July 3, 2012

I. Arrest, Detention, and Torture in Syria

Arbitrary Arrests and Unlawful Detention

Given the limited access for independent observers and the near-complete secrecy surrounding detentions and detention facilities in Syria, it is virtually impossible to establish how many people have been detained since demonstrations broke out in March 2011. As of June 22, 2012, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian monitoring group working in coordination with the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of Syrian activists, had documented over 25,000 detentions.[2] The actual number is likely much higher.

Most of the detentions documented by Human Rights Watch were carried out by the intelligence services (mukhabarat), often assisted by the military, during and immediately following anti-government protests; in the course of large-scale house-to-house “sweep” operations; and at checkpoints on roads. Riot police (Hafz al-Nizam), the army, and, in some cases, pro-government militias also detained people, but often these detainees were eventually transferred to the mukhabarat. 

Security forces also raided the homes of “wanted” individuals and, in some cases, when these persons were not at home, detained their relatives instead.  The raids were often accompanied by looting and destruction of property, and by beatings and other ill-treatment of the detainees. As documented in previous Human Rights Watch publications, these actions were usually ordered, authorized, or condoned by the commanding officers.[3]

According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the security forces conducting the arrests did not introduce themselves, did not provide any legal justification for the arrest, and did not inform the detainees as to where they were being taken. Following the arrests, the detainees were usually brought to local detention facilities—police stations, local branches of one of the intelligence agencies, or ad-hoc facilities such as stadiums, schools, facilities belonging to the youth branch of the Baath party (locally referred to as Tala’e`), or hospitals. Following initial interrogation and collection of personal data, the security forces typically transferred the detainees to larger detention facilities located in regional centers such as Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Latakia, Daraa, and Hama.

Most of the detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch spent anywhere from a few days to several months in detention. In most cases, detainees were held in more than one detention facility. It was not uncommon for detainees to be transferred to four or five detention facilities run by different intelligence agencies during their detention, being subjected to torture, the deliberate infliction of severe pain, in several of them.

In a typical example, security forces detained thirty-one-year old Khalil during a protest in a town in the Idlib governorate on June 29, 2011. They first took him to the local police station where police officers interrogated him three times during the night following his arrest, kicking and beating him. The next day security forces transferred Khalil to the central prison in Idlib, where he initially spent 16 days on the third floor, being subjected to severe torture by Political Security officers who had taken over the floor. Political Security officers then transferred him to a Military Intelligence facility located in the basement of the prison, where the torture continued. After 13 days in Military Intelligence custody in Idlib, Khalil was transferred to Damascus where he was held in Military Intelligence Branch 215 for five days, in Branch 291  for six days, and then in Branch 248 before he was eventually released, about two months after his detention.[4]  

Some detainees were released without any formal procedure, when the interrogators eventually told them that they were free to go; others were taken to court and seen by a judge and either charged and released on bail, or simply released. More than half of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch were released without seeing a judge or having any formal charges brought against them. Human Rights Watch does not know how many people were sentenced to prison terms after their detention.

The vast majority of detention cases documented by Human Rights Watch can be qualified as enforced disappearances. In international law this is when state agents or other persons acting with the support of the state detain someone and then refuse to acknowledge the detention, or conceal his or her fate or whereabouts.[5] In most of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the detainees’ families had no information about their fate or whereabouts for weeks or, in some cases, months following the arrest, despite their inquiries with various intelligence agencies. The authorities did not allow detainees to have any contact with the outside world and left their families wondering whether their detained relatives were alive or dead.

Widespread or systematic enforced disappearances, carried out as part of a state policy, can constitute a crime against humanity.[6]

Conditions in Detention

All of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described conditions in these detention facilities that by themselves amount to ill-treatment and, in some cases, torture.

In all of the facilities that witnesses described to Human Rights Watch, the detainees were held in overcrowded cells. Former detainees usually distinguished between what they called common cells and individual cells. The size of the common cells varied, measuring up to 70 square meters. For example, two former detainees told Human Rights Watch that a common cell measuring about 20 square meters in Military Intelligence Branch 291 in Damascus held 60-75 people.

