Behind the open hostility and rhetoric that the US and Syria display to one another, there lies an entirely different face.
Behind the open hostility and rhetoric that the US and Syria display to one another, there lies an entirely different face. One which goes the very heart of the Syrian uprising – a face which presents the countries more as allies, and less as foes.
On 6 May 2002, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, included Syria within the infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ that George W Bush spoke of earlier in that year. At the same time that such open statements were being made, Canadian citizens: Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyad Nureddin, Ahmad Abou El Maati and the German, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, were being tortured in various Syrian prisons, the most feared being Fