Incarceration and truth regimes in Syria

Incarceration and torture have been standard tools of Syria’s repressive state apparatus since the installation of the Assad regime in the 1960s. Exposing the conditions in the prisons has long been part of Syria’s counter-culture, and remains a key element of the Syrian revolutionary movement today.

Sune Haugbolle

The Syrian government runs over 35 prisons around the country. Prior to the war, their estimated capacity was merely 16.000 people. As a result of the war, most of these already overcrowded prisons have become places of torture and punishment of the regime’s opponents, most of whom are detained without a trial. Around 130.000 people are kept in, or have disappeared into, the prison system since 2011. We know from government memos smuggled out of the country that officials who reported directly to President Bashar al-Assad ordered crackdowns on civilians and knew of atrocities. They ordered “harsh treatment” of specific detainees and took note of the increasing rate of detainee deaths and decomposing corpses. Amnesty International has described the worst of these jails, such as the Saydnaya Prison outside Damascus, as “slaughterhouses.”

Understanding life inside the prisons also enables understanding of the inner workings of the regime and its multifaceted effects on individuals and society.

Syrians know about the prisons of Bashar al-Assad, just as they knew about even the most secretive prisons like Tadmur Prison outside Palmyra during the Hafiz al-Assad years. Scarcely beneath the veneer of total regime domination, public life in Assadist Syria has always been full of contestation, mockery and cries of dissent. Critiques of violence, unlawful imprisonment, graft, and hypocrisy run through Syrian cultural production. They express, often at considerable risks for the artists and activists involved, the sentiment of the millions of Syrians who yearned for a fairer, more inclusive, and more democratic rule of their country. In February 2011, those critiques surfaced within the peaceful movement and later, starting in May that year, transitioned into an armed rebellion and then a war that has tragically degenerated into a carnival of violence.

The prison has emerged as a powerful metaphor for the social, political and bodily constraints the regime places on its citizens. Understanding life inside the prisons also enables understanding of the inner workings of the regime and its multifaceted effects on individuals and society. The revolutionary movement that has developed since 2011 has worked towards fully exposing the conditions inside the prisons – both the physical prisons and the metaphorical one of day to day repression in authoritarian society. As a result, since 2011, we have a wealth of new information both about the prisons of Hafiz al-Assad and those of his son Bashar: institutions that continue to play an important and terrifying role in the suppression and punishment of his opponents.

Most of the documentation is produced through cooperation between Syrian and international groups and activists. One recent example is Amnesty International’s multimedia online documentation of Saydnaya prison, Inside a Syrian Torture Prison, assisted by the Forensic Architecture group who specialize in visualizing transitional justice evidence. Saydnaya Prison is located just north of Damascus, and has been known for decades as one of the main detention sites for political opponents. After 2011, reports of more systematic torture began to spread from protesters who had been taken there and had managed to make it out alive. There are, however, no images of what goes on inside. The operators of Saydnaya have restricted all photography to conceal any disclosure. Without even a partial photographic record, Amnesty’s project manages to make Saydnaya visible by emphasizing the human experience inside the prison. Through oral accounts of former prisoners, viewers on the Amnesty webpage are able to move deep inside the subjective experience of imprisonment in Syria.

The project stands on the shoulders of Syrian civil society, which during the 1970s, 80s and 90s developed a catalogue of prison diaries, novels, plays poems, films, reports, and other forms of expression dealing with the psychological and social effects of imprisonment, fear and confinement. These include prison memoirs by writers such as Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Faraj Bayqadar, and Riyadh al-Turk. Former prisoners from the Hama revolt and massacre in 1982 published prison diaries that shed light on the often harsher treatment meted out against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organisations.

Contrary to what the Syrian regime and its proponents say, the evidence is not flimsy but comprehensive and irrefutable.

