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Syria detainee's account offers glimpse of prison system

A Syrian opposition activist says he was taken from Aleppo to Damascus to Homs and back last year. He describes beatings, interrogation and torture by President Bashar Assad's forces.

March 07, 2012|By Times Staff
  • At a hospital in Idlib, relatives mourn a victim of a sniper attack by the Syrian army. Idlib is a key opposition region in the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
At a hospital in Idlib, relatives mourn a victim of a sniper attack by the… (Rodrigo Abd, Associated…)

Reporting from Aleppo, Syria — Al Deen occasionally let out a goofy, drawn-out laugh when he recalled some of the absurdities he had witnessed during his three months of torture and humiliation in Syria's brutal prisons.

Like the blind man accused of being a sniper.

The sightless prisoner was subjected to a month of interrogation and beatings, Al Deen said, before intelligence officers finally concluded that he was in fact blind and released him.

But he grimaced when he talked about the teenager from the southern province of Dara who had been shot three times, in his shoulder, chest and hand, and was given only a sling — no treatment or pain medication.

"I swear," recalled Al Deen, which is his middle name, "when he moaned in pain the walls would cry for him."

In a recent interview, Al Deen, 30, described a regimen of torture and beatings during his imprisonment last year, providing a glimpse of a detention apparatus that has imprisoned tens of thousands since the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted last March.

Fellow activists confirmed that Al Deen had been detained, but, like so many things in Syria, much of his account could not be independently verified. However, his description of captivity jibes with reports gathered by human rights groups.

In an August report, Amnesty International examined the cases of 88 prisoners, including 10 children, believed to have died while in detention. In at least 52 of the cases, torture or other ill treatment probably caused or contributed to their deaths, Amnesty concluded. The bodies bore signs of burns, blunt force injuries, whipping and slashes.

Even estimating the number of Syrian detainees is difficult. The government gives no official accounting, and many prisoners are held incommunicado; families often have no idea whether they are alive or dead. New security sweeps have followed periodic amnesties, keeping the system in constant flux.

Human rights groups have obtained the names of about 17,000 detainees, but that probably accounts for only 50% of those held, said Neil Sammonds, a researcher with Amnesty.

For a follow-up report in February, Sammonds spoke with former detainees who recounted some of the same torture methods that Al Deen detailed, including the shabeh, being hung by the hands.

Al Deen, originally from the area of Jabal Zawiya in the strife-torn northwestern province of Idlib, began attending antigovernment demonstrations in April, not long after the uprising against Assad began. Soon he was posting protest videos online and organizing meetings in his apartment in Aleppo's Salahuldeen neighborhood.

On a mid-July morning, he awoke to knocking at the door. He expected it to be a friend but instead found himself face to face with 30 security officers toting Kalashnikov rifles.

Al Deen thus began his sojourn through Assad's prison system, being shuttled from Aleppo to Damascus to Homs and back again, often being held below ground, sometimes in isolation, sometimes with others, always facing beatings, interrogation and torture.

Al Deen said he was first taken to a military security branch, the building that months later would be blown up in twin bombings in Aleppo. Within a few hours of arrival, Al Deen was hanging from the ceiling by handcuffs, his toes just grazing the ground. He was left in that position for 14 hours the first time, he said.

When he would shift his weight down slightly to relieve his feet, the handcuffs would cut deeper into his wrists. Standing on his toes to take pressure off his wrists would send excruciating pain shooting through his feet and legs.

"Are your hands more important than your feet? Are your feet more important than your hands? You don't know what to do," he said.

When he was taken down he was put into a room and ordered to kneel. He was blindfolded but said he could sense several men circling him. One asked Al Deen a question and, before he had finished his answer, the others began pummeling him with fists and sticks. The pattern was repeated over and over, he said.

In his first days in Aleppo, Al Deen was accused of orchestrating explosions and arson and taking part in armed resistance at a time when Aleppo was calm and mostly unengaged in the uprising.

He confessed to everything.

"In the [military] branches if they say, 'You are Osama bin Laden,' you say, 'I am he,'" Al Deen said. "Because the torture that you experience, if I were to describe it, it wouldn't come close to describing the pain."

Al Deen, a tall, lanky man, spoke for almost two hours. As he talked, he chain-smoked Lucky Strikes, finishing off one pack before reaching into the pocket of his black leather jacket for another.

He said he suspected that an employee at his small business reported him and his brothers, also opposition activists, to the intelligence services.

Eleven days after Al Deen was arrested, his three brothers were taken as well.

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