rapporteur on Syria.