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“Inside Syria’s Secret Prisons”: A Harrowing Account of How Assad’s Torture Machine Crushed Dissent

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A shocking exposé by The New York Times looks at how Bashar al-Assad’s government has jailed and tortured tens of thousands of Syrians since the uprising began in 2011. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, nearly 128,000 people have disappeared. They are presumed to be either dead or still in custody. The group estimates almost 14,000 individuals have died under torture. The detentions are continuing even as the fighting winds down. More than 5,600 Syrians were reportedly arbitrarily detained last year in a 25% jump from the previous year. While the Syrian government has denied running a secret torture and detention program, more evidence—including internal Syrian government documents—has emerged showing the extent of the torture program. A United Nations panel has said the conditions in the prison—including the paucity of toilet facilities, rampant illness, minimal and rotten food, and the absence of medical treatment—are tantamount to “extermination.” We speak with the report’s author, Anne Barnard. She’s a reporter at The New York Times and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons.” That’s the title of a shocking exposé by The New York Times looking at how Bashar al-Assad’s government has jailed and tortured tens of thousands of Syrians since the uprising began in 2011.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, nearly 128,000 people have disappeared. They are presumed to be either dead or still in custody. The group estimates almost 14,000 individuals have died under torture. And the detentions are continuing even as the fighting winds down. Over 5,600 Syrians were reportedly arbitrarily detained last year, a 25% jump over the previous year.

While the Syrian government has denied running a secret torture and detention program, more evidence, including internal Syrian government documents, has emerged showing the extent of the torture program. Over the past seven years, The New York Times has been documenting what takes place inside the secret prisons. The accounts are harrowing. The Times report includes graphic descriptions of torture, sexual violence and murder. One former woman inmate, Mariam Khlief, told The New York Times she and six other women were tortured and repeatedly raped in a basement cell, where, quote, “blood from violent rapes stained the floor.” Survivors also reported guards forced detainees to eat excrement.

AMY GOODMAN: A prisoner named Mounir Fakir recalled a guard who called himself Azrael, the angel of death, who was also a nurse at a medical facility where prisoners were often tortured and killed. Fakir told the Times up to six patients were chained naked to each bed. Fakir said patients were taken by Azrael at night, and, quote, “We’d see the shadow of someone hitting, we’d hear the scream, then silence—suffocating silence. In the morning we’d see the body in the hallway to the bathroom. You would see bodies piled. We stepped on our comrades’ bodies, barefoot.”

The New York Times also heard testimony from former prisoners who said they were forced to act like animals by a guard who went by the name of Hitler. The prisoners were beaten if they didn’t, quote, “bark or bray correctly.” A United Nations panel has said the conditions in the prison, including the paucity of toilet facilities, rampant illness, minimal and rotten food, and the absence of medical treatment, are tantamount to extermination.

To find out more, we’re joined by the story’s author, Anne Barnard. She’s a reporter at The New York Times, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut from 2012 to 2018.

It’s great to have you back on Democracy Now!, Anne. We last spoke to you when you were in Beirut. This is a horrific story. Talk about the scope, the number of people you believe have been detained, the number of people disappeared and killed in Syria’s prisons.

ANNE BARNARD: Unfortunately, nobody knows the exact number, because the government keeps all of this behind closed doors and doesn’t release any information to the families of most of the people who are taken. But according to the Syrian Network of Human Rights, they have counted—not estimated, but counted—128,000 people who have been reported by their families or by witnesses to be taken by the security forces and not emerged from the prisons. Eighty-one thousand of those people, their families have not had any word from them whatsoever. So this is a sprawling system. Human rights groups estimate that the total number of Syrians who have passed through it could be in the hundreds of thousands.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, and you’ve been working on this for several years, compiling this evidence, as have a couple of other rights organizations, Amnesty International in particular. Now, I’d like to go to the Syrian government’s response to earlier research and documentation on these torture prisons. In an extended interview with Yahoo! News in 2017, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that Syrian refugees were, quote, “definitely aligned with terrorists.” And when he was shown photographs exposing the torture of political prisoners by his government, he dismissed the allegations as, quote, “fake news.”

