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Inside Homs prison: ‘I am waiting to buy my freedom’

January 13, 2015 Detainees in a Homs regime prison find […]

13 January 2015

January 13, 2015

Detainees in a Homs regime prison find themselves in an unusual situation: Prisoners control the jail from the inside, but are still captive to the regime.

Homs Central Prison, located in the province’s regime-controlled eponymous capital, is the largest in the region, with more than 2,000 prisoners.

Detainees have run the prison since July 2012, when they staged a revolt that ejected the prison administration and security. Regime forces still surround the prison, however, trapping them inside and effectively ensuring their continued captivity.

Most of the prisoners were originally arrested for participating in anti-regime protests at the beginning of the revolution and charged with terrorism, which means years in prison.

However, many have yet to be tried in court, and some have not been charged with a crime at all.

The regime security forces and the prisoners in charge reportedly have a tacit agreement to continue the status quo until further developments push the scales in one direction or another.

Detainees began a hunger strike beginning at the end of last month, demanding that the regime give them their freedom after years of waiting to be tried and charged.

The hunger strike ended when a regime prison commander, Colonel Abdu Karam, who liaises with the prisoners, told protesters that the regime would negotiate with them.

Security forces still have not responded to the prisoners’ calls for accountability, despite their promises, says a 22-year old detainee in the prison, who goes by the alias Jouri.

The odd prison arrangement is propped up by “corruption” and those seeking “personal benefits,” Jouri, who has been in the prison for almost a year and a half and participated in the hunger strike, tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed Shamdin.

Jouri was able to conduct this interview from the prison with a smartphone, which he says he acquired from regime security forces in exchange for cash.

Q: What were the circumstances of your arrest?

I was arrested by Aviation Intelligence [the most powerful Syrian intelligence agency] along with my brother and father at my house in Homs in January 2013. I was detained with them for two months.

During the two months with the Syrian intelligence, I did not see the sunlight at all and I was subjected to the worst types of torture. They tortured me with electricity, used the “Magic Carpet” technique [the prisoner is placed on a piece of wood which is then bent at the middle to torture the prisoner] and balango [hanging prisoners from their wrists for extended periods of time].

My father is still missing. We still know nothing about him. My brother was released two months after he was detained.

HomsPrison111 Prisoners plead for their freedom during a hunger strike earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Homs Media Center.

Q: What were you accused of?

They accused me of terrorism, even though I’ve never taken part of any activity with the rebels or Free Syrian Army. I was only a student in Homs, having been born and raised in the UAE. I came back to Homs when I was 15 in 2008 to study here.

I took part in some demonstrations early in the revolution but that’s it.

Q: Did you participate in the prison takeover?

No, I was sent to the Homs Central Prison after the prisoners gained control.

Q: Did they put you directly in Homs Central Prison? And how did the regime put you in the prison if it was already run by the inmates?

After the two months with the Aviation Intelligence branch, I was transferred to al-Rabaia Prison in Homs for 29 days. During the 29 days I was not interrogated, only tortured and humiliated. Then I was moved to a military court in Homs.

The judge was shocked when he saw the torture I had been through and ordered me back to the Homs Central Prison, still under the charge of terrorism.  

With regard to how they managed to put me inside the prison, there is a kind of mutual understanding between the head of the prison administration, Colonel Abdu Karam, and the prisoners. He can enter the prison to inform the prisoners about the latest developments, and that’s how I came here.

I came here on a court order and should be cleared in the same way. But in Syria, the juridical system is corrupt and it is impossible to get out without paying money. My relatives now are negotiating with someone with authority among regime ranks. They reached an agreement that they would pay money in order to free me. Now I am waiting to buy my freedom.

Q: You took part in the December 2014 hunger strike. What moved the prisoners to undertake it?

The regime authorities mixed the criminal cases with the revolution-related cases. Many detainees were moved to the anti-terrorism court, which means that the detainee must wait for a long time before the court processes his case. There are also inhuman living standards here, and many diseases spread easily.

Moreover, the regime charged a number of prisoners with unfair sentences. One prisoner received 18 years of jail time because he participated in a protest. Another man was charged with 31 years for the same accusation. I am in prison under a terrorism claim for two years, and I haven’t been to court for my case yet. They did not apply the amnesty that Bashar Assad issued for the actions related with 2011. The regime only released the criminal-related prisoners.

Q: What is the situation in the prison? How is life there? 

The prison now is liberated and the regime doesn’t have any role inside. The prisoners are supervising all the daily tasks, ranging from dispensing medication to food to cleaning.

Q: How did the rebels manage to liberate the prison?

After continuous insulting behavior by the regime officers in charge of the prison, the prisoners began a revolt. They managed to cast out all the security officers from the prison building, and confiscate their weapons.

Q: If prisoners control the prison from inside, why doesn’t everyone escape?

That is impossible, because the prison is in a strategic location for the regime. In addition, there are many regime forces around the prison.

The only way we could escape would be if FSA or Jabhat a-Nusra battalions attacked the prison, which is a difficult prospect now. The regime still controls the majority of the city.

Q: If that is the case, why doesn’t the regime doesn’t break into the prison?

The Syrian army tried to break in and failed.

I was there when the regime forces tried to break in to take back the prison. At the same time, the regime cut off access to electricity and water in the prison. I fought with the other prisoners confronting the regime forces with light weapons [knives and stones] that we took from them earlier. I threw stones at them.

After the raid, we managed to confiscate even more armor, helmets and batons. We also injured their commander and some other soldiers.

The regime forces couldn’t use live bullets in the break-in because there are 300 Alawite and Shiite hostages, who were also prisoners at the time of the prison’s liberation.

Some of those prisoners are relatives of some regime commanders, and the regime is negotiating with us in order to keep the hostages safe.

Q: If the regime is blockading the prison, how are the prisoners getting their daily supplies?

The Syrian regime is extremely corrupt, and is a system based on personal benefits. Although regime forces are blockading the prison, the same officers who are blockading us also bring us food, cigarettes and drinking water. Even the commander of the prison deals with some prisoners, and sells us food and cigarettes.

With regard to cell phones, there are some officers who secretly sell us cell phones and charging cards without their commander’s knowledge. They sell it to the prisoners at very high prices. That’s how I am able to talk to you now.

Q: What is the impact of this experience on you? How do you feel now?

I hadn’t been in prison before this; as I said, I lived all of my life in UAE. This experience has been a turning point for me. My whole life has changed. In jail I learned how to stay alive during the worst and most difficult circumstances.  I learned how to maintain relationships that keep a person strong, despite my young age.

Q: Do you have any hope to get out of prison?

As I said before, the regime is a system based on individual benefits. My relatives are negotiating with an officer who can get me out of prison in a deal that will cost over one million Syrian pounds [$5,500]. It is only a matter of time before I am out of prison.

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