Former detainees explained to Human Rights Watch that what they called individual cells were often small rooms measuring one to two square meters, many with a hole in the middle of the ground for a toilet. While in some cases former detainees reported being held alone in such cells most of the detainees said that these individual cells usually held several people. Both in the common and individual cells, the overcrowding was such that in many cases the detainees could only stand inside their cells, or had to take turns sleeping.

Hatem, who was detained in late September 2011 in a branch of the General Intelligence Directorate in Kafr Souseh, Damascus, told Human Rights Watch,

In the first three days I was in a group cell. We were around 65 people in the cell which was 3.5 by 3 meters.  While in that cell I stayed standing for three days. When I wanted to sleep I would lean on the wall and sleep. The bathroom was in the cell. After the first three days they moved me to a solitary cell. We were five people in that cell. It was one by two meters. In the group cell that had around 65 people. Because they couldn’t sleep and had to stand all the time, people started to go crazy, to hallucinate. There was a group of five or six people in my group cell that started going crazy. One time some people were sitting, and sleeping in the cell, and there was one person hallucinating who started peeing on the people as they are sleeping. Imagine![7]

The majority of former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were blindfolded and handcuffed most of the time during their detentions, and some said they were kept naked for several days.

All the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported being deprived of proper food (a commonly described meal was a piece of stale bread, half an egg, or a tomato, provided once a day), potable water, and regular access to a toilet.

Samir, who was detained in Military Intelligence Branch 235 (known as the “Palestine Branch”) in Damascus from July to September 2011, told Human Rights Watch,

They brought me down to where the cells are and put me in a room that measured 2 by 1.5 meters. The ceiling was not high. They left me there by myself. I stayed in this cell the whole time I was detained. The cell had every kind of filth, cockroaches, fleas, the smell of dirt and mold. There was no toilet. There was just an old large Pepsi bottle filled with urine. On the floor there was a flimsy mattress with an unreal smell … There was no light and [when I entered] no food and no water. [You would] hear the sound of torture, beatings, people being sworn at, humiliated, it was routine. They let you go to the toilet two times a day. You just took your Pepsi bottle and emptied it and there was another bottle for water, which you filled. There was no showering and no soap. For 61 days I did not shower once. After a while, you get used to it.
There were three meals a day, but their way of distributing it was very bizarre. They distributed the bread on the floor. In the metal door of the cell there was a small vent for air. They threw the bread in through this vent. The bread was either dough or burnt entirely. We would only get stale bread. They would serve the food in old empty halaweh [a sugar and sesame sweet] containers ... The guard that distributed the bread at lunch yelled at you to stand at the door and to put out your plate to get the food. Then he throws the liquid, the bulgar wheat—it’s all dirt—through the vent. He throws it, some lands on the floor, some on the plate, you don’t know where. This is between 12 and 2 o’clock. At 4 p.m. you go to the bathroom. They give each person one potato for his dinner.  At night there is no other food. The second time you go to the bathroom is at 6 a.m. You go to the bathroom and the prison guard, so as not to tire himself out, has the food at the door of the bathroom and gives it to you on the way out. It is four olives and a small spoon of jam or sometimes half an egg or some halaweh, but the worst kind of halaweh.[8]

Former detainees also said that there was virtually no medical assistance available to the detainees in many detention facilities, even to those who sustained injuries or bullet wounds during their arrest, or suffered from chronic conditions. Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed the deaths of fellow detainees from complications caused by lack of medications they required for diabetes or a heart condition. 

