Assad’s House of Torture

Horrific torture tactics aren’t new to Syria, but the crisis has worsened as uprising turns to stalemate.

It was an innocent search for a CD that led Ahmad to Syria’s house of horrors.

It was 2004. Ahmad was then a 22-year-old student of English in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and now ground zero for the armed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. He had recently discovered the music of international stars like Celine Dion and Chris de Burgh, an Argentinean-born Irish singer.

“I just fell in love,” recalls Ahmad. “I couldn’t wait for his new CD, but I didn’t know the title.”

The title, it turned out, was The Road to Freedom—and when Ahmad began asking around for it, the theme piqued the interest of Syria’s state security. Ahmad was accused of being a subversive and held in Aleppo’s civilian police station for five days. In state custody, he claims he was tortured.

“First, they put my arms and legs in a tire, like a roasted chicken, and then beat me,” Ahmad recalls. “Then they moved on to ‘The Magic Carpet,’ where they crush you like a cheese sandwich and beat your feet while you can’t breathe.”

Torture has always been a part of the Assad regime, even before the current uprising, says Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. But now, as the battle waged by Syrian rebels reaches a bloody stalemate, it’s a full-fledged crisis. Rovera has been monitoring the situation in Syria since March. “Torture in police detention [has] increased dramatically with the uprising,” she says. “Of course, there were some cases in which people were not tortured when detained, but those are the exception.”

The opposition, too, must wrestle with the legacy of torture, as they fight to gain leverage by taking government soldiers as prisoners, as they did this week at an air force base outside of Aleppo.

Its effects are brutal and long-lasting, leaving an untold bruise on the nation’s psyche. Ahmad says he had a nervous breakdown upon his release—but that these tactics were “child’s play” compared to the abuse he endured in his second detention. In 2008, Ahmad was held again, this time on charges of Israeli espionage. At the time, he had just completed computer science training in Qatar and had returned home to compete in a Syrian science exhibition.

“I had job opportunities elsewhere, but I wanted to work in Syria. I wanted to build my country.”

After his team drafted their proposal, the exhibition’s headquarters in Damascus said that approval for their project was needed from Syria’s National Security Agency. Standing outside the notorious agency in his hometown, Ahmad and his friends joked that “whoever went in wouldn’t come out.”

“I eventually entered by myself, and I could have never imagined what ended up happening to me,” he reflected, his hands twitching as he began.

When Ahmad presented his team’s credentials, the state security officials immediately began questioning an “ISL” label on the envelope. Ahmad had no idea what it was; the envelope was sent from the U.S. because he completed an American-certified program, he told the officials.

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“They said ‘ISL is Israel’ and just took me away.” He shakes his head. “I was so frightened and just kept blaming myself: why did I think I could ever deal with them again?” (Ahmad believes the mail may have stopped through Israel on its way to Syria.)

Ahmad alleges that he was held in a cell for two days before the torture began. According to his testimony, he was hand-cuffed, blindfolded, and taken to several different locations where the abuse began. He describes the piercing needles they allegedly poked under his toenails before ripping them off with pliers. He claims he was beaten, burned with cigarettes, forced into stress positions (“They call it the Scarecrow,” he noted), and deprived of sleep and food. Then, he says he endured the worst experience of his life: “the Dentist’s Chair.”

“They said they were going to ‘make me talk,’ that they were going to ‘jump-start me like a car,’” he shivered. Ahmad claims that four plainclothes officers cuffed him to a chair, jammed open his mouth, and electrocuted his gums. Today, he is missing teeth and still cannot drink certain beverages. His leg shakes as he recounts his ordeal, and he spoke slowly to maintain a steady tone in his voice.

When they finally let me go [after several weeks], I thought it was some new psychological torture tactic,” says Ahmad. “I couldn’t even speak, and they said, ‘You should have said it was just a label’ as I left the compound.” Ahmad says his father “lost a fortune in bribes” for his release and that his mother broke down when he arrived home, saying, “My son, back from the dead.”

Rovera and her team at Amnesty work with torture survivors, their lawyers, doctors, and government defectors to cross-check these allegations. Amnesty’s March 2012 briefing, “I Wanted to Die: Syrian Torture Survivors Speak Out,” (PDF) verified what had long been known throughout the international community, outlining many of the tactics described by Ahmad and documenting survivors’ claims. In July of 2012, Human Rights Watch published an extensive report on Syria’s underground torture centers, including detailed attention to the abuse of women, children, and the elderly.

Since the publication of these types of investigations, the relationship between the Assad regime and the international NGO community has deteriorated.

“The lines of communication with the government were strained before, but now they’re nonexistent,” states Rovera. “Currently the Syrian government is denying humanitarian organizations access to the crisis.”

Rovera is deeply concerned by the continuing deterioration of the civilian situation in Syria. Additionally, she claims that, of those Syrians arrested in recent months, none have been released.

“It’s no secret that there are many Syrians who never come out alive,” Ahmad whispers. “I’m really lucky. I’m blessed that I have both my life and my sanity.”

To Ahmad, the protests that have erupted against Assad in the last year are a form of justice. Ahmad initially began supporting the nonviolent demonstrations through hacktivism and now helps Syrian refugees in any way that he can.

“I can’t want revenge. I forgive those four men for me, for my own peace of mind,” reflects Ahmad. “Revenge is a long, dark place, and I hope Syrians will choose to move forward together when this is finished, even despite all this horror.”

“And for now, I’m going to keep playing Chris de Burgh,” he smiles. “Because here now in Syria, we are finally on the road to freedom.”