July 16, 2010

III. Torture, Ill-Treatment, and Enforced Disappearances

Bashar al-Asad raised hopes for change with respect to the treatment of detainees when he took two significant steps: closing the Mazzeh prison in November 2000, which held numerous political prisoners, and transferring approximately 500 political detainees during July-August 2001 from the notorious Tadmor prison, in Syria’s eastern desert, to Sednaya prison, north of Damascus, which was considered to offer better facilities.

Al-Asad never explained his decision to transfer political prisoners out of Tadmor, but Syrian activists saw the move as a hopeful sign given Tadmor’s association with government repression of the 1980s. Human Rights Watch has documented extensive human rights abuse, torture, and summary executions in Tadmor prison, a facility used to detain thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s; it was also the scene in June 1980 of the extrajudicial killings of an estimated 1,000 prisoners by commando units loyal to Rif`at al-Asad, Hafez al-Asad’s brother (see more on Tadmor prison massacre in Section 5).[38] Faraj Beraqdar, a Syrian poet and five-year inmate in Tadmor, described the prison as “the kingdom of death and madness.”[39]

But while closing Tadmor prison was a promising sign of detention reform, it has not led to other positive improvements. Bashar al-Asad has done nothing to get rid of the practices of incommunicado detention, ill-treatment, and torture during interrogation, which remain common in Syria’s detention facilities.

Syria’s security services regularly hold detainees incommunicado—cut off from all contact with family, a lawyer, or any other link with the outside world— for days, months, and in some cases, years. For example, in August 2008, Syrian security forces detained a group of 13 young men from the northeastern district of Deir al-Zor suspected of having ties to Islamists. To this day, the authorities have not disclosed where they are holding at least 10 of the men, why they arrested them, or whether they will charge them and put them on trial. Prison officials returned the body of one of those detained in Deir al-Zor, Muhammad Amin al-Shawa, 43, to his family on January 10, 2009, but they allowed them to see only his face before burying him. Three Syrian human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that they believe that al-Shawa died due to torture.[40]

Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups have also documented a frequent pattern of torture and other illtreatment by Syria’s security services of political and human rights detainees as well as criminal suspects.[41] Out of 30 former Kurdish detainees held after 2004 and interviewed by Human Rights Watch following their release, 12 said that security forces tortured them.[42] Human Rights Watch has also documented the torture of bloggers and beatings of prominent political activists by government security agents. For example, eight of the twelve detainees from the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups, detained in December 2007, told their investigative judge that state security agents had beaten them during detention.[43]

The UN Committee against Torture, which is tasked with monitoring compliance with the Convention against Torture, said in May 2010 that it was “deeply concerned about numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by law enforcement and investigative officials…”[44] An official Canadian Commission of Inquiry into the 2002 US deportation to Syria of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, concluded that “the SMI [Syrian Military Intelligence] tortured Mr. Arar while interrogating him during the period he was held incommunicado at the SMI’s Palestine Branch facility.”[45]

In an encouraging step in detainee practices, Bashar al-Asad’s government ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on July 1, 2004. However, it has not followed the ratification with concrete measures to end the practice of torture, such as investigations of allegations of torture or permission for independent observers to visit Syria’s prisons and detention facilities.

According to the Syrian submission to the Committee Against Torture (CAT), the Syrian Minister for Internal Affairs issued Circular No. 10 dated December 16, 2004, requesting members of the police to hold meetings to “familiarize themselves with the prohibitions on the use of violence against persons on remand and prisoners and to receive instructions on performing their duties in a responsible manner. Successful investigators can arrive at the desired result using proper scientific and technical methods to establish the facts of a case without needing to resort to illegal methods.”[46] In their submission, the Syrian delegation mentioned six cases where police were held liable for torturing people.[47]

However, such cases remain exceptions; they are limited to the police force and not the security services, which benefit from extensive legal immunity for acts of torture. Legislative Decree No. 14, of January 15, 1969, which established the General Intelligence Division (Idarat al-Mukhabaraat al-`Ama), one of Syria’s largest security apparatuses, provides that “no legal action may be taken against any employee of General Intelligence for crimes committed while carrying out their designated duties … except by an order issued by the Director.” To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, the director of General Intelligence has issued no such order to date. On September 30, 2008, al-Asad issued Legislative Decree 69, which extended this immunity to members of other security forces, by requiring a decree from the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces to prosecute any member of the internal security forces, Political Security, and customs police.[48]

Syria’s courts continue to accept confessions obtained under torture. For example, Human Rights Watch’s review of trials in the SSSC in 2007 and 2008 revealed that 33 defendants alleged before the judge that they had been tortured and that the security services had extracted confessions from them by force, but in no case did the SSSC take any measure to open an investigation into these claims.[49]

When human rights lawyers allege that their clients have been tortured, they risk being prosecuted for “spreading false information,” a criminal charge. For example, on April 24, 2007, a Damascus criminal court sentenced human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni to five years in prison for alleging that a man had died in a Syrian jail because of its inhumane conditions.[50] More recently, on June 30, 2010, a Damascus criminal court sentenced another prominent human rights lawyer, Muhanad al-Hasani, to three years in prison because he publicly denounced the alleged death of a detainee under torture and criticized the SSSC.[51]

Syria’s prison facilities are still off-limits to independent observers, and Syrian authorities continue to impose a blackout on information concerning the deadly shooting of as many as 25 inmates by military police in Sednaya prison on July 5, 2008.

