A new report released by Human Rights Watch details a system of barbaric torture and execution of political detainees in Damascus.
There is now an overwhelming body of evidence that the Assad regime is torturing and killing detainees by the thousands. From the earliest days of the Arab Spring protests in the spring of 2011, activist groups reported that widespread arrests were taking place. Worse, some of the families of those detained said that they’re loved ones were nowhere to be found and local police denied having custody of the missing persons.
At various times, evidence of torture or mass execution have emerged, but a new report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) might be the most comprehensive examination of the claims to date.
HRW has examined 53,275 pictures, given to them by a defector from the Assad regime who is known as “Caesar” who claims to be a former photographer for the Syrian military. According to HRW’s analysis of those photographs, 28,707 of them show at least 6,786 people who were killed while in custody of the Assad regime.
Worrying, this may only be the tip of the iceberg:
It is important to note that the Caesar photographs do not represent a comprehensive record of deaths in detention in the Damascus area in the period during which the photographs were taken and collected. While many detention facilities sent their dead to Tishreen and 601 military hospital, a defector from Syria’s State Security services who worked as a guard at the al-Khatib branch of State Security told Human Rights Watch that those who died in detention at the facility where he worked were transferred to Harasta military hospital in the northeastern suburbs of Damascus and not to Tishreen and 601 military hospitals where Caesar had taken the photographs. Moreover, the photographs are not a random sampling, but represent the photographs Caesar had access to and copied when he felt he could do so with relative safety. Therefore, the number of bodies from detention facilities that appear in the Caesar photographs represent only a part of those who died in detention in Damascus, or even in these particular facilities, during the 27 month period in which the military police and forensic medical authorities produced these photographs. Based on the sequences of the examination or death numbers, the Syrian Association for the Missing and Prisoners of Conscience (SAFMCD) believe that the Caesar photographs indicate at least 11,000 bodies were photographed in two of Damascus’ military hospitals between May 2011 and August 2013, when Caesar defected.
HRW took many steps to validate these photographs, including interviewing 27 family members who say that some of the photos matched their loved ones. The families had, in many cases, spent significant amounts of time and money attempting to find the location of their loved ones:
All of the 27 families or relatives interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report said they spent months or years searching for news of their loved ones in detention. Some visited government offices and lodged formal requests for information. Others feared arrest or chose not to make official inquiries because they did not trust the government to provide them with accurate information. Many families interviewed for this report paid bribes to middlemen who had government contacts or who worked in the government or security forces. For the most part, both those who made official and unofficial inquiries received conflicting reports as to their relative’s whereabouts, or no information at all. In some cases they received correct locations or information that they were only able to verify after the Caesar photographs were published, according to the branch numbers and dating of the photographs.
Families paid thousands and in some cases millions of Syrian pounds to contacts and middlemen employed in various government or security agencies. The family of Rehab alAllawi (see Profiles section) paid over $100,000 in bribes to various government and military officials.
In many cases, families said, they were too frightened to approach security branches directly for fear of being arrested themselves. Instead, they approached personal contacts or searched for any government interlocutor who promised help. Former detainees released from prison also provided some families with information about their relatives.
The FBI also reviewed some of the evidence and found no signs of photo manipulation.
HRW showed the photos to doctors, and compared their observations to interviews of former prisoners and regime defectors:
Authorities held detainees in inhumane conditions, keeping them in filthy, overcrowded cells for months or even years. Detainees said they were provided with such insufficient food that they slowly starved; one former detainee said he lost 35 kilos, nearly half his body weight, in just six months of detention. Two men interviewed for this report, who had been detained in the Palestine Branch, said they could wash two times a week by purchasing soap from their guards; all the others said they spent months without soap and that guards didn’t allow them to bathe. All detainees interviewed said they had almost no ventilation in their cells, which stayed overheated and humid. Some detainees said the heat and humidity was so high that their clothes disintegrated after a few weeks in detention.
Graphic pictures included with the report show emaciated and mostly-naked bodies of men spread around the garages of these military hospitals. Numbers and letters are in many cases written on their bodies, identification numbers to accompany death reports and photographs.
HRW’s report concludes that many of the prisoners were subjected to various forms of tortured. Prisoners were bound, beaten, whipped, had their limbs and bodies bent into unnatural positions or stretched, were electrocuted, and were suffocated. All prisoners were denied food and adequate medical care, and were forced to live in dangerously-cramped conditions, often leading to death.
Individual cases are described in detail.
HRW has called on Russia and Iran, the two governments with the most influence over Syria, to pressure the Assad regime to stop this detention program, allow international monitors to these sites, and release the names of all individuals who have died while in custody, among other steps.
HRW also notes that while the Vienna conference is taking place, this report should be mentioned during the conference, and the UN Security Council should immediately take action to sanction those responsible for these crimes.
The entire report can be read here on in the window below. The report is graphic in nature.