Palestinian journalist deported from Syria tells of torture ordeal

‘The hospital was … not a hospital, but a slaughterhouse’ - Salameh Kaileh

A prominent journalist has told Amnesty International how Syrian government forces tortured and detained him in deplorable conditions before deporting him to Jordan on Monday. 

Salameh Kaileh, a 57-year-old Jordanian national of Palestinian descent, has lived and worked in the Syrian capital Damascus since 1981. On 24 April, plain clothes officials from Syria’s Air Force Intelligence arrested him during a raid on his flat in Barzah, a Damascus suburb. Amnesty considered him to be a prisoner of conscience, held solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Following his arrest, Kaileh was held at a Syrian Air Force Intelligence branch in Damascus, where he was insulted and beaten for days. Officers used the falaqa torture method on him, whipping the soles of his feet with a thin bamboo stick.

One unidentified official targeted the journalist’s background by shouting insults against Palestinians. Throughout his interrogation Kaileh was repeatedly asked about his role in publishing a leftist political publication - he denies any such role, saying he collects the publication for his journalism work. 

On 3 May, Kaileh was transferred to another Air Force Intelligence branch, where medical professionals referred him to a military hospital in al-Mezzeh after confirming he bore signs of having been tortured. While at the military hospital, he faced even more torture than before. Kaileh and the other patients were crammed in, two or three to a bed, their hands and feet bound and their faces covered with blankets. They were forced to defecate and urinate in the beds.

Kaileh told Amnesty:

“The main reason for my arrest, from what I understood, is a conversation I had on Facebook with a friend outside Syria about my position on the revolution and my opinion about the Muslim Brotherhood and so on.

“Unfortunately, the hospital was much worse than what I was subjected to in prison. It was not a hospital, but a slaughterhouse.

“I stayed in this hellish condition for a week … I forced myself not to eat or drink so that I did not urinate in bed. I needed to take medication for a thyroid problem but was not given it.”

During his time in the hospital, Kaileh was subjected to frequent and severe beatings while blindfolded and tied to a bed. The doctors joined the military officials in shouting insults at the patients, but he was unable to see if they also took part in the beatings.

While in detention, there were serious concerns for Kaileh’s health, as he is required to take daily medication since recovering from throat cancer in 2004. On 10 May, Kaileh was taken from the hospital to a Department of Immigration branch. Officials there and at several other ministry offices interrogated him before deporting him by aeroplane to the Jordanian capital Amman on Monday. Kaileh said he wants to return to Syria and plans to file a lawsuit against his deportation.

To Amnesty’s knowledge, Kaileh did not take part in the ongoing popular protests in Syria and his detention and torture by the Syrian authorities were solely in relation to his political writing and journalism. Kaileh was previously arrested in 1991 and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment in Damascus for his alleged membership of the Party for Communist Action.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Ann Harrison said:

“Salameh Kaileh’s dreadful ordeal shows the extent to which the Syrian authorities will go to attempt to crush dissenting voices.

“His horrendous account mirrors the reports we’ve received about thousands of detainees being tortured and ill-treated in detention - often in extremely poor prison conditions - amid the Syrian government’s crackdown over the past 15 months.

“This is not the first time that we have documented the involvement of doctors in human rights violations. They should be doing their best to restore people to health rather than allowing patients to be held in appalling conditions and subjected to torture in hospitals.”

Last October Amnesty published a report documenting the abuse of perceived government opponents by medical staff, health personnel and security officials in several government-run or military hospitals.

Since the beginning of widespread, largely peaceful pro-reform protests in Syria in February 2011, a crackdown on dissent has led to thousands of suspected opponents being arrested. During that time, many, if not most, detainees have been tortured and at least 350 people have died in custody.

In the year since then, although peaceful demonstrations have continued, the unrest has turned increasingly violent, with armed opposition groups, many loosely under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) carrying out attacks mainly against Syrian security forces. The FSA and other armed individuals are also reported to have carried out abuses, although not on the same scale as those by government forces.

Amnesty has obtained the names of more than 9,200 people reported to have died or been killed in connection with the unrest since mid-March 2011. Many of those were killed amid the protests or during army incursions into villages and towns, as a result of extrajudicial executions, a shoot-to-kill policy and indiscriminate shooting/shelling of residential areas.  Members of the security forces have also been killed, some by defecting soldiers who have taken up arms against the government.

Despite the presence of a small UN observer mission to monitor the situation, the violence has continued in recent weeks, with ongoing clashes reported between Syrian government forces and armed groups including the FSA.

Amnesty has repeatedly called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, for an international arms embargo to be imposed on the country, and for President Bashar al-Assad and his close associates to have their assets frozen.

The organisation is also calling for a more robust and adequately-resourced UN observer mission with a clear human rights monitoring component.

View latest press releases