Tuesday, 2 August 2016

“No negotiations before: the cessation of the shelling, the lifting of the siege and the release of the prisoners.”

CRY FREEDOM: Residents protest in Aleppo, asking for the release of prisoners held in government jails and lifting of the siege on besieged areas, in Aleppo, Syria, January 24. The banner reads “No negotiations before: the cessation of the shelling, the lifting of the siege and the release of the prisoners.”

 'No sunlight enters the dingy, oxygen-less cell. Six by ten meters in length, each identical to the other two dozen, occupied by thirty men who sleep on the cold ground. Thaer bides his time, nursing a broken foot and abscessed ear—poorly healed marks from a previous torture session—by drawing caricatures on the walls, caked with a slovenly, muck-like amalgam of sweat, blood, and the thick black smoke from the burning trash which provides the only heat during the cold desert nights in Syria’s heartland. It’s an idle retreat that allows him to briefly escape his reality.

 “Life inside the prison is utterly static. The only physical action is you and your cellmates being drained psychologically and somatically. Your sense of time and place and your surroundings disappears, like shadows you can see but cannot grasp,” Thaer told Newsweek Middle East. We spoke to him through a cellphone he managed to smuggle into the prison. His name is being concealed to protect his safety, but Newsweek Middle East has confirmed his identity and case number through a family member, as well as a lawyer in Damascus.
 When revolution broke out in Syria in 2011, Thaer, then an out-of-work theatre director, quickly began organizing theatrical performances promoting freedom, dignity and citizen participation. For a time, art was a relatively safe way to express dissent in Syria. He took part in peaceful demonstrations, and urged fellow activists to remain committed to non-violence when the revolution started arming itself. Then, one summer morning in 2013, the “ghosts” came for him. Named for their shadow business as government hitmen, they carry out the Syrian regime’s dirty work before disappearing without a trace. It was 6:30AM when three cars pulled up to Thaer’s home in Hama. Ten men poured out carrying Kalashnikovs. Without a word, they broke down the door, cracked him in the head with the butt of their rifles, tied his hands and feet and threw him in the trunk of the car. Three years later, he sits in Hama Central Prison, with about 850 others in the “disorder wing”—reserved for political prisoners.
 Thaer is one of the lucky ones. He is alive. His family knows where he is. The same cannot be said for the over 200,000 Syrians estimated to have simply disappeared—swallowed up by a shadowy system of secret prisons without any record in the courts. Agonized, their families have gone years not knowing where they are, if they’ve been charged or sentenced, or if they are alive or dead. In most cases, all that’s known is that they were taken away by the secret police, and never seen again. A few weeks ago, tensions reached a breaking point. The prisoners staged a revolt, blockading themselves inside the disorder wing. In a desperate battle for their lives, they found themselves in control of half of the prison—staring down their jailers, it was either victory or death.
 The most comprehensive effort to date documenting human rights violations committed over the course of the Syrian conflict was completed in April 2016 in a report by the Violations Documentation Center of Syria (VDC). After years of painstaking research collecting documentation through gut-wrenching interviews with the family members of detainees, it estimates some 200,000 have disappeared inside the prison system, and confirmed 23,000 of their names. After testifying with his research at a U.N. commission of inquiry, Bassam Al Ahmad, one of VDC’s founders, collected his files and left Syria. “It’s too much. We’re talking about not just a catastrophe on the level of Syrian society, the future of the economy, of families… People will need psycho-social support for generations.”
 In early 2014, officers of the secret police came to Khalid’s office to arrest him. “Will you cooperate? Or will you be a problem?” the captain asked him. He went quietly, and was taken to a branch of one of the intelligence divisions, where officers accused him of helping to organize demonstrations. Khalid answered that he had never taken part in any. The captain, named Maher, replied, “So you’re going to be a problem now.” Guards seized him, and began to beat him with metal pipes, making him count to eighty. “While they’re beating you, it’s like a dream. You become unconscious, but you are still aware of what is happening. Your mind just hopes that your body can survive the beating,” Khalid recalled. After some time, the officers threw a bucket of cold water on him. His skin shrank, having been stretched out by the beating. Maher asked if he was ready to confess. Khalid swore to God that he had nothing to confess. He says he’ll never forget what the captain uttered next: “Bring me the mother of storms.”
 A guard brought Captain Maher a silicone bat with a metal tip charged with electrical shocks, searing Khalid’s drenched body. “Each hit felt like it made a hole in my head. I didn’t know if I was alive or dead.” But the worst was still to come. Guards fixed thin plastic cuffs to Khalid’s wrists and hoisted him up, suspended from the ceiling. The plastic cut into his skin as he hung with his full weight. He doesn’t know how long he hung for, but eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. When he was brought down, he said he could see bone protruding from his wrist. Khalid then signed a document written up for him, using his mouth to hold the pen.
 “If I didn’t have this experience, I would never believe it. After I’ve been inside, I’ve seen things that will make you crazy for the rest of your life,” Khalid said. After eight months in a civil prison in Adra, Khalid was brought to the Terrorism Court in Damascus. Chained together in a line with twenty other men, officers led them into the building through an underground entrance at the east of the building, then up a long flight of stairs, where a row of soldiers kicked and beat them with clubs as they walked toward the courtroom. As Khalid waited, he listened to the sentences handed down to detainees before him. Execution by hanging. Seven years’ prison. Ten years’ prison with labor. When it was Khalid’s turn, the judge recognized him and asked, “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?” Khalid nodded his head. “So you confessed under torture.” He was released without charges, and walked out the door. A week later, he left Syria.
 Given asylum in Germany, Khalid now assists with a clandestine network of lawyers advocating on behalf of prisoners who have no voice. Some, taking exceptional risk, operate underground from inside Syria while others in exile are more free to communicate and liaise with the families of those detained, providing one of the only lifelines of information over safely encrypted channels. Lawyers participating in the network, say they have connections inside ten prisons throughout Syria—including to police and intelligence officials who, they claim, are willing to talk.'

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