LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Syrians detained by the al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have endured torture, floggings and summary killings in the armed group’s secret prisons, according to a report by Amnesty International.
ISIS controls large areas of northern Syria, where civil war has raged for nearly three years. The Syrian conflict pits disparate rebel groups against the government of President Bashar al Assad, and, increasingly, one another.
Between November 20 and December 5 2013, Amnesty International’s researcher for Syria, Cilina Nasser, interviewed ten Syrian former detainees in neighbouring Turkey, where they had sought refuge.
The former detainees told her that anyone criticising ISIS or appearing to oppose them could be abducted by masked men, blindfolded and taken into detention without being told their charge.
“Some (prisoners) are released, others die in custody and others are referred to court. Both the government and the (rebel) armed forces carry out furious human rights violations up to the level of war crimes,” Nasser told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
The report “Rule of fear: ISIS abuses in detention in northern Syria”, based on Nasser’s research, was released last month and details abuses suffered by civilians at the hands of the radical Islamist group.
The detainees described sham trials in areas controlled by ISIS fighters. Typically, a ‘judge’, who hides his identity, issues a sentence after a trial which lasts a couple of minutes, in which the accused are not able to defend themselves.
“He accused me of being a collaborator of the regime… He started flogging me with the scourge... He flogged me eight times and then I hid behind another detainee who received the rest of the lashes,” said the former detainee interviewed by Amnesty.
Some detainees died during the torture, which involved a variety of abuses, including hanging a person by the wrists, electric shocks and forcing them into demeaning sexual behaviour.
“My hands were still cuffed behind my back. They then put a rope through my cuffs and pulled me up while tightening the rope to the pipes on the ceiling. I was pulled so high up that my toes could hardly touch the floor,” another former detainee told the human rights group.
“My shoulder could not bear the weight of my body and it broke… So my body fell a little bit closer to the floor and I was able to stand on one leg. Then they started hitting me using the cable.”
REBELS HAVE TURNED AGAINST ISIS
The conflict in Syria which began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 and evolved into a civil war has driven a quarter of Syrians from their homes and killed more than 130,000 people.
In rebel-held areas, other groups have turned against the al Qaeda-linked ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which aims to construct an Islamist caliphate straddling the border separating Syria and Iraq.
“We don’t recognize anything called revolution. This is a revolution by kafirs [non-believers],” an ISIS torturer told a prisoner, according to a former detainee’s account. “We are here to set up an Islamic state.”
Having spoken to former detainees who had fled Syria, Nasser said there was “a gap between what the ISIS wants and what the people who took to the streets for freedom want”.
“They are scared but, at the same time, they are defiant. They worked hard to free themselves from the regime and now they’re not going to accept this freedom getting hijacked by anyone, including the ISIS,” she added.
Children were not spared torture, the detainees told Amnesty.
“The first child, aged 13 to 14, was accused of stealing a motorcycle. He was detained for around four days and each day he was flogged up to 40 times. After admitting to stealing the motorcycle, (the Sharia court judge) told him he’d send him the following day to bring the motorcycle from its hiding place,” a former prisoner said.
When the boy insisted that he would return the motorcycle that day, the judge “shouted at the boy to come forward, ordered him to lie on the ground and he whipped him with a cable around 30 to 40 times,” the prisoner added.
ISIS claims to enforce strict Sharia law in the areas it controls. “People are targeted because they are suspected of committing religiously forbidden acts, such as zina (sex out of wedlock) or for consumption of alcohol or even for smoking, which (ISIS) says is prohibited,” Nasser said.
The former detainees said that on release, the ISIS fighters usually blindfolded prisoners and drove them around in circles so that they won’t be able to locate the facility. Eventually, the detainee would be released and ordered not look back and identify the car.
After regaining their freedom, some of the former hostages interviewed by Amnesty wanted to remain in Syria, but they received new threats. Some of their acquaintances were also abducted and they fled to Syria rather than run the risk of another detention. Some could afford to take their families with them, but others had to leave relatives behind.