The horror of Syria's torture prisons
Since 2011, thousands of people have died in custody in Syria’s brutal detention centres. Tens of thousands more have experienced shocking torture.
People are dying from starvation. They’re not getting even the most basic health care, and are dying from infected cuts and ingrown fingernails. Many have been brutally beaten, raped, given electric shocks and more, often to extract forced “confessions”.
Anyone suspected of opposing the Syrian government is at risk. Labourers, business people, students, bloggers, university professors, lawyers, doctors and journalists. People helping their neighbours. Activists standing up for minority groups.
Together, we must end the horror in Syria’s prisons. As a crucial first step, the Syrian government must let in independent monitors to investigate these brutal detention centres, now.
'The first thing this torture does is take your dignity. It breaks the human.'
Arabic teacher and torture survivor, late 20s, Syria
For the first time ever, you can explore a Syrian torture centre.
Together with research agency Forensic Architecture, we spoke to survivors of one notorious prison and have used their memories to recreate the sounds, beatings and fear.
In April 2016, we travelled to Turkey to meet a group of survivors from Saydnaya prison. In recent years, no journalists or monitoring groups which report publicly have been able to visit the prison and speak with prisoners, so this was an opportunity to tell their stories.
As there are no images of Saydnaya, we were dependent on the memories of survivors to recreate what happened inside. Using architectural and acoustic modelling, we helped witnesses reconstruct the architecture of the prison and their experiences of detention.
Former prisoners speak of an endless cycle of beatings. On the journey after arrest. In transit between detention centres. As part of a “welcome party” of abuse on arrival at a prison. And in some cases every day for every conceivable minor ‘breaking’ of rules, including talking or not cleaning their cells.
Many of the people we spoke to said they had been beaten with plastic hose pipes, silicone bars and wooden sticks. Some had been scalded with hot water and burnt with cigarettes. Others were forced to stand in water and given electric shocks.
Some of the techniques used are so commonplace they have their own nicknames. There’s the "flying carpet", where people are strapped face-up on a foldable board, and one end is brought up to the other. Or the “tyre” (dulab), where people are forced into a vehicle tyre, with their foreheads pressed onto their knees or ankles, and beaten.
Both men and women have been raped and sexually harassed. Women have also been threatened with rape in front of their relatives in order to extract “confessions”.
'When they brought me in, I didn’t see people – I saw worms, all wriggling and mixed together. I couldn’t stand on both feet, there was not enough space.'
Former detainee describing overcrowding
People suffer acute mental health problems due to overcrowding and lack of sunlight. In some cases, people told us there could be more than 50 people in a cell as small as 3m by 3m. They have little or no access to medical care and prisoners frequently die as a result of completely preventable medical problems.
This absolute horror is designed to break the will and destroy the spirit of those detained. Survivors are psychologically traumatised and physically broken. They often require intensive medical and emotional support to rebuild their life. In most cases, the Syrian government denies the security forces have even arrested these people. Or they refuse to give any information about their whereabouts.
It means that many detainees are “disappeared” – outside the protection of the law – making them especially vulnerable to abuse.
'I was very close to losing my mind.' University professor, late 50s, describing the impact of solitary confinement in Aleppo
In numbers – Syria since March 2011
17,000+ people killed in Syria’s prisons (minimum estimate)
65,000 people arrested by government security forces, now missing in unofficial detention centres (according to Syrian Network for Human Rights)
11 million+ people have been forced from their homes since March 2011
End the horror in Syria’s torture prisons
People are being locked up just for helping their neighbours. Lawyers, doctors and journalists have been jailed and tortured just for doing their jobs. It is a crime against humanity. But still the Syrian security forces get away with it.
As the world attempts to resolve the ongoing conflict, justice for people in detention must be a priority if Syrians are to have any trust in a lasting peace.
Russia and the USA have considerable influence over negotiations, in part because of their military involvement in the region. They must call on the Syrian government to let in independent monitors who can fully investigate conditions in these brutal detention centres. It will be the first step to ending the horror of Syria’s prisons, so that no one in the country is ever tortured in custody again.