At least 215,000 Syrians have been arrested since the war began in 2011, reported the pro-opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights in a report published late 2014.
An estimated 13,000 of those detainees died in custody, according to a March, 2015 report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with the actual number likely much higher.
Doctors and other medical personnel remain a priority for regime forces, who have criminalized providers treating rebels for any reason.
Suhail Neshwati, a dermatologist originally from Homs, is one of the doctors identified for treating rebels in Homs. He was working in his clinic in Damascus when regime forces arrested him.
“I was detained April 4, 2012, on the charge of providing medical assistance and support to those operating outside the law, i.e. rebels, which I was,” Neshwati tells Syria Direct’s Nuha Shabaan.
Neshwati spent the next two years detained in several regime detention centers, after which a civilian court released him to house arrest. From there, he was able to escape to Turkey, eventually making his way to Jordan where he currently lives and works for the Jordanian Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders as a volunteer trainer.
This interview is the first time Neshwati publicly tells his story of his time in Syria’s prisons.
“Human life has no value there,” he says.
“Prisoners being held in jail want to die just to put an end to the pain.”
Q: Describe your arrest.
I was detained April 4, 2012, on the charge of providing medical assistance and support to those operating outside the law, i.e. rebels, which I was. Although I lived in Damascus, I had been making regular visits to Homs to provide medical treatment to rebels. After the investigations were concluded, I was charged with 11 counts related to the provision of such assistance.
I was arrested while in my home with my family in the Qudsaya neighborhood in Damascus. Members of my family were interrogated and have since fled the country.
My driver who worked for me was with me at the time. The commander who stormed my home took him and executed him right in front of me.
By the time I reached the local security branch, my entire body was bloodied and bruised. A bone was broken in my skull. I fainted many times during the interrogation, but would be woken up with electric shocks. [Ed.: Here, Neshwati names the colonel he says was responsible for his interrogations.]
In between rounds of torture, I would be lying on the ground, completely naked, and they would put their cigarette butts out on my body. They also performed a form of torture known as “dolab,” where one is forced to stand within a series of tires stacked on top of each other so they can’t move. They also prevented me from eating and denied me food.
Q: Where did this take place? In which prison?
I was taken directly to the Air Force Intelligence detention center where the branch commander, Salim Daghistani, was waiting for me with his secretary in addition to a number of other investigators.
On June 3, 2013, I was moved from there to the Mezze military airport where I was officially found guilty. I was then transferred to the military police and from there to Adra prison, which was like a five-star hotel compared with the other facilities. I was lucky, the only reason I got out of the Mezze prison in the first place was because I paid bribes. Usually at Mezze, once they have no more use for you, they kill you.
Q: What was your mental state like when in prison? What would you think about?
At first I felt hopeless and devastated, however things got easier as time went on. I was one of the older prisoners, and felt like the young men in there needed someone or something to help keep their spirits high. I comforted them and helped them stay strong so they wouldn’t confess to anything during torture.
There was one officer who helped us in that regard, reminding and coaching us before interrogations on what to say, what not to say, so we wouldn’t incriminate ourselves. I guess he felt bad about the treatment prisoners were receiving. However I can’t mention his name.
I often thought about my wife and children, either them or my next meal. Some of us considered attempting to escape, however we were in a high-security facility that was very well-guarded, and that wasn’t possible.
Q: While you in prison, were you able to contact your family? Did your family know where you were being held?
It was impossible to receive any visits or have contact with my family in the air force intelligence detention center. They didn’t know where I was until after I had been there for four months, and that was only because one inmate I had been held with was released and told them where I was. By that point my entire family except my younger sister had already Syria, however she was allowed to visit me.
Q: What was the treatment like at the air force and Adra facilities?
The treatment at the air force intelligence detention center was brutal, however I was lucky and was able to develop a good relationship with the branch commander. He had developed a skin condition that I was able to help treat. Afterwards we became close, and I was given a job as the official doctor for the local branch.
Everything changed after that. People started to fear me, because I had seen a lot, and they were scared I might tell others what I saw.
For example officers would torture people during investigations, and afterwards use prisoners to perform manual labor, such as digging tunnels. After that, they’d usually be executed.
Q: Tell me about the torture. Are prisoners tortured all the time? What do they do to you?
Torture is a must during interrogations. They would hang us from the ceiling by our hands, preventing our feet from touching the floor, often for hours or days at a time.
I was hung from my hands for 26 days, and was barely given any food, only a few bites at a time, just enough to keep me alive. Human life has no value there.
They also use prisoners as human shields. [Ed.: This is consistent with many accounts we have heard from sources inside Syria.] If the FSA or anyone else ever attacked the facility, they would put prisoners out front in order to deter further attacks.
Q: What were the food and general conditions like at the prison? How did you sleep?
At the air force detention center there weren’t any beds to sleep on. In Adra, there were 38 beds in each cell, with each cell holding about 80 prisoners. Priority for beds was given to prisoners who had seniority in the cell.
At the air force detention center, we were given one meal a day. This consisted of half a piece of bread, sometimes a full piece, and small amounts of rice, perhaps about 50 grams. Sometimes they’d give us oranges and apples to split amongst the inmates.
Before giving us our bread the officers would step on it with their boots as a way of insulting us. If we were ever making noise in the cell, they wouldn’t give us any food at all.
Q: Were there any medical services?
None really, except for a few devices were used to conduct first aid, stitches and basic surgeries, of course without any anesthesia or painkillers.
The place was filthy. At the air force detention center I saw pretty much every skin disease I had ever known about as a doctor, in addition to ones I had never seen before.
Q: How many prisoners were in each cell in the air force intelligence center?
Sixteen people would be placed in 1×2 meter individual cells. Female cells were 3×4 meters and would hold about 100 women. These were crowded and people would have to sleep standing up.
There was another room we called the breathing room, located on the rooftop and surrounded with barbed wire. It held about 300 prisoners, and was the best cell because it was large enough to allow prisoners to sleep while lying on their sides.
Q: Are the prisoners ever told what they’re being charged with?
Sometimes they’re told informally by the officers who are interrogating them. But often they’re given papers that they’re forced to sign admitting that they’re guilty of various crimes without knowing what they are.
Q: Describe the relationship between prisoners.
We were like brothers, most of us, awaiting our shared fate. But some of the prisoners were working as informants. All of the prisoners were treated badly and assaulted, except the informants.
Q: How and when were you released?
Like I said, my relationship with the branch commander was good, especially after I treated his skin disease. He helped move my case to a civilian court where I could hire a lawyer to represent me. My case was previously being heard at the military Field Court, which sentences people based solely on what is written in police reports. Most of those tried in that court are given the death sentence.Having my case transferred to the civilian court cost about $80,000.
I was released on February 13, 2014, but had to stay under house arrest. The government froze all my money and I wasn’t allowed to work. I was able to flee to Turkey and then from there to Iraq with the help of some people whom I can’t name.
Q: How do you feel now about your experience as a prisoner?
I feel born again. Before, I and others were blind about how criminal this regime truly was. Human life means nothing to them. Prisoners being held in jail want to die just to put an end to the pain. I hope my story will help others eventually be released from prison as well.