The Assad regime’s security authorities have inflicted large-scale torture against detainees who were arrested during the popular protests that took place in mid-March 2011. The many international and UN reports that frankly and directly condemned the regime, yet they did not stop. There are also the shocking videos documenting scenes of torture against thousands of detainees who were imprisoned during the past years that followed the popular protests, which later turned into a brutal war that saw international and regional parties taking arms.
Majalla tells the story of Shiar Khalil, the Syrian journalist and human rights activist who resides today in the French capital Paris, having had spent two years and three months in the prisons of the Syrian regime before being released later along with a number of journalists and activists following pressure by international human rights organizations on the Assad regime.
KHALIL RECALLS THE TORTURE MARKS
Khalil, 37, recalls the scars of cigarette burns and torture marks that are still visible on his body. He says, “These effects are normal and can be treated, which means that they might fade away with time. However, it is the internal scars, and by that, I mean the emotional and mental backlash of imprisonment that will remain, to always remind us that we were and still are demanding our freedom and dignity. The regime stands in the face of these calls and this is the price we pay."
The journalist, who is originally from the Syrian city of Afrin, northwest of the country, continues to narrate his suffering in the Syrian prisons and security branches: "After three months of investigations, torture, humiliation and insults, I was transferred with some of my colleagues to Adra Central Prison in Damascus. There, we were allowed to contact our relatives and I was able to tell my family where I was. However, I was only able to meet them when I got out of the prison after two years and three months.”
Khalil adds, "They had my external hard disk, which contained many videos that I filmed in opposition areas where I documented the social and political life there, in addition to battles between the regime forces and the armed opposition at the time."
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE CRIMINAL SECURITY BRANCH?
Khalil had been forcibly disappeared in Syrian prisons and no one was aware of his fate, even his family, who learned of his whereabouts after he was transferred to Adra Central Prison.
Before being transferred again to the Criminal Security Branch in Bab Musalla, the Terrorism Court in Damascus accused him of committing “terrorist” acts, especially since many of the activists arrested with him confessed during interrogation and under torture that they had connections with him.
The Syrian journalist also narrates the events that took place at the Criminal Security Branch in Bab Musalla, after being detained for two months, where he sustained brutal torture by Lieutenant Muayyad al-Massouti, Head of the Criminal Investigation Department. Khalil explains: “After they were done with the wearisome torture and investigation, I was asked to appear on the regime’s TV station to admit that I was a terrorist and to express regret. At first, I refused, but I ended up agreeing due to torture. I was dictated my words in the presence of an officer from the Ministry of Interior. Then came the filming part of the unravelling of a terrorist cell affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, noting that I was not affiliated with any political or military parties. I was left open-mouthed facing the photographer who turned out to be my colleague back during college, and was now a regime loyalist.”
SINGLE ACCUSATION HAUNTS DETAINEES
Khalil recalls with sorrow and pain the scenes of torture and the sounds he heard at the Criminal Security Branch, as well as in the Palestine Branch, as he continues narrating: “Many were tortured in front of me, including my friends. Detained women were also tortured before our eyes, and I witnessed many detainees who lost their lives as a result of severe torture.”
In complete contrast to the discrimination that the Kurds were subjected to in Syria over the past decades, Khalil was not subjected to additional discrimination in detention being a Kurd. He says, “There was no distinctive discrimination; everyone was a terrorist, and they had to prove the opposite, which is impossible in Syrian prisons. However, at the Palestine Branch, an officer stuffed his shoes in my mouth and told me sarcastically: Why are you in Damascus calling for a democratic state, you bastard? ... Go to Qamishli and demand the establishment of Kurdistan.”
He adds, “After those words, I felt that as if the malice was double against the Kurds. I sensed from the words of the office that I am naturally a terrorist because my origins are Kurdish.”
“I EYE-WITNESSED TORTURE”
Khalil also narrates the scenes of torture at the Criminal Security Branch, where he was hung on the ceiling and hit hard with a stick until he started bleeding from different parts in his body. He recalls the words of the First Assistant Abu Ammar, who was under Massouti’s supervision, as if they were enunciated today, “This was how the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tortured the Kurds,” which further aggravated the pain of arrest and oppression, as he put it.
