(New York) – Government security branches in Raqqa city hold documents and potential physical evidence indicating that detainees were arbitrarily detained and tortured there while the city was under government control. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the State Security and Military Intelligence facilities in Raqqa, now under the de facto control of local armed opposition groups, in late April 2013.
Local opposition leaders with the support of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and neutral international experts should safeguard potential evidence of torture and arbitrary detention in security forces centers in opposition-controlled areas, Human Rights Watch said.
“The documents, prison cells, interrogation rooms, and torture devices we saw in the government’s security facilities are consistent with the torture former detainees have described to us since the beginning of the uprising in Syria,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Those in control of Raqqa need to safeguard the materials in these facilities so the truth can be told and those responsible held accountable.”
In the State Security facility, Human Rights Watch researchers observed on the ground floor and in the basement, rooms that appeared to be detention cells.Among the documents were what appeared to be lists of security force members who had worked there. Human Rights Watch researchers also saw a “bsat al-reeh” torture device in the facility, which former detainees have said has been used to immobilize and severely stretch or bend limbs.
Several former detainees held at other intelligence facilities in Syria have described to Human Rights Watch how security guards used “bsat al-reeh” torture devices in detention facilities across the country. They tie a detainee down to a flat board, sometimes in the shape of a cross, so that he is helpless to defend himself. In some cases, former detainees said guards stretched or pulled their limbs or folded the board in half so that their face touched their legs, causing pain and further immobilizing them.
Among the reams of documents and case files Human Rights Watch researchers saw in the Military Intelligence facility in Raqqa were some that appeared to list all of Raqqa’s college graduates, suggesting that they were of interest to the security branch by virtue of their college education. Researchers also observed three solitary confinement cells and one group detention cell in the right half of the first floor of the facility.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed five people formerly held by Military Intelligence in Raqqa, who said that security forces detained and interrogated them there. They said that the security services questioned them about lawful activities, such as participating in peaceful demonstrations, providing relief assistance to displaced families, defending detainees, and providing emergency assistance to injured demonstrators. They believed that they were detained for these lawful activities, making their detention arbitrary.
Four said that officers and guards in the facility tortured them. They identified Mohammed al-Ahmed, also known as Abu Jassem, as the person responsible for their interrogations, and in some cases, abuse. Raqqa residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that opposition fighters killed Abu Jassem during the battle for control of Raqqa, which came under opposition control during the first week of March.
In addition to the State Security and Military Intelligence branches, three other facilities in the city of Raqqa – formerly managed by Criminal Security, Political Security, and Air Force Intelligence – are now also controlled by armed opposition groups.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions of peaceful protesters, activists, humanitarian assistance providers, and doctors.
Based on information from former detainees and defectors, Human Rights Watch previously identified the locations, agencies responsible, torture methods, and, in many cases, the commanders who were in charge of 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies across the country where torture has been documented. The systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture that Human Rights Watch has documented point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity.
The de facto authorities in opposition held areas still face many challenges and competing priorities. Some are still subject to attack by Syrian government forces and are struggling to provide basic services to local populations. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to safeguard potential evidence in these and other former security force facilities that could be vital to future domestic and international accountability processes, Human Rights Watch said. This evidence could also help to clarify the role intelligence forces played in abuses in Syria.
Documents and material in these facilities could vanish or be destroyed if not promptly secured. Destruction or mishandling of these documents and material will weaken the possibility of bringing to justice those responsible for serious crimes. In addition, their loss could encumber future truth seeking processes and prevent the comprehensive documentation of crimes committed by the Syrian government. Truth commissions can be valuable complementary tools to criminal justice for preserving historical memory, clarifying events, and attributing political and institutional responsibilities.
The de facto authorities in Raqqa and local opposition leaders should coordinate the collection and storage of this potential evidence from security force branches now under their control, Human Rights Watch said. They should seek the support of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and neutral international experts, including those with expertise in collecting forensic evidence and in working before criminal tribunals.
The armed opposition groups that have taken control of these facilities should secure them while allowing civilian opposition leaders, with outside support, to organize the removal of materials and photographing of physical evidence that is not movable.
Authorities should also create a central repository in a secure and undisclosed location to receive and store this potential evidence until proper criminal investigations can be undertaken. If possible, copies of relevant materials should be made and stored in a separate location in case originals are destroyed or lost.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Other countries should join the mounting calls for accountability by supporting a referral to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria. On January 14, a letter was sent to the Security Council on behalf of 58 countries calling for an ICC referral. The Security Council has taken no action in response.
“Learning the truth about the role intelligence services have played in spying on and terrorizing Syrians will enable them to guard against these abuses in the future,” Houry said. “But for Syrians to learn the truth once the conflict ends, it is vital even under the tough conditions of war to preserve the potential evidence of the security forces’ role.”
Former Detainees Describe Torture in Raqqa
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed five former detainees in person in Raqqa city. The interviews were conducted by Arabic-speaking researchers and wherever possible, were conducted in private. To protect witnesses, in four cases, the names of witnesses have been withheld. In the fifth case, the interviewee, a prominent attorney and the current head of the local civilian council asked to be identified by name.
“Ahmed,” a 24-year-old former college student from Raqqa, told Human Rights Watch that on April 7, 2012, Military Intelligence officers detained him and his brother at the Raqqa Military Intelligence Branch for their involvement in peaceful demonstrations. After his release, he joined an armed opposition group, and now is a fighter with an opposition battalion, Jabhat al-Wahda wal-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Front for Unity and Liberation), in Raqqa city.
He told Human Rights Watch that the intelligence officers held him there for five days before transferring him to the Military Intelligence facility in Deir al-Zor, directed by Jame` Jame`. Ahmed said that Military Intelligence officers and guards tortured him and his brother at the Raqqa Military Intelligence Branch and that the sound of his brother screaming under torture tormented him. He said that Abu Jassem, the officer in charge of interrogations, beat him so that he would confess to participating in demonstrations and inform on other protesters:
The torture started in turns between my brother and me. They started torturing him with electricity for three, four hours, and then they threw him in a solitary cell…. They wanted me to tell them who used to go out to demonstrate with me … and they would make me hear my brother’s screams. This was more