Jalal, a former detainee in the Central Prison in Idlib, for example, told Human Rights Watch that one of the detainees died because of lack of medical treatment in July 2011:

One guy had diabetes. We kept telling the guards to get him medical care, but they would just take him out and beat him up. For a week he couldn’t eat or stand up. We had to carry him to the bathroom. And then he went into diabetic shock. He said his prayers and then he just died. As he was saying his prayers another prisoner realized that he was dying and started kicking the door. But the guards just took the guy out who kicked the door and beat him. They dropped the dead man’s body on the floor outside the cell and called the nurse who confirmed that he had died.[9]

Systematic Use of Torture and Deaths in Custody

Almost all the former detainees interviewed told Human Rights Watch that they had been subjected to torture, meaning the deliberate infliction of severe pain, during their detention and witnessed the torture of others. Defectors from the intelligence agencies, who either witnessed or participated in the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, corroborated these accounts.

The most severe torture took place during interrogation sessions, often in separate interrogation or torture rooms, or in corridors and hallways in some of the smaller detention facilities. During these sessions, interrogators and officers usually wanted the detainees to confess to having participated in demonstrations, provide names of other demonstrators and organizers, admit to owning and having used weapons, and in some cases provide information about alleged funding of demonstrations from abroad.

But many former detainees interviewed also believed that a main reason for the use of torture was not just to obtain information, but to punish and intimidate the detainees.

Interrogators, guards, and officers used a wide range of torture methods, including prolonged beatings, often with objects such as batons and cables, holding the detainees in stress positions for prolonged periods of time, and use of electricity and electric shocks. At times detainees were forced to remain naked or in their underwear while they were tortured.

Human Rights Watch has documented the use of the following torture methods:[10]

  • Prolonged and severe beating, punching, and kicking;
  • Beating with objects (cables, whips, sticks, batons, pipes);
  • Falaqa (beating the victim with sticks, batons, or whips on the soles of the feet);
  • Shabeh (hanging the victim from the ceiling by the wrists so that the his toes barely touch the ground or he is completely suspended in the air with his entire weight on his wrists, causing extreme swelling and discomfort);
  • Balanco (hanging the victim by the wrists tied behind the back);
  • Basat al-reeh, or “flying carpet” ( tying the victim down to a flat board, the head suspended in the air so that the victim cannot defend himself. One variation of this torture involves stretching the limbs while the victim lies on the board (as on a rack). In another variation described to Human Rights Watch the board is folded in half so that the victim’s face touches his legs both causing pain and further immobilizing the victim);
  • Dulab, or the “tire method” (the victim is forced to bend at the waist and stick his head, neck, legs and sometimes arms into the inside of a car tire so that the victim is totally immobilized and cannot protect him or herself from ensuing beatings);  
  • Electrocution (with electric prods or wires connected to a battery);
  • Mock execution;
  • Threats against the detainee (of execution, rape);
  • Threats against family members (of detention, rape);
  • Exposure to cold/heat;
  • Sexual violence;
  • Stress positions, such as being forced to stand upright for hours or days;
  • Hanging upside down;
  • “Standing on the wall” (The victim stands with his back to the wall. His hands are tied to the wall up by his head. There is a metal pole sticking out of the wall pressing into his back and causing discomfort but he can’t move because his hands are tied.  His feet are on the ground);
  • Pulling out fingernails;
  • Plucking out hair/beard;
  • Use of acid to burn skin;
  • Burning; and
  • Prolonged nudity.

Some of these torture methods, such as the use of electric shocks, the dulab, and basat al-reeh, involved the use of objects, some of them apparently custom-made, which indicates that the torture was planned. Many of these torture methods had been used in Syria in the past. In 1991, Human Rights Watch documented many of these forms of torture.[11]

While information from former detainees indicates that particular detention facilities, or particular interrogation officers, preferred certain torture methods over others, the replication of torture methods across branches and even agencies shows that the use of torture was systematic.


Detainees described being hung from the ceiling by their wrists.  Some detainees described their toes barely touching the ground, while others said they were suspended in the air with their entire weight on their wrists, causing extreme swelling and discomfort.  While suspended, a number of detainees told Human Rights Watch they were beaten. 

They would beat me and say ‘don’t you want to confess!’  For an hour and a half I was hanging.  I didn’t confess and they brought me down.  At his point it was 3.30-4:00 am.  My hands were red like blood.”

