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Torture and death: Life in al-Khateeb detention center

What is life like inside al-Khateeb, one of Syria's most notorious prisons? On April 23, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib stood trial for crimes against humanity in Koblenz.

29 April 2020

AMMAN — On April 23, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib stood trial for crimes against humanity in a courtroom in Koblenz, Germany. Raslan is accused of being complicit in the torture of over 4,000 people between 2011 and 2012, while his associate, al-Gharib, is being charged with torturing over thirty people.

The trial is “historic,” explained Luna Watfa, a Syrian journalist and former detainee of al-Khateeb state security branch where Raslan used to work as head of investigations. 

Watfa spent a month in al-Khateeb and a total of 13 months in detention after she was arrested in January 2014 for possessing evidence of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta on August 21, 2013. 

The trial in Germany is the first to prosecute members of the Syrian government for crimes committed during the nine-year-long revolution which has resulted in the death of more than half a million people. The death toll includes over 104,000 people tortured to death in Syrian government jails, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). 

The prosecution of the two former jailers is possible due to a German law passed in 2002 which affirms the principle of Universal Jurisdiction and allows German courts to try defendants for crimes designated in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

Bashar al-Assad and other high-ranking officials cannot be tried by the ICC because Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, while Russia and China continue to block the UN Security Council from referring cases concerning Syria to the international court. 

The ongoing trial in Germany thus has the potential to create an important precedent for European courts to help those Syrians seeking justice for crimes committed against humanity.

Torture in al-Khateeb

State Security branch 251, also known as “al-Khateeb” security branch due to its location in the eponymous Damascus neighborhood, is infamous within Syria for the brutal torture inflicted on the prisoners who crowd its cells. 

“As soon as I arrived, the officers there started battering me,” Yaser Abdul Samad Hussein Karmi, a Syrian activist and former detainee of al-Khateeb, said in a 2013 interview with the Violations Documentations Center. “It was the most brutal way of torturing in the Branch, where two members or more hit the detainee strongly all over the body, especially on the face and the head. Then they shocked me with high voltage electricity, 220 volts, on my thighs, shoulders and [genitals].”

Karmi spent four months in al-Khateeb, where he was forced into a cramped cell with 150 other detainees and frequently tortured. Diseases were rife in the packed cells, and Karmi described the appearance of ulcers and tumors among detainees which constantly leaked pus and blood. Consequently, multiple prisoners would die every day in the detention center. 

Prison guards, in a 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, described how they would pack 600 detainees to a cell meant for just 200 and would have to fight to get detainees even a single Paracematol painkiller. It was normal, one guard explained, for anywhere from three to eight detainees to die each day at al-Khateeb. 

The dead would be taken out of al-Khateeb across the road to a Red Crescent civilian hospital in Damascus, where the death would be declared to be a result of the heart attack, concealing the extent of torture and malnutrition to which detainees were subject, a former guard told HRW.

The branch also has a section for women detainees adjacent to the men’s cells. Karmi described how he often heard their screams as they were subject to severe torture. 

Watfa told Syria Direct about the myriad of ways in which she and other female detainees were tortured. There was the “wheel,” where detainees would be forced into a rubber tire and beat mercilessly. There was also “al-Akhdar Ibrahimi,” where detainees would be beaten by a green pipe, named by the prison guards after the former UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, whose first name means green in Arabic.

The “black tire”—a 10-centimeter strip of tire cut lengthwise and wielded as a whip—was another painful torture instrument used against her and other detainees, Watfa explained. Sometimes, there would be “a bucket of water that they would put a detainee’s head in until they almost asphyxiated,” she said. 

During her imprisonment at the security branch, “the male detainees were only wearing underwear and were always blindfolded. Their detention was worse compared to that of the female detainees, though there were some exceptionally bad cases of torture and beatings of female detainees.”

Life inside al-Khateeb

Though she cannot forget the month she spent in al-Khateeb, Watfa never got to see what the building looked like from the outside, entering and exiting blindfolded. She did, however, become intimately familiar with the decrepit interior, with its high ceilings, dirty floors and paint crumbling off the walls. 

From the moment she entered the branch, the verbal and physical humiliation began. A female military officer forced all of the female detainees to undress and squat, sit and perform various movements naked to make sure that they were not hiding anything in their bodies. Male detainees were also made to perform the same procedures when they arrived at al-Khateeb.

Watfa was detained in “a small room with a width of two meters and a length of three, and there would be anywhere from seven to 23 female detainees in it,” at any given time, she said. The room was quite dirty and the detainees had to fight to get soap or feminine tissues. They also had to wear the same clothes for the duration of their stay, without the possibility of washing them.

She spent the month of February in the prison, and without heating, the room was quite cold but still humid from the breath of the detainees crowding the small cell. 

“We were each assigned one blanket, which were infested with scabies and lice. When the number of detainees in the cell went down, we were sometimes able to each get two blankets. I would put one on top of me and one under,” she recalled. Sleep was also quite hard to achieve as the cell was constantly illuminated by a single floodlight, the same type used to illuminate sports stadiums. 

The men were put in small cells next to the women’s section, in a six by three-meter room. At times, there could be up to 200 prisoners in the room.

Watfa would sometimes peer from under the door of her cell and see the male prisoners being tortured in the corridor. “The male prisoners looked miserable and so skinny. The marks of torture and beatings were clear on their bodies,” she said. 

She would also see those detainees in solitary confinement go to and from the bathroom once a day “to empty the urinal and defecate. They had less than a minute to do so.” 

“The detainees in solitary confinement were so thin, much worse than the other male detainees I saw. I never saw anything like the marks of torture I saw on their bodies,” Watfa said. Upon returning to their cells, detainees would be shackled to the walls until their next visit to the bathroom.

Food was also scarce, usually just a “small amount of half-boiled rice and ocassionaly a single egg that would have to be divided between two to four detainees.” Watfa noted that men received even less rations than women did, and that there was a “clear policy of starvation in al-Khateeb.” 

Al-Khateeb branch is just one of the dozens of unofficial detention centers spread throughout the government-held territory. Syria’s multiple security services and military branches each have their own detention centers, some—such as the Air Force Intelligence Directorate—are known for being more brutal than others. 

There are currently 130,000 detainees in Syria’s prison system, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). 

In the same report, the Network estimates it would take the Syrian government 325 years to release all of its detainees if it continues to do so at its current rate. Instead, it seems to have decided torturing them to death is quicker.

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