"Rampant Torture" in Syria
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This article first appeared on the website of IRIN.
Six months into pro-democracy protests in Syria, allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime proliferate.
Human rights organizations have documented numerous cases of torture in the six months since the start of the uprising, which was triggered by the torture of children: 15 boys, aged 10-15, from the southern city of Dera’a, were beaten and had their fingernails pulled out by men allegedly working for Gen Atef Najeeb, a cousin of President Assad after dawbing an Arab Spring slogan calling for freedom on a wall.
Since then, Amnesty International has documented 10 cases of children dying in custody, some of them mutilated either before or after death; while another global campaigning organization, Avaaz, reports that 16 children died in detention after they suffered severe torture.
A UN-backed rights commission has urged Syria to let it into the country to investigate reports of killings and torture, including of children. "We have received many scary reports about the situation of children during the conflict," said Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian human rights expert heading the commission of inquiry.
Crimes against humanity?
Avaaz has recorded the names of 11,006 people arrested and detained in Syria, though some activists believe the real number to be many as 15,000 people.
Inside prison, detainees face what Human Rights Watch has described as "rampant torture".
In interviews with 19 Syrian detainees in April, including two women and three teenagers, Human Rights Watch found that all but two had been tortured, including being whipped with cables and stunned with electric-shock devices while drenched in cold water.
Insan, a Syrian human rights organization, said it had received numerous reports of torture where detainees have been left naked in groups for hours and doused in cold water before collectively being beaten.
In May, Amnesty International reported cases of detainees forced to lick blood off the floor of a prison and others who had to drink toilet water after being starved for three days.
“There are no signs of torture and murder abating in Syria,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, on 23 September, almost five months later.
“The mounting toll of reports of people dying behind bars provides yet more evidence of crimes against humanity and should spur the UN Security Council into referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court,” he said.
Syria ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2004.
Yousef* has a hard time describing what happened to his brothers Sami*, 34, and Ahmad*, 36.
The two had been arrested in July with other protesters in a suburb of Damascus after a demonstration - one of many in an anti-government uprising which began in March. They had been chanting for freedom and the fall of the 41-year-old Assad regime (President Bashar-al Assad succeeded his father in 2000).
The beatings began on the bus, Yousef told IRIN. Security forces stood on his brothers and insulted them while beating them with electric cables.
Three times a day for the first seven days, they were taken one by one for interrogation. “The interrogator would scream, ‘You want freedom?’” said Yousef.
“Then he would hit them. My eldest brother, Ahmad, is very strong, so when they beat him he wouldn’t scream. So they told him: ‘You are like an ox,’ and they hit him harder.”
According to Yousef, interrogators used fists, electric batons, electric cables and the so-called electric wheel, a large tractor wheel hung from the ceiling to which the prisoner is strapped while the wheel spins and the torturer hits the prisoner randomly.
Holding a photo of the president, they asked Ahmad: “Who is your God? Say: Bashar is,” the men told him. When he refused, the beatings continued. “I saw all the scars on his back and his hands,” said Yousef. “Long and open wounds… Here, torture is normal.”
Upon their release, Yousef’s brothers were told not to speak of their ordeal. “We are really suffering. You can't imagine,” Yousef said. “We feel as if we are in a jungle with big monsters and we are alone and without any help.”
*Not real names