Adam Hedengren
Last updated: 18 July, 2012

Live or die: Alarming reports of torture and sexual violence in Syria

”During the interrogation, they would electrocute us. They beat us with clubs and cables."

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based watchdog, recently released a multimedia report in which it reveals 27 torture centres allegedly run by Syrian intelligence authorities. The organisation also claims to have identified the commanders and agencies that are responsible. In cities such as Idlib, Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, detainees have been brutally beaten and violated through systematic patterns of torture.

“The intelligence agencies are running an archipelago of torture centres scattered across the country,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By publishing their locations, describing the torture methods, and identifying those in charge we are putting those responsible on notice that they will have to answer for these horrific crimes.”

The findings are based on more than 200 interviews conducted by HRW and include maps of detention facilities, sketches of torture techniques, as well as video accounts from individuals who suffered in the underground centres.

In the video clip, we hear ex-detainees tell us about the techniques that were used against them; one is known as the dulab, where a person is squeezed into a tyre, pulled up in the air and then beaten on the feet. There are other methods too.

“Shabeh is a technique when you are hung by your arms and suspended in the air. Of course it’s painful. It degrades our humanity. But they have no respect for human beings,” says one former detainee.

Children are also targeted and UNICEF has said that “there are reports of children arbitrarily arrested, tortured and sexually abused while in detention.”

“Hossam”, a 14-year old boy, tells his story about the treatment he received.

“The third time they took me in for questioning, the last time, they pulled out my nails. They had pliers, or something like a screwdriver that they used,” he said.

Similar claims were made in an Amnesty International publication entitled “I wanted to die,” which was released earlier this year. Still, the fact that international journalists face heavy restrictions makes it difficult to verify reports coming out of the country.  

Your Middle East has previously reported about other forms of abuse against anti-regime protesters and detainees. There is the case of the famous Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat who was brutally beaten inside a van by a group of thugs, widely believed to be part of the regime’s shabiha. Equally alarming are reports of sexual violence used to torture men, women, girls and boys.

“Sexual violence in detention is one of many horrific weapons in the Syrian government’s torture arsenal and Syrian security forces regularly use it to humiliate and degrade detainees with complete impunity,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.

“The assaults are not limited to detention facilities. Government forces and pro-government shabiha militia members have also sexually assaulted women and girls during home raids and residential sweeps.”

HRW said the full extent of such abuse in and outside of detention facilities remains unknown, as the stigma in Syria surrounding sexual violence makes victims reluctant to report abuse.

The watchdog said it did not have evidence that high-ranking officers ordered troops to commit sexual violence, but many of the victims reported assaults “were in circumstances in which commanding officers knew or should have known the crimes were taking place,” such as in detention centres.