He adds, “It is a different life out there in the regime's detention facilities, which have nothing to do with the well-known prison systems elsewhere in the world. Most of the accusations are random and groundless, and the defendants have nothing to do with them. They also have their own torture methods that are their specialty, and they have caused the death of thousands of innocent people.”
The young man noted that he learned to draw in prison, and started writing and thinking about the reasons behind the Syrian revolution growing weaker, politically and militarily, while getting to know Syrians from different regions, all joined together by a suppressing regime keen in its murderous nature on stripping their dignity away.”
It should be noted that Khalil was released along with a group of civil activists as a result of pressure from international organizations specialized in the field of defending human rights, which he associates with “luck.” He says: “Fortunately, I was in contact with several international and human rights organizations specialized in this regard, and they saved me from prison and possibly death. Unfortunately, however, we left behind many detainees, who suffer to this day from the injustice and criminality of the regime.”
NUMBERS OF DETAINEES ARE SHOCKING!
After this arduous journey marred with torture and brutal memories, Khalil moved to France, where he and a group of activists, journalists and jurists are working for the cause of Syrian detainees, by introducing their case through lectures and seminars on freedom of opinion and expression in Syria, and talking about detainees held by the regime and the parties involved. They also hold other activities with international organizations to document the regime’s violations, and work with the United Nations and its affiliated institutions in following up on the situation of Syrian detainees and pressing for their release.
Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of detainees who were imprisoned for participating in anti-Assad protests more than a decade ago are in the prisons of the Syrian regime. There are conflicting statistics about the accurate numbers. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicates that the number of detainees held by the regime is 152,713, including 41,312 women. The documentations of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicate that more than 105,000 detainees have died under the effect of torture in the prisons of the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, including more than 83% who were liquidated and killed inside the detention centers in the period between May 2013 and October 2015. During this period, Iranian officers had supervised the Syrian detention centers, according to the Observatory.
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE DETAINEES’ AGENDA
Khalil expresses his regret that thousands of detainees continue to be detained in the regime's facilities, and that their case has been drained by the regime and the opposition alike.
In this regard, he says: “Unfortunately, the issue of detainees has become merely a number in the calculations of the opposition and the regime years after the Syrian revolution and the war that followed it and are being used as a negotiation card over the swap of war and military detainees between both sides, under Russian and Turkish supervision.
He adds, “The issue of detainees is beyond negotiation and immediate measures must be taken without involving the political aspect. The regime and its opposition insist on drawing the political card at the expense of Syrian civilians who are still waiting the return of thousands of their sons. This is why the international bodies concerned with human rights should strive to open the doors of the regime and the opposition’s prisons and detention centers as soon as possible in order to release all detainees, and then move on to other solutions related to negotiations and political quotas between the two sides.”
The Syrian security authorities released hundreds of detainees about three months ago, after Assad issued an amnesty for the “terrorist crimes” committed and for which Syrians were convicted before the issuance of the decree on April 30, 2022, which excluded amnesty for those convicted of “terrorist” crimes that led to the death of a human being.
The exact number of prisoners who were included in the presidential pardon is not known, but the Syrian Observatory and other human rights organizations documented the release of hundreds of prisoners, among whom were people who were arrested 10 years ago and were languishing in Sednaya Prison. Amnesty International described this facility as the “human slaughterhouse” after it documented the execution of about 13,000 prisoners between 2011 and 2015.
It seems that issuing an amnesty law for terrorist crimes that did not lead to the death of a human being is an attempt by the regime to polish its image and evade the serious violations it committed in its prisons for more than a decade. This comes in line with the successive international reports and the pressure of humanitarian and human rights organizations on the issues of torture and serious human rights abuses that took place in prisons and detention centers. Data by the Syrian Observatory reveal that more than 105,000 detainees have been killed under torture inside the prisons of the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
The presidential pardon was issue days after The Guardian published a lengthy investigation into the killing of dozens of people at the hands of members of the regime forces.
One of the dozens of videos dating back to 2013, and published weeks ago, showed a member of the regime forces asking people who were handcuffed and blindfolded to run, only to shoot them as they fell into a hole where the bodies had piled up in the Tadamon neighborhood in the southern Damascus countryside. As a result, this video that documented the crime became known as the “Tadamon Massacre.”