“Bashar is God! Bashar is God!”
As the fists and boots and sticks pummelled his body and bloodied his face, the college student screamed out what he thought his interrogators wanted to hear: The name of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
It worked. The secret policemen tired of beating him for the day and threw him back into the makeshift cell, a room inside the power station in Banias, where local prisons are full to bursting from a wave of arrests ahead of the military assault on the port city, which began earlier this month.
The respite was short-lived. Handcuffed by his wrists and ankles and blindfolded, the student, who gave testimony to a trusted local activist on condition of anonymity, was led to a car and driven to another torture cell.
“I was being beaten all over my body. I was bleeding and was saying the shahada to myself, ‘There is no God, but God,’ because I thought I was going to die at that moment,” he said.
Arrested simply for trying to travel from Banias back home to his village on the outskirts of the city, the student had nothing valuable to tell his torturers about the organised political opposition to President Assad and his family’s forty-year dictatorship.
But that, it appears, was not the point.
Where the torture cells of Tadmor, Syria’s desert prison, once extracted confessions from individuals accused of standing against the Assads – Communists like Akram Bunni, left partially paralysed after his spine was stretched in a torture known as the German Chair; Muslim Brotherhood members whipped with cable and stunned with electric shock devices – today’s torturers appear to be pursuing a policy of deterrence and collective punishment.
The student was released after only a few days, but the message to the wider community of Banias was clear: A naked body, covered in blood, left to limp along the long road back to his village, clutching his broken hand, for all to see.
Three other young men, beaten, thrown down stairs and forced to drink water from a toilet after being starved, were also dumped naked and bloodied on a road outside Banias.
A YouTube video, claiming to have been shot in Banias but which cannot be independently verified, shows men with signs of severe beating on their backs and faces.
“Syrian security is now releasing detainees with unhealed wounds caused by torture in order to spread panic and fear among people hoping it will reduce the numbers participating in demonstrations,” said Wissam Tarif, Director of Insan, a leading Syrian human rights organisation, which has documented cases of torture.
Hundreds of disappearances
Across Syria a campaign of mass arrests since the uprising began in mid-March has seen more than 7,000 Syrians arbitrarily detained and thrown into prisons, according to a count by activists, contacting detainees’ family and friends.
The detained include a wide cross section of society, mainly young men aged between 20 and 50, but including children and elderly, especially activists and those involved in protests or seen filming them, but also community leaders, imams and students.
In Deraa alone, state news reported some 500 people were arrested in one day, with security forces going door to door and seizing any male aged between 15 and 40. A recently leaked document, purportedly from Political Security, appears to confirm the mass arrests of males, including children, from Deraa.
The total arrests since mid-March are around twice the number of political prisoners the Syrian Human Rights Committee estimated were being held in Syria in 2006.
Human rights groups have documented hundreds more cases of people who disappeared in and around protest marches, with families left not knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive.
Enforced disappearance, when the state refuses to acknowledge the whereabouts of an arrested person, is a crime under international law.
Inside prison, detainees face what Human Rights Watch has described as “rampant torture”.
In interviews with 19 Syrian detainees last month, including two women and three teenagers, Human Rights Watch found that all but two had been tortured, including being whipped with cable and stunned with electric-shock devices while drenched in cold water.
Amnesty International reported cases of detainees forced to lick blood off the floor of a prison and others who also drank toilet water after being starved for three days.
Insan said it has received numerous reports of torture where detainees have been left naked in groups for hours, doused in cold water before collectively being beaten.
“The use of unwarranted lethal force, arbitrary detention and torture appear to be the desperate actions of a government that is intolerant of dissent and must be halted immediately,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
President Assad signed Syria’s ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2004.
Yet with every black eye, broken bone and scream of pain, one of the world’s most repressive regimes shows to what lengths it is prepared to go to keep the Assad family in power.
While activists have documented torture used as collective punishment and deterrence, there are still many cases where the security forces use it to extract information from an individual believed to pose a risk to regime stability.
