As they emerged from police headquarters in the Syrian capital on Saturday, several of the prisoners being set free had nothing on but their underwear, many were barefoot, and others had their heads shaven.
The backs of some still bore the tell-tale marks of beatings, while others had swollen limbs. Many had been missing for weeks or even months.
Civil servant Basil, 31, told AFP he had been on his way home with his wife and son to Zamalka, a rebel-held town northeast of Damascus, when the security forces arrested him because his ID card was broken.
A broken ID card should not land its holder in jail.
But Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian firebrand sheikh based in Saudi Arabia best known for his anti-regime speeches portraying members of the ruling minority Alawite sect as heretics, once urged his supporters to break their ID cards.
“I had no idea that speech even existed. It was my interrogators in prison who told me about it,” said Basil.
“I spent 32 days in solitary confinement at an air force intelligence services cell. They brought me here today, and I found out I was to be freed thanks to a decree from President Bashar al-Assad.”
Others told of suffering a similar fate. Imad, 25, said he was detained while he was on a bus.
“They told me to follow them, that they just wanted to ask a few questions and it would only take 10 minutes,” he said.
“Instead they held me for 10 days. They beat me and and forced me to confess that I was following the sheikh’s instructions, which I didn’t know existed.”
Before they were freed from a stench-filled room in the police headquarters — the detainees had been unable to wash ever since they were thrown into jail — the men being released were made to fill out and sign a form.
“I declare that I was set free from police headquarters in Damascus on September 1, that I regret my action, and that I pledge not to take part in any more unauthorised demonstrations,” the declaration stated.
Across the country, a total of 267 were released on Saturday, the authorities said. Of that number, 158 were set free from the Damascus police HQ.
Muwafaq al-Basha, an official with Assad’s ruling Baath party, said the president “wants to implement reforms, but Syria’s enemies are bent on destroying the country by spreading violence. Right now, we need to defend the country.”
Those being released in Damascus on Saturday began to clap in unison.
“With our blood and with our souls, we will defend you, O Bashar!” they chanted
Wearing nothing but pyjamas, a 37-year-old businessman from the rebel-held town of Harasta near Damascus had badly swollen legs.
“They hit me to force me to confess that I took part in demonstrations I wasn’t involved in,” said the man, who spent 32 days in a dark cell.
“My mother was in tears when she heard my voice, she didn’t know whether my brother and I were still alive,” said 26-year-old Amer. He and his brothers were detained from their home in the upscale Damascus district of Mazzeh on August 8.
The youngest brother was set free four days later, but Amer and his 25-year-old sibling Imad had remained captive until Saturday.
“We didn’t do anything, and they didn’t find anything in our house,” said Imad, who owns a plumbing company.
“The first thing I’ll do when I get home is kiss my parents, have a bath and eat some sweets. Then I will move out, I’ll move as far as I can.”
“There were 60 of us in a cell measuring six metres (yards) by four, and 20 of us had to stand,” he said. “We were given just 30 seconds to relieve ourselves. We had to sleep with our legs bent, heads on our knees.”
Leaving the police compound, Basil crossed the road and straight into a shop that sells second-hand clothing, to buy a shirt and trousers.
“I can’t go home wearing this,” he said. “It stinks.”
But barefoot Ahmed, 36, had no money even to get home to Qalamun, in the province of Damascus.
An agricultural worker, he was first kidnapped by the rebel Free Syrian Army for giving away information about some of its members. The FSA shot him in the legs as punishment before setting him free.
“The army found me and drove me to a hospital for treatment,” he said. “Then the intelligence services imprisoned me for two months. Now I don’t even have enough money to get home.”
Hundreds of prisoners have been set free under presidential decrees since the anti-Assad revolt broke out 17 months ago, but according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tens of thousands of people are still behind bars.