Al Jazeera journalist forced to listen to prisoners being tortured in Syrian jails


On her first night in Damascus, Dorothy Parvaz was moved between several jail cells, blindfolded and manacled and forced to listen to prisoners being tortured by Syrian interrogators.

Released after being held for three weeks in Syria and Iran, the Canadian journalist spoke for the first time Wednesday of her terrifying time in Syria, where she witnessed the brutal repression meted out by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“The beatings I heard almost around the clock were savage,” Ms. Parvaz said in an interview with her employer, the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera.

Her family got word that Iran had released her when she cleared customs in Qatar, and called her fiancé, Todd Barker, at her parents’ Vancouver home early Wednesday morning.

“He was so happy. … As a family we’re just thrilled,” said Mr. Barker’s sister, Kim. “This thing had just been weighing on us. We had been working and living on sheer adrenalin.”

A correspondent based in Doha, the Qatari capital, Ms. Parvaz arrived in Damascus on April 29 to cover pro-democracy protests in Syria. On that day, at least 48 people died when security forces opened fire on demonstrators who marched by the thousands across the country.

She was immediately stopped at the airport and accused of being a Zionist spy because she had a satellite phone in her luggage, she said.

And even after her journalistic credentials were established, “the fact that I worked for Al Jazeera was a huge problem,” because the Syrian authorities were suspicious of the network’s role in covering the Arab Spring protests.

Her first night in detention, she was taken to a courtyard and was left, blindfolded and cuffed, to listen to two young men getting beaten, in an apparent attempt to rattle her.

“No, no, please stop,” she said she heard the two men plead in hoarse-voiced Arabic.

In one cell, she was held with a young woman who wore stiletto high heels, a sign she said that people were getting arrested in the streets at random. “Those are not shoes anybody wears when they’re about to participate in a protest.”

On another occasion, her cellmate was a teenaged girl who didn’t understand why she had been picked off the streets. The girl shook as she heard the beatings and pleaded tearfully with guards to allow her to speak to her parents.

Ms. Parvaz also saw a man shackled to a radiator, quivering as he tried to write a confession. “I don’t think those people knew what they were supposed to confess to, let alone have anything to say about their government.”

One day she was interrogated for four consecutive hours.

Her time in Syria ended on May 1 when three men took her, “kicking and screaming,” into a plane, telling her she was being returned to Qatar. In fact, the plane was bound for Tehran.

Ms. Parvaz, 39, grew up in British Columbia but was born in Iran and holds Iranian, Canadian and American citizenships.

In Tehran, “the Iranian government had to follow through with the process of dealing with someone they were told was a spy,” she said.

However, she said she was treated fairly. Interrogations were polite and she was given a clean room and medical attention. “I was not subject to any foul treatment,” she said.

Through her time in Syria and Iran, Ms. Parvaz had no contact with her employer or relatives. It wasn’t until she was in Iran that she realized her family and friends had started a campaign for her freedom.

Ms. Parvaz is expected to fly back to Vancouver to meet with her family.

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