Ali, an Allawite, the sect from which the Assad family and much of the ruling elite hail, was captured by secret police during a small protest in Mezze, a suburb of Damascus.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ali said the beating began as soon as he was on the bus to prison. “You are Alawite and you don’t like Bashar?” the police officer screamed at him. “Are you with the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood?”
The fist landed square in his face as Ali tried to explain that the protesters were not fundamentalist Salafi Muslims. Ali was taken to the notorious Air Force security branch in Bab Touma, a stone throw away from the Old City where tourists were enjoying the sights.
The interrogator had footage from the protest filmed on a phone, showing Ali chanting for freedom. “He got up and walked behind me, grabbed my hair and slammed my face into the table. He was really angry.”
Ali’s hands were tied behind his back while he was punched in the face repeatedly. “He told me to confess I was there, and who had organized it, and was it someone from outside Syria?”
Blindfolded, Ali was driven to another prison, where, still unable to see, he was beaten, pushed down stairs and had cigarettes stubbed out on his back. Again the interrogator wanted to know if he was allied with Islamist groups, this time Hezb ut-Tahrir.
By contrast, Abu Mohammed’s interrogators appeared less certain who to blame for the uprising they were struggling to contain.
Arrested from his Damascus home in late March, the journalist was taken, along with his laptop and mobile phone, to a branch of Internal Security on Baghdad Street.
The cell was already filled with protesters rounded up that day.
“We were hundreds so it was hard for interrogators to deal with us. They are used to tens being arrested at a time, not hundreds,” he said.
For the next sixteen days Abu Mohammed followed the same routine: Dragged into an interrogation room and punched in the face.
“The interrogators were simple and uneducated men, they just shouted at me and hit me if I disagreed. They didn’t know what they wanted.”
The journalist was asked for his email address. “He asked me what ‘Hotmail’ means. I answered in a simple and direct way. The main thing I realised was to answer what they wanted to hear, not what I thought.”
His father’s footsteps
The uprising in Syria began with the torture of children: 15 boys, aged between 10 and 15, from Deraa, who were beaten and had their finger nails pulled out by men working for General Atef Najeeb, a cousin of President Assad.
Two months into the most serious threat to the decades-old dictatorship, the jails in some cities are already full. As well as holding prisoners in the power station in Banias, security forces have also begun using a local sports stadium to hold hundreds of detainees, according to eyewitness accounts gathered by activists.
The release of all political prisoners has become a unifying cry among protesters across the country, who began by calling merely for reform and an end to corruption and who now demand the toppling of the president and his regime.
Like the father from whom he inherited power, President Assad has sought to crush the uprising against him with force and mass arrests.
During a campaign of repression against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s under late President Hafez al-Assad, some 17,000 Syrians disappeared, according to testimony to the United Nations Human Rights Council by Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies.
And in a chilling parallel to the actions of his father, who responded to the Muslim Brotherhood uprising by sending tanks and ultra-loyal troops commanded by his brother to raze Hama, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians, President Assad has laid siege to Deraa, Homs and Banias with tanks and troops commanded by his brother, Maher al-Assad.
Today, in two months of protests, Syrian security forces have killed an estimated 850 people.
On Wednesday, Syria dropped its bid to join the UN Human Rights Council, which has ordered a fact-finding mission to Syria to investigate human rights abuses.
After eight days in a windowless two by two meter dungeon deep underground, Ali was freed without charges. His wallet, with half the money stolen, was returned, but he was too weak to drive home so took a taxi to a friend’s place, too ashamed to let his parents see.
“The worst is you don’t know what will happen. You and your family have no idea what is going on,” said Ali who, despite his experience, remains unbowed.
“I have seen personally the real ugly face of security, and it is much uglier than I thought. I will protest again because now I really realize what freedom means. If we give up now we will all be arrested again anyway.”
*All names of prisoners have been changed for their own safety.