November 11, 2011

III. Arbitrary Detention, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances

As in much of the rest of Syria, security forces in Homs Governorate subjected thousands of people to arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and systematic torture in detention.

Witnesses from Homs city, Tal Kalakh, and Rastan described to Human Rights Watch large-scale operations during which security forces detained dozens of people at a time, targeted activists and their family members for arrest, picked up people at checkpoints and by street patrols.

Exact numbers are impossible to verify, but information collected by Human Rights Watch suggests that the security forces detained more than 1,000 individuals from Tal Kalakh alone. Activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that thousands of people were detained from April to August in Homs city. While most were released after several days or weeks in detention, at this writing several hundred remain missing, apparently subjected to enforced disappearances, their fate and whereabouts unknown to the families.[92]

All the former detainees from Homs Governorate interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported seeing hundreds of others while in detention, saying that the detention facilitates were unbearably overcrowded with guards packing dozens of detainees into cells intended for a few and holding detainees in the corridors outside of the cells. For example, one witness told Human Rights Watch that in the State Security detention facility in Homs, just in the immediate vicinity of his small cell that held eight detainees, there were 14 other small cells, each holding approximately the same number of persons, and one large cell with many more inside. In addition, he said, he could see other detainees in the corridor between the cells.[93]

Most detainees were young men in their 20s or 30s, but security forces also detained children and elderly people. Several witnesses reported the detention of their parents or grandparents – individuals in their 60s and 70s. Human Rights Watch documented the detention and beating of two 13-year-old boys in Tal Kalakh; other released detainees also reported seeing many teenagers in detention.

Witnesses from Homs city and neighboring towns described to Human Rights Watch sweep operations that security forces conducted in their neighborhoods following the protests. They said that joint groups of military personnel, mukhabarat, and shabeeha militias moved through the neighborhoods grabbing people in the streets and breaking into houses. At times, they had lists of individuals they were looking for, and on several occasions, when the people they wanted were not at their homes, they detained their relatives. On other occasions, they randomly detained people from the street or from their homes.

Witnesses from Tal Kalakh told Human Rights Watch that following massive protests there on May 14-15, security forces moved into the town and arrested hundreds of people in different neighborhoods. A majority of witnesses from Tal Kalakh had been either arrested themselves, or had family members or neighbors who were detained.

One of the witnesses, Ali (not his real name), said that following the protests in Tal Kalakh on May 14-15,he spent several days in hiding, moving from house to house. He said:

I was hiding in water ditches, and saw security forces arresting people from every house on the street. The detainees were too many to count. Security forces pushed them to the ground and walked on them. Sometimes, they made them chant praises to Bashar al-Assad before putting plastic handcuffs on them and leading them away.[94]

Another witness, Mahmud (not his real name), said that he fled from the house when the security forces came to his neighborhood on May 15, but they took away his 51-year-old father. He said:

I was hiding in a house across the street and saw that they broke into our house and dragged my father out. They pushed him on the ground and started beating him, demanding that he praise Bashar al-Assad. He had to do it. They were about 10-15 men, some in military uniforms, with special forces badges, and some in black uniforms and white sneakers; I believe these were from mukhabarat. They blindfolded him and took him away in a taxi. For 24 days we had no information about his whereabouts, and then my uncle found him in the central jail in Homs, and managed to get him released on bail. When he was released his front teeth were broken and his face and eyes were swollen.[95]

A witness told Human Rights Watch that on June 24 he saw plainclothes security personnel emerge from a taxi with the license plate number 747191 to detain a young man walking in front of Abdulhamed al-Zehrawy High School in the Homs neighborhood of Insha’at. Seven police officers on motorcycles joined them in beating the man, then put him a security bus, the witness said.[96]

Three protesters described to Human Rights Watch events in the Mal`ab neighborhood on July 8, when about 200 security forces dispersed a protest of about 1,000 people and detained 10 protesters. The three witnesses said that five protesters tried to escape and hid in a nearby house, but were spotted by security men, who came after them, broke the door of the house, and arrested all five, along with the doorman, who was not involved.[97]

A resident of Khalidiyya, Abu Ahmad (not his real name), told Human Rights Watch that around a hundred people from his street were detained during June and July and that the whereabouts of many remain unknown. He described a security raid that he witnessed in his neighborhood on July 26:

Around 4 p.m. yesterday, more than a dozen pick-up trucks and two army buses entered the al-Sharakes street in the Khalidiyya neighborhood. They just arrested everybody they saw in the street right outside my shop. They stayed there for several hours. By the time they left they had arrested more than 40 people. I have no idea where they took them.[98]

In Homs and neighboring towns security forces also conducted targeted arrests of wanted activists, people suspected of collecting and disseminating information about the protests, and doctors and nurses who assisted wounded protesters.

