Escaping hell: witnesses from Assad regime’s prisons – part 1

Escaping hell: witnesses from Assad regime's prisons - part 1
Caesar leaked photos

Amnesty international has recently released a report that documents killing more than 13.000 Syrian in a government prison. However, this incident is only one chapter a the regime’s history of brutality and human rights breaches.

The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.

ِArrest, torture, enforced disappearance, and executions have been one of Assad regime’s tools to silence anyone suspected to oppose his role and to break the Syrian civilians’ will in gaining freedom.

Tracking the number of people in detention is also difficult. Assad’s “security forces” have converted sports stadiums, abandoned homes, hospitals and schools into jails. Loyalist militias from Iraq, Lebanon and Iran also operate their own secret sites.

However, estimates say that more than 300.000 Syrian are currently held in Assad regime’s prisons, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say that more than 60.000 of them were killed under torture.

What little is known about Assad’s torture machine comes from survivors swapped in prisoner exchanges or released after bribing officials. Relatives of the dead, defectors and hundreds of thousands of regime files smuggled out of the country by activists add to their accounts. Together, they paint a picture of a regime that has tortured and murdered on an industrial scale to silence dissent.

A new report for Amnesty International said that about 13.000 people were hanged secretly and thousands more killed by other ways in Saydnaya prison, one of the most famous brutal detention centers in Syria.

Detainees referred to the prison as “the slaughterhouse”, it said, adding that the hangings had been authorized by officials at the highest level government from 2011.

In August 2013, a military defector code-named Caesar smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria. The photos were published depicting rows of emaciated, brutally beaten bodies of detainees — many of them believed to be political protesters — at Assad regime’s military prisons, and show at least 6,786 detainees who died in detention or after being transferred from detention to a military hospital.

Most of the 6,786 victims shown in the Caesar photographs were detained by just five intelligence agency branches in Damascus, and their bodies were sent to at least two military hospitals in Damascus between May 2011, when Caesar began copying files and smuggling them out of his workplace, and August 2013, when he fled Syria.

We will publish a series of articles, with stories of Syrians who lived the hell in Assad regime’s prisons and lived to tell about it, with deep scars both physically and spiritually.

Killing for fun

Chilling stories have been told by former prisoners in Assad regime’s jails, who describe being released alive as being born again.

In one case Muhannad, a 28-year-old university student who organised some of the first peaceful protests in Aleppo, was arrested in 2011 by agents from Assad’s air-force intelligence, blindfolded and taken to a cell where he was strung from the ceiling by his wrists. He was tortured for eight days until he signed a false confession that he had killed regime soldiers with the help of his mother.

After that he was moved to an air-force intelligence base near the presidential palace in Damascus, where he underwent two years of almost daily interrogation and torture. Sometimes, for amusement, the prison guards would force the inmates to strip naked and play at being dogs. As they drank alcohol and smoked water pipes, the guards stubbed out cigarettes and tipped hot coals over the prisoners’ backs. “You have to work hard to amuse them or you get beaten,” he says.

Death at Assad’s al-Mezzeh Air Force Intelligence prison was routine. Muhannad remembers how, during the month of Ramadan in 2012, the guards killed 19 prisoners in a single night. “They had brain seizures, severe bleeding from the torture,” he says.

On another occasion, a teenage boy returned to his prison cell in tears. “They’d executed his brother in front of him. Then they’d bent him over a table and raped him with a stick. They were laughing and saying ‘a new woman has been opened.’” Two other cellmates were beaten to death by guards as they waited to have their hair cut.

When the infection from an open wound in his leg spread, the guards took Muhannad to a nearby Assad military hospital. Patients were forced to sleep with shoes in their mouths. If the shoe fell, nurses beat them with stiff plastic pipes. Muhannad says he saw a nurse club a patient to death in his bed after he asked for medicine.

Getting out with disabilities

Abu Saeed, who was displaced from the southern countryside of Damascus to Daraa, tells his story of arrest which ended in an Assad military hospital causing him a permanent disability in his foot.

Abu Saeed said: “I was shot by a sniper at the beginning of 2012 so I was being treated in a private hospital when the military security forces arrested me, but due to my health condition I was moved to a military hospital called 601 in Damascus.”

He added: “At the hospital, the detective charged me with terrorism and armed action even before making sure of the reason of my injury or whether I was a civilian or a militant and so I was moved to a cell in the hospital where I suffered and witnessed the atrocities against the detainees.”

“I stayed for more than a year in that cell and saw how the detainees were being treated as all of them were handcuffed regardless of their health conditions.

“The hospital was affiliated to the regime’s military forces so it was mainly treating regime’s thugs and militants, but the injured detainees who were taken there were kept in a cell inside the hospital campus without receiving any kind of treatment, they were rather dying because of torture and medical negligence,” he explained.

“In that cell, we were never observed by any doctors or nurses,” he added.

Regarding the detainees who were brought from security branches, Abu Saeed said: “their wounds were left to rot and severe infections and they were brought there to be liquidated, that was the hospital’s main function when it came to the detainees.”

“Killing methods in the hospitals varies from direct liquidation to killing by deliberate medical negligence, not to mention brutal hitting with rifles, suffocating by putting wet cotton pads on our noses and mouths or even injecting oxygen water in our blood,” he continued.

He went on saying: “1700 detainees from only one security branch were killed along the period I spent there. After killing a detainee, they used to write a number on his forehead then take a photo of him and move his body to an unknown place.”

“During the 7 months I spent in that cell, I never got any kind of medical treatment, so the infection in my wound reached the nerves and most of my back and I was lucky to be able to get a treatment after being released while hundreds of detainees died their because of gangrene,” he explained.

“The detainees inside the cell varied from defectors from regime forces, doctors, engineers and university students and instructors who were tortured the most because they were educated as regime forces think that they are the ones who encourage people to revolt against the regime”, he concluded his speech.