I’ve written this testimony to the Alternative Report to the Syrian Government’s Initial Report on Measures taken to Fulfil its Commitments under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
I was beaten while being questioned by State Security Intelligence, Branch No. 285 (based in Damascus). The interrogator slapped and punched me several times, and I was forced to stand, blindfolded with my hands cuffed behind my back, for the entire three-hour interrogation. The interrogator more than once threatened to use the “tire” on me and whip me. When I refused to answer some questions, I was made to kneel down on my knees.
Prisoners arrive at the Sednaya Prison cuffed and blindfolded, having no idea where the security truck is taking them as they leave the detention centre. Prisoners are usually transferred in groups. After I reached the prison, I was thrown in a solitary cell; it was smaller than I was and I could not stretch out. The cell was two floors underground, dark with no light, measuring about 160 by 180 cm. It contained a detached toilet about halfway up the wall. The cell smelled awful and filth was everywhere.
The next day, food was distributed. Through holes in the door, I saw rations in front of each cell for four people. It later turned out that the two solitary cells facing mine and next to me held four individuals—four people packed into the same space that was confining for me alone.
In the evening, I heard the First Aide to the Director of the Shift Guard tell the guards not to touch me, since I was connected to the press and appear on television. He told them that the prison director explicitly stated that “we don’t want problems with this prisoner.”
Groups of prisoners began arriving in the next few days. I spent 55 days in that cell during which two groups of prisoners arrived, each one numbering seven to ten people. Three prisoners arrived individually.
The guards began screaming, “They’ve brought them, they’ve brought them! May God send good fortune, bring the tire.” Prisoners arrived to the hall, lined on both sides by solitary cells like mine. More than ten guards arrived with a major from the Military Police, which runs the Sednaya Prison. The guards began beating the prisoners using rubber car tires. The prisoner would lie on his back and bend his legs, after which the tire would be put around his legs. Then the prisoner would be turned face down and a guard would stand on his back to prevent him from moving. Other guards would then whip the soles of his feet, and the screams would grow louder. The whipping was done with a very thick piece of rubber, probably an engine belt from a large machine.
The guards beat the prisoners—at the very least, each prisoner got more than 50 lashes. During the whipping, a guard would stand on the prisoner’s back to prevent him from moving and the major would make fun of the prisoners as they were being tortured. This is a verbatim dialogue of the conversation between the major and a prisoner undergoing torture:
Major: What do you do?
Prisoner: I’m a farmer.
Major: So you know what a tractor sounds like.
Prisoner: Yes sir, I know.
Major: So let’s see. Make me the sound of a tractor or else the beating won’t stop.
Prisoner: I swear, I don’t know how, sir.
Major: You don’t know, or you forgot?
Prisoner: I forgot, I forgot the sound.
Major to the guards: So remind him (an order to whip him).
The guards gave him more than 20 lashes and the prisoner screamed.
The major stopped the guards and asked the prisoner: So, have you remembered?
Prisoner: Yes, yes, I’ve remembered.
Major: So do it, make the sound of a tractor.
The prisoner began making a tractor-like sound while the major and guards laughed for five minutes.
The major ordered the prisoner to be quiet: So, you remembered quite well. Now c’mon, make him forget
the sound again.
He ordered a new round of beating and the guards gave him more than 20 lashes.
At this point, another prisoner had nearly passed out from his own screaming. The major stopped the
guards and threw water on the prisoner’s face.
Major: Are you okay?
Prisoner: If you want to whip me, whip me, but don’t let anyone stand on my back. I swear, I can’t
Instead of stopping the torture, the major followed his wishes and he was whipped without having a guard stand on his back to restrain him. This torture session lasted more than two and a half hours, after which the prisoners were stuffed four in a cell, as small as mine.
The second group of prisoners was larger. This time a different officer, a captain, came, but the captain also kept his sense of humor while torturing the prisoners.
During the whippings, he would ask the guards to stop and then order the prisoner restrained by the car tire to sing. He would say, “Sing this song by so-and-so,” and then later the singing would be used to justify more torture. The captain would scream, “Shut up! Shut up! Your voice is disgusting. Give me a scream instead of a song,” and then he would gesture at the guards to resume the whipping.