— Male detained in the Kafr Souseh neighborhood of Damascus in September 2011.  Human Rights Watch interviewed him by phone while he was inside Syria.


Human Rights Watch commissioned a Syrian artist to produce sketches based on statements received from former detainees and security force defectors. They depict six of the most commonly used torture methods in detention centers across Syria — shabeh, dulab, beating with object, falaqa, electrocution, and basat al-reeh. They are not representations of any specific individuals. © 2012 Human Rights Watch


Detainees described being folded at the waist and having their head, neck, and legs put into a car tire so that they were immobilized and could not protect themselves from beatings on the back, legs, and head including by batons and whips.  Some detainees described having their arms inside the tire as well.

“They fold you in half, feet first, and put you inside so that you can’t move at all.  Then they started beating me.  They had a braided electrical cable and they hit me with it.  There was no talking.  It was like this for 30 minutes then they pulled me out and poured water on my legs and hands.  Cold water.  I was feeling death.”

 Soldier who was detained in the Military Intelligence branch in Latakia in June 2011.  Human Rights Watch interviewed him in Hatay, Turkey in January 2012.


Beating with Objects

On the way to and inside detention facilities detainees described being bound and blindfolded while being beaten by batons, cables, whips, and other objects.   

“There were 20 security officers.  To welcome us each started beating us with a whip while we were standing.  We were ten people in a row [one right after the other].  The officer hit me in the chest and I fell on those behind me and they fell down.  Each security officer hit us and they were laughing.  They made us lie on our stomachs and they hit the bottoms of our feet…

  Male detained in the Central Prison in Idlib in July 2011.  Human Rights Watch interviewed him in Hatay, Turkey in January 2012.



Detainees described being beaten on the soles of their feet with sticks and whips to the point that their skin was raw, their feet swollen and bleeding, making it impossible to walk.

“He ordered me to raise my legs and then he started hitting me on my soles with a thick wooden baton. I started screaming “I didn’t do anything, I can’t bear the pain.” He hit me 5 times and ordered me to stand up. After standing he told me to run in my place. I couldn’t lift my legs because of the pain.”

  Male detained at the Tadumr roundabout checkpoint and taken to the Political Security branch in Homs.  Human Rights Watch interviewed him by Skype while he was inside Syria in April 2012.



Detainees described being bound, sometimes on a chair, having cattle prongs attached to their bodies, and being jolted repeatedly by electrical currents.  The prongs were reportedly attached to sensitive places including genitalia, inside the mouth, and also on the neck, chest, hands, and legs

“I didn’t confess.  The interrogator said ‘bring me the electricity.’…The guard brought two electric prongs.  He put one in my mouth, on my tooth.  Then he started turning it on and off quickly.  He did this 7/8 times.  I felt like, that’s it.  I am not going to leave this branch.”

— Soldier who was held at the Air Force Intelligence branch in Latakia in June 2011.  Human Rights Watch interviewed him in Hatay, Turkey in January 2012.


Basat al-reeh

A number of detainees described being tortured on the “basat al-reeh”.  Some indicated that this involved being tied down to a flat board so that they were helpless to defend themselves with their heads suspended in the air.  They said their hands and feet were tied together and that they were bound across the chest and legs. Other detainees said that their limbs were also stretched, or pulled, and others indicated that the board folded in half so that their faces touched their legs, both causing pain and further immobilizing them.

“They folded me so my head hit my toes.  Hands up above my head, with my elbows bent.  They were hitting me with a silicon cable and something like braided electrical cable.  I passed out.  First he closed it.  I felt all of my muscles pulled.  He closed it and was beating me, and then I passed out.”

— Male detained in March or April 2011 and held in a shabiha run detention facility in Latakia.  Human Rights Watch interviewed him in Hatay, Turkey in January 2012.


All the detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said the interrogators verbally and physically humiliated them, and threatened both them and their relatives with further abuse or, in some cases, execution.