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: If you take these photos to any court in your country, could they convict any criminal regarding this? Can they tell you what this crime, who committed? If you don’t have this full picture, you cannot make judgment. It’s just propaganda. It’s just fake news. They want to demonize the Syrian government. In every war, you can have any individual crime. It happen all over the world, anywhere. But it’s not the policy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was President Assad in 2017 responding to earlier reports. And, in fact, he was shown photographs of these prisoners, and then he denied the veracity of the photographs. So, what do you think—how has the Syrian government responded at all to your much more extensive report and the fact that you make the case that his success in this war has been contingent on these prisons?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, they haven’t responded at all, which is pretty typical. They’re not very responsive to direct queries from the press. Look, I think that their MO has always been to just deny, deny, deny anything, no matter how much evidence there is. And he said to my face in 2016 when I met him in Damascus that, you know, “We have a normal justice system operating here. Any family who’s missing their relative should just go and ask.” But, of course, families that I know personally, thousands of families, have been going for years to ask after their families. And sometimes family members are arrested for asking.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Where are they supposed to go? Where do they ask? Who do they go to?

ANNE BARNARD: They make the rounds of dozens of different security offices. There’s four different intelligence branches, and each one operates dozens of torture and detention facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times exposé begins with the story of Muhannad Ghabbash, echoed by many other survivors, revealed that by 2012, quote, “[T]here was an industrial-scale transportation system among prisons. Detainees were tortured on each leg of their journeys, in helicopters, buses, cargo planes. Some recalled riding for hours in trucks normally used for animal carcasses, hanging by one arm, chained to meat hooks. Mr. Ghabbash’s new cell was typical: 12 feet long, 9 feet wide, usually packed so tightly that prisoners had to sleep in shifts.” Tell us Muhannad’s story, how you met him, how you learned of this situation, and then why you say you think actually the uprising in 2011 was caused by this kind of sadistic, torturous prison system.

ANNE BARNARD: Muhannad Ghabbash was very typical of the types of people that were sucked into this system. He was a protester and eventually led peaceful protests in Aleppo when the uprising began in 2011. And he was arrested the first time in 2011, was arrested several times that year, and in 2012, and was taken to a number of different facilities. He said he was like a tour guide to torture. And he was forced to, as you said, act the roles of animals. He was—

AMY GOODMAN: This is in kind of pseudo-plays for officers.


AMY GOODMAN: And guards at dinner.

ANNE BARNARD: Yeah, kind of entertainment. But also, much more—I shudder to call it routine, but the more routine types of torture—being hung by wrists, being put into stress positions and beaten—until he made a false confession, which was something that happened to most of the prisoners.

Look, I think the use of this system followed a playbook that Assad’s father began in Hama in 1982, when there was an uprising. And the idea was to suck up the people who were nonviolent protesters, because it’s easier to go after the ones that are violent. Of course, there were all kinds of people arrested, but there was special focus on arresting civilian protesters, because those are the biggest threat at the end of the day. We’re talking about a state with all the machinery of state power and violence at its disposal. It’s in a way easier for them to fight the people that pick up arms, and it’s harder for them to face people that are using civil methods.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also say, though, in the piece that simultaneously, as the Assad regime was arresting more and more civilians, they also released radical Islamists who had been imprisoned for decades.

ANNE BARNARD: Yes. The Assad regime, of course, helped funnel jihadists into Iraq to fight the U.S. occupation there, and arrested many of them when they returned. Now, in one of the first big steps after the uprising began in 2011, a lot of those people were released, including the top leaders, the people who became in the future top leaders of the most hard-line Islamist rebel groups. At the very same time that those people were released into the population, they were vacuuming up people literally including followers of Gandhi, who followed an Islamic cleric who believed in nonviolence and called on people to adopt a form of jihad that was not violent but that was based on nonviolence. This person’s followers were among the civilian leaders of the revolution at the beginning, and many of them were killed right away or sucked into the prisons and have not come out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Anne Barnard, a reporter at The New York Times, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her latest piece, that came out Sunday in The New York Times, “Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with her in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Bad Monsanto” by the American folk singer Michael Hurley. A California jury has ordered Monsanto to pay a record $2 billion to a couple who say they got cancer after using Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer. That’s next, but we’re continuing right now with Anne Barnard. She’s a reporter at The New York Times, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her latest piece, “Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent.” I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Anne, tell us the story of Mariam Khlief and what has happened to her.