On May 12, 2011, Muhammad Najati Tayyara, a human rights activist from Homs who had spoken with the international media about the government’s crackdown, was detained on a street in Homs, a friend of his told Human Rights Watch. According to Tayyara’s lawyer, he has been held in a basement storage room in Homs’ central prison, along with others arrested during protests. Tayyara has been able to see his family and lawyer once a week for 15 and 30 minutes, respectively. His lawyer said that a court in Damascus is examining possible charges of “spreading false or exaggerated information that weakens national sentiment while Syria is at war or is expecting a war” or “spreading lies harmful to the prestige of the nation.”[99]

In Homs city, security agents arrested two doctors, Eyad Rifa`i, an orthopedic surgeon, and Jalal Hasoun al-Najar, a neurologist, on July 7 and July 9 respectively. Authorities accused both men of providing medical assistance to wounded protesters and information to international reporters about the crackdown, friends told Human Rights Watch. Rifa`i drove himself to the Air Force branch of security after receiving an order by phone to come in, said a friend. Agents from the military security branch arrested al-Najar at his clinic in Homs, and the next day went to his house and took his laptop and mobile phone.[100] Activists told Human Rights Watch that on July 13, both a city official and the medical association in Homs petitioned the military security branch for al-Najjar’s release, saying that treating the wounded is not a crime. According to one activist, security authorities replied to the city official that al-Najjar had been arrested not for his medical activities, but for alleged political activities.Both men were released on August 19.[101]

In addition to sweeps and targeted arrests during and following protests, security forces also detained people at checkpoints and during patrols. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, on May 18, 2011, two 13-year-old children were detained in Tal Kalakh on their way to school. One of them told Human Rights Watch:

We were passing near Abu Arab square, and there was a big checkpoint there, with several tanks and concrete slabs. The military stopped us and asked where we were going. We said we were going to our school, but when they heard it was a religious school, they got very angry, and started yelling, calling us “pigs who want freedom.” We tried to explain that we had nothing to do with the protests, but they beat us, and then blindfolded us and put us in car. They took us to some room with a horrible smell where we spent the next two hours. Every now and then somebody came and beat us with fists and wooden clubs. Then they released us – just dropped us on the side of the street, saying somebody would pick us up and bring back to town.[102]

Torture in detention

The pattern of systematic and rampant torture in detention that Human Rights Watch documented in Daraa and other parts of the country has repeated itself in Homs Governorate as well. Almost all of the 25 former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported being subjected to various forms of torture while in detention, and witnessing the abuse of fellow detainees.

According to former detainees, the majority of those detained in Homs city and nearby towns were held in the Homs Military Intelligence base, Balooni military prison – often used as a holding facility for detainees to be transferred to other cities or to other intelligence agencies – and branches of Political Security, State Security, and Air Force Security.

Detainees provided consistent accounts of appalling conditions in detention, including overcrowded cells with no ventilation, lack of food and water, and limitations on the use of toilet.

One witness, Abu Adam, who was detained in early July along with 11 other protesters from the Khalidiyya neighborhood in Homs, described to Human Rights Watch the conditions in a State Security detention facility in Homs:

The conditions were horrible. The cell measured 1.7 by 2 meters. There were eight of us there. There was a tiny window high up on the wall, but it provided no light or air. We had to take turns sleeping on each other’s shoulders. There was no place to lie down. I was dripping with sweat from head to toe. They gave us two loafs to share twice a day and a bottle of water. Twice a day they gave us 10 seconds to use the toilet.[103]

Another former detainee, Omar (not his real name), who was held first at the Balooni Prison in Homs and then at the Military Intelligence base in Homs along with his father and five brothers, told Human Rights Watch:

