As It Happens

Brutal torture in Syrian prison network detailed by New York Times investigation

A new investigation by the New York Times' Anne Barnard offers a deep and disturbing look at the Syrian civil war playing out behind closed doors, in a brutal network of secret torture prisons where thousands of individuals disappear each year.

Warning: This story contains graphic details of violence and sexual assault some readers may find troubling

Forces loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad walk inside the government-controlled Hanano barracks in 2014 after what they said was an offensive against them by Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo. (George Ourfalian/Reuters)

For years, Syria's civil war has played out on the streets, killing hundreds of thousands of people and forcing out millions of Syrian refugees.

But a new investigation by The New York Times offers a deep and disturbing look at the war behind closed doors, in a brutal network of secret torture prisons where thousands of individuals disappear each year.

"Sometimes, the things that happen inside the prisons were unbelievable, even to the people who experienced them," said Anne Barnard, the New York Times' former Beirut bureau chief and a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations who wrote the full report.

"I haven't spoken to anyone who went through it who wasn't tortured and who didn't experience terrible conditions," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.

According to Barnard's report, an independent monitoring group called the Syrian Network for Human Rights says nearly 128,000 people have been arrested, taken into prison and never returned. Most are presumed to be either dead or in custody, with nearly 14,000 listed as "killed under torture."

'Creatively sadistic' torture

Detainees suffered a wide range of brutal and humiliating treatment.

"Some people were tortured with really creatively sadistic methods, like making them act like animals and beating them if they didn't follow the stage directions," said Barnard.

Other methods of torture included "being hung from their wrists for hours at a time, or being electrocuted, sexually assaulted or humiliated, and tied in all kinds of painful positions and then beaten," she explained.

Prisoners are reportedly piled into cells with no toilets or sanitation facilities. A lack of sanitation and food lead to rampant starvation and disease, the report found. 

Muhannad Ghabbash, left, spent 19 months in a Syrian prison. A New York Times investigation has revealed a deep and disturbing look at the war playing out behind closed doors, in a brutal network of secret torture prisons. (Laura Boushnak for The New York Times)

"Basic injuries were left to fester until people died from simple infections."

A United Nations investigation labeled the process "extermination."

According to Barnard's reports, compiled over seven years, the Syrian prison system is more deadly to Syrians than the Islamic State, with 90 per cent of "disappearances" attributed to the Syrian regime.

People demonstrate against the Syrian regime ahead of the start of the Syrian peace talks outside the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on Jan. 29, 2016. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Part of the Times's story focuses on Muhannad Ghabbash, who was a young college student when protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime began. After multiple arrests, he was incarcerated and tortured in 12 different facilities.

Barnard says he was forced to confess to participating in a terrorist bombing that may have never happened.

"It was a bombing, but the date they placed it on was a date before we are aware of any bombings having happened in his city, Aleppo," she said.

According to Barnard's report, Ghabbash was released after 19 months of detention when a judge was bribed to release him.

Women shunned, disowned after rape in prison

For women in particular, Barnard said the scars and damage inflicted by the prison system can continue long after they've been released.

Mariam Khleif was arrested for assisting wounded protesters, which the Syrian government classified as terrorism. While being held in a prison in Hama, she was raped nightly by the head of the investigations branch, said Barnard.

When she was released, she was disowned by her parents and divorced by her then-husband.

Mariam Khleif, a 32-year-old mother of five from Hama, was repeatedly raped during her detention. The Times report said Kleif was disowned by her family after her release. (Laura Boushnak for The New York Times)

Barnard described this treatment as a "double punishment" that is a common, though not universal, phenomenon in the region.

"[If they] come from a socially conservative family, there is a belief that if they've been raped, they have dishonoured the family. And some women have even been subject to so-called honour killings by their families," she said.

'Overwhelming' evidence regime knew about, ordered torture

According to Barnard and her report, several advocate groups have been unearthing documentation that shows Syrian officials, some of whom reported directly to al-Assad, knew about the atrocities committed in the country's prisons.

The Commission for International Justice and Accountability alone collected roughly 800,000 documents from Syrian security and government agencies.

"Some of the memos talk about bodies piling up and complaining that there has been too many deaths in detention and asking that the branches report each death to the head of military intelligence in order as a way to justify and explain the deaths," said Barnard.

Despite the "overwhelming" amount of evidence, she contends that holding the Syrian regime accountable in an international court currently remains a long shot.

A man walks past a banner depicting President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, outside Damascus, Syria on Sept. 17, 2018. (Reuters)

"Unlike with the Nuremburg trials, which took place after Nazi Germany was defeated, Assad has won, essentially," she explained.

"In order to bring Syria to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, it would require a vote from the U.N. Security Council and Russia's veto, because Russia is an ally of Assad's government, and has been preventing that from happening."

The "only path forward," she said, is if either a citizen of a European country with a "universal jurisdiction law" was detained or tortured, or if a perpetrator or victim of the torture resides in said country. Such a law allows the prosecution of crimes outside their jurisdiction.

"But there remains the problem that there is no one with the authority to actually arrest these people unless they leave Syria," she added.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview with Anne Barnard produced by Morgan Passi.