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Like being in Assad’s prisons: Female survivors recall their ordeals in HTS cells

After almost three months in detention by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), media activist and humanitarian worker Nour al-Shalo was released on Monday.

7 January 2021

AMMAN — After almost three months in detention by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), media activist and humanitarian worker Nour al-Shalo was released on Monday. However, the discourse around al-Shalo’s case and the presentation of insufficient evidence for the charges leveled against her prompted questions about what HTS prisons conceal, from arbitrary arrests and “fabricated” charges against women and what they are subjected to in those cells while detained. 

Al-Shalo, a 30-year-old widow and mother of three who was displaced from the city of Atereb in Aleppo province, went missing in September in the northern Idlib city of Sarmada. In November, news spread that HTS, which controls Idlib province, had sentenced her to death on charges of providing information to the international coalition (whose forces are in northeastern Syria) and photographing women in immodest clothing to blackmail them. This prompted many activists to express their anger over the decision on social media, with a number of them launching the hashtag #FreeNourAlShalo on Twitter to demand her immediate release. 

The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), Ravina Shamdasani, also expressed her concern about al-Shalo’s fate, calling on the “de facto authorities,” as she described HTS, to “refrain from any harmful act, ensure her protection, and immediately release her.” 

Al-Shalo worked in media as well as with the humanitarian organizations Masrrat and Darna in recent years. She had filed a case against her husband’s family to retain custody of her children, which was why she was initially summoned to the judiciary from which she subsequently disappeared.

Although the HTS media office denied that a death sentence was issued for al-Shalo, it claimed in a statement published on its Telegram channel on November 18 that she was arrested “after an allegation was filed against her, documented by testimonies.” After “investigation and in-depth research, the defendant’s involvement in a number of criminal and moral cases was proven,” read the statement, adding that “working in the media does not mean immunity from judicial accountability.”

The Media Union of Aleppo issued a statement on November 25 confirming that no death sentence had been issued for al-Shalo while denying the HTS allegations of al-Shalo’s involvement in any unethical activity.

One among many, on ‘fabricated’ charges

Al-Shalo was just one of dozens of women detained by HTS. According to a Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) report in November 2020, there are 44 women in HTS prisons, while “at least 10,566 females are still arrested/detained or forcibly disappeared by the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria.” They include “8,474 at the hands of Syrian regime forces” as well as “866 at the hands of Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] and 896 at the hands of the armed opposition/the [Turkey-sponsored] Syrian National Army, and 276 of these females were arrested by ISIS before its retreat and are still forcibly disappeared.” 

Similarly, al-Shalo’s kidnapping is not the first of its kind against a media worker in Idlib province. The same scenario occurred with media activist Fatima al-Asmar, who now lives in the opposition-controlled northern countryside of Aleppo. 

Al-Asmar was abducted on March 2, 2019, from the city of Idlib, after which “I was taken to an underground basement at an unknown location, as I was blindfolded at the time,” she told Syria Direct. “But I knew later that they were members of HTS. They charged me with photographing security headquarters belonging to them without a permit.” 

Several days after al-Asmar was detained and interrogated, other charges were pressed, “such as working for the regime and the international coalition by photographing HTS headquarters in Idlib to be targeted.” But “the building I photographed was deserted, and not a headquarters at all,” she said. “They were fabricating accusations against me to cover up my identity in their cells and to shut me up because I was always critical of their policies.” 

Al-Asmar stressed that HTS follows this method with all the detainees in its prisons. “When the arrest is made, the detainee faces one charge, then when she is in their prisons, other accusations come down on her.” The number of charges facing a detainee depends on “the jailers’ interest in her and their desire to keep her longer” in their prisons. 

Further, HTS members do not limit themselves to bringing new fabricated charges against the detainee. Rather, they “work to prove them with flimsy evidence, through witness testimony in courts that belong to them, to justify the pretext of the arrest before the people,” Samar al-Shami, a widow and former detainee in HTS prisons, said.

Al-Shami, who lives in the countryside of Idlib, was arrested by HTS in December 2018 “for insulting their leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, and oppression of the nation’s youth,” she said. 

As a result of clashes between HTS members and fighters of another faction, al-Shami’s brother was killed “instantly after he was shot in the head,” she told Syria Direct, “which made me scream at the top of my lungs in the street and within their [HTS’] earshot: may God not help you, may God take revenge on you.” 

