National Security

Report: 17,000 People Have Died in Syrian Prisons Since Civil War Began

Survivors detail torture, rape under Syrian security forces

Dead bodies after Syrian government attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 / AP

More than 17,000 people held in Syrian prisons were killed under the regime of President Bashar al Assad during the past five years while countless others faced systematic torture, rape, and abuse, according to a report released Thursday by Amnesty International.

A Syrian journalist identified as Shiyar, who was among the 65 torture survivors interviewed by the London-based human rights group, recalled prison guards suspending him by the wrists while they beat him with wooden sticks and burned him with cigarettes during an interrogation. The pain "felt like a knife excavating my body, cutting me apart," Shiyar said.

Laila, a Syrian activist who was documenting human rights violations in 2012, was raped upon her arrest by five soldiers who locked her in a bullet-proof car. A lieutenant threatened to kill her if she made noise, slapping her into silence as he told her she "deserved" it.

While Shiyar and Laila both survived their detainments, Syrian prisons claimed the lives of an estimated 17,723 people dating back to the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al Assad beginning in March 2011. The government onslaught against rebel forces opposing Assad’s authoritarian rule has killed an estimated 400,000 people while displacing millions of Syrian refugees. About 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance while 4.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq; 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria; and about one million have requested asylum to Europe, according to official figures.

The prison survivors detailed torture and inhuman detention conditions under Syrian security forces and in Saydnaya Military Prison, located north of Damascus. Anyone perceived as opposing the Assad regime was at risk of being arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared, according to the report.

Soldiers begin subjecting detainees to torture shortly after their arrest, which could last for weeks until a "confession" is signed. Common methods included splashing victims with water while delivering electric shocks and distorting a victim’s body into a vehicle tire while beating them. Prison guards also systematically raped and sexually abused victims, ripped out fingernails and toenails, and scalded detainees with hot water.

"[The security forces] made us write fake death records to say that the person had died of a heart attack, or sudden heart failure, or anything other than torture … so they can say in front of the international community, ‘We do not kill civilians,’" a medical doctor who worked in several Syrian military hospitals said.

Prison survivors also said food and water was sparse, often leading to starvation. One survivor described eating "like chickens," devouring entirely the little bits of food they were given, including orange peels and olive pits.

The Amnesty International report comes exactly five years after President Obama declared on Aug. 18, 2011, the time had come for Assad "to step aside." Obama vowed a year later that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a "red line" provoking U.S. military force.

Human Rights Watch reported Tuesday that Syrian and Russian forces dropped napalm-like incendiary bombs on the cities of Aleppo and Idlib. The Syrian government has also attacked the rebel-held Damascus suburb Daraya each day this week.

The human rights group said there have been at least 18 incendiary weapons attacks during the past nine weeks. While incendiary weapons are not banned entirely, the New York Times noted that 113 nations, including Russia, signed an international agreement prohibiting their use on areas with civilian concentrations.

The Obama administration recently proposed a pact with Moscow to heighten military cooperation in Syria that would target the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra. The latter group is primarily attacking the Assad regime, which is allied with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pentagon officials oppose the plan, fearing Russia will not abide by the terms and that it will bolster Assad’s hold on power.