Syria’s Assad silenced dissent in secret torture prisons: Report

Government of Bashar al-Assad crushed opposition via routine torture in secret prison facilities, a NYT report says.

Members of Syrian security services and journalists stand at the entrance of the central prison, after it was targeted by mortar shells fired by rebels, in Damascus
Members of Syrian security services and journalists stand at the entrance of the central prison in Damascus after it was targeted by mortar shells in 2015 [File: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s government has been running a network of secret torture facilities across Syria while the country’s civil war unfolded, a new report has found.

In a lengthy report, the New York Times found that the rate at which people are being detained in the country is still increasing, despite Assad’s military win in the bloody conflict – now in its ninth year.

In the report, several survivors shared gruesome testimonies of how they were arrested and tortured across a number of prison facilities run by the Syrian intelligence.

The survivors are just a handful of hundreds of thousands of people believed to have passed through the secret prison system since the Syrian uprising kicked off in 2011.

Memos sent to Syria’s head of military intelligence, and obtained by the New York Times, are reporting the deaths of those imprisoned, while also apparently showing government officials ordering crackdowns and discussing deaths in detention, the Times reported.

“The memos were signed by top security officials, including members of the Central Crisis Management Committee, which reports directly to Mr. al-Assad,” the Times reported.

The exact number of civilians detained in these prisons is unknown, but around 128,000 Syrians are either considered to be detained or dead, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.


Nearly 14,000 were killed as a result of torture. Testimonies by survivors of the prison system reveal torture methods including regular beatings, hanging by the wrists, being shocked with electricity, rape, and other forms of sexual assault.

Other methods have forced detainees to “act like animals” and “beat or kill one another”.

Methods of routine torture have been utilised as a tool to crack down on opposition and dissent, and according to the Times, have been “critical” to Assad’s military success in Syria.

Although the Syrian government has denied that it carries out systematic abuse, it has recently acknowledged the death of hundreds in detention by issuing death certificates, or “listing them as dead” in family registration files.

The Times said the millions of relatives of those missing detainees remain living in “social and psychological limbo”.

“Without death certificates, presumed widows cannot remarry. Children cannot inherit,” the report read.

A United Nations panel said last year that the conditions of the prisons – where detainees, crammed in tiny cells, are often denied water, clean food, blankets, and clothes – amounted to “extermination”.

Medical neglect and poor hygiene conditions have claimed the lives of many in detention, the Times revealed. The Times said those transferred to a military hospital are also unsafe as many have been tortured and killed by the staff.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, government detention accounts for about 90 percent of all disappearance cases in Syria – a figure significantly higher than the number of people detained by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS), the Times said.

While Assad and his aides remain in power, a growing movement is seeking justice via European courts. French and German prosecutors have arrested three former security officials, the Times said, and have issued arrest warrants for individuals including Syria’s national security head, Ali Mamlouk.

Today, there are nearly six million Syrian refugees who fled the war in Syria. Even as the war ends, many fear persecution upon returning and have voiced their need for a UN-sponsored safe return process.

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Source: Al Jazeera