Ten of the detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had been subjected to sexual abuse and three said they had witnessed sexual abuse of others. The sexual abuse included rape, penetration with objects, sexual groping, prolonged forced nudity, and electroshock and beatings to genitalia.[12]Thirty-one-year-old Halim, who was detained in Daraa governorate on August 8, 2011 and later transferred to Branch 291 where he spent about 20 days, told Human Rights Watch:

They took five of us out to the corridor. Four were waiting while the fifth was being interrogated. We were standing up, blindfolded, and handcuffed. They beat me. An officer placed a gun to my head, he gave me electric shocks with a stun-gun, and he made me sit on a stick in the ground [sexually abusing me]. There were no real questions— just accusations. But I denied everything.[13]

In most cases documented by Human Rights Watch, detainees were subjected to a combination of these torture methods, often with increasing levels of pain. Amine, a former career soldier who was detained on April 9, 2011, showed Human Rights Watch burn marks on his wrists and explained that they were caused by torture by electricity during his 40-day detention in Military Intelligence Branch 291 in Damascus:

The first day they took me out for interrogation one of the officers punched me in the face and broke one of my teeth. Another said to somebody who just entered the room that he should “beat the shit out of me.” They lifted my legs and beat me with sticks on the soles [of my feet]. As a result, they broke two of my toes on the left foot. They also kicked me with their boots. I don’t know how long it lasted. Maybe it lasted for 12 hours. They took shifts. Every time I called for help or shouted “stop” they laughed.
Then they said “connect him to electricity.” The put me in a chair and placed one cable in my hand and clipped another to my right wrist. I just didn’t have anything to tell them.
I lost consciousness so I don’t know how long it lasted. I woke up when they threw water on me. Then they took me back to the cell. I was naked and received no food and no water. But I couldn’t even lie down because there was not enough space and there was water on the floor.
A couple of hours later they brought me back for interrogation. This time they connected me to electricity before even talking to me. This time, the cables were connected to my lower legs. A doctor later told me that I have lost 60% of the sensitivity in my right leg.
They threatened to arrest my wife, daughter, and my oldest son. They were using my wife’s name. I took their threats very seriously. I fainted again from the electric shocks and they must have dragged me back because when I woke up I was back in my cell.
A couple of hours later they took me out for interrogation again. This time they started using electric shocks to my private parts and they threatened to give me an “acid bath.”[14]

Amer, a 23-year-old man from a town in the Idlib governorate, described to Human Rights Watch how he was tortured during his 42-day detention in the Political Security Branch in Latakia:

They undressed me, tied my hands behind my back, and hit me on my private parts. They clipped my hands to a metal pipe and lifted me so that my feet hardly touched the floor. They kept me like that for two days. When they released me I couldn’t stand, my feet were completely swollen.
I then spent five days in a single cell with six other people. After that 15 officers took me to a separate room. They were cursing my mother and sister and threatened to rape me. They put me on a basat al-reeh – I was lying on my back, tied to a board, and they lifted my head and legs. All this time I was undressed. They wrapped wires around my penis and turned on the electricity. I could just hear it buzzing. They did this maybe five times for about 10 seconds. I passed out.
When I regained consciousness they were pushing my legs and hands into a tire. My entire body was blue from beatings.[15]

Several former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed people dying from torture in detention. Five defected security force officers also told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed detainees being executed and beaten to death while in custody.[16]

Human Rights Watch has documented deaths in custody in the following detention facilities:

  • Air Force Intelligence Branch in Mezzeh airport, Damascus;[17]
  • Idlib Branch of the Department of Military Intelligence;[18]
  • Homs Branch of the Department of Military Intelligence;[19]
  • Central Prison Idlib;[20]
  • Temporary holding facility in Daraa stadium.[21]

As of June 18, 2012, the Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian monitoring group collecting the names of those killed and detained in connection with the anti-government uprising, had recorded the names of 575 people who died in custody since March 2011.[22]

Walid, a member of the riot police (Hafz al-Nizam), Brigade 121, Battalion 225 told Human Rights Watch:

In December a protester was killed at our base in Tel Al-Harra, in Daraa governorate. We had arrested him earlier at a protest and brought him back to the base.  He was handcuffed and we told him to praise Bashar [al-Assad]. He refused so others in my unit beat him. After they beat him he was still combative and responded “your leader is nothing and your mothers are whores.” One colonel got angry and ordered that they use more violence against the detainee. Seven officers beat him with batons for more than an hour that evening until he died. Later, the colonel said, “put this dog outside” so they placed his body in an empty house. I saw the body before it was taken away, his face was bloody – I knew it was the same person that they had brought in, but his face was now totally different because of the disfiguration. Beatings are common when we detain people but not deaths. However, no one looks the same after we have arrested them and transferred them to [General Intelligence].[23]

Ghassan, a defected sergeant from Brigade 18, Battalion 627 told Human Rights Watch that on January 11 or 12 he saw 12 corpses of men who had been brought in alive earlier that night to his base in Zabadani. He said,

All of them were wearing civilian clothing and two of them were wearing pajamas. None of them had beards. I saw their faces as I walked by them and their faces were disfigured from blunt force trauma. Near the bodies, I saw shovels that had blood and what looked like brain particles.  A soldier in the 4th Division who participated in their killing told me that they were ordered to kill them because they were all foreign terrorists. But when I went into the Colonel’s office, I saw the dead men’s identification cards in plain view on his desk. All the men were Syrians, from Sarghaya. The soldier told me that he and other soldiers had killed the men. He didn’t say how but that they were all alive when they brought them in.[24]

Human Rights Watch also received information about deaths in custody from the families or friends of the victims. Family members of the victims told Human Rights Watch they had no information about their relatives’ fate or whereabouts after security forces detained them until the day they received a call, usually from a local public hospital, asking them to pick up the body of their relative. In some cases, the bodies were found dumped in the street. In all cases where families described finding their relatives’ bodies to Human Rights Watch, they said the bodies bore marks consistent with infliction of torture, including bruises, cuts, and burns.

The authorities provided families with no information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their relatives and, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, have launched no investigations. In many cases, families of those killed in custody had to sign documents indicating that “armed gangs” had killed their relatives and had to promise not to hold a public funeral as a condition of receiving the body.

The ban against torture is one of the most fundamental prohibitions in international human rights law. No exceptional circumstances can justify torture. Syria is a party to key international treaties that ban torture under all circumstances, even during recognized states of emergency, and require investigation and prosecution of those responsible for torture.[25] When committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, torture constitutes a crime against humanity under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.[26] 

Individuals who carried out or ordered the commission of crimes against humanity bear individual criminal responsibility for these crimes under international law, including the Rome Statute.[27]

Military commanders and intelligence officials could also bear responsibility for violations committed by individuals under their direct or ultimate command in accordance with the doctrine of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the crimes and failed to prevent them or to submit the matter for prosecution.[28]  This would apply, without exception, not only to the officials overseeing detention facilities, but also to the heads of intelligence agencies, members of government, and a head of state, none of whom are exempt from responsibility.[29]

Detention and Torture of Children, Women and Elderly

While the majority of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch were young men in their 20s and 30s, security forces also detained and tortured particularly vulnerable people such children, women, and the elderly.

As with the total number of detainees, it is virtually impossible to establish how many children, women, and elderly persons the security forces have detained, but local activists have recorded the detention of 635 children and 319 women as of June 22, 2012.[30] Through interviews with children and other detainees who witnessed the torture of children during their detention Human Rights Watch has documented the detention and torture of children in 12 cases.[31]

For example, Hossam, age 13, told Human Rights Watch that security forces detained him and a relative, also 13, in May 2011 and tortured him for three days at a military security branch about 45 minutes by car from Tal Kalakh:

Every so often they would open our cell door and yell at us and beat us. They said, “You pigs, you want freedom?” They interrogated me by myself. They asked, “Who is your god?” And I said, “Allah.” Then they electrocuted me on my stomach, with a prod. I fell unconscious. When they interrogated me the second time, they beat me and electrocuted me again. The third time they had some pliers, and they pulled out my toenail. They said, “Remember this saying, always keep it in mind: We take both kids and adults, and we kill them both.” I started to cry, and they returned me to the cell.[32]

