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Syria: 10 die each day in government jails - details of 'systematic torture' revealed

One male detainee forced by guard to rape his fellow prisoner or face death

In one incident 19 detainees beaten to death after guards discovered a prisoner teaching fellow detainees martial arts skills

'I saw the blood, it was like a river … I never imagined humanity would reach such a low level' - detained lawyer, Samar

Video showing virtual 3D reconstruction of Saydnaya Military Prison also released

The horrifying experiences of detainees subjected to rampant torture and other abuse in Syrian government prisons are detailed in a damning new report published by Amnesty International today (18 August), which estimates that more than 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria over the past five years - an average of more than 300 people each month, about 10 a day.

The 69-page report, ‘It breaks the human’: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons, documents the cases of 65 torture survivors who've described appalling abuse and inhuman conditions in detention centres operated by various Syrian intelligence agencies and in one of Syria’s most notorious jails, Saydnaya Military Prison, on the outskirts of Damascus. Most said they had witnessed prisoners dying in custody - some beaten to death - and several former detainees described being held in cells alongside dead bodies.

The majority of survivors told Amnesty that abuse would begin instantly upon their arrest and during transfers, even before they set foot in a detention centre. Upon arrival detainees described a “welcome party” ritual involving severe beatings, often using silicone or metal bars or electric cables. These were often followed by “security checks”, during which women in particular reported being subjected to rape and sexual assault by male guards.

At the intelligence branches detainees would be forced to endure relentless torture during interrogation, generally in order to extract "confessions" or other information, or simply as a punishment. Common methods included "dulab" (forcibly contorting the victim’s body into a rubber tyre) and "falaqa" (flogging on the soles of the feet). Detainees also faced electric shocks, rape and sexual violence, having their fingernails or toenails pulled out, scalding with hot water or burning with cigarettes.

Samer, a lawyer arrested near Hama, said:

“They treated us like animals. They wanted people to be as inhuman as possible … I saw the blood, it was like a river … I never imagined humanity would reach such a low level … they would have had no problem killing us right there and then.”

Former detainees from the intelligence branches have described being held in cells so overcrowded they had to take turns to sleep, or had to sleep while squatting. "It was like being in a room of dead people. They were trying to finish us there,” said Jalal, a former detainee. Another detainee, “Ziad” (not his real name), said the ventilation in Military Intelligence Branch 235 in Damascus stopped working one day and seven people died of suffocation:

“They began to kick us to see who was alive and who wasn’t. They told me and the other survivor to stand up ... that is when I realised that ... seven people had died, that I had slept next to seven bodies … [then] I saw the rest of the bodies in the corridor, around 25 other bodies."

Detainees also reported that access to food, water and sanitation was often very restricted, and most were prevented from washing properly. In such environments infestations of scabies and lice were common, as were diseases. With most detainees denied access to proper medical care, they were forced to treat each other with only the most rudimentary supplies, further contributing to a dramatic increase in deaths in custody.

Amnesty's report highlights new statistics from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which indicate that more than 17,723 people died in custody across Syria between March 2011 (when the crisis began) and December 2015, an average of more than 10 a day. In the decade leading up to 2011, Amnesty recorded an average of around 45 deaths in custody in Syria each year. However, even the current 10 a day figure is a conservative estimate and both the Human Rights Data Analysis Group and Amnesty believe that, with tens of thousands of people now forcibly disappeared in detention facilities across Syria, the real figure is likely to be significantly higher.

Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:

“The catalogue of horror stories featured in this report depicts in gruesome detail the dreadful abuse detainees routinely suffer from the moment of their arrest, through their interrogation and detention behind the closed doors of Syria’s notorious intelligence facilities. This journey is often lethal, with detainees being at risk of death in custody at every stage.

“For decades, Syrian government forces have used torture as a means to crush their opponents. Today, it is being carried out as part of a systematic and widespread attack directed against anyone suspected of opposing the government in the civilian population and amounts to crimes against humanity.

“The international community, in particular Russia and the USA, which are co-chairing peace talks on Syria, must bring these abuses to the top of the agenda in their discussions with both the authorities and armed groups and press them to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment.

“Using 3D modelling techniques and the memories of those who survived horrendous abuse there, for the first time we are able to get a true glimpse inside one of Syria’s most notorious torture prisons.”

Saydnaya Military Prison

For the launch of this report Amnesty worked with a team of specialists at the Forensic Architecture group at Goldsmith's University in London to create a virtual 3D reconstruction of Saydnaya Military Prison. Using architectural and acoustic modelling and descriptions from former detainees, the reconstruction brings to life the daily terror they experienced and their appalling detention conditions

Having first spent months or years detained by the intelligence agencies, and often given an outrageously unfair trial before a military court (sometimes lasting no more than a matter of minutes), some detainees are transferred to Saydnaya. Here conditions are particularly dire and torture and other ill-treatment appear to be part of a systematic effort to degrade, punish and humiliate prisoners, with prisoners also routinely beaten to death.

“In [the intelligence branch] the torture and beating were to make us ‘confess’. In Saydnaya it felt like the purpose was death, some form of natural selection, to get rid of the weak as soon as they arrive,” said Omar S.

Salam, a lawyer from Aleppo who spent more than two years in Saydnaya, said: "When they took me inside the prison, I could smell the torture. It’s a particular smell of humidity, blood and sweat; it’s the torture smell." He described one incident when guards beat to death an imprisoned Kung Fu trainer after they found out he had been training others in his cell: “They beat the trainer and five others to death straight away, and then continued on the other 14. They all died within a week. We saw the blood coming out of the cell.”

Detainees at Saydnaya are initially held for weeks at a time in underground cells which are freezing cold in the winter months, without access to blankets. Later they are transferred to cells above ground where their suffering continues. Deprived of food some detainees said they ate orange peel and olive pits to avoid starving to death. They are forbidden from speaking or looking at the guards, who regularly humiliate and taunt them. Omar S described how on one occasion a guard forced two men to strip naked and ordered one to rape the other, threatening that if he did not carry out the rape he would die.

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