Syria is holding tens of thousands of detainees in a “torture archipelago” in which they are subjected to beatings, electric shocks and other methods of abuse, a U.S.-based rights group said Tuesday.
“The systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture that Human Rights Watch documented clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report released on Tuesday.
The HRW documented 27 detention facilities across the country it said were used to hold people swept up in the government’s violent crackdown on a 16-month uprising.
The 81-page report, entitled, “Torture Archipelago: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture and Enforced Disappearances in Syria’s Underground Prisons since March 2011” is based on more than 200 interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch since the beginning of anti-government demonstrations in Syria in March 2011.
The report includes maps locating the detention facilities, video accounts from former detainees, and sketches of torture techniques described by numerous people who witnessed or experienced torture in these facilities.
Some methods, documented in the report, included “holding the detainees in painful stress positions for prolonged periods of time, often with the use of specially devised equipment, the use of electricity, burning with car battery acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails, and mock execution.”
Human Rights Watch said the detainees described being held in overcrowded facilities with inadequate food and the routine denial of medical assistance, with several saying they had witnessed people dying from torture.
The group said that in addition to the 27 facilities -- operated by four main intelligence agencies commonly referred to as the “mukhabarat” (intelligence) -- detainees were being held in stadiums, military bases, schools and hospitals.
“The intelligence agencies are running an archipelago of torture centers scattered across the country,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
HRW called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to adopt targeted sanctions against officials credibly implicated in the abuses.
According to the report, almost all the former detainees interviewed by HRW said they had been subjected to torture or witnessed the torture of others during their detention.
A 31-year-old detainee held in Idlib province in the northwest was quoted as saying that interrogators had squeezed his fingers with pliers and put staples in his fingers, chest and ears.
“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,” he said.
While most of the torture victims interviewed by HRW were young men between 18 and 35, the victims interviewed also included children, women and elderly people.
All of the witnesses interviewed described detention conditions that would by themselves amount to ill-treatment and, in some cases, torture – extreme overcrowding, inadequate food, and routine denial of necessary medical assistance. A graphic model depicting an overcrowded cell described by one former detainee illustrates how the conditions fall short of international legal standards.
The report quoted a former intelligence officer as describing a wide range of torture methods, including hanging prisoners by their hands from the ceiling and putting prisoners in coffins and threatening to kill them.
“I’ve also seen them using martial art moves, like breaking ribs with a knee kick. They put pins under your feet and hit you so that you step on them,” he was quoted as saying in the report.
According to the report, because Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, the court will only have jurisdiction if the U.N. Security Council adopts a resolution referring the situation in Syria to the court. Russia and China have previously blocked Security Council efforts to push for accountability.
“The reach and inhumanity of this network of torture centres are truly horrific,” Solvang said. “Russia should not be holding its protective hand over the people who are responsible for this.”
More than 16,000 people have been killed in violence since the uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March last year, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.N. put the figure at 10,000 people.