Testimonials and Stories of Syrian Prisons
Omar Assad - 23/05/2012
Dr. Mohamed examines his new identity card and then throws a glance at his fellow prisoner lying on the neighbouring bed and has suddenly a laughing fit: the new card of the Doctor imprisoned in Aadra includes a statement on his crime: he was charged of “weakening national sentiment”. The inmate occupying the bed above is called Firas. According to the Doctor: “this is what we call a “darwish” (an idiot). He is neither mad, nor mentally backward but he has no logic understanding of what takes place around him. He even finds it difficult to speak and if we want to use medical terms, his facial features reveal that he is not normal”.
The question is not to know whether Firas is normal or not because after all, he is only just a number among the other detainees in Syrian prisons. The waves of arbitrary arrests carried out by the security forces have not distinguished him from others. Unfortunately, certain judges did not help make a difference neither. Today, his case is not unique in the country’s prisons where each detainee has a story to tell.
The country that has now been bleeding for several months, has locked up many of his own children left languishing in jail where even the names of those detained for investigation purposes end up being forgotten because they are no longer called by one of those nicknames they are given for the entire duration of their detention making their real names unnecessary.
The 18-year-old Radhouan states that he did not even take part in the protests as he was studying to prepare his advanced level exams. He was arrested during a raid. When he was interrogated in the torture chambers, he was accused of “terrorising the city”. He believes this charge was laid against him just because he is related to one of the Syrian opposition members living abroad. For Radhouan, this is “an unjustified act of revenge.”
At the central prison of Damascus, better know as Aadra, named after the neighbourhood where it is located, a whole wing has been reserved for the detainees of the recent uprisings. The authorities seek to isolate 400 to 600 persons from the other prisoners who amount to 6800, arrested for various reasons: criminal, economic, moral…
In the political wing, the atmosphere is different than in the rest of the prison. Those who are imprisoned consider themselves as being “defenders of a cause” and refuse to have the same attitude the others have, especially the criminals. They therefore try to alleviate the conditions that the inmates complain of: lack of hygiene, overcrowding dormitories, not to mention medical care deficiencies, diseases and respiratory infections and other skin problems affecting many of them. Moreover, they are deprived of visits. They are entitled to only one visit per week and the day coincides with the visitors’ day of all other ordinary detainees. The movement of prisoners is very restricted and prisoners are often victims of searches and racketeering. The policemen are often bribed in exchange of the detainee rights that the law provides for.
In order to pass time, the prisoners can only talk about the revolution the country is going through. They have no other way to pass time. There is only one prison library but access is forbidden to political prisoners. They are therefore obliged to resort to charging another person, when this is possible, to borrow books for them.
Despite these hardships, the central prison’s detainees consider themselves as luckier than others because they are at least alive after a period of more than sixty days of interrogations and torture, especially after the lifting of the siege.
At the end of these sixty days, the prisoner is brought before a judge but the policemen do not always feel oblige to enforce the law. Many detainees have spent three to four months before appearing before a judge. During this period all inmates go through physical and psychological torture.
“I was hanged for three days” states Maan. Suspension is a method of torture (called “spectrum”) consisting of tying the prisoner’s hands who stands on tiptoes so that the full weight of the body is concentrated in his hands.
There are other methods of torture such as the electric baton that a large number of Syrians have already experienced. There is also “the cabinet”, a torture process that tops the list of punishments that a Syrian citizen can be subjected to at the police station preceding the “flying carpet” method. This is a board on which the prisoner’s body is attached lying down. The board is foldable from the middle part (at the level of the prisoner’s pelvis). It is then folded while the body is strongly whipped. This board may cause a fracture of the spine. These torture methods are accompanied by flood of insults to the detainee’s morality and human dignity not to mention the threats that he is subject to.
The prisoners feel grateful towards their revolution ending the longest siege the world has ever seen that nearly lasted fifty years. The state of siege has been the corollary of the ruling Baath party since 1963. Before the state of siege was lifted, custody was not limited to two months. The authorities could maintain a citizen in custody for an indefinite period of time, renewing it every six months. Nonetheless, this does not mean that today, the detainees are free after two months. During the revolution, there were numerous cases of missing people. The police authorities have repeatedly kidnapped persons and no knows what happened to them yet. The detainees do not only suffer from the interrogations they are subjected to at the police stations, but also from the charges held against them. Although the State Security Court was dissolved, the charges filed against the opponents have not changed and lead the prisoners to military or civil courts. Among the charges filed one can find the following: weakening national sentiments, infringement of state dignity, causing turmoil within state structures, spreading false news, inciting sectarian hatred, belonging to an unauthorised association, rebellion or even terrorism.
Several prisoners say that the charges filed against them are baseless. They are rather security measures based on confessions extorted under torture or on malicious accusations. A mobile phone containing a single video of a protest or even a song such as “Ya Hayf” (O injustice) is enough to accuse a person of spreading false news. This accusation is described by the following words: “likely to weaken the sense of national pride”. This can lead to an imprisonment of up to three years. If a young person writes a slogan on Facebook wall, this can be considered as an evidence of his membership to an “unrecognised association seeking to change the regime’s nature”.
The Syrian penal code stipulates that civilians may be subject to military jurisdiction if they are involved in military affairs or if the victim is a military servant. However, this law is often violated and the policemen defer the accused person to the court they chose themselves. Lawyers and human rights activists argue that today, there are nearly 10,000 trials related to the uprisings and they are doing their utmost to have these cases transferred to civil courts as military courts are not competent to deal with these issues.
All the details given above are only part of what the author of these lines has lived and seen during two periods of detention in Syrian prisons. What he has not been able to see or confirm is most probably even worse.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech