The politically motivated arrest, detention and torture of Syrians by the Assad government have been relatively well documented for more than forty years. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department have these reports, as well as tens of thousands of photographs that show the corpses of Syrian torture victims. These victims were killed by way of electrocution, starvation, mutilation and other horrific acts. The photo documentation can now serve as strong evidence to bring war crimes charges against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March, 2011, arbitrary arrest, detention and torture have increased exponentially. International organizations estimate in 2015 that the number of detainees increased from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Since 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians have been tortured to death. Photographs of the dead bodies were smuggled out of Syria by a regime defector and reveal a systematic killing machine. As the conflict in Syria has grown to include more armed factions, including factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Nusra Front, the use of detention and torture has been employed by an increasing number of actors.
The need to document the situations and experiences of as many detainees as possible is paramount. Documentation, using internationally recognized best practices for data collection and analysis, is essential to bringing justice for detainees and their families. Perpetrators must be held accountable now and in a future transitional justice process; expert documentation will make this possible. It may even bring a small sense of peace to individuals and families who have experienced human rights violations from which they will only recover with substantial mental, emotional, physical and financial support.
Why Prisoners of Conscience
It is well known that dissidents in authoritarian regimes, especially those against the president or his inner circle, will face physical liquidation, detention for unpredictable periods, deportation and exile or, at best, limitations to their living conditions including dismissal from work etc.
In Syria, dissidents are taken from home, workplace or public areas (parks, cafes etc.) to the security centers. In so many cases, their families remain months if not years without knowing their whereabouts. This is a highly stressful situation for the family members who spend much time everyday inquiring, mostly in vain.
Detainees face the worst kinds of physical torture including kicking, beating with awful tools and electric shocks, in addition to psychological torture. Food and healthcare are very poor in the detention centers. Ill or tortured detainees will not be treated unless in serious conditions. In so many cases, families simply receive the detainee’s dead body in a sealed box and are forced to bury them without even having a final look. They are typically told that the cause of death was a stroke or cancer.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. This was the case during the 30-year Hafez al-Assad era and his son Bashar, who inherited the rule in June 2000, took after his father. In March 2011, the security forces arrested 19 children between 8 and 13 years of age and tortured them simply because they had written some slogans on the walls. This was the straw that triggered the Syrian Revolution. People got to the street in mass demonstrations requesting the immediate release of those children and all prisoners of conscience. The regime used brutal force against the peaceful demonstrators including live bullets, which led to the expansion of the demonstrations covering most of the Syrian provinces.
The security agencies arrested hundreds of thousands of citizens including children and women. Thousands of people have died under torture and there are tens of thousands of enforced disappearances. The Amnesty International report on Syria 2014-2015 states that the “Security forces arbitrarily arrested or continued to detain thousands, including peaceful activists, human rights defenders, media and humanitarian workers, and children, subjecting some to enforced disappearance and others to prolonged detention or unfair trials.”
Moreover, tens of thousands have been killed in the regime detention centers due to brutal torture and inhuman treatment including starvation and lack of medication. A Syria defector nicknamed Cesar, who had worked as photographer for the military police managed to smuggle 55,000 pictures of 11,000 prisoners killed in the regime prisons and photographed in military hospitals in Damascus. This number covers only the period until the end of 2013. These horrific photos were presented before a U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and before UN rights officials. The images were mentioned in the Amnesty International Report on Syria 2014-2015: “In January, a group of forensic experts and former international war crimes prosecutors examined photographs taken at military hospitals of thousands of corpses of prisoners and reported that the Syrian authorities had engaged in systematic torture and unlawful killings of detainees.”
The Syrian regime is still using brutal psychological and physical torture against prisoners of conscience. Our Organization, Justice for Detainees in Syria has been created to defend the rights of detainees regardless of their nationality, religion or race. The JDS will speak out against these gross human rights abuses including through regular campaigns on a number of individual cases.
In cooperation with human rights organizations and humanitarian agencies, JDS will demand that all prisoners of conscience be released or at least have access to their rights within prisons. JDS will also try its utmost to provide financial and moral support to their families. Through presenting evidence-based reports about human rights violations, we will relentlessly seek to refer the torturers and their masters to the International Criminal Court and fight all forms of impunity.