The bus arrived at Tadmur Prison where the military police awaited us. The warders helped us off the bus, whipping us brutally and mercilessly until we were all out. They removed the handcuffs and blindfolds, and then we were taken into a courtyard overlooked by the prison’s offices, where our names were registered. All the while we were being whipped from all sides. Then we were taken through a metal door into a courtyard, known as the torture courtyard. The military police searched our clothes. One by one we were put into the dullab (tire), and each person was beaten between 200 and 400 times on his feet…. When they had finished beating us, we were lined up in single file. Holding on to each other’s clothes, blindfolded and with our heads lowered, we walked into the prison…. Everyone was in bad condition, their legs bleeding and covered with wounds, as were other parts of their bodies. The pain was very intense.
So begins a former political prisoner’s haflat al-istiqbal ("reception") in a Syrian prison. His testimony is found in Amnesty International’s most recent report on torture in Syria (October 1987). The victims cover the entire political spectrum, from Muslim Brothers to communists to Palestinian supporters of Fatah. Some were politically uninvolved relatives (wives, siblings, even children and elderly parents) of fugitives, held “hostage” until their relatives surrendered to the authorities.
Amnesty’s conclusion that “torture is a regular experience for thousands of political prisoners in Syria” hardly comes as a surprise, but the range of torture techniques might impress all but the most knowledgeable. A former inmate characterized one interrogation site in Damascus as a veritable “research center” on new torture methods.
In its 1983 report on human rights conditions in Syria, Amnesty delineated 23 different types of torture. Now the list has been expanded to 38. The most common torture consists of beatings on all parts of the body “with fists, feet, leather belts, sticks, whips, hammers, braided steel cables or cables inside plastic hoses with the ends frayed.” Also common is extinguishing cigarettes on the body, often on sensitive parts. Other methods include extracting finger and toe nails; plucking hair or skin with pincers or pliers; sexual abuse or assault; forcing objects into the rectum; complete isolation in a dark cell; setting hands and limbs afire; slashing a victim’s face — lips, ears, nose — with razor blades; and mock executions with a specially rigged guillotine.
Torturers often invent euphemisms to describe their grisly methods. Bisat al-rih (the flying carpet) has an innocent, even enchanting ring, but it is frightful: “strapping the victim to a piece of wood shaped like a human body and either beating him or her or applying electric shocks all over the body.” Al-Kursi al-Almani (the German chair) has moving parts to which the victim’s hands and feet are strapped. As the chair is moved backwards, it exerts severe pressure on the victim’s spine, neck and limbs, resulting in near asphyxiation, loss of consciousness, and occasionally fracturing the vertebrae. A variation, known as al-Kursi al-Suri (the Syrian chair), is equipped with metal blades that pierce the victim’s ankles as the chair is bent backwards.
The infamous al-‘abd al-aswad (the black slave) contraption drives a heated metal skewer into the rectum of the victim strapped to it. Equally barbaric is the more mundane al-ghassala. A prisoner&rqsuo;s arms are inserted into, and consequently fractured by, a spinning drum, similar to a household washing machine (for which it is named).
Some techniques appear to be the specialties of one or another of the nearly one dozen security agencies, each of which operates its own detention center and functions largely independently of the others. Al-Mukhabarat al-‘Askariyya (Military Intelligence), the most powerful, comprises several major branches, including two agencies having special jurisdiction over Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon. Palestinians report routine torture and ill treatment at the hands of al-Dabita al-Fida’iyya (the Commando Police); several have died in custody.
Torture and other forms of inhuman treatment (e.g., denial of medical treatment and family visits) usually go hand in hand with arbitrary powers of arrest and detention. Since 1963 Syria has been governed under a state of emergency which confers extensive powers on the security forces. “These powers have been grossly abused, resulting in thousands of arbitrary arrests,” Amnesty found. “The security forces have arrested people at will without warrants, without any explanation of why they are being arrested and without reference to any central authority, and held them incommunicado for long periods, in some cases for years.” In the early 1980s, there were at least 3,500 detainees in Syrian jails having no legal right to challenge their arrest and detention. The current number is unknown.
This excellent report is one of a series documenting the prevalence of torture in certain countries. In March 1989, Amnesty issued reports on Iraq and Egypt, and earlier reports examine torture in Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan as well as Syria. The main documentation for these reports is the testimony of former prisoners.
For many of these countries, certainly for Syria, Westerners require little convincing that torture is “widespread” and “systematic.” The one exception in the Middle East is Israel. Amnesty, unfortunately, has not seen fit to challenge this exceptionalism, despite the considerable evidence that torture in Israel seems to be more pervasive than, say, in Egypt. Since the report on Syria appeared, Amnesty has issued a number of short reports on specific human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, none of which were devoted to the question of torture. In its last annual world survey, Amnesty referred to Palestinian “allegations” of torture, but did not use terms like “regular,” “systematic” or “widespread” in discussing torture in Israel, despite what appears to be an abundance of the sort of evidence that supports such language in Amnesty’s references to other countries.
Sources: Amnesty International, Syria: Torture by Security Forces (New York, 1987); Report from Amnesty International to the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic (London, 1983); Torture in the Eighties (London, 1984). On Israel, see the report of the official London Commission of October 1987, and “Torture and Intimidation in the West Bank,” a report of the Ramallah-based al-Haq group.