Later the captain would order the prisoner to bark, howl, or make other animal sounds. After one prisoner began howling like a dog at the captain’s order, the captain shouted at the guards, “I told you he’s a dog. Go ahead and beat him.” The guards then began beating him again.
This torture session lasted more than three hours, after which the prisoners were placed in solitary cells like mine.
Three prisoners arrived individually, not part of groups. The three were severely beaten. Apparently, if a prisoner arrives by himself, it gives the guards more time to be creative with the beating.
One prisoner, Khidr Abdullah Ramadan, reached the Sednaya Prison on about April 18, 2006, after being held for 70 days at a military detention branch run by Military Intelligence.
The prisoner was placed in the “tire” and four guards began whipping him. They competed to see who could cause him the most pain, who could make him scream more. I started to count the lashes until I reached 58 and then stopped when I realized that the session would be a long one. During the whipping, the guards began getting inventing new methods, like jumping up in the air and then bring the whip down on the prisoner’s feet. After whipping for more than 30 minutes, by four guards together, they couldn’t find any empty space in any cell. They sent for the first aide and he came. They told him there was no other place but with the journalist, meaning me. The aide vehemently refused and insisted on stuffing the prisoner into any other cell. At that point, one of the guards said, “We’ve got 131 prisoners in 31 solitary [cells], where should we go with him, sir?”
The aide opened the door of my cell, came up to me, and said, “Look, we didn’t treat you like the rest. We’re treating you much better. You know that. This prisoner’s going to share your cell. Talk is prohibited. If anything happens, it’s him we’ll beat. We’ll torture him very badly, and it’ll be on your conscience.”
The young man, his head completely shaved, was brought into my cell, which was too small for just me alone. The guards forced him to jog for a half hour so the blood wouldn’t clot on his feet. They kept saying, “Trot, you animal.”I carried the young man to the toilet for three days after that since he could not stand on his feet.
Abdullah, my cellmate, told me terrifying stories about the torture he had seen at the military interrogation center in Damascus. He had spent 70 days there in a group cell. He said that he wasn’t beaten at all at the branch, but that every day a prisoner would be taken in for interrogation and would be brought back bleeding on a blanket. The thing he most remembered was one prisoner who was severely injured by the torture. After he was carried on the military blanket and thrown down by the soldiers, he didn’t stop bleeding. The prisoners started screaming that he would die. The soldiers came back with some gauze and disinfectant and threw them through the small slot in the door of the cell and told the prisoners to clean up his wounds.
Often the soldiers, the prison guards at the Sednaya Prison, would force the prisoners to make sport. A guard would open the small slot in the cell door and order the prisoners to lie down, stand up, jog, or jump, knowing that the cell wasn’t big enough for even one prisoner to do this.
In some cases, the prisoners would bang on the cell door. When the guard would ask who it was, the prisoner had to answer with his cell number; the use of names was prohibited. Most often, the prisoners asked for water. The water in the cells had been cut off and was turned on for only ten minutes three times a day. When the water was turned on, the guards would tell the prisoners to fill their plastic containers or to use the toilet.
The scarcity of water was a big problem in the Sednaya Prison. I spent 55 days in that filthy cell, bathing only once. Prisoners began scratching themselves. The guards were worried and sent for the prison doctor an officer at the rank of first lieutenant, who diagnosed the problem as scabies. He ordered the guards to distribute a gallon of hot water to every prisoner, and he gave them a disinfectant solution which they put in the water. That was the only time I bathed.
After that, I spent 18 days in a group cell on the third floor, measuring 9 by 6 meters. It was very large. I was placed in there with my father, the writer Ali al-Abdullah, who told me about cases that were totally like what I had seen.
In the two months we spent there together, I learned for certain that as soon as any prisoner arrives to the Sednaya Prison, he is greeted the same way, in what is known as a welcoming party, or the welcoming tire. The beating is very severe, after which he is placed in a solitary cell with three other prisoners for up to one full year, during which time he does not breathe, or see light or sunshine. He only bathes if the doctor orders it, fearing the spread of scabies or other skin diseases.