Syria: Evidence of torture and abuse ready for future use

Smoke fills the air at the scene of two huge bomb explosions outside the Palace of Justice in central Damascus this momth. (Topshots, AFP)

Smoke fills the air at the scene of two huge bomb explosions outside the Palace of Justice in central Damascus this momth. (Topshots, AFP)

Evidence that Syrian intelligence agencies systematically use torture and ill-treatment that constitute a crime against humanity is laid out in a report that activists say they hope will serve as a basis for future prosecutions.

Information given by former Syrian detainees and defectors has identified the locations, agencies responsible, torture methods used and, in many cases, the commanders in charge of 27 detention facilities run by the country’s four main intelligence and security organisations, according to Human Rights Watch.

The 81-page report by the New York-based watchdog relies on more than 200 interviews conducted since the start of demonstrations against the regime of President Bashar ­al-Assad in March 2011. According to opposition activists, about 15 000 people have been killed since then.

This week the Syrian government announced new penalties for terrorist crimes after Assad declared last week that the country was in a state of “real war”.

The watchdog’s report includes maps locating detention facilities, video interviews with former ­detainees and sketches of torture techniques described by people who witnessed or experienced torture.

Archipelago of torture
“The intelligence agencies are running an archipelago of torture centres scattered across the country,” said Ole Solvang, the organisation’s emergencies researcher.

“By publishing their locations, describing the torture methods and identifying those in charge, we are putting those responsible on notice that they will have to answer for these horrific crimes.”

The organisation called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and adopt “targeted sanctions” against officials credibly implicated in the abuses.

Britain and other Western governments have repeatedly warned Syria that officials will be held accountable. But Russia and China have blocked calls to refer Assad or members of his government to the international court, which requires a request from the Security Council.
This is in stark contrast to Libya, where the council referred Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi to the court early on in the conflict.

Former detainees said they had been subjected to torture or witnessed the torture of others during their detention.

“Interrogators, guards and officers used a broad range of torture methods, including prolonged beatings, often with objects such as batons and cables, holding the detainees in painful stress positions for prolonged periods of time, the use of electricity, burning with acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails and mock execution,” the report said.

A 31-year-old detainee described how he was tortured in Idlib central prison: “They forced me to undress. Then they started squeezing my fingers with pliers. They put staples in my fingers, chest and ears. I was only allowed to take them out if I spoke. The staples in the ears were the most painful. They used two wires hooked up to a car battery to give me electric shocks. They used electric stun guns on my genitals twice. I thought I would never see my family again. They tortured me like this three times over three days.”

Most of the torture victims interviewed were young men between 18 and 35, but they also included children, women and the elderly.

“The individuals who carried out or ordered crimes against humanity bear individual criminal responsibility under international law, as do those in a position of command, whose subordinates committed crimes that they were aware of or should have been aware of and failed to prevent or punish,” said the watchdog.

“This command responsibility would apply not only to the officials overseeing detention facilities, but also to the heads of intelligence agencies, members of government and the head of state, President Assad.”

British foreign secretary William Hague said the report sounded a clear warning that there was “no hiding place” for those responsible for such crimes.

“Those responsible for systematic and widespread human rights violations should not delude themselves: we and our international partners will do everything we can to ensure that they will face justice,” he said.

“Where we have evidence of individuals’ responsibility for acts of violence and repression, the United Kingdom will work with European Union partners to impose sanctions on them.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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