What is it like to be tortured?

dis: orient

Maher was detained in the notorious Syrian Torture Prison Sednaya for more than five years. He experienced unimaginable horror. After his release in 2011, he helped human rights groups with reports on the crimes of the Syrian regime. Here are his memories of the years behind bars.

Since his release as part of a general amnesty of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Maher has been politically active again. He is also one of the important informants of the book “Die Schwarze Macht” (2015) by Spiegel correspondent Christoph Reuter. As a secular man, Maher had to share his cell with radical Islamists for many years and is therefore an important source for understanding the thought structures of the Islamists of the Islamic State who have been released from the prisons of the Syrian regime.

His experience fed into Amnesty International's February 2017 report, which caused an international stir.

Maher was born and raised in Salamiya, Hama. He is a co-founder of the “Local Coordination Committee”, a nationwide network that started organizing demonstrations and revolutionary events in 2011. He was also active at the Violations Documentations Center (VDC), together with the famous Syrian lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, who from 2011 documented human rights violations in Syria.

This is his story.

A youth from politics and prison stories

I am 36 years old. I've been interested in politics since I was a child. When I was 15 years old, I joined the SSNP[1]. In the same year I left her again because I had outgrown her intellectually.

Then I started working with Syrian dissidents. After Hafiz Al-Assad's death, I was involved in the Damascus Spring [2] and worked with Michel Kilo [3]. But I was still young, just 19 years old. Many of these meetings that took place at that time included former prisoners - either from Tadmor (Palmyra) or from Sednaya - or they had got to know both prisons. Many were in Tadmor for the first years of their captivity. Then when Sednaya opened in 1986, they came there.

They told me a lot about prison life. Some of these people were imprisoned for five, six, or seven years. So I had heard a lot about Sednaya, but I had never "visited" this place myself. I have a paternal uncle, Abu Ali Fayiq Al-Mir. He was a leading figure in the "Party of the People" (Hizb al-Shab[4]) with Riad Turk. I remember the first time he was detained for 13 years and then he was released. When I went into hiding, he was going into hiding again.

We had founded a party-like group called the “Union of Youth for Syria” and, in addition to democracy and freedom, demanded that the state of emergency that had been in place for decades should be lifted. In 2005 I was on the run for a year. He was also on the run for being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia. He was a radical oppositionist. Through him I knew a great many stories about the situation in prison.

The atmosphere inside - and outside

There was certainly no time in detention that was comfortable, but how we felt always depended heavily on the composition of the prisoners inside and the situation of the regime outside. Sometimes the regime simply forgot about the prisoners and let them live their lives, they could even have visitors. The prisoners of the 1980s were mostly leftists and nationalists who opposed Hafiz Al-Assad. But there were also a few supporters of Islamist parties in prison, such as the Hizb atTahrir alIslami[5], the Islamic Liberation Party.

In Syria we have something called group punishment (Uquba jama`iya) and individual reward (Mukafa´a fardiya). These are basic military ideas that are also used when dealing with prisoners, and were the first terms that I learned back then during my compulsory military service.

This is the basic principle of the Syrian regime army. When, for example, Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1994, around 200 members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) were arrested. They were detained for years, some were detained for seven years, others ten years, and some were even in detention when I was arrested. The Muslim Brotherhood was the most frequently imprisoned and killed at the time.

The arrest

When I was arrested, I was not taken to Sednaya immediately. I was taken to an underground prison where only interrogation took place. I was detained there for about two months and then transferred to Sednaya. I didn't know where I was going. They blindfolded me and put me in chains.

I asked the interrogator where it was going. He said: home. But I knew he was lying. Early in the morning they put me on a bus with other people on whom the same charge of setting up opposition cells to overthrow the regime was made. Nobody knew our destination. The path was mountainous. I just didn't know where we were going until we ended up in isolation in our solitary cells.

When we got there, we were tortured worse than the secret service, all day long. The aim of torture is actually to gain information. But the very first day was like a torture massacre. They tortured us three or four times in a row. Nobody was left out, they left nobody alone. At that moment we knew we had landed in Sednaya.

Their only goal was to break us. They grab someone and torture him or her to death out of sheer lust. You could just shoot you. The prisons were terrible back then. It was the "time of hardship" that the prison management had been doing for a year. That meant more torture on all sides and horrific treatment of the inmates. They tortured us almost to death.

Most of the inmates in my day were Salafist jihadists who had provoked a problem with the prison administration a month before we arrived. They tried to kill six inmates in prison, and they succeeded in one.

