Syria's government detention centre survivor recalls torture, beating

Syrian women demand the release of their sons from jail during a human rights protest in front of the State Security Court. Photograph:( Getty )

WION Delhi, India Feb 10, 2017, 11.10 AM (IST) Daniele Pagani

"The army arrested me in 2012 in Palmyra. They kept me in jail there, alone, for 15 days and beating was very hard. I was lashed with sticks and belts. Then they moved me to Damascus, I was held as a prisoner in Section 291," says Abu Alabas on the phone.  

Abu Alabas is from Palmyra, Syria. He took part in the uprising against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, reason for which the army arrested him.

(WION is collecting several testimonies of Syrians who experienced torture and violence in custody)   

Section 291 is an infamous place among Syrian dissidents. It is one of the several temporary detention centres run by Syrian security services. Many of these places started functioning during the demonstrations demanding more democracy and participation from President Bashar Al-Assad. Regular jails were not enough to contain all those who were arrested.  

The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) drew a map to pinpoint these places and gathered 200 testimonies. When profiling Section 291 they wrote that  'beating; beating with objects; shabeh; electrocution; threats against detainee; exposure to cold; threats against family members; sexual abuse' were all documented torture methods. 

Shabeh seems to be common in Syrian detention centres. According to survivors who were imprisoned by the Islamic State, the terrorist organisation also uses this method extensively.

This method uses hanging a person to the ceiling by the wrists, sometimes with the arms rotating behind their back. Then the prisoner is lifted enough to impede the feet to touch the floor. The entire bodyweight is on the wrists and this prevents blood to reach the hands which starts swelling and paining. If a prisoner is handcuffed during the process, the handcuffs cut and penetrate the flash every time he or she moves. While the person is hanging in tremendous pain, jailers often walk in the cell to beat him or her.  

"They gave us very little food, enough to survive. In one room there were 18 men. They (the guards) did not beat me as hard as in Palmyra, but I saw when they were beating the others. They were using all methods of torture. People were tied by their wrists to the roof. Others were made to stand for days or deprived of sleep. Guards pulled off prisoners' nails," reminds Abu Alabas. 

"Why were you arrested?" 

"Because I was part of the revolution." 

"Were you with the Free Syrian Army (FSA)?" 


Abu Alabas was an active member of the anti-Assad front, he was fighting against the regular army within the ranks of the Free Syrian Army. In the first stage of Syria's uprising, the FSA gathered both civilians and military personnel who refused to shoot at protesters and deserted. The organisation later dissolved due to lack of funds and support and many of its members either abandoned the country or ended up fighting with the Islamic state or Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, formerly Al-Nusra. It is not clear if the FSA still plays any relevant role in the Syrian conflict, many even question its existence.  

In 2012, the Free Syrian Army was at war against regular Syrian forces. From the government perspective, they were leading an armed uprising and it had to be repressed. A government has a formal license to arrest individuals who raise weapons against them, but this does not, in any case, entitle to physical and psychological torture, beating or random executions. All these are internationally recognised as violation of human rights, whoever the perpetrator. 

"After four months I ran away from the jail in Damascus," says Abu Alabas(voice cracking with emotion) 

"Where did you go?" 

"I crossed the Turkish border. I live in Turkey now, I was a computer engineer in Palmyra, but I have no job." 

"What about the option of going back to your country?" 

"I cannot go back to my country because if the army catches me they are going to put me in jail. I also cannot go back to my house because there is Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS) and they will kill me if I go there. There is no one living in Palmyra today. The only option I have is if I reach the city of Idlib with the Free Syrian Army... but, not easy... mushkila (problem). I hope I will go back one day, inshallah," says Abu Alabas before wrapping up the conversation.