Monday, 8 February 2016
Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic
"In the Syrian Arab Republic, massive and systematised violence – including the killing of detainees in official and makeshift detention centres – has taken place out of sight, far from the battlefield. Detainees held by the Government were beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries sustained due to torture. Others perished as a consequence of inhuman living conditions. The Government has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts. Based on the same conduct, war crimes have also been committed. Some anti-Government armed groups established makeshift places of detention where captured Government soldiers were ill treated, and executed.
Those who were kept in the custody of security and armed forces were almost always denied any means of contacting their families. Some families were first informed about the death or whereabouts of their relatives from released fellow prisoners. In its thematic report “Without a trace: enforced disappearances in Syria”, as well as in its periodic reports, the commission has reported that the crime of enforced disappearance was committed by Government forces as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population.
Former detainees detailed how cellmates were killed as they were beaten to death during interrogations and in their cells, or died as a result of severe injuries sustained due to torture or ill treatment. Others perished as a consequence of inhuman living conditions inflicted on the prison population, including severe over-crowding, lack of food, and unclean drinking water. Prisoners were given inadequate or no medical care, and died in large numbers from preventable conditions such as diarrhoea or other contagious infections spread in the unhygienic and overcrowded cells.
While the overwhelming majority of the victims who perished while detained in Government-controlled prison facilities were men, the commission has documented cases of women and children as young as seven years old dying in the custody of State forces. One of the earliest documented cases of death in detention is that of a 13-year-old boy, arrested during a protest in Sayda (Dara’a) in late April 2011. His mutilated body was returned to his family in May 2011. Women, boys and girls, as well as the elderly, have been subjected to torture and brutal prison conditions and have suffered physical and mental trauma. They too have been the victims of, as well as witnesses to, deaths in custody.
Interrogators and guards employed gruesome methods of torture to kill detainees. In 2014, a detainee held in a centre under the control of the 4th Division of the Syrian army had his genitals mutilated during torture. Bleeding severely and left without treatment, he died three days later. A detainee of a Military Security branch in Homs witnessed an elderly man being severely beaten, and then hung by his wrists from the ceiling. The guards burned his eyes with a cigarette, and pierced his body with a heated, sharp metal object. After hanging in the same position for three hours, the man died.
Prison conditions were similar across detention facilities. They included severely overcrowded cells where prisoners were often forced to stand and sleep in shifts, stripped to their underwear. Lack of clean drinking water, sanitation, lice infestations and other unhygienic conditions caused the spread of disease and infections. Many prisoners were forced to use their toilet as a source of drinking water.
Detainees were frequently either ignored or punished with torture when requesting medical assistance. Some prisoners received limited and mostly inadequate medicine, while most received no treatment at all. Some severely ill prisoners were transferred to military hospitals in the Damascus area, including Mezzeh military hospital 601 and Tishreen military hospital located near Barzah Al-Balad neighbourhood. Prisoners were tortured by medical staff at the hospital. Others received limited medical care before they were sent back to the same life-threatening prison conditions. Several prisoners died in the hospital, with prisoner-patients recounting how they were asked to assist in wrapping dead bodies in plastic.
Many detainees were subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence,7 and exposed to humiliation and degrading treatment. Prisoners were subjected to threats of sexual violence against female relatives.
Denied contact with their families and held in inhuman and degrading conditions in overcrowded cells or prolonged solitary confinement and continuously subjected to torture, prisoners often suffered severe psychological disturbances and depression. Numerous accounts describe how some detainees started hallucinating or displaying other signs of psychological disorders, stopped eating and drinking, and eventually passed away in their cell for unidentified reasons.
In all cases where the body was returned to the family, it bore marks of extensive torture. Some bodies were returned from hospital morgues to their family only after the family agreed to sign a statement confirming that the deceased had been killed by “terrorists.”
The Military Security Damascus Branch 227 is located in Mezzeh neighbourhood and is estimated to hold several thousand detainees at all times. Detainees who survived to give accounts of their detention in the branch witnessed the death of fellow inmates as a result of torture, disease, and appalling prison conditions, including chronic lack of food. Former prisoners of Branch 235, located north of Al-Qazzaz neighbourhood in south-eastern Damascus, detail a large number of detainees dying. At least 30 persons were observed dying under torture in this branch between 2011 and mid-2012.
The Investigations branch of the Air Force Intelligence is located in Mezzeh military airport, south west of central Damascus. Survivors of this branch recounted daily torture sessions. Detainees were brought back to their cells by the guards with open wounds, swollen limbs, haemorrhaging and left without medical care. When they died, the bodies would be removed from the overcrowded cells by prison staff within a few hours.
Many of those interviewed also recounted having witnessed the death of inmates of the Air Force Intelligence branch located in Harasta (Damascus and southern region branch). Interrogators and prison guards routinely tortured detainees.
Main detention facilities controlled by the General Intelligence Directorate include Interior Security branch 251 and Investigations branch 285 located in Kafr Soussa, west of central Damascus. Former detainees described inhuman conditions of detention resulting in frequent custodial deaths. Officers were observed giving orders to subordinates on methods of torture to be used on detainees. Corpses were transported by other prisoners through the corridors, sometimes to be kept in the toilets, before being removed from the branch.
Since mid-2012, the Military Police has been in charge of transferring and holding prisoners between branches and courts. Detention facilities such as Sednaya prison hold thousands of inmates who are transferred there, often following a summary trial, sometimes resulting in the issuance of a death penalty and followed by execution. There were dozens of accounts of deaths occurring in Sednaya prison, with prisoners being beaten to death by guards, or dying from preventable health conditions. Following a practice similar to that described in other facilities, inmates witnessed guards removing bodies from the cells.
The commission further recommends that United Nations Security Council: (a) Under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter: i. Demand that the Syrian Arab Republic and non-State armed groups immediately halt all detention practices resulting in custodial deaths and torture; ii. Ensure the enforcement of accountability by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court or other judicial mechanisms; iii. Adopt targeted sanctions against persons, agencies and groups credibly suspected of being responsible for or complicit in conduct leading to custodial deaths, torture and enforced disappearances."