'Torture Centers' Stretch Across Syria, Human Rights Watch Reports

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 3, 2012 6:06 pm

Syrian intelligence agencies have established at least 27 detention facilities — an "archipelago of torture centers scattered across the country" — according to a report released today by Human Rights Watch.

The international watchdog group says it has documented "systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture that ... clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity."

It bases that allegation on information obtained during more than 200 interviews with "former detainees and defectors [who] have identified the locations, agencies responsible, torture methods used, and, in many cases, the commanders in charge."

"By publishing their locations, describing the torture methods, and identifying those in charge we are putting those responsible on notice that they will have to answer for these horrific crimes," Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, says in a statement released with the group's report.

According to Human Rights Watch, former detainees say:

"Interrogators, guards, and officers used a broad range of torture methods, including prolonged beatings, often with objects such as batons and cables, holding the detainees in painful stress positions for prolonged periods of time, the use of electricity, burning with acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails, and mock execution."

United Nations officials, watchdog groups and activists inside Syria have estimated that more than 10,000 people — most of them civilians — have been killed in Syria since protests against President Bashar Assad's regime began there in March 2011. For its part, the Assad regime has blamed most of the deaths on "terrorists" and has denied it is torturing Syrian citizens.

In other news related to the unrest in Syria:

-- Assad has "said he regrets the shooting down of a Turkish jet by his forces, and that he will not allow tensions between the two neighbors to deteriorate into an 'armed conflict,' " The Associated Press reports, citing a Turkish newspaper.

-- But for the third consecutive day, Turkey has "scrambled F-16 fighter jets ... after Syrian transport helicopters were spotted flying near to the Turkey-Syrian border," Reuters says.

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The group Human Rights Watch has documented what it calls an archipelago of torture centers - 27 of them - run by Syrian intelligence agencies. The widespread systematic torture of detainees, according to Human Rights Watch, amounts to a crime against humanity. The evidence comes from more than 200 interviews over the past year with former detainees and with defectors from Syria's security forces.

Their descriptions are graphic and by their nature, deeply disturbing. Researcher Nadim Houry conducted many of those interviews for Human Rights Watch and he joins me from Beirut. Mr. Houry, welcome to the program.

NADIM HOURY: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: I wonder if you might detail the kinds of torture that these detainees describe to you in these interviews.

HOURY: Sure. The report we documented more than 20 types of torture, the most common ones are something called in Syria, the dulab(ph), which means tire. They put the detainee in the tire so they cannot move and then they proceed to beat the detainee with all sorts of batons, sticks, cables.

BLOCK: And when you say they put them in the tire, you have illustrations of this. The victim is basically folded in half and put inside a tire.

HOURY: Exactly. So it's a way of immobilizing the detainee while, at the same time, causing great stress to their back. Another method is what's called in Syria shabha(ph), the ghost, where they suspend the detainee sometimes for up to 10 or 12 hours from the ceiling just by their arms and their toes barely touching the ground. And then, they can proceed to beat them, throw cold water at them, or even use electricity.

BLOCK: And the list of means of torture goes on and on. You describe attacks with electric shock and acid, sexual assault, pulling out of fingernails, mock execution. Did you see physical evidence of these torture methods that you describe?

HOURY: Yes. Many of the people we've interviewed still have the scars even months after they were out of detention. Others, you know, had moved on, in terms of physical harm, but were clearly psychologically very much still in pain.

BLOCK: Your report says that the detainees were mostly young men, but also women and children. And we're about to hear the voice of a 14-year-old interviewed by Human Rights Watch. He's describing the torture that he endured.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: What he's describing there, having his fingernails pulled out with pliers. Another detainee talked about an 8-year-old boy that he saw being beaten. Broadly speaking, what were these victims detained for? Where were they picked up?

HOURY: Usually, from the protests, some of them in house raids. So the intelligence service has had informants telling them so and so is against the government or so and so is financing some opposition members or helping them or providing any sort of logistical support. And so they would come. And if they don't find the person, they sometimes take family members and this is why we found, for example, someone who was over 70.

He was the father and his two grown-up boys were actually wanted by the security services for their activism. They couldn't find them. They took the father and beat the father instead.

BLOCK: You know, some of the most revealing descriptions, I think, come from defectors from these security services, intelligence agencies. You mentioned a member of the riot police, another who described the death of detainees from beatings and one who said if you don't beat or torture, you fear for yourself.

HOURY: Exactly. I think the defectors provided key information. They helped us identify the officers in charge of many of these detention facilities and when we were able to verify this from multiple sources, we published these names. And we want, eventually, these names to be used in possible prosecution in the future before the International Criminal Court or any sort of other credible judicial process.

BLOCK: Your report also names specifically the 27 detention or torture centers themselves, also says there may be many more. You pinpoint them on maps. What's the intention there? What is Human Rights Watch calling on the international community to do about these places?

HOURY: Well, look, we know the U.N. monitors are still in Syria. We want them to go visit these buildings. We want them to be able to drive up and say, we want go down to the basements and see who you have in there. And by showing where these detention facilities are, we hope we will make it easier for the U.N. monitors and others to go. And this would only happen if there is enough international pressure in the form of a Security Council resolution calling on Syria, forcing Syria to cooperate.

BLOCK: Nadim Houry, thank you for talking with us.

HOURY: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Nadim Houry directs the Human Rights Watch Beirut office. We were talking about their new report on torture in Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.