Arbitrary Detention, Torture, Physical Abuse of Female Activists and Other Detainees: Interviews and Testimonies
Human Rights Watch spoke to eight female activists who reported torture or physical abuse during detention in the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous, the Military Intelligence Branch in Daraa, the Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus, the Air Force Intelligence (AFI) Branch in Mezze, Damascus, and Adra central prison.
Shabiha detained Amal, 19, from her home in Tartous governorate in October 2012, after she participated in peaceful demonstrations, and held her for about three months in facilities in Tartous, Homs, and Damascus governorates. She was questioned extensively about her knowledge of opposition supporters and ultimately accused of terrorism. She told Human Rights Watch that at the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous, she was hung from the ceiling by her wrists with her feet barely touching the ground (a form of torture known as shabah). She said she was forced to remain like this for six hours, during which time two security officers would periodically hit her with sticks or wires. She also said that one of her interrogators used electricity to torture her:
[ He] took me into my room, put me on a chair and tied me to it. He brought a blade and started cutting me on my wrist, to make the electric shock with blood. He took the sheath off the wire and put it on my wounded wrist [where he had cut my wrist]. He cut my hand, there was a little bit of blood, and he put the wire in there. He turned on the electricity for two or three minutes … He did three shocks. When he sees someone under torture he is laughing, happy.
Fatmeh, 35, who was detained in Damascus for assisting the transport of army defectors and encouraging protests, told Human Rights Watch about torture by electric shock in Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus:
I would sit in the chair with my hands tied up, my legs tied at the bottom. They would put electricity on the chair I’m sitting on. They put a charge on the chair so it was shaking. I would pass out. It was a metal chair and the electricity would come through the chair.
Additionally, Fatmeh said that when she did not respond to demands for information about Free Syrian Army members, their weapons supplies, and their strategy, her interrogators beat her until she passed out.
Suraya, a 31-year-old detained in Daraa in February 2012 for assisting Syrian army defectors and encouraging protests, had broken her leg in an accident before the protests began. She told Human Rights Watch that a lieutenant at the Military Intelligence Branch in Daraa used her injury to torture her: “[He] knew it was not healed yet. If I answered a question in a way he didn’t like, he would kick me there in my leg … My leg needs surgery. The doctor here [in Jordan] said they broke the bone and made it into small pieces.” Suraya walks with a visible limp.
Nasrin, 25, experienced similar abuse during 11 months of detention at Adra central prison between April 2012 and March 2013. Nasrin had been detained in Deraa after participating in protests and helping to transport wounded opposition fighters and defectors. She told Human Rights Watch that an Adra prison lieutenant would deny the detainees access to the semi-outdoor area just outside their cell, in which they were permitted to go for fresh air:
When we asked to go out he beat us. He beat me on my foot. A nurse told me there was something broken inside my leg [from the beating]. He used his army boots and would kick me with the heels of his boots.
Six women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had witnessed or heard security forces torturing other prisoners, both male and female, while they were detained. One former detainee said that security forces at Military Intelligence Branch 215 removed her blindfold and forced her to watch them shoot and kill two male friends and fellow detainees. She told Human Rights Watch that the two men were non-Syrians who had worked with her at protests during the early days of the uprisings.
Female detainees said that they had witnessed security forces using electric shock, car tires, chairs, leather ropes, and strip-searches to abuse other detainees. Such abuses were reported in the Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus, Military Intelligence Branch 235 (Palestine Branch) in Damascus, the Political Security Branch in Salamiyah, the Military Security Branch in Hama, and the Military Intelligence Branch in Daraa.
Nisreen, 25, told Human Rights Watch that she was arrested in Daraa in February 2012, and held for more than a year. She said that at the beginning of the revolution, the security forces would not shoot at women; she became part of a “front line” of women who served as protection for male protesters. In addition, she later assisted in transporting injured opposition fighters and Syrian military defectors. Nisreen saw and heard the torture of male detainees while she was held at Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus:
[O]ur room was next door to the room where they were questioning men. All night I would hear them torturing and questioning them, from 12 noon until morning. When a man’s blood was all over the floor, the same one who was tortured had to clean the floor. We could hear the voices saying, “Clean the floor, dog. Wash this, dog.” There was a small space in our door and we could see them cleaning the ground outside our room. They would torture them with electricity and throw water on them – we could hear it all. The place was very small and you could hear all around you.
