As the conflict in Syria enters its sixth year, gross human rights violations remain one of the main features in the conflict. Although the anniversary of the uprising this year has coincided with a U.S.-Russia brokered ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement that has, contrary to the expectations of many observers, lasted since Feb. 26, the big picture in Syria appears bleak.
The Syrian government forces and rebel armed groups have been committing gross human rights violations at an alarming scale, dragging the country into an endless cycle of violence and revenge attacks. Torture, in particular, has been one of the most widespread and well-documented acts of violence in the current conflict.
The practice of torture has a long history in Syria and was common during the three decades of former President Hafez al-Assad’s rule. Syrians shared thousands of accounts of torture and the mistreatment of political prisoners in detention. Several novels were written on the abuses in Tadmur Prison alone. No real changes were brought to the security forces, detention conditions, or even the justice sector after Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, succeeded to power in Syria. The practice of torture continued – something I faced and witnessed myself during the few months I spent at Sednaya Military prison in 2006.
As the recent uprising of 2011 broke, security agencies, relying on decades of experience in arbitrary arrests, torture, and fear, became as ruthless as ever. Detention centers employed a revolving door arrest campaign, and the aim of torture shifted from the extraction of information to merely killing detainees. The scale of brutality shocked the world, particularly after Caesar, the now well-known military police photographer, defected and left Syria, displaying the photos of torture for all to see.
But how has the government’s increase in violence influenced Syrians in the opposition? Rather than fighting against the use of torture, certain rebel groups, including factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat Al Nusra, quickly learned from Assad’s practices and began perpetrating horrifying acts of torture of their own. They introduced opposition-controlled secret detention centers, and stories and videos of their atrocities began appearing online.
For many Syrians, torture has become a daily part of life, whether from a broadcast on the news, videos on YouTube, or knowledge that a friend or relative experienced or died from the abuse; yet, the majority of Syrians are not mobilizing against the practice. Although this may be because Syrians inside the country fear for their safety, Syrians in the Diaspora have also turned a blind eye on such practices.
Through my work on Syria, I have interviewed hundreds of torture survivors over the course of a decade, witnessed torture first-hand at the Sednaya Military Prison, and most recently, have been leading the Syria Justice & Accountability Centre’s work on documentation. Over the years, I have been able to identify the following trends regarding torture in the Syrian context:
1. The practice of torture is increasing. At the beginning of the uprising, Assad and his forces used torture to suppress political dissent, but now almost all sides are implicated in the practice.
2. Torture is being justified. Sectarianism in both Syria and Iraq is growing. Sectarian hatreds are not only increasing the brutality of torture but also giving Syrians and Iraqis a reason to excuse the perpetrators — as long as the perpetrator belongs to their own sect. This is true even among educated Syrians.
3. Torture is no longer a private matter. Historically, torture in Syria has been committed in detention centers, away from the public eye. Sometimes videos were leaked, but overall it was the government’s dirty secret. In today’s Syria, torture has become a public act, thus normalizing its practice in the street, check points and on the fighting fronts. Onlookers can even cheer for the perpetrators, publicly showing support for its practice.
4. Torture is committed in groups. One of the most alarming trends is that torture is being committed by groups of perpetrators. The evil of a single perpetrator inflicting this type of harm on another human being is easier to comprehend than when it happens in a group. Rather than voicing an objection or a sign of empathy, they encourage each other, as if competing to see who the more brutal perpetrator is.
5. Syrians in the Diaspora are supporting torture. Often, I have seen Syrian refugees post torture videos and slogans calling for revenge on social media. Syrians in the Diaspora denounced the conviction of a former FSA fighter in Sweden after he posted a video of himself torturing a prisoner in Syria in 2012. Swedish investigators found the video, and a court sentenced him to five years in prison. Despite the clear evidence, many Syrians did not believe a punishment was warranted for “treating Assad soldiers the same way they treated us.”
6. Only justice will help deter torturers. Syrian human rights activists, lawyers, and ordinary people have worked tirelessly, and at extreme risk to their lives, to document the violations occurring in the conflict and to shame the perpetrators internationally. But, after five years, it is clear that documentation alone is not deterring the practice, or even opening a debate within Syrian society about the wrongness of torture. For documentation to be truly effective, it must be accompanied by accountability processes. Accountability can begin now through the jurisdictions of European and North American courts and should continue into the future.
The practice of torture threatens to further tear Syria’s social fabric and increase sectarianism. Syrians need to better understand that torture affects every community, regardless of ethnicity or religion. In the long run, torture will continue playing a destructive role in Syria, even after the conflict ends, unless Syrian society uniformly condemns it and works to reform current and future practices. Most importantly, the current talks in Geneva must prioritize justice and accountability for torture and other human rights abuses and include investigations into and a condemnation of torture in the final peace agreement.
Mohammad Al Abdallah is a Syrian human rights lawyer and activist. Former political prisoner in Syria for two prison terms. Currently, he is the Executive Director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center.
Shabnam Mojtahedi, Legal and Strategy Analyst of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center contributed to this article.
*This op-ed is originally published in HuffPost.