ANNE BARNARD: Mariam is a woman from Hama, who—her crime was helping injured protesters, which was considered terrorism by the government, if it was—yeah, considered a form of terrorism. So, she was arrested in 2012 and taken to one of the facilities in Hama. And she was raped, she said, every night by the chief of investigations of the prison, whom she–Colonel Suleiman. She knew him by name, and documents that we’ve seen show that the head of investigations in that facility was in fact a Colonel Suleiman Juma. And she was held in the prison with a number of other women in a basement cell where the six women barely fit. They were taken to the colonel’s office, and he used to even bring his friends to join him in raping them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about another question that your piece raises. I mean, something that everyone has seen—the torture prisons are, of course, scarcely known about and scarcely covered in the media, but, of course, is the Syrian, the refugee crisis, the millions and millions, up to 6 million, refugees who are now living outside their country. President Trump welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House on Monday. The far-right nationalist leader is known for his hard-line anti-immigration policies and rolling back democratic institutions and checks on his power. This is Orbán and then Trump speaking from the Oval Office.

PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBÁN: We have some similar approaches. And I would like to express that we are proud to stand together with the United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism, and to protect and help the Christian communities all around the world.

* PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:* I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man. And he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration. And you look at some of the problems that they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’ve done it a different way than the prime minister.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Orbán has closed down Hungary’s southern border, building a razor-wire fence to keep out refugees, many of them from Syria, and has also deported refugees already in the country. Now, the Assad regime has conflated the refugees with terrorists. And in your piece, Anne, you say that many millions of Syrian refugees are now unlikely to return even once the war is over, if these torture prisons remain in operation. And also the fact that Trump corroborated or said that what Orbán has done is right, and the fact that the U.S., in 2018, admitted only 62 Syrian refugees.

ANNE BARNARD: Right. I think, you know, that at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Syrians would say, if this kind of rights violations are allowed to go with impunity in Syria, it will affect freedoms in the West. And that seemed at the time kind of histrionic. But, in fact, what’s happened is that refugees have flowed out of the country. The refugee crisis proved to be fuel for the rise of the right wing and the divisions within Europe and the rise of leaders like Orbán, who is eroding civil liberties and certainly fighting immigration. And Trump is enjoying the same rhetoric and, you know, as you saw, agreeing. Now, this just reflects Assad’s own conflation of refugees with terrorists, when in fact these are—terrorism, both ISIS and the violence of the state used against them, is what these refugees are fleeing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the internal memos that you got a hold of? This question of—we just listened to Assad, the president—how much he knew and how much is being directed directly from the top?

ANNE BARNARD: So, this is a state where there’s a very close coterie of advisers and officials around Assad, and they decide almost everything. After the uprising began, there was a crisis cell that was created to respond to it, and it reported directly to Assad. The memos show that that cell ordered crackdowns on protesters, on people who tarnish the image of Syria in the foreign media—that just means people who talk to journalists—and these types of people.

Now, later, the top security officials also asked for every death to be reported to them, so that it was clear that they knew about the killings in detention. They referred to bodies piling up. They referred to the need to deal with all kinds of bad conditions that were leading to all these deaths. Now, it sounds, in vacuum, as if they’re trying to correct these problems, but there’s no record in the 800,000 documents that have been smuggled out of Syria of anyone being punished for any of these actions. It really just shows that they were aware of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your methodology? I mean, you’ve been working with this for years. What first prompted you? I mean, there is some coverage of the catastrophe of war in Syria, the obvious barrel bombing, all of that. But what about what’s happening behind closed doors? Assad has been very careful. And what it means to talk to people about—those who survive, the lucky ones—about this level of torture they have endured?

ANNE BARNARD: So, in a way, this is something that everyone knew in Syria, in the sense that it’s not a new system. It’s been around for a long time. But what we decided to do over the years—and, of course, we did this while covering the daily news of Syria over the years—was to try to go deeper to try to get accounts of survivors who corroborated one another and were corroborated by documents. It took a very long time to get enough people who had their families safely out of Syria and felt safe to talk and to get documents and to basically—you know, over the years, many human rights organizations and journalists and lawyers worked on this issue. So we’re talking about evidence that has accreted over the years and adds up to this big picture.