It was the detention and torture of children from the southern town of Daraa in March 2011 that triggered the first anti-government protests in Syria, and in the following months several other cases, including the torture and death of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, caused an outcry in Syria and internationally.[33]

In cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the detained children were usually between 13 and 17 years old, although some witnesses and defectors reported seeing boys as young as eight in detention. They were mostly held in the same cells and in the same conditions as adults, sometimes in solitary confinement, and subjected to many of the torture methods described above.

While the vast majority of former detainees interviewed were men, Human Rights Watch also interviewed women who had been detained.  Sabah, a female adult detainee who was held in the Military Intelligence Branch in Jisr Shughour in the Idlib governorate in November 2011, described to Human Rights Watch how she was beaten and groped by a guard while in detention. She said:

The director asked me why I was going to demonstrations … I didn’t lie. He asked what I said in demonstrations and I told him … Then he slapped me. I will not forget it. He told the boys to come take me … they took me to a closed room. There were boxes in it. It was like a storage room. There were also broken chairs and other things. They took my abaya off. I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt underneath, and a guard tied my hands behind my back. I said, “A dog like you doesn’t have a right to do anything [to touch me] …” He grabbed my breasts. [Eventually] he let my arms untie. I said, “Beat me, shoot me, but don’t put your hand on me.” … He came to grab my breasts again and I pushed him ... When I pushed him he fell on the boxes. Then he grabbed me by the chest and threw me against the wall. I fell and he started beating me with a stick. On the knee and on the ankle. My ankle was also broken [along with my hand] …[34]

Another female detainee, Nour, described to Human Rights Watch how she was sexually abused when she was detained in Military Intelligence Branch 235 in Damascus in late 2011/early 2012 for two to three months:

There were three other women in the cell when I arrived … Throughout our time in that cell, the four of us there were permanently in one of four positions: They tied our handcuffed hands above our heads onto a chain coming out of the ceiling and chained our feet together with our feet flat on the floor. They tied us face up to a metal bed which just had two planks of wood on it – we were in an X position so our wrists and ankles were attached to the four corners of the bed frame. They put our entire hunched body into the hole of a big tire with our back bent forward.  They tied us to a metal chair with no bottom or back to which they sometimes attached electrodes to electrocute us.
With every new shift of the guards, they would switch our positions. We slept in those positions. They electrocuted us quite often … Each time my body and particularly my jaw and teeth would clench up for a long time – it was extremely painful …
They did other things to us too … [They] raped us while we were on the bed … [one of them] used to force the soldiers who were reluctant, saying things like “I have a sister,” to rape us. In my case they raped me about four or five times … Twice, more than one man raped me one after the other. I cannot remember how many it was each time.[35]

There were also elderly people among those detained. Seventy-three-year-old Abu Ghassan told Human Rights Watch that in the early morning one day in March 2012, the army came to the mosque in his town in the Idlib governorate.  Abu Ghassan said that while he was praying with his 71-year-old brother about 50 soldiers arrived to the mosque with tanks and other military vehicles and, after checking his documents, said that he was wanted by the authorities. Abu Ghassan said:

They put me in the car, handcuffed, and kept me there all day, until seven in the evening. I told them, “I am an old man, let me go to the bathroom,” but they just beat me on the face. Then they brought me to State Security in Idlib, and put me in a 30-square-meter cell with about 100 other detainees. I had to sleep squatting on the floor. There was just one toilet for all of us. They interrogated me four times, each time asking why some of my family members joined the FSA. I didn’t deny it, but said there was nothing I could do to control what my relatives do. They slapped me on the face a lot.[36]

[2] See Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, Statistics for the Number of Detainees, http://vdc-sy.org/index.php/en/ (accessed June 25, 2012).

