Posts Tagged ‘Mohammad Al Abdallah’

A rare glimpse from inside the prison: father and son al-Abdallah

When Bashar al-Assad came to power, Mohammad al-Abdallah believed things in Syria would finally change for good. Ten years later, he tells the story of a personal disillusionment.

By Mohammad al-Abdallah


Bashar Al-Assad has now been in power for 10 years. To me, that period equates to the length of time that members of my family and I have spent in Syrian prisons.

From the initial hope that accompanied his ascendance to the country’s presidency to this bitter realization a decade later, Syrians have undergone spiraling feelings of disappointment.

When Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, like many other Syrians I was hopeful that an era of change was dawning. We hoped that the new millennium would bring to an end the dark years of the father’s ruthless rule, when prisoners of conscience could die from torture in detention. But the years that followed showed me how misplaced my optimism was.

In the first year of Assad’s presidency, the Syrians experienced briefly the euphoria of change. The country witnessed an overwhelming number of forums of discussion, planning democratic reform. However, this period, which came to be known as the “Damascus Spring”, was swiftly crushed by the authorities. As the whole world was shaken by the terrorist attacks of 11 September in New York, the Syrian government was busy arresting opponents to the ruling Baath regime. Ten of Syria’s most prominent intellectuals were thrown behind bars for peacefully calling for reforms.

Still, many hoped that they would be released soon. They thought the arrests were the making of the autocratic old guards of the regime. They believed that the young president, who wanted to implement reform and change, would eventually grow stronger and defeat the conservatives.

The Iraq War As Alibi

In the years that followed, we realized that nothing had changed. The calls for democracy and freedom of expression continued to be stifled. Yet Assad was still able to convince the Syrians that he was a reformist president who needed more time to accomplish his vision.

The fall of Saddam in Iraq had strong repercussions in Syria.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave him another alibi to delay the implementation of reforms. The so-called existential threat against the Syrian establishment after the crumbling of the Baath regime in Iraq allowed the president to justify the prolongation of oppression on the internal front.

Two years later, a dramatic regional development extended this policy. With the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, widely blamed on Damascus, Syria officially entered a phase of international isolation. Western powers forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the establishment of an international tribunal into the killing of Hariri placed the regime under a sword of Damocles.

It was in this context, in my opinion, that the president showed his tyrannical face. That year was a dramatic time for Syrians, and mainly for my family. My father was arrested in May 2005 for his activities in the Atassi forum, the only space for political discussion that had survived the crackdown on forums in 2001.

A Family Under Arrest

I also went to prison a few months later for merely lobbying for the release of my father. I was released by a military court after a month in detention.

My father was also set free six months after his arrest thanks to a presidential amnesty. I naively believed this would be the end of our ordeals. Little did I know.

Less than half a year later, Assad decided to end the phase of relative tolerance for political dissidents. The secret services were given a green light to crush human rights activists. The message was clear to the Syrians: if you keep on raising your voices, you will end up in jail.

Subsequently, 2006 turned out to be one of the gloomiest years for civil society – and my family, in particular. In one week, all the men in my family were arrested and kept in unknown locations.

My brother was arrested with seven of his college classmates for running an online forum. Five days later, the security services arrested my father and me in two separate raids.

An aerial view of Sednaya Prison (by Google Earth)

It took me five weeks to find my father in the Sednaya military prison near Damascus. He had not been aware of my arrest. My brother was also in the same prison; each of us was on a different floor. I was in a nasty cell two floors underground, my brother was on the floor above me and my father was on the second floor.

After my reunion with my father, we asked to see my brother but the prison insisted that he was not in the same detention centre.

My father and I spent 18 days together in this jail before security agents dressed in civilian clothes transferred us to the Adra prison. There I met 10 other activists who were detained for signing the Damascus-Beirut declaration, a joint statement by Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals calling for the improvement of relations between the two neighboring countries.

I was finally convinced that nothing had really changed between the times of the father and those of the son. We were still living in a dictatorship.

New Waves Of Crackdown

While some analysts might argue that the invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Hariri put the regime at risk and pushed Assad’s government to adopt a hawkish, defensive posture, the relaxation of relations with the west since 2007 proves that this line of analysis is flawed.

As French and US officials poured into Damascus, Assad felt reassured that his regime was no longer in danger. Civil society expected a release of prisoners and reforms to finally ensue. Nothing of the sort happened. New waves of crackdown on activists followed as the US and Europe watched in silence.

After the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Syria became internationally isolated.


Following my release with my father after six and-a-half months in prison, I tried in vain to visit my brother in jail. Defendants tried by the State Security Court have no right to visits by family or even a lawyer before they are sentenced.

Without seeing my brother, I had to leave for Lebanon where I finished law school. All along, something inside was telling me that I would not go back home.

During my exile in Lebanon, I heard that my father, along with 11 other political dissidents, had been arrested again. This marked the point of no return for me. I applied for refugee status at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, in Beirut. For me the word refugee sounded strange. I had never thought before that my country would push me to become one.

Ironically, despite all the ordeals of human rights activists in Syria, I see the first lady, Asma al-Assad, with her camera-friendly looks, telling the western world that the government is trying “to open more space for civil society.” I don’t know why, but every time I see her photogenic face, I remember my mother lying in a hospital bed suffering from kidney disease, heart problems and cancer. She is alone in her hospital room while her husband is in jail, her son is in another prison and her eldest is in exile.

Recently, Assad celebrated his first decade in power. A month earlier, my family was preparing to celebrate for other reasons. On June 17, my father was supposed to be set free after 30 months in prison. The government, however, decided to keep him instead in the same jail where he is facing again the same charges that had led to his imprisonment for a total of four years after three different trials. The charges are the “broadcast of false information that threaten to weaken the national sentiment”.

Can those who argue that Assad is a true reformer look me and my family in the eyes and say so?

Mohammad al-Abdallah is a Syrian human rights activist and writer living currently in Washington DC.

The original article is available at The Damascus Bureau @ http://www.damascusbureau.org/?p=1129

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

breathe.

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.