Now, one of the toughest parts is speaking to the survivors about what they’ve been through. And we spoke to dozens of them, me and my wonderful team of Syrian and Lebanese colleagues. Now, you need to be sensitive when you’re dealing with victims of trauma and without sacrificing journalistic rigor, without sacrificing verification, but this was a long process. This had a huge emotional impact on us, as well as, of course, on the survivors who had to retell their stories. So, you know, it took time. It took energy. And it does sort of make you ask yourselves a lot of questions about humanity and how this kind of thing can continue to happen in the 21st century.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How did you know what survivors to speak to? At some point, you tell a story of someone who sneaked out the names of some of the detainees. Can you talk about that?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, so, in terms of who to talk to, basically, almost every Syrian that we talked to who had any connection to the protest movement, and even many who did not, had a relative or friend who was in the system. So it was not difficult to find people. And then, through those people and also through networks of survivors, we would get different names of people, especially in our quest to find people that were willing to use their names. That was the toughest part.

But, yes, Mansour al-Omari is one of the prisoners who worked together in a cell underground in a base run by the Fourth Division, which is controlled by Assad’s brother Maher. And this group of prisoners decided, “Let’s write down all the names of the people in our cell and get them out with whoever manages to get out first, just to let people know, their families and the world, that these are the names of at least these people that we could identify here.” Now, they had to write the names in blood on a piece of fabric. They were sewed into the seam of a jacket. And Mansour was the first one to be released, and he managed to wear that jacket out—or a shirt, I guess—and to bring those names out to—first they were displayed in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. They were shown to many different officials. And they were recently submitted to authorities in Sweden as part of a complaint by survivors trying to get Sweden, as France and Germany have done, to open a war crimes prosecution against Syrian officials on behalf of refugees and citizens who are in Sweden who have been subject to this system.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Syrian government is very aware of this and trying to protect themselves from any kind of war crimes or crimes against humanity charges. How are they doing this?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, first of all, by staying in Syria. I mean, there is already an arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan, who’s the head of the Air Force branch of intelligence, and against Ali Mamlouk, who is the top security official overall. And those guys just aren’t going to come to Europe to end up getting arrested. But there are lower-level officials, some of whom have joined the refugee flow and have been arrested once they’ve been identified in Germany and France.

Now, they also, in the memos, interestingly—one memo from the military intelligence department says, when you make these death certificates about each detainee who dies—and remember, all these death certificates claim that the people died because their heart stopped. So that’s kind of a tautology. Of course, when you die, your heart stops. And obviously all these young people that are in the prisons are not all suddenly having an epidemic of heart disease. So, the memo instructed them to write the memos in such a way as to ensure a judicial immunity from prosecution for the work of the intelligence officials in the future.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the other things that you—an international mechanism that you point to is the fact that the U.N. General Assembly has voted in favor of establishing the International, Independent and Impartial Mechanism. What is the status of this, and what kind of mandate is it charged with, or will it be, if it’s established?

ANNE BARNARD: No, it has been established and funded, which is a big step. And that was done through a General Assembly vote in the U.N. in order to get around the impasse in the Security Council. The Security Council is blocked by Russia from referring Syria to the International Criminal Court. But the IIIM that you mentioned is a new body which is going to be kind of a clearinghouse for all the documents and court-ready evidence that’s being collected by different groups—Syrian and European groups—to try to build war crimes cases. Now, it has a mandate to build those cases for use in any future prosecutions in international or national courts, but it does not have the ability to arrest or charge anyone. It’s sort of like a prosecutor waiting for a court, I guess you could say.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for joining us today, for explaining your piece and for the piece itself, your years of work. Anne Barnard is a reporter at The New York Times, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. We will link to her piece in the Times, “Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent.” She was The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut from 2012 to 2018.

Coming up, a California jury has awarded Monsanto [sic] a record $2 billion. And then, we’ll talk about the U.S. refusing to sign on to a global treaty around plastic. Stay with us.

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