[3] Human Rights Watch, By All Means Necessary!”: Individual and Command Responsibility for Crimes against Humanity in Syria, December 2011, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/12/15/all-means-necessary-0.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with Khalil, January 8, 2012.

[5] International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED), adopted December 20, 2006, G.A. Res. 61/177, U.N. Doc. A/RES/61/177 (2006), entered into force December 23, 2010, art. 2 [Syria has not ratified the ICCPED]. 

[6]Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.183/9, July 17, 1998, entered into force July 1, 2002, art. 7.

[7] Human Rights Watch phone interview with Hatem, November 18, 2011.

[8] Human Rights Watch phone interview with Samir, December 14, 2011.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with Jalal, January 8, 2012. The detainee who was beaten because he kicked on the door corroborated the account in a separate interview in a different location. Human Rights Watch interview with Yazid, January 9, 2012.

[10] See also Amnesty International, “Syria: ‘I Wanted to Die’: Syria’s Torture Survivors Speak Out” A.I. Index MDE 24/016/2012, March 14, 2012, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE24/016/2012/en (accessed June 25, 2012).

[11] Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime (New Haven: Yales University Press, 1991), pp. 54-57.

[12] “Syria: Sexual Assault in Detention,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 15, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/15/syria-sexual-assault-detention.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Halim, November 3, 2011.

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with Afif, November 2, 2011.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with Amer, January 10, 2012.

[16] Human Rights Watch Interview with Walid, April 13, 2012; Ghassan, April 15, 2012;.Ghassan G., October 29, 2011; Mohamed M., October 27, 2011;

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Habib, October 26, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with Yazan, October 26, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with Ramzi, November 1, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with Zakhya, October 29, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with Mahdi, November 3, 2011.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Zahi, January 7, 2012.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with Fathi, July 30, 2011.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Zahi, January 7, 2012; Human Rights Watch interview with Jalal, January 8, 2012.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with Fares, May 23, 2011; Human Rights Watch interview with Ayman, May 23, 2011.

[22] According to the Violations Documentation Center, 428 of the 575 died from torture, 76 were executed without being tortured, and 71 were executed after having been tortured. People who were executed in the field, and executions and torture in the absence of evidence of state involvement are excluded. For each death, the VDC collects the name, age, time of death, and place of death, see Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, Statistics for the Number of Martyrs, http://vdc-sy.org/index.php/en/ (accessed June 25, 2012).


[23] Human Rights Watch Interview with Walid, April 13, 2012.

[24] Human Rights Watch Interview with Ghassan, April 15, 2012.

[25]International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, acceded to by Syria on April 21, 1969, arts. 4, 7. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), G.A. res. 39/46, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, acceded to by Syria on August 19, 2004.

[26] Rome Statute. Syria has signed, although not ratified, the Rome Statute and so is obliged to refrain from acts that would ‘defeat the object and purpose of [the] treaty’. See Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1155, p. 331, acceded to by Syria in 1970. Syria signed the Rome Statute on November 29, 2000.

[27]Rome Statute, art. 25(3), which stipulates, in part:

“In accordance with this Statute, a person shall be criminally responsible and liable for punishment for a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court if that person:

(a) Commits such a crime, whether as an individual, jointly with another or through another person, regardless of whether that other person is criminally responsible;

(b) Orders, solicits or induces the commission of such a crime which in fact occurs or is attempted.”

[28] Rome Statute, art. 28.

[29] Rome Statute, art. 27.

[30] Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, Statistics for the Number of Detainees, http://vdc-sy.org/index.php/en/ (accessed June 25, 2012).

[31] “Syria, Stop Torture of Children,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 3, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/02/03/syria-stop-torture-children; Human Rights Watch.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with Hossam, January 28, 2012.

[33] Liam Stack, “Video of Tortured Boy’s Corpse Deepens Anger in Syria,” New York Times, May 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/world/middleeast/31syria.html (accessed June 25, 2012).


[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Sabah, January 10, 2012.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with Nour, June 23, 2012.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Abu Ghassan, April 26, 2012.