Days after the incident, HTS members raided al-Shami’s house. She was taken to “a secret prison at a farm in the countryside of Idlib” and charged with “supporting the Syrian regime and trying to smuggle people from Idlib to regime areas,” she said. “There is no truth to this whatsoever.” 

Limitless violations

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented “no less than 32 prisons and detention centers belonging to HTS,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, the network’s chairman and founder, told Syria Direct. “We have detected the existence of sections designated for women in 11 of them,” he added. “The regime took control of some of these centers during its recent campaign on the countryside of Idlib, and al-Oqab prison in Harem city is the worst of them.” 

“The practices followed by HTS” resemble “to a large extent the Syrian regime’s policy of systematic detention and enforced disappearance,” according to Nour al-Khatib, the head of the Detention and Enforced Disappearance Department at SNHR. The group “does not disclose the fate of its detainees, nor does it give detainees any trials, save for the show trials, secret trials conducted by their jurists.” 

“Despite the HTS formation of the Salvation Government, which in turn established a Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary in Idlib, HTS continues to make arrests through its security apparatus, which targets all those who oppose its policy,” al-Khatib added. 

There is no apparent limit in HTS prisons to the violations committed against detainees, including women. In al-Shami’s case, this amounted to rape. 

Before she was released from detention following mediation by other factions, “I was raped twice by the jailer and one of the [HTS] members with him,” al-Shami said. “Before they rape detained girls, they ask them if they are married or not. If married, they rape her. If she is a virgin, they are content with torturing her.” But “if she is a virgin, and they rape her, then she is immediately killed,” al-Shami added, “so as not to leave any evidence.” 

As for al-Asmar, who managed to escape the prison and then moved to the Aleppo countryside, from the first day of detention, “they took off my clothes while I was blindfolded,” she said. Then “they started to throw cold water on my body and groped me without paying attention to my screams and curses. I stayed naked for two days without anything to eat or drink.” 

“On the third day, one of them covered my body with a towel, under the pretext that Abu Tareq—the official in charge of torture in prison—didn’t like to look at a woman’s nakedness,” she recalled. “Abu Tareq threw me on a couch that was in the room, tied my hands and feet to the sides, and beat me. I remember I kept screaming and was in pain for two hours; then I passed out.” 

On the fourth day, al-Asmar was taken to “another unknown location, which I later knew was Idlib Central Prison, which is not better than the place I was in. The voices of women being tortured echoed in the place. I felt that I would die here until the regime bombed the prison in the same month, and we found a golden opportunity to escape that hell.” 

Syria Direct contacted the HTS media office for a response regarding these violations but received no response. 

The chance of accountability 

According to Ahmad al-Hussein, a Syrian lawyer who lives in Turkey, the judiciary in HTS-controlled areas is based on a “Supreme Council of Sheikhs that oversees the Ministry of Justice in the Salvation Government.” The laws “are approved by the Minister of Justice to be enforced following the council’s rulings that are based on religious jurisprudence.” 

Al-Hussein, however, ruled out the application of justice in those areas “due to the domination of military forces over them.” 

Al-Asmar also believes holding the perpetrators in HTS detention centers accountable is “impossible in light of HTS control, because the judges do not rule according to God’s law, but rather according to the requirements of the case.” Recalling the experience of a friend of hers, she said: “if the detainee complains of rape, and the perpetrator has a tie to the judge or has contacts close to the judge, then the latter acquit him without considering the victim’s view.” They may even “hold her for years without releasing or even trying her, which is what happened with my friend who is still being detained.” 

For that reason, al-Shami called for international accountability for those responsible for violations in Syria—both HTS and the regime. “The Syrian regime bombed my city and displaced my family and relatives, but HTS members raped me and left scars on my body as well,” she said. “Pain follows me to this day because of the torture, which caused torn ligaments and infections.” 

Although Abdul Ghany believes that “legal accountability for HTS is unrealized at the current moment,” he emphasized that achieving justice starts “with establishing special courts to hold the perpetrators of violations such as torture and enforced disappearance which have occurred in Syria accountable. And the existence of a democratic government in Syria would allow for the prosecution of the perpetrators of violations, with HTS at the head.” 


The identity of the survivors of HTS prisons has been concealed for their safety. 


This report was produced as part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy in Jordan’s Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI). It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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