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Detention, torture and enforced disappearance by the Syrian government

Since peaceful protests broke out across the country in 2011, the Syrian government launched a campaign to arrest, detain, and forcibly disappear individuals. Thousands have been tortured and otherwise mistreated, many of whom have died in detention, and tens of thousands forcibly disappeared. The Syrian government’s primary targets were political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, other media workers, doctors and humanitarian aid workers.

The Syrian government’s calculated campaign was to spread fear among the Syrian population, in particular relatives and friends of the detainees and disappeared.

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The “flying carpet” refers to a method of torture where the victim is strapped face up on to a foldable wooden or metal board, and one end is brought near the other, effectively folding the victim in on themselves, causing severe pain to the lower back. © Amnesty International / Mohamad Hamdoun

Torture

Former prisoners speak of an endless cycle of beatings. On the journey after arrest. In transit between detention centres. As part of a “welcome party” of abuse on arrival at a prison. And in some cases every day for every conceivable minor ‘breaking’ of rules, including talking or not cleaning their cells.

Many of the people we spoke to said they had been beaten with plastic hose pipes, silicone bars and wooden sticks. Some had been scalded with hot water and burnt with cigarettes. Others were forced to stand in water and given electric shocks.

Some of the techniques used are so commonplace they have their own nicknames. There’s the ‘flying carpet’, where people are strapped face-up on a foldable board, and one end is brought up to the other. Or the “tyre” (dulab), where people are forced into a vehicle tyre, with their foreheads pressed onto their knees or ankles, and beaten.

Both men and women have been raped and sexually harassed. Women have also been threatened with rape in front of their relatives in order to extract “confessions”.

Shabeh involves the victim being suspended by their wrists, which are usually manacled to a hook or over a door or pipes in the ceiling, often for several hours. © Amnesty International / Mohamad Hamdoun
I was beaten with cables, especially on my head, and told to kneel before a picture of Bashar al-Assad.
Overcrowded cells, often underground with no access to sunlight or fresh air, while only being allowed to wear underwear. © Amnesty International / Mohamad Hamdoun

Sub-human conditions

People suffer acute mental health problems due to overcrowding and lack of sunlight. In some cases, people told us there could be more than 50 people in a cell as small as 3m by 3m. They have little or no access to medical care and prisoners frequently die as a result of completely preventable medical problems.

This absolute horror is designed to break the will and destroy the spirit of those detained. Survivors are psychologically traumatized and physically broken. They often require intensive medical and emotional support to rebuild their life.

In most cases, the Syrian government denies the security forces have even arrested these people. Or they refuse to give any information about their whereabouts. It means that many detainees are “disappeared” – outside the protection of the law – making them especially vulnerable to abuse.

For more information on torture, ill-treatment and death in detention read: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde24/4508/2016/en/

Sexual assault, harassment and humiliating treatment by guards. © Amnesty International / Mohamad Hamdoun
When I entered the branch, a guard took me to the bathroom to undress me, to check me. I wouldn’t allow this so he tried to check me over my clothes. He tried to touch my breasts but I pushed him off and said ‘no!’ so he stopped. He told me that I should co-operate, [that] the interrogator was crazy and he would have many surprises for me.
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Enforced disappearances

The enforced disappearance campaign carried out by the Syrian government since 2011 appears to have been perpetrated as part of an organized attack against the civilian population that has been widespread, as well as systematic.

Amnesty International’s research indicates that enforced disappearances in Syria are carried out by a range of actors: all four branches of the security forces, namely Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Political Security and General Intelligence (sometimes referred to as State Security); the armed forces; and militias associated with the Syrian government, including the National Defence Forces and the shabiha. Those subjected to enforced disappearance are held in a network of detention facilities across the country, including detention centres run by the security forces, each of which has a central branch in Damascus as well as regional, city, and local branches; civil prisons; and unofficial detention centres

Trajectories of Enforced Disappearance

Amnesty has found that enforced disappearance cases tend to follow three main trajectories. In the one involving the majority of victims in Syria, individuals are forcibly disappeared immediately or soon after their arrest. In the second main trajectory, victims are forcibly disappeared at a later stage in their detention, such as when they are transferred from one detention centre to another or due to external events. In the third, victims are arrested and forcibly disappeared when they approach the Syrian authorities to inquire about the fate of a family member who has been subjected to enforced disappearance.

Searching for the disappeared

Families whose relatives have been forcibly disappeared have few options to find them, and those options can carry grave risks. Many Syrians have told Amnesty International that, as a result of the secondary arrests and enforced disappearances described above, they have felt it too risky to approach or even contact the authorities to seek information on the whereabouts of their family members

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I don’t even know what term to use to describe what I saw. The guard would ask everyone to take off all their clothes and go to the bathroom one by one. As we walked to the bathroom, they would select one of the boys, someone petite or young or fair. They would ask him to stand with his face to the door and close his eyes. They would then ask a bigger prisoner to rape him.

Disappearances by armed opposition groups

Government forces have been responsible for the majority of crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, subjecting tens of thousands to arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearance. However, crimes under international law and human rights abuses by armed opposition groups have compounded the suffering of civilians. Armed groups opposing the Syrian government have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions.

The conduct of parties to the non-international armed conflict there, including armed opposition groups, is governed by the rules of international humanitarian law, also known as the laws and customs applicable in armed conflicts. International humanitarian law, which applies only during situations of armed conflict, seeks to protect anyone who is not actively participating in hostilities, notably civilians and anyone, including those who were previously participating in hostilities, who is wounded or surrenders or is otherwise captured. Its central purpose is to limit, to the extent feasible, human suffering in times of armed conflict.

Syria is a state party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Article 3 Common to the four Geneva Conventions, which applies to all parties to non-international armed conflicts, including the one currently taking place in Syria, and is considered customary international law, prohibits “murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture”, “humiliating and degrading treatment”, “taking of hostages” and “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgement pronounced by a regularly constituted court”. Violations of these rules – such as the torture or summary killing of detainees, whether civilians, captured soldiers or so-called “infiltrators” – are war crimes.

For more evidence read our reports

The following reports provide additional information, greater detail and further testimony from people who have been subjected to torture, ill-treatment and death in detention at the hands of the Syrian government or armed groups.