March 29th, 2014
In March, rebel groups 600 kilometers apart struggled for similar prizes, with differing results: In Daraa, local opposition brigades captured Gharaz Prison, the regime’s largest in the province, earlier this month. In Aleppo, a joint mission by Jabhat a-Nusra, the Islamic Front and Jaish al-Mujahideen has been unable to break government control of Aleppo Central Prison, despite months of siege on the facility.
As rebels target prisons for their strategic value, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a pro-opposition human rights organization in the Damascus suburbs, published a detailed report in Arabic on Branch 261 of Syria’s Military Intelligence in Homs.
“Prisoners confirmed brutal beatings and violent torture were used to extract confessions” as part of premeditated government policy, the investigation reports. “Diseases were spread widely among prisoners, especially among those who get their nails pulled out.”
Here, the VDC dives into the country’s intelligence agencies, which number more than a dozen and are known to operate with impunity, subjecting Syrians to arbitrary arrests, indefinite detention and systematic torture. Syria Direct’s Firas Abd selected some of the report’s most revealing excerpts.
“Military Security Branch 261 in Homs is a branch of the Damascus-based Military Intelligence. It lies near the Homs train station. There are two detention centers in it. The first quarters contain those arrested when they reach the facilities. It is about 15 by 10 meters, and contains more than 10 cells for solitary confinements. The number of prisoners is enormous in comparison to its size.
The officers put the extra people in the corridors or in the space between the solitary confinements roofs and the main ceiling. In the other building there is the investigation dormitory, it is smaller than the gathering dormitory and it contains two floors plus the basement. Witnesses say that the torture is much more brutal and intense in the investigation section. The basement contains a room for two soldiers (corporals). It also has 14 cells for solitary confinement, each one holding eight detainees. Each solitary confinement area is about 1 meter wide, 1.7 meter long. There is also another room of 2.5 by 2.5 meters, and it holds 40 detainees.”
A new report details the arbitrary arrest and systematic torture of thousands of detainees in Syrian prisons.
“There are about 60 regular soldiers in the branch, all of them assigned as guards. There are also other detention rooms, one of them in the basement, that rank-and-file soldiers are not allowed to enter, a very large space. The space used to belong to the electricity company, and Military Security took it and transformed it into a large detention center. Most of the officers live in the officers’ quarters, while the rest of the soldiers live in houses belonging to the electricity company.
Detained people were tortured in many ways, most notably: pulling-out nails, hanging the detainee from his feet, dunking the detainee for a few seconds into very hot water – from head to toe – and using electric shocks on specific areas of the detainees’ bodies, like the nails, the heads and the toes. All of this was accompanied by psychological torture. That was the general case for male detainees.
The female detainees also faced similar torture, with additional methods, including psychological ones like continuous harassment from investigators and the members of the branch. Practices rose to the level of oral rape by the investigators themselves, and threats of full rape in cases where the prisoners had not confessed to the accusations made against them.”
“As far as food, the amount and quality in Branch 261 do not differ from the other branches of Military Intelligence. Despite there being three ‘meals’ a day, portions are very small and bad in terms of both cooking and cleanliness. Breakfast was usually a small amount of bulgur or rice, or one boiled egg, or expired yoghurt, or olives resembling stones. Lunch was badly cooked rice or a little Mjadara (rice, bulgur and onions). Dinner was a small potato covered in dirt.
Showering was completely forbidden, and prisoners were allowed to use the lavatory three times per day for three-minute increments. There were no special cases for women. As their conditions deteriorated, the branch administration allowed women to deal with their feminine needs a single time, only.”
“Diseases were widespread among prisoners, especially those who had their nails pulled out. Skin ulcers were horrifically widespread, with worms coming out of them. If the disease was bad, prisoners would be taken to the military hospital and, in the overwhelming number of cases, did not return. As far as those who died under torture, their corpses were taken to the military hospital, where they would remain for entire months, and only then would their families be notified. If their families did not come, bodies would be buried in mass cemeteries whose exact location is unknown. As a result of the cold, many of the detainees suffered from kidney problems, which, as a policy of the branch members, were specifically targeted by beatings during torture.”
Summary and results:
1- According to eyewitness testimony, since March 2011 Military Security Branch 261 of Military Intelligence in Homs has arbitrarily detained thousands of prisoners. Many of them are the sons of Homs province, and particularly the neighborhoods, regions and villages that witnessed anti-regime protests, particularly Bab Amro, al-Khaldiyeh, al-Biyadah, Deir Ba’albeh, al-Insha’at, al-Waer, Telbisa, Rustan, al-Joura, al-Shiah, al-Qarabeedh and other revolutionary areas.
2- An overwhelming number of prisoners confirmed brutal beatings and violent torture were used to extract confessions. [This torture] was the government forces’ premeditated policy during investigations, which usually ended with the signing of all accusations facing the prisoner, after experience brutal torture.
3- According to eyewitness testimony, in Branch 261 witnessed at least one death as a result of torture, or death under investigation, daily.
4- There are clear reasons to believe that harassment and rape was deliberately used at Branch 261 as a permitted policy during investigations, or periods following it. According to victims themselves, after they protected the policies, the administration did not intervene to prevent [the policy], but the opposite. A number of high-ranking officers were involved in rape cases or the extortion of female prisoners.
5- Diseases were hugely widespread, very little food was available and branch administration prevented detainees medical care. People who were taken to the military hospital faced an even worse fate
Syria Direct’s Firas Abd selected highlights from the VDC report, with translation by Elizabeth Parker-Magyar.
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