Deadly Shooting in Sednaya Prison

Prison authorities and military police used firearms to quell a riot that began on July 5, 2008, at Sednaya prison, about 30 kilometers north of Damascus. The prison holds at least 1,500 inmates and possibly as many as 2,500. Human Rights Watch obtained the names of nine inmates who are believed to have been killed in a standoff between the prisoners and authorities that reportedly lasted for many days. Syrian human rights organizations have reported that the number of inmates who were killed may be as high as 25. One member of the military police was also confirmed to have been killed.

The government imposed a total blackout on the events and has not released any information about the action its forces took against the prisoners, or any investigation it may have carried out regarding the violence at the prison. In July 2009 the authorities finally allowed some families to visit relatives in the prison but have maintained a ban on visits by others and on information about other detainees. In December 2009 Human Rights Watch released a partial list of 42 Sednaya detainees whose families have not been able to get any information about them.[52] To date, they still have not received any information.

Aerial view of Sednaya prison.

Accordingly, we urge President Bashar al-Asad to:

  • Order an independent investigation into torture allegations and make public the results of the investigation. Discipline or prosecute, as appropriate, officials responsible for the mistreatment of detainees, including those who gave orders or were otherwise complicit, and make public the results of the punishment.
  • Adopt effective measures to ensure that all detainees have prompt access to a lawyer and an independent medical examination.
  • Allow independent outside observers access to prisons and detention facilities.
  • Order an independent investigation into the deadly shooting of inmates by military police at Sednaya prison and make the findings public.
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), and invite its Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to visit and inspect Syria’s places of detention.



[38] See Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch/MENA), Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 54-78; Human Rights Watch, Syria's Tadmor Prison: Dissent Still Hostage To a Legacy of Terror, vol. 8, no. 2(E), April 1996, http://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Syria2.htm.

[39]Beraqdar used this term in a lengthy defense memorandum that he submitted to the state security court during his trial. The court sentenced him to a fifteen-year prison term in October 1993.

[40]For more background, see “Syria: Reveal Fate of 17 Held Incommunicado,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 15, 2009, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/04/15/syria-reveal-fate-17-held-incommunicado; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with relative of one of the Deir al-Zor detainees, June 10, 2010.

[41]See, for example, Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, Alternative Report to the Syrian Government’s Initial Report on Measures Taken to Fulfill its Commitments under the Convention against Torture, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/docs/ngos/DCHRS.pdf (accessed June 15, 2010), p.3.; Amnesty International, Briefing to the Committee against Torture, AI Index: MDE 24/008/2010, April 20, 2010, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE24/008/2010/en (accessed June 15, 2010); Al-Karama, Syria: Permanent State of Emergency – A Breeding Ground for Torture, April 9, 2010, http://en.alkarama.org/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_details&gid=169&Itemid=80 (accessed June 15, 2010).

[42]For more details, see Human Rights Watch, Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria, 1-56432-560-1, November 2009, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/11/24/group-denial, pp. 45-49.

[43]“Syria: Opposition Activists Tell of Beatings in Interrogation,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 4, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/02/04/syria-opposition-activists-tell-beatings-interrogation;

[44]UN Committee against Torture, Concluding Observations of the Committee against Torture, CAT/C/SYR/CO/1 (adopted on May 3-4, 2010), http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/docs/CAT.C.SYR.CO.1.pdf (accessed June 10, 2010), para. 7.

[45]Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, 2006, http://www.sirc-csars.gc.ca/pdfs/cm_arar_rec-eng.pdf (accessed June 10, 2010), p. 187.

[46] Syrian Arab Republic, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 19 of the Convention, CAT/C/SYR/1, July 20, 2009, para. 79.

[47] Syrian Arab Republic, Initial Submission to CAT, Paras. 82-83.

[48] For further in depth analysis of these provisions, see Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, Alternative Report, pp. 6-8.

[49] Human Rights Watch, Far From Justice, pp. 27-32.

[50] “Syria: Harsh Sentence for Prominent Rights Lawyer,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 24, 2007, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2007/04/24/syria-harsh-sentence-prominent-rights-lawyer. In a previous incident in November 2002, Judge al-Nuri, the head of SSSC, ejected lawyer Anwar al-Bunni from the courtroom after he insisted on an investigation into claims that the security apparatus had tortured his client, Aref Dalila, during his detention.

[51] “Syria: Detained Lawyer Receives Martin Ennals Award,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 7, 2010, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/05/07/syria-detained-lawyer-receives-martin-ennals-award.

[52] “Syria: Investigate Sednaya Prison Deaths,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 21, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/07/21/syria-investigate-sednaya-prison-deaths; “Syria: Lift Blackout on Prisoners’ Fate,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 10, 2009, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/12/10/syria-lift-blackout-prisoners-fate.