Assisting such efforts were reports by international human rights organisations, written with help from Syrian activists. Human Rights Watch’s report, Syria Unmasked, from 1991 provides particularly damning documentation of conditions for Syria’s political prisoners. It lists prisons, detention centres, and torture chambers in all of Syria and documents abuse of named political prisoners. Its detailed description of torture, summary executions, miserable prison conditions, and other violations of international human rights conventions is based on comprehensive interviews. Its authors point to the three main institutions that make political imprisonment possible: the army, the Ba’ath Party, and the secret police, or mukhabarat. With reference to ‘national security’ backed up by a permanent state of emergency since 1963, these three institutions systematically undermined and overruled any independent judiciary and the legal protection of individual rights enshrined in the Syrian constitution and hence provided a legal gloss over the brutality of repression as a means of further consolidating the ruling elite’s power. The state of emergency and outright war since 2011 have given more power to the military police, which now runs large parts of the state bureaucracy.

Syria Unmasked was researched and published at a time of Syrian–American rapprochement following the First Gulf War, in which Syria supported the American-led coalition against Iraq. Human Rights Watch hoped that the US would be able and willing to use its newfound leverage on the Assad regime to make it improve its human rights record. This turned out not to be the case, and the report had no direct impact on conditions in Syrian prisons. Several reports in the 1990s documented that although the number of political prisoners decreased steadily since the early 1990s, the treatment they received did not changed significantly. Since 1999, the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee and other Damascus-based organizations delivered regular updates on the human rights situation in Syria and several times called for international inquiry into the conditions in Syrian prisons. Testimonies by ex-prisoners were published in Jordan and Lebanon, and the Beirut press became a refuge for Syrian writers, who published their testimonies.

The focus of activists today is on thinking about how the mass of evidence that has been compiled can become the conduit for a legal-political process eventually achieving justice.

During the early 2000s – overshadowed by the American invasion of Iraq and the ensuing chaos – the regime and its supporters generally dismissed this growing body of evidence and testimony as conspiracies designed to justify foreign intervention in Syria. However, evidence continued to be produced throughout the 2000s. As I researched this field in the late 2000s, few of the activists I worked with had high hopes that their work would result in a legal case against the Assad regime. Many of them also had serious doubts that a stunted civil society inside Syria would be able to mobilize ordinary people to protest human rights abuses and call for democratic political reform anytime soon. But they nevertheless continued working, with a belief in a law-based international society that would find the means to address human rights violations and influence even non-democratic states towards transitional justice.

Since the war started, documentation of human rights violations inside and outside prisons has continued. The focus of activists today is on thinking about how the mass of evidence that has been compiled can become the conduit for a legal-political process eventually achieving justice. Similarly to before, the Syrian regime continues to denounce the testimonies, including the aforementioned Amnesty International report. Interestingly, denunciation also comes from self-styled anti-imperialist networks. For example, the Hands Off Syria Coalition, the online magazine Workers World, and other collectives and outlets have rejected Amnesty’s report on Saydnaya titled Inside a Torture Prison as a tool in the U.S.’ soft power willingly assisted by NGOs.

Despite the trappings of disinformation, misinformation, and media wars, evidence gathering generally has become much more sophisticated, and the case of Syria is playing a pioneering role. Groups such as the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) have developed in-depth databases with methodologically rigorous verification and classification of each piece of data. In a network of more than 400 independent groups focused on evidence gathering in Syria, SJAC and other organisations are increasingly conscious of the need to compare and corroborate their evidence against this massive body of interrelated information. This process allows for the reconstruction of events by weaving together a web of testimonies, videos, photographs, documents and medical records. With more sophisticated platforms emerging for transitional justice, this work allows users to view the different components, for example the actions involved, for each specific incident.

Thanks to these efforts of Syrian activists, who continue their efforts even after a decade of grueling conflict, we are now able to hear, feel, and see the prisons. Contrary to what the Syrian regime and its proponents say, the evidence is not flimsy but comprehensive and irrefutable. The violations stack up, and so does the hybrid archive that historians and human rights lawyers can share. Acting on them may be another matter.

Sune Haugbolle is a professor in global studies at Roskilde University in Denmark. His research focuses on political culture in the modern Middle East, and his publications include ‘War and Memory in Lebanon’ (Cambridge University Press 2010).