Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Syria's torture machine

Channel 4's foreign affairs correspondent reports from Syria on the mounting body of evidence that the state is engaging in widespread acts of brutality against its own citizens


Jonathan Miller
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 13 December 2011

"....Between late November and early December, I was one of just two foreign reporters granted an official journalist visa to this repressive police state. I spent nine days in Damascus, capital of al-Assad's Republic of Fear, as a guest of the government. There, I encountered an angrily defiant regime, robust and resolute and unapologetic. Earlier in this Arab spring, I spent six weeks in Libya. There are echoes of Gaddafi in the personality cult surrounding al-Assad, but Syria's political and security apparatus is bigger and badder than anything Gaddafi could muster. I do not mean to belittle the suffering of Libyans, but Syria has four times the Libyan population and 10 times the menace.

Over the course of those nine days, I interviewed three government ministers, an army general and the mayor of a rebellious city. I heard nothing but denials that the security forces were shooting, shelling and torturing civilians. The government blames "armed gangs" and "terrorists" and invokes the spectre of Islamist insurgents, just as Gaddafi's henchmen did. And like them, they see western-backed conspiracies. They talk of a media war in which Arab and western satellite TV stations broadcast "lies" and "fabricated videos."....

"It's rampant," says Nadim Houry, the Beirut-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, who has taken testimony on hundreds of cases of torture from Syria, "and, the odds are, if you're detained, you will be ill treated and most likely tortured. We know of at least 105 cases of people who were returned from the custody of security services in body bags to their loved ones … and those are only the ones that we know of." Mr Houry says he has evidence that tens of thousands of Syrians have been arbitrarily detained over the months.

"But we have also documented what I would call "meaningless torture" – if there is ever such a thing. They've got all the information but they want to teach you a lesson. I think that lesson is "you need to fear us". And the striking thing that I've seen is that despite that torture, people are no longer afraid. The wall of fear has been broken.".....

"I saw at least 200 children – some as young as 10," he said. "And there were old men in their 80s. I watched one having his teeth pulled out by pliers." In Syria's torture chambers, age is of no consequence, it seems. But for civilians who have risen up against al-Assad, it has been the torture – and death in custody – of children that has caused particular revulsion....

I met other survivors in other safe houses and each account corroborated the other. A pharmacist, abducted by militia from a hospital to which he'd been taken after being shot. His experience of torture was every bit as bad as that of the tractor driver. The 16-year-old boy, beaten, electrocuted to the point he thought he would die, then threatened with execution. He was now having trouble sleeping.

Another man, placed in what he called "the electric coffin" – in which a detainee is forced to lie inside a wooden box, across two metal plates through which they pass a current. The 73-year-old man was mercilessly whipped, electrocuted and beaten because of his son's known opposition activities abroad. He talked of hundreds of detainees pushed into cells, humiliated and naked. Another torture refugee told of a device they called "the German chair", so named, apparently, because it was devised by the Stasi. In it, a detainee is bent backwards until he feels his spine will snap.

What emerged was a pattern of systematic brutality, a revolving door of terror through which thousands of people have passed in recent months. This is Syria's torture machine. It is torture on an industrial scale.....

The result is a grotesque compendium of verified video material which we believe to present irrefutable prima facie evidence of crimes against humanity.

Talking me through this material, Pounder said the videos show "compelling evidence of crude physical violence, strangulation, homicide, shootings and general assaults. There is a very distinctive pattern of … physical violence in an extreme form," he said. "It would suggest that what was happening was happening on a wide scale and it would suggest that what was happening was carried out with impunity … There is no consequence for them even if there is clear evidence of an assault." So much for the UN Convention Against Torture....."

Syria's Torture Machine, 19 December, 11.10pm, Channel 4

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