On the 23rdday of detention, they moved us to the Military Intelligence base where they squeezed 50 of us into a tiny room. We could only stand; we were pushed so close together that it was hard to breathe. We stayed there for 10 hours. My 73-year-old father almost died – they took him out after 40 minutes.[104]

Another former detainee held by Military Security in their detention facility in Homs, told Human Rights Watch that security forces placed him with two other detainees in a small cell measuring 0.90 by 2 meters, and that they had to take turns sleeping. He told Human Rights Watch that there were 20 individual cells similar to his, all occupied by three individuals.[105]

Interrogators and guards routinely subjected detainees to beatings with batons and cables during arrest, transportation, and during interrogations. Witnesses also reported other forms of torture, including burning of different parts of bodies with heated metal rods, use of electric shocks, drilling or cutting holes in bodies, use of various stress positions for hours or even days, and the use of improvised devices, such as car tires, to immobilize the bodies of detainees and ease their beating on sensitive areas like the soles of their feet, their head, and backs. Witnesses provided Human Rights Watch with video and photo materials that show marks left by these forms of torture on the bodies of the released detainees as well as the bodies of detainees who had died in detention (see below).

One witness, Wael (not his real name), described the torture he and other detainees experienced at the Military Intelligence base in Homs:

They brought me into what felt like a big room with lots of people inside. I was blindfolded but could hear people around me screaming and begging for water. I could hear the sound of electric tasers and interrogators ordering to hang people by their hands. Once they got to me, they started mocking me, saying, “We welcome you, leader of the revolution,” and asked me what was going on in Tal Kalakh. I said I didn’t know, and then the torture began.
They beat with cables and then hanged me by my hands from a pipe under the ceiling so that my feet weren’t touching the floor. I was hanging there for about six hours, although it was hard to tell the time. They were beating me, and pouring water on me, and then using electric tasers.
For the night, they put me into a cell, about three-by-three meters, along with some 25 other detainees. We were all squeezed together. Next morning, they brought me in for another interrogation. This time, they “folded” me, pushed my legs and head into a tire, flipped me on my back, and started flogging the soles of my feet.[106]

Another witness, Basel (not his real name), gave similar accounts of torture he experienced at the Military Intelligence detention facility in Homs:

When I did not answer all their questions during interrogation, they took me to a torture room. My eyes were blindfolded, but I recall going five steps down. They used handcuffs to tie one of my arms to a pipe under the ceiling and left me hanging there, with my feet barely touching the ground. They left me there for two or three hours. They did this over eight days. There were usually five or six detainees tortured that way at any given moment. I could not see them but I could hear their screams. Sometimes, they would also beat me while hanging. My wrist, arm, and shoulder would hurt so much, that I tried at one point to break my arm so that they would have to take me down.[107]

Basel said that after three days of torture, he could no longer bend his legs and his feet were worryingly swollen. The security forces called for a doctor to give him an anti-inflammatory injection. Basel said that he met two detainees who had had nails pulled out and many who had been electrocuted with electric batons.

Another witness, Omar (not his real name), told Human Rights Watch that some detainees were subjected to particularly brutal treatment:

Four days after we were brought to the Military Intelligence base in Homs, the guards took one the detainees, Abdul Halim [name changed] for interrogation. When they returned him to the cell two hours later, he was half-dead. No matter where you touched his body, he screamed in pain. He had black-and-red marks from electric shocks on his hands, legs, and back. They pulled out nails on his hands. The interrogators also used an electric drill on him – hehad holes from the drill on his hands, hips, knees, and feet. He was bleeding profusely. We asked the guard to give him medical assistance, but they refused.
I was moved to another facility shortly thereafter, and I don’t know whether he survived.[108]

Interrogators did not spare those detainees who were wounded during the arrest and thus particularly vulnerable. One former detainee, Wassim (not his real name), sustained a bayonet wound on his back during arrest. He said that he and other wounded detainees had been subjected to various forms of torture in the military hospital in Homs:

