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Human Rights

Report Details Widespread Torture in Syrian Jails

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 3 2012 (IPS) - Since March 2011, Syrian authorities have subjected tens of thousands of people to torture, rape, sexual abuse and unlawful detention, with some cases of ill treatment leading to death, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released Tuesday.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface,” the deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, Nadim Houry, told IPS.

“It helps to remember that the numbers of people who have gone into detention are really in the thousands,” Houry said.

The report, entitled “Torture Archipelago”, is based on interviews with over 200 people, both former detainees in such facilities and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, and features reports on 27 facilities. Victims in the report include men, women, the elderly and children.

The report identifies the country’s four main intelligence agencies, collectively referred to as the “mukhabarat”, as operating the network of detention facilities.

Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told IPS, “There are many other situations where state employees – including military and intelligence personnel – have been charged and convicted of serious human rights violations, including torture, once the circumstances in the country have changed.”

The persons interviewed in the report recount a wide range of torture methods used, including electrocution, severe beating, mock execution, exposure to cold and heat, hanging upside down, sleep deprivation and the use of acid.

A soldier who was held at a facility in Latakia described his torture in the report: “The guard brought two electric prongs. He put one in my mouth, on my tooth. Then he started turning it on and off quickly. He did this 7/8 times. I felt like, that’s it. I am not going to leave this branch.”

Interviewees also reported grave violations of human rights, such as rape, sexual abuse and humiliation.

A man detained in a facility in Kafr Souseh said in the report, “Because they couldn’t sleep and had to stand all the time, people started to go crazy, to hallucinate. There was a group of five or six people in my group cell that started going crazy.”

When asked about the treatment available to victims of torture, Houry said, “It varies on the kinds of needs… and again on the country.”

Houry said that most victims spoken to had received treatment in neighbouring countries to Syria. “There is a need for more psychological follow up. Some NGOs are offering these services,” he said.

The report also documented several interviewees who witnessed the deaths of fellow detainees and five defected security force officers who witnessed detainees being executed and beaten to death.

The Violations Documentation Centre, a Syrian monitoring group, has recorded the names of 575 people who died in custody since March 2011.

The HRW report also stated, “In many cases, families of those killed in custody had to sign documents indicating that armed gangs had killed their relatives and had to promise not to hold a public funeral as a condition of receiving the body.”

The report recommends that the U.N. Security Council demand access to all Syrian detention facilities, as well as deploying monitors specially trained to identify gender specific human rights violations and personnel trained to work with children.

It also advised, amongst other recommendations, that the Security Council refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and demand access to these facilities for humanitarian missions, foreign journalists and independent human rights organisations.

The report also urged Russia and China to support Security Council action on Syria, suspend all military sales and assistance to the Syrian government, and “condemn in the strongest terms the Syrian authorities’ systematic violations of human rights.”

All countries were advised to adopt targeted sanctions against Syrian officials credibly implicated in violations of international human rights laws.

“More can be done, but I think the priority right now is to get U.N. monitors and others to finally be given access to these people in detention,” said Houry.

“International non-governmental organisations, humanitarian assistance providers, the United Nations, and local organisations should develop, expand, and improve access to medical, psychological, social, and legal assistance including to Syrian male and female victims of sexual abuse inside and outside of the country,” Houry said.

Syria is party to international treaties that ban torture under all circumstances, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“It can take years, or even decades,” Colville said “but there are an increasing number of ways in which abusers can one day be brought to justice.”

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