July 3, 2012

Summary

The guards hung me by my wrists from the ceiling for eight days. After a few days of hanging, being denied sleep, it felt like my brain stopped working. I was imagining things. My feet got swollen on the third day. I felt pain that I have never felt in my entire life. It was excruciating. I screamed that I needed to go to a hospital, but the guards just laughed at me.

—Elias describing how he was tortured in Branch 285 of the Department of General Intelligence in Damascus

Since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian authorities have subjected tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment, and torture using an extensive network of detention facilities, an archipelago of torture centers, scattered throughout Syria.

Based on more than 200 interviews with former detainees, including women and children, and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, this report focuses on 27 of these detention facilities. For each facility, most of them with cells and torture chambers and one or several underground floors, we provide the exact location, identify the agencies responsible for operating them, document the type of ill-treatment and torture used, and name, to the extent possible, the individuals running them. The facilities included in this report are those for which multiple witnesses have indicated the same location and provided detailed descriptions about the use of torture. The actual number of such facilities is likely much higher.

In charge of Syria’s network of detention facilities are the country’s four main intelligence agencies, commonly referred to collectively as the mukhabarat:

  • the Department of Military Intelligence (Shu`bat al-Mukhabarat al-`Askariyya);
  • the Political Security Directorate (Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi);
  • the General Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-`Amma); and
  • the Air Force Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya).

Each of these four agencies maintains central branches in Damascus as well as regional, city, and local branches across the country. In virtually all of these branches there are detention facilities of varying size.

Syria’s intelligence agencies have historically operated independently from each other with no clear boundaries to their areas of jurisdiction. Relying on the country’s overbroad emergency law, the mukhabarat has a long history of detaining people without arrest warrants and denying detainees other due process safeguards. Lifting the emergency law in April 2011 changed little in practice. Legislation limiting the time that a person can be lawfully held in detention without judicial review to 60 days for certain crimes, simultaneously introduced in April 2011, does not meet the requirement in international law that judicial review should take place “promptly.” Furthermore, several former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had been held without judicial review even longer than the 60 days permitted by Syrian law.

To manage the thousands of people detained in the context of anti-government demonstrations, the authorities also established numerous temporary unofficial holding centres in places such as stadiums, military bases, schools, and hospitals where the authorities rounded up and held people during massive detention campaigns before transporting them to branches of the intelligence agencies.

All of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described conditions of detention—extreme overcrowding, inadequate food, and routine denial of necessary medical assistance—that would by themselves amount to ill-treatment and, in some cases, torture. But almost all the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said they had been subjected to torture or witnessed the torture of others during their detention. Interrogators, guards, and officers used a broad range of torture methods, including prolonged beatings, often with objects such as batons and wires, holding the detainees in painful stress positions for prolonged periods of time, often with the use of specially devised equipment, the use of electricity, burning with car battery acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails, and mock execution. Altogether Human Rights Watch documented more than 20 different methods of torture used in Syria’s archipelago of torture centers.

© 2012 Human Rights Watch

Most of the detainees interviewed said they had been subjected to several forms of torture, often inflicted with escalating levels of pain. At times detainees were forced to remain naked or in their underwear while they were tortured. Several former detainees interviewed for this report told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed people dying from torture in detention. Human Rights Watch also received information about deaths in custody from families or friends of the victims.

A former intelligence officer described to Human Rights Watch the various methods used at the Air Force Intelligence base at the Mezzeh airport in Damascus:

The mildest form of torture is hitting people with batons on their arms and legs and not giving them anything to eat or drink. Then they would hang the detainees from the ceiling by their hands, sometimes for hours or days. I saw it while I was talking to the interrogators. They used electric stun-guns and an electroshock machine, an electric current transformer. It is a small machine with two wires with clips that they attach to nipples and a knob that regulates the current. In addition, they put people in coffins and threatened to kill them and close the coffin. People were wearing underwear. They pour hot water on people and then whip them. I’ve also seen drills there, but I’ve never seen them being used. I’ve also seen them using martial art moves, like breaking ribs with a knee kick. They put pins under your feet and hit you so that you step on them. I also heard them threatening to cut off the detainees’ penises.

A 31-year-old detainee who was detained in Idlib governorate in June described to Human Rights Watch how intelligence agents tortured him in the Idlib Central Prison:

They forced me to undress. Then they started squeezing my fingers with pliers. They put staples in my fingers, chest, and ears. I was only allowed to take them out if I spoke. The nails in the ears were the most painful. They used two wires hooked up to a car battery to give me electric shocks. They used electric stun-guns on my genitals twice. I thought I would never see my family again. They tortured me like this three times over three days.

While most of the torture victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch were young men aged between 18 and 35, interviewed victims also included children, women, and elderly individuals. Defecting members of the intelligence agencies told Human Rights Watch that they either witnessed or participated in the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, corroborating accounts by former detainees.

Human Rights Watch has documented the use of torture and ill-treatment in the following detention facilities:

Agency

Name of Branch

City

Head of Branch

Military Intelligence

Branch 215

Damascus

Brig. Gen. Sha’afiq

Military Intelligence

Branch 227

Damascus

Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazali

Military Intelligence

Branch 291

Damascus

Brig. Gen. Burhan Qadour (Replaced Brig. Gen. Yousef Abdou in May 2012)

Military Intelligence

Branch 235 (“Palestine”)

Damascus

Brig. Gen. Muhammad Khallouf

Military Intelligence

Branch 248

Damascus

Not identified

Military Intelligence

Branch 245

Daraa

Col. Loai al-Ali

Military Intelligence

Aleppo Branch

Aleppo

Not identified

Military Intelligence

Branch 271

Idlib

Brig. Gen. Nawfel al-Hussein

Military Intelligence

Homs Branch

Homs

Muhammad Zamreni

Military Intelligence

Latakia Branch

Latakia

Not identified

Air Force Intelligence

Mezzeh Airport Branch

Damascus

Brig. Gen. Abdul Salam Fajr Mahmoud (director of investigative branch)

Air Force Intelligence

Bab Touma Branch

Damascus

Not identified

Air Force Intelligence

Homs Branch

Homs

Brig. Gen. Jawdat al-Ahmed

Air Force Intelligence

Daraa branch

Daraa

Col. Qusay Mihoub

Air Force Intelligence

Latakia Branch

Latakia

Col. Suhail Al-Abdullah

Political Security

Mezzeh Branch

Damascus

Not identified

Political Security

Idlib Branch

Idlib

Not identified

Political Security

Homs Branch

Homs

Not identified

Political Security

Latakia Branch

Latakia

Not identified

Political Security

Daraa Branch

Daraa

Not identified

General Intelligence

Latakia Branch

Latakia

Brig. Gen. Khudr Khudr

General Intelligence

Branch 285

Damascus

Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Ma’ala (Replaced Brig. Gen. Hussam Fendi in late 2011)

General Intelligence

Al-Khattib Branch

Damascus

Not identified

General Intelligence

Aleppo Branch

Aleppo

Not identified

General Intelligence

Branch 318

Homs

Brig. Gen. Firas Al-Hamed

General Intelligence

Idlib Branch

Idlib

Not identified

Joint

Central Prison - Idlib

Idlib

Not identified

In the vast majority of detention cases documented by Human Rights Watch, family members could obtain no information about the fate or whereabouts of the detainees and detainees were not allowed any contact with the outside world. Many of the detentions can therefore be qualified as enforced disappearances.

Human Rights Watch calls on the UN Security Council to ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Human Rights Watch also calls on the United Nations Security Council to ensure that the Syrian government grants recognized international detention monitors access to all detention facilities, including those mentioned in this report.