Four former detainees said that judges repeatedly refused to review their cases when they were brought before the court. Fatmeh, 30, was brought before the terrorism court in Damascus, which was established after the start of the Syrian uprisings, three times during more than five months of detention at Adra prison. She told Human Rights Watch about her second appearance before in the court:
The judge saw the file and said, “National Security has looked over your file and we can’t do anything. No one is allowed to see your file. You can’t be released by a judge.” He said my sentence would be execution. My lawyer said, “I cannot do anything. There is nothing I can do except keep checking on you.”
When Fatmeh and other women detained at Adra prison for opposition activity later demanded that their case files be reviewed by a judge, she said that they were put in solitary confinement and denied food and visitation rights.
Three former detainees never appeared before a judge, nor had any formal charges brought against them. All of the former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were released only in exchange for bribes, the surrender of a family member, or the relinquishing of prisoners held by the opposition.
Sexual Abuse and Harassment in Detention
Two female activists told Human Rights Watch that they were raped in detention. Amal, 19, said that one of her interrogators and two security officers raped her when she was detained at the Military Intelligence Branch in Tartous:
[The interrogator] came in in shorts, an undershirt and brought two others … He came closer to me and that’s when the whole thing started. [The rape] lasted for maybe a half hour or more. He dressed and went out. I was on the floor. The next person came. It was a half hour more. The second one said to everyone outside, “Come and see.” [With] the third one, the door was open. It was in front of whoever was in the corridor … I could try to resist the first one and the second one, but not the third one. I looked down and saw a lot of blood. I felt dizzy. I was crawling to my pants and blouse. A doctor showed up in the room … He took me to the bathroom and said, “Clean yourself.”
Information received by Human Rights Watch indicates that no action was taken to investigate the incident or penalize the perpetrators.
Air Force Intelligence (AFI) officers detained Maysa, 30, in June 2012 at her home and took her to the AFI Branch in Mezze, Damascus. She had been providing humanitarian assistance to internally displaced Syrians while studying at university. She told Human Rights Watch that she was raped by an AFI security officer during her 140 days of detention:
When he came in he told me, “If the FSA had detained you they would have raped you, but here I will be the only one who will have sex with you.” He took off his clothes. I screamed … Then he approached me and turned me around facing the wall. He took off his underwear and raped me from behind. After he finished he threatened me and said, “If you say something don’t blame [it] on anyone but yourself.”… I did not know if I wanted to scream or cry or both.
Maysa reported the rape and identified her attacker to an interrogator in the prison, who slapped the security officer as punishment, and told Maysa to alert him if the officer approached her again. The next day, however, she said that the officer came to her cell and raped her a second time. After this, Maysa told Human Rights Watch that she suffered a nervous breakdown and beat her head on the steel bars of her cell until she fainted. When she came to, a second interrogator again asked her to identify her attacker again, which she did. The perpetrator denied the assault and, to incite anger towards him, Maysa accused him of being a Free Syrian Army officer. When she did this, the interrogator beat the offending officer.
Later in her detention, another security officer sexually assaulted Maysa while she was in solitary confinement in July 2012. She told Human Rights Watch that he took care to bring her to a bathroom that was not monitored by security cameras, so that he could assault her:
I was washing my hands when he approached me and said that he can help me get out [of detention] and that he has very good connections … He started touching me everywhere. Then he pushed me downwards … He removed his pants but not all the way. Then he put his penis in my mouth. He was not afraid. He was doing it with confidence. I was afraid to scream because he threatened to torture me. He ejaculated on my face. He made me do this twice during the 24 days [that I was in solitary confinement] … After that day, he passed every day by my cell to see me. He repeatedly told me, “If you talk you will regret it, you don’t know who you are dealing with.”
Three former detainees told Human Rights Watch that security forces and prison guards sexually harassed them during detention,ranging from groping to verbal abuse. The abuse reportedly took place in the Military Intelligence Branch in Daraa, the General Intelligence Directorate Al-Khattib Branch in Damascus, and Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus.
