Every other day, we are reminded of the banality of evil through numerous new news reports that mention brutal, horrendous and inhuman acts of torture inflicted by ISIS and other terrorist organizations.
But a new report titled 'It breaks the human': Torture, disease and death in Syria's prisons published by Amnesty International that documents crimes against humanity allegedly committed by government forces in Syrian prisons, estimates that 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria since the crisis began in March 2011.
The report estimates that the average rate of deaths in Syrian prisons was more than 300 each month. In the decade leading up to 2011, Amnesty International recorded an average of around 45 deaths in custody in Syria each year – equivalent to between three to four people a month.
However, the figure is considered be a conservative estimate and both Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) and Amnesty International. Both have concluded that, with tens of thousands of people forcibly disappeared in detention facilities across Syria, with the real figure is to likely to be even higher.
But the most damning portion of the report, retraces the experiences of the thousands of detainees through the cases of 65 torture survivors who described appalling abuse in security branches operated by Syrian intelligence agencies and in Saydnaya Military Prison, on the outskirts of Damascus.
Personal accounts of survivors
The abuse and torture ranges in order to extract confessions from prisoners during interrogation includes common methods such as dulab (forcibly contorting the victim's body into a rubber tyre) and falaqa(flogging on the soles of the feet) but survivors have also narrated harrowing accounts as they faced electric shocks, or rape and sexual violence, had their fingernails or toenails pulled out, were scalded with hot water or burned with cigarettes.
When inmates arrive at a detention facility, detainees described a "welcome party" ritual involving severe beatings, often using silicone or metal bars or electric cables. Such "welcome parties" were often described as being followed by "security checks", during which women in particular reported being subjected to rape and sexual assault by male guards
A detainee, "Ziad" (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), said ventilation stopped working one day in Military Intelligence Branch 235 in Damascus causing the death of seven people due to suffocation:
"They began to kick us to see who was alive and who wasn't. They told me and the other survivor to stand up… that is when I realized that… seven people had died, that I had slept next to seven bodies… [then] I saw the rest of the bodies in the corridor, around 25 other bodies."
Survivors described being held in cells so overcrowded they had to take turns to sleep, or sleep while squatting, besides being denied access to food, water and sanitation facilities. Some detainees said they ate orange rinds and olive pits to avoid starving to death. Detainees at Saydnaya, in the winter months are initially held for weeks at a time, without blankets in freezing cold underground cells.
"In [the intelligence branch] the torture and beating were to make us 'confess'. In Saydnaya it felt like the purpose was death, some form of natural selection, to get rid of the weak as soon as they arrive," said Omar S.
He also described a traumatic account of a guard forcing two men to strip naked and ordering one to rape the other while threatening him with death for non compliance.
Degradation, punishment and humiliation was administered to the prisoners according to survivors from Saydnaya who explained that speaking to or looking at prison guards was forbidden. The prisoners also claimed that they were routinely beaten to death
Salam, a lawyer from Aleppo who spent more than two years in Saydnaya described an incident when guards beat to death an imprisoned Kung Fu trainer after they found out he had been training others in his cell
"They beat the trainer and five others to death straight away, and then continued on the other 14. They all died within a week. We saw the blood coming out of the cell." Said Salam while recounting the horrific memory.
Click here to see a forensic architecture simulation of the Saydnaya prison
Amnesty's assesment and recommendations
"For decades, Syrian government forces have used torture as a means to crush their opponents. Today, it is being carried out as part of a systematic and widespread attack directed against anyone suspected of opposing the government in the civilian population and amounts to crimes against humanity. Those responsible for these heinous crimes must be brought to justice."said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme.
"The international community, in particular Russia and the USA, which are co-chairing peace talks on Syria, must bring these abuses to the top of the agenda in their discussions with both the authorities and armed groups and press them to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment."
Amnesty International is also calling for all prisoners of conscience to be freed, and all others to be released or promptly tried in line with international fair trial standards, and for independent monitors to be allowed immediate and unfettered access to all places of detention.