There were other problems at that time anyway, but that then led to even more torture, to the fact that visits were forbidden, there was no more good food and one could no longer buy good food. So the situation was far worse than it was described to me in my youth.

Torture without a break

They put us in solitary and isolated cells. The torture lasted for a long time. The secret service tortured us every day for about four months. Even when we were not being tortured ourselves, we could always hear the voices of our inmates. The screams and noises of torture were omnipresent.

It wasn't that everyone was tortured all the time. Sometimes they threw someone into solitary confinement, most of the time handcuffed and blindfolded. Every time the guards opened the door - two or three times a day - to give us food, once in the morning and once at noon, they would beat us. They hit us on the head or in the face wherever they hit. That was normal. They treated the prisoners worse than they did with cattle.

When they opened the door, they would ask you to get up and turn your face to the wall. Then the blow hit one from behind. Sometimes I got ten blows from three different sides. The torture was omnipresent. If you were picked up to be tortured, that was a different matter. But torture remained so ubiquitous. In Sednaya, too, they put people in tires and rolled them. It was cruel.

The guards made no distinction between the prisoners, they were even forbidden to know anything about the prisoners' background. They knew that those in the cells were "traitors to the fatherland" and that was the only thing they could understand. They didn't know if someone was a Muslim Brother or a leftist. Often these soldiers were half illiterate. Many came from the eastern regions of Syria, where many know nothing other than that the name of the president is Assad.

The Islamic State (IS) uses the same method. The prison guards cannot be Syrians. Most of them are Afghans, Chechens and so on. Everyone released from ISIS and Nusra prisons said that there was not a single Syrian among the prison guards. Only the prisoners are Syrians and the foreign guards yell at them for being infidels. They are methods they learned from the regime.

It was tortured to death before the revolution. Executions took place and no one could inquire. I remember a person who was nicknamed “Zeer” and who particularly enjoyed “absolute torture” and who worked for flight safety. He tortured people so that they could not recover. Torture is his job. He could have just killed people right away, but he wanted them to gradually die from torture. He wasn't even that enthusiastic about torture - because people like that definitely exist.

"... The strangest thing was the so-called" celebration of mass madness ". Then they became animals." Illustration by Amnesty International based on reports from previous prisoners.

I remember one person who was very passionate about torture. He only hung me from the ceiling in my underpants and electrocuted me. First very weak, then stronger and stronger. It was clear that it was a game for them and they wanted to see what happens when they electrocute someone with 60, 70, 80 or more volts. Few of them have felt that they hate torturing. The strangest thing was the so-called "celebration of mass madness". Then they became animals. They then simply tortured all the prisoners as a group.

Justice for Torture Victims?

To this day, I have no real feelings about the torturers. Many prisoners say they want a fair trial for their torturers. But I can imagine taking revenge on some of them. Revenge is human. I can only think of the death penalty as a just punishment. The torturers must be held accountable.

Torture is like dying multiple deaths. You don't kill just one. Each of them killed so many people. There are people who killed 500 people with their own hands and just for fun. On the other hand, I have the feeling that this is precisely why a simple death is not fair either. I am against torture, there must be no justification for torture. Not against us and not against the perpetrators.

One day my cousin, Ali Mir Ibrahim, was arrested for being an activist in the revolution. We later learned the details of how, where, and by whom he was killed. We learned of his death through former inmates who had recently been released. We thought he was still alive for three years, but it turned out that he died shortly after his arrest.

There is a torture method in which the body and head are placed on the floor and then beaten with a metal rod. This not only causes internal bleeding. A blow to the head ultimately causes death. They arrested my cousin and apparently wanted to kill him - not just torture him.

They beat him for two days. Whenever they hit him and he was still breathing, they would ask him, “Are you brother of a whore still not dead? Bring me another cable. ”Then they fetched a cable and hit his head. The brutality was incredible. They just wanted to brutally kill him. Then on the third day he was carried away because he was dead.

How do you intend to start a process of reconciliation with such people? How can you just meet them on the street? No, a way has to be found to create justice. We only lie to ourselves and the international community if these people remain unharmed - be it with or without a trial. Transitional justice means that a society is reconciled with itself and is able to shape its life and its future. But you cannot live with such people in any future.

Detained for over 15 years

Back to Sednaya. I was in a solitary cell first. Then I was put in a cell with other people, we were 26 in total. Some of the detainees had jihadist trials going on, others had nothing to do with politics. There were three people who I still remember today. They were the leaders of the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami[6].

I got there in 2006, they had been detained since 1998. Because they had been imprisoned for so long, the three of them received some special treatment. They were no longer properly tortured. They were allowed out of the cell to breathe every few days. They even had dishes and, like us, did not have to eat by hand like animals. They just threw our food on the floor.

Everyone wanted to know what was new from outside. That was a time when there was no news inside, while the Americans were outside in Iraq and Hariri's assassination in Lebanon was being investigated - which is why the Syrian regime was under pressure. So I told the story.

Illustration by Amnesty International based on reports from previous prisoners.

The guards saw us during their patrols. They saw me talk and a cluster had formed around me. Shortly afterwards I was taken out of the cell by the guards and yelled at why I dared speak to the others. After several beatings, I was locked in a solitary cell. During the night they took me and the others. One of the guards was assigned to torture us.

He ordered us to undress and go out. Since the three of the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami have not been tortured for a long time, one of them said that he wants to see the head of the department and not just carry out an order that comes from a guard's personal whim. The guard freaked out and hit the man in the face. The man hit back. That rocked up and suddenly we found ourselves in a fight with some of the guards. This went on for about an hour.

Then they are out and we stayed inside in the single cell, which is only 4 by 4 meters. 27 people were in there. Then the director of the prison and officers came to talk to us. They spoke to us and guaranteed that if we just got handcuffed, everything would be fine. He guarantees us that nobody will come too close to us. We agreed and they handcuffed us, at the same moment the director left.

Then we were beaten so badly that Muhammad Arwa Khallaf, one of the three, died. He was only 32 years old. The one who contradicted the guard was taken to the hospital. I didn't see him again after that. They beat us in vengeance. They're killing people anyway, so why not if you dared to hit them?

They didn't just hit us, they argued among themselves about who could hit us with the cable next. They hung us up by our hands, then by our feet. They didn't really know how to best beat us. I was hung by my hands for two and a half days. I was the youngest in the group and I was in the best physical shape too. One died, two more had broken all their bones. Me and Mustafa Hamze were the only ones who survived it to some extent. Mustafa Hamze was the president of the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami and already a bit older. A man died right next to me.

Hunger strike and relocation

Sednaya consists of two buildings. The main building in which I was housed is the Red Prison. From the air it looks like a Mercedes star. At some point I was almost the only one there who wasn't an Islamist. But from time to time I was moved to the other wing, the White Prison. There are Lebanese-Christian inmates, Kurds, Muslim Brotherhood and insurgents there.

I went on a hunger strike for 17 days. My situation had become unbearable, so that was the only way to apply pressure. Meanwhile, I was even locked in a tiny cell that the prison headmaster had in his office. It was like an animal cage under the stairs. My eyes and hands were bandaged, it was totally cold, I still remember it well. I stayed there for a whole day, then the director came and locked me in a solitary cell for another day. I had my money hidden in the sleeve of my t-shirt. Someone told me who to bribe to get transferred.I gave 3000 lira to a sergeant and after an hour I was transferred to the "White Prison". I moved last month before I was released. Can you imagine that for me it was almost nicer than the actual release from prison?

The difference was just incredible. In the White Prison there was radio and food and also ordinary people. Before that, I had to live with jihadists who just pray all day and declare everyone else to be unbelievers. 24 hours a day.

The Syrian Revolution begins - and the prisons are emptying

That was in March, a few days before the revolution started. We heard the first calls on the radio. I will never forget the first demonstration call I heard in my life. We listened to the radio and then on the 3 p.m. news it came:

“Demonstration in the capital of Syria, Damascus”. And they recorded an excerpt where you could hear: "Where are you, oh Syrian, where are you?"

We all stared at each other in the cell; there was silence. Everyone began to let their minds wander. All the inmates in the prison heard the news. The regime suddenly improved the conditions of detention, they brought us televisions, but only with local channels, and even more radios. They wanted us to believe that they are the good guys. They were downright scared. The food was improved and we were allowed to watch the international news on the radio.

Illustration by Amnesty International based on reports from previous prisoners.

We noticed everything from day one. The Syrian regime began to release the Islamists from prisons when revolutions raged in three countries - Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. It was just beginning in Yemen. The regime felt that at some point it would directly affect Syria.

The best evidence of this was that the officers had to sleep in their offices for a while and were forbidden to leave them. You knew what was going to happen. Starting in February 2011, they released them specifically, only later through amnesties. They gave people a kind of second trial, and those who had many more years of service were just fired immediately. We all felt then that something big was about to happen.

But these Islamists were real criminals, including murderers. Real criminals who shouldn't have been released so easily. I was still in Red Prison at the time, and at one point only eight or nine of the 33 people in my cell were left.

First they fired the Islamists, with whom we on the left couldn't get along anyway. We were almost relieved that they were gone. The number went down, that was good. Their thinking and behavior corresponded to what we know today from Daesh and Nusra. And most of them went to Daesh or Nusra.

Sednaya was gradually emptied. The new prisoners were officers. It was originally a military prison anyway, in which it was forbidden to detain civilians. So they emptied it now because they knew they would soon use it for such purposes and would be forced to imprison the military. They were imprisoned for the smallest offenses, for three to four years.

Dismissal and Freedom

I was then released during an amnesty on a Tuesday morning. When the revolution began, things had changed. I could feel the freedom when I got out. If I had been fired before the revolution, it would not have been freedom.

The demonstrations then always took place on Fridays. Immediately after my release I went to the very first Friday demonstration in Salamiya. My friend Naji Jeref [7] even made a film about it, "The White Carnation". They bought white carnations and distributed them to the demonstrators.

Almost 10,000 people held white carnations in their hands. The idea was that everyone wore flowers, and carnations were the cheapest and the only flowers that were available in large quantities, are white and smell good too. There was singing and dancing, choirs calling for the regime to be overthrown. It felt like freedom. I felt like I was going from the deepest black to the brightest white.

The public announcement and the devastating result

Then I heard about the project from Amnesty International and decided to attend. We worked on it for five years. The report covers the period 2012-2015. The first information for this came from me and I helped create a 3D model of Sednaya. At the time, I was also working on a report on the chemical attacks with a German and Dutch organization. The examinations got so far that I would have been willing to bring them bodies.

But then the public's perception turned out to be less than we had assumed. That was very depressing. I was incredibly disappointed. Nothing happened. Then the Caesar pictures were revealed and we assumed there would be international charges. Instead, the topic was hushed up and disappeared again from the media.

We also documented 58 massacres that the regime carried out against civilians. Nobody has documentation with so many details. We even have names of the officers who gave the orders. One of the reports about the massacres is 120 pages long. We stopped in 2014 because we couldn't continue such intensive work without financial support. But I was also told clearly that nobody would support us in this work, as this documentation "makes the political solution more difficult".

Our work actually had the opposite effect, so to speak. The regime emerged stronger from it, just as it was vaccinated. It was able to cross a new red line unhindered. This is exactly how the regime behaves. I am not optimistic, although I worked on the report myself.

A bitter result

Still, I continued. If I didn't work on this, the only option I would have was to return to Syria. The way I see it, I have three options: go to Syria to take up arms there, or just leave everything behind and start a new life abroad. Or just report on it and try to change something. I've been slightly depressed for a long time because I have the feeling that nothing we do changes anything.

I feel like I am losing hope. Much more than I had back then in prison. I feel like we're losing what we've worked for over the years. If you die in prison it's different because you just die with hope.

I am mad at the Syrian opposition and their politics. She was sectarian, which only helped the regime. They maneuvered us into this civil war.

In my opinion, we could have done a lot better.

Amnesty has processed its results interactively via Sednaya:saydnaya.amnesty.org


[1] The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) is a secular, national party that is also active in Lebanon, among other places.

[2] The Damascus Spring was a period of intense political and social debates in Syria that began after the death of longtime dictator Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000, but lasted essentially only until autumn 2001, as most of the associated activities were suppressed by the government of Bashar al-Assad.

[3] Oppositionist and journalist (and for An-Nahar) as well as co-founder of the "Syrian Democratic Forum", Year of birth 1940.

[4] The party was founded in Syria in the 1940s and was an anti-elitist party that actively worked against the colonial power of France. The party had a parliamentary majority and provided the president until the Ba'ath party's coup on March 8, 1963.

[5] An Islamic party that maintained an underground presence in Syria even after the violent crackdown on Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. The party believes in the need to establish a worldwide caliphate. It was founded in the 1950s and has one civilian and one armed arm. The armed arm consisted in particular of officers who were active within the Syrian military. This corresponds to one of the main concepts of the "Talab An-Nusra" (demand for support), which is designed to ensure that the members get into positions of influence that can serve to overthrow the regime. In a large wave of arrests in 1997/98, around 300 members were arrested, including many intellectuals, and around 40 officers of the Syrian military.

[6] S.o.

[7] Jeref, born in 1977, was a Syrian opposition activist and was murdered by Daesh in December 2015 in the Turkish city of Gazi Anteb. He founded the Salamiya Media Center as an activist and worked on the Salamiya Local Base Committee. As a filmmaker, he documented, among other things, the power politics of IS in Aleppo until it was expelled from the city in 2014.