After the nurses stitched my wound without applying any anesthesia, the guards took me into a detention facility in the hospital, threw me on the ground, and started beating me. I told them I was injured and cried, asking them not to beat me, but they didn’t stop. They put me on a bed, and when they removed my blindfold, I saw five other detainees, all with gunshot wounds, on the beds around me.
Two hours later one of the guards came in, and beat me again. Then I saw him heating up a metal rod on a gas heater. I was terrified that he would use it on me, but instead he walked up to another man – hewas naked, and his hands were cuffed. The guard put the red-hot metal rod to his testicles. The man screamed, saying he was innocent. The guard then beat him with the same rod, and then heated it up again, this time burning his feet.[109]

Detainees arrested in Tal Kalakh said that before delivering them to the detention facility, security forces brought them to a nearby Alawite village where they encouraged residents to beat and humiliate the detainees. Wael told Human Rights Watch:

I was in a bus with about 50 other detainees. The security forces drove into an Alawite village not far from Tal Kalakh. People in the village were ready – there were about 150 of them, waiting for us. Shabeeha, who were guarding us on the bus, told them, “Come and beat these traitors, and if any of these pigs dies, just throw them away.” The villagers then started beating us with their fists and feet, and shovel handles, saying, “You want freedom – here is your freedom!”[110]
Another detainee from Tal Kalakh, Omar, described similar experience to Human Rights Watch, saying that when the guards brought them to an Alawite village, the residents first tried to topple the bus with the detainees, and then, when the guard opened the back door, started throwing rocks into the bus, spitting and swearing at the detainees.[111]

The procedure for releasing the detainees appeared to be just as arbitrary as the detention process. All of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that at various points during their detention the interrogators pushed their thumbs onto some papers to get fingerprints. The detainees were blindfolded at the time and could not see what the papers were. Most of the former detainees said they were never brought before a judge. Some reported being released after their relatives paid bribes to the heads of the detention facility. Others said that after weeks in detention they were brought into a courthouse but, instead of being brought before a judge, were simply let go.

Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported widespread detentions in Homs by security forces. Just like in other parts of Syria, most were arrested during protests or in their homes and spent from several days to several weeks in mukhabarat detention facilities. A lawyer who has worked on many detention cases told Human Rights Watch that he has not seen a single released detainee without torture marks.[112]

Abu Adam told Human Rights Watch said that in early July he participated in protests near the Omari Mosque when security forces opened fire at the protesters. He ran but was captured, together with 11 other protesters. He said that he was taken to the State Security facility nearby:

Three members of the security forces took me to a room and started beating me. They beat me with their fists, batons, and cables. The beating lasted for three or four hours. I don’t know exactly. I was very disoriented. There was not a single part of my body that was not beaten. An interrogator came and started asking me where I was from, what the protesters had been saying, what type of weapons we had and where we got them from – even though we had no weapons at all. I was lucky that I did not have any video or photos of the protests on my phone. Those who did were beaten much worse. I feared for my life so I eventually started agreeing to everything they said. I would have confessed to owning a tank if they had asked me.[113]

According to Abu Adam, there were fourteen small cells in the immediate vicinity of his cell, each packed with about eight detainees, and one big cell, which held many more.[114]

Abu Adam said that he was released after six days in detention only because his family paid a $3,000 bribe to the head of the detention facility.[115]

 

[92] Human Rights Watch interviews, names and place withheld, July 27-29, 2011.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview,name and place withheld, July 26, 2011.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 30, 2011.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 30, 2011.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, June 25, 2011.

[97]Syria: Mass Arrest Campaign Intensifies,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 20, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/20/syria-mass-arrest-campaign-intensifies.

[98] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 27, 2011.

[99] Human Rights Watch phone interview with lawyer, May 26, 2011.

[100] Human Rights Watch Skype interview with friends of al-Najar and Rifa`i, July 10 and 17, 2011.

[101] Human Rights Watch Skype interview with friend of al-Najar and Rifa`i, August 19, 2011.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 30, 2011.

[103] Human Rights Watch interview,name and place withheld, July 26, 2011.

[104] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 30, 2011.

[105] Human Rights Watch interview, Beirut, October 12, 2011.

[106] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 28, 2011.

[107] Human Rights Watch interview, Beirut, October 12, 2011.

[108] Human Rights Watch interview,name and place withheld, July 30, 2011.

[109] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 28, 2011.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 28, 2011.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 30, 2011.

[112] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 26, 2011.

[113] Human Rights Watch interview, name and place withheld, July 26, 2011.

[114] Ibid.

[115] Ibid.