Hadiya, 20, was detained for approximately two months in June 2012, because of her activism and that of her family members. She had been providing aid to war-affected families, and was arrested while participating in a demonstration in Damascus. She told Human Rights Watch that she was sexually harassed by police officers while in solitary confinement in the Al-Khattib Branch in Damascus. “Two of them tried to touch me through the hole in the door. They told me to get naked because it is very hot and [so] they can watch … The jailer said, ‘If you let me sleep with you I’ll let you out.’” Human Rights Watch has previously documented the use of torture in the Al-Khattib Branch, including beatings, beatings with objects, electrocution, beatings on the soles of the feet (falaqa), and placing detainees in stress positions.
Fatmeh, 35, said she was sexually assaulted in Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus by her interrogators and guards: “I was blindfolded, sitting on the ground. They used to come and put their hand on me and say foul language. They would put their hands on my breasts.” Human Rights Watch has also previously documented the use of torture in Military Intelligence Branch 215 through the use of beatings, beatings with objects, and shabeh.
Arbitrary Detention and Abuse of Non-Activist Women During Search Operations
Rasha, 31, was arrested during a household search in Hama in August 2011, by men she identified as military police. She suffers from kidney disease and underwent a kidney transplant in 2007; she became ill while in detention in Hama as she was not permitted access to her daily regimen of medications. Rasha told Human Rights Watch that she was tortured by government forces during her 18-day detention in the Hama Military Security Branch:
They took me alone. It was because of my husband – they were searching for him. He was wanted for demonstrating … They were hitting me with a stick, with metal, with wood. I told them about my kidney medications that I needed. They hit me more. They said they would stop if I said where my husband was. They burned me with a hot iron. They were hitting me everywhere, especially on my kidney area.
She was released only after military police located and detained her husband in Hama. As Rasha attested, “I wasn’t targeted anymore after I got out of prison because my husband was in prison.” While in detention, Rasha said she was held in a small room with 30 to 35 other young women who had all been detained because a family member was wanted for support of the opposition.
Halima, a 20-year-old pregnant mother of two from Homs, told Human Rights Watch that government forces targeted her because of her cousins, who she said are members of the Free Syrian Army. Five men in military uniform, whom she identified as shabiha, came to her house in March 2012 after visiting her uncle’s home nearby:
They came to my house at the same time because my name is the same as my cousins’… They took me and put me in a big room for two days. I don’t know where it was. They blindfolded me and took me in a car … They asked questions about my cousins – where did they go? I told them I didn’t know.
After three days of questioning, Halima said that a female shabiha member working with her captors took pity on her and helped her to escape. Fearing further persecution, she and her family left immediately for Damascus and then Jordan.
Human Rights Watch also documented five cases of abuse of women by military forces during targeted searches or attempted arrests of male relatives who government forces had identified as opposition supporters. Interviewees said that these abuses occurred in Damascus, Daraa, Homs, and Idlib governorates between September 2011 and August 2012.
Shayma, 20, told Human Rights Watch that she suffered a head injury when government forces raided her home in Daraa in August 2012. She said that they were looking for her husband and brothers, whom she identified as Free Syrian Army supporters:
I was sitting at home alone. Security forces came in … They wanted my husband but he had already left. They wanted my brothers and wanted me to tell them where they were. I said I didn’t know. They started beating me. I kept telling them I didn’t know. They brought metal rods and were hitting me on the head, then on the back. They started whipping me … After the first hit on my head I started to lose my balance and I couldn’t see clearly. I passed out … The next thing I remember I woke up surrounded by neighbors.
Shayma and her mother told Human Rights Watch that she experiences ongoing effects of the injury, including memory loss, confusion, and fatigue.
Men and children have also been targeted by government forces for abuse and arrest due to alleged opposition support by their relatives or associates. However, women are at particularly high risk of abuse during searches for male opposition combatants and supporters, as women’s social and familial roles often tie them to the home when men have fled to avoid persecution or left to join armed groups.
Syria: Detention and Abuse of Female Activists
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