Abuse, torture, sexual assault in Syria's prisons

Syrian President has always denied all allegations on the use of torture and random imprisonment. Photograph:( Getty )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Feb 07, 2017, 03.58 PM (IST) Daniele Pagani

"There were children with me, three to four-month-old babies and there was no place for them or their mothers. In one single room there were thirteen women," says Rowaida. 

"Did the babies die?" asks the interviewer. 

"One baby. She was four or five days old. She died after her mother gave her birth," answers Rowaida. The baby's mother was arrested when she was pregnant and gave birth behind bars. Without any medical support, her baby did not survive. 

Amnesty International today accused Syria's government of hanging up to 13,000 people at a notorious prison over five years in a "policy of extermination", two weeks before planned peace talks. Here's more to this story. (WION)

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Rowaida is one of the many women that Syrian government forces locked in a jail during the anti-Assad protests. Her crime: working for a non-aligned media. She spent ten months in prison, moving from one location to another. The worst jail, according to her, was the one managed by the Mukhabarat, Syria's military intelligence service. Prisoners were fed only with semi-raw potatoes, there was no light and prisoners were constantly tortured. 

"I was a prisoner...," she says. She hesitates for a moment. "Taedhib... taedhib," she whispers in Arabic looking for the English word for it. "Torture," says a metallic voice coming from a translator. 

"In my room, there were also 70 to 80-year-old women. Maybe their sons were activists." They were jailed to put pressure on their family members, to convince them to turn themselves in.  

The admin of the Facebook page 'Palmyra and Aleppo news updates' made the recording of this conversation available to WION and requested to remain anonymous for safety reasons. The interview was taken in 2015. 

"Boys were tortured more than women. We could hear the sounds. I saw three men dying," says Rowaida with a trembling voice.  

Certain memories are so brutal that it is difficult to find enough voice to express them. Often they are not even very clear in your mind, they are like frames. The more you think about them the more frames come to your mind and the more difficult it becomes to narrate them.

"Tortured to death?" 

"Yes." 

For those who survived imprisonment, talking about their experiences is not easy. Recalling torture and humiliation is like experiencing it again.

Speaking out sometimes makes it more difficult for women than for men. In conservative context, a woman who ends up in jail during protests risks being condemned twice. The first time because she is protesting and the second because she is a "woman" protesting. Most feel she should be at home, taking care of her family. 

This is might not be the case of Syria, a country which is largely secular in its approach to gender. Women have been on the forefront of protests, leading networks and cimmittees, but social stigma plays a central role in rape cases though. Prison guards know it, they know how families and the society in general value virginity, how it is considered a pillar of a woman's reputation. It happens that female prisoners who have been sexually assaulted by their guards are afraid to admit it. They fear that their communities will morally judge them, and that no one will ever consider to approach them, let alone marry them. The major risk is that there comes a point when a victim convinces herself to actually be somehow responsible for what happened and refuses to denounce it.  

The human rights NGO Amnesty International published on Tuesday a report which explicitly states that between 2011 and 2015 nearly 13,000 Syrians were secretly hanged in Saydnaya prison, near Damascus.  In 2014, a former Syrian military photographer nicknamed Caesar smuggled out of the country 55,000 pictures coming from an extended underground network of prisons operated by Assad's security agencies. 

Syrian President has always denied any allegations on the use of torture and random imprisonment. "Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?" argued Assad in an interview with the magazine's foreign affairs correspondent.   

It is difficult to believe that the government was unaware of what was going on in their jails. The possibility that a President does not know anything about his government's security agencies torturing and killing thousands of citizens is even more alarming.  

Memory is a collective mechanism with many witnesses speaking and recalling abuses they faced during often random detentions. The overall picture points towards only one thing: The Assad government most likely has tried to stop political dissent through torture and murder.   

(WION)