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Documenting torture in Raqqa

“Documents, prison cells, interrogation rooms, and torture devices.” That’s whatHuman Rights Watch researchers found when they visited Syrian security and intelligence facilities in Raqqa city last month. The discoveries not only match up with local testimony, but also fit within “systematic patterns” of a “state policy of torture.” HRW’s report, with its evidence and recommendations for next steps, is a useful case study showing how documentation can lead to accountability.

The Raqqa State Security and Military Intelligence premises, in an area now controlled by opposition fighters, contained what appeared to be detention rooms, solitary confinement cells, and a “bsat al-reeh” torture device pictured above. There were also numerous documents found on the premises, including not only the names of those who worked at the facility, but also a list of recent Raqqa college graduates. The Raqqa visit is only the latest in HRW’s investigation into torture by the Syrian regime. Last July, the 81-page “Torture Archipelago” report documented, among other things, 27 different governmental detention centers.

It’s clear that steps must be taken to ensure that these discoveries have an impact on future justice and accountability efforts. First and foremost, it is critically important to protect the documents. HRW emphasizes that efforts are needed to “safeguard potential evidence of torture and arbitrary detention.” With evidence and documentation destroyed everyday in Syria, this won’t be easy. The fragility of the political and human rights situation in Raqqa was underscored recently by the abduction of Abdullah al-Khalil, described by AmnestyUK as “a lawyer defending political prisoners and promoting human rights.” It’s unknown whether al-Khalil was kidnapped by the regime (again) or by political competition from other opposition groups in Raqqa. Either way, the situation is extremely difficult for those working to document rights violations.

Despite the difficult operating environment, HRW suggests what can be done now to aid documentation. The recommendations, which include removing and photographing documents, drawing on international expertise where useful, and creating “a central repository in a secure and undisclosed location,” are exactly the kinds of steps that the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre wholeheartedly support. Our current work training and supporting documenters in Syria, as well as coordinating among individuals, organizations, and international experts means that more and better documentation is being gathered. Our efforts to secure and aggregate that documentation ensures that it will be an asset, even beyond prosecution.

Indeed, documentation from Raqqa and across Syria can play an important role in comprehensive transitional justice processes. The HRW Raqqa report is correct to recognize this. It notes that truth commissions, for instance, serve the important functions of “preserving historical memory, clarifying events, and attributing political and institutional responsibilities.” These components are not merely of secondary importance, but can play an important role in promoting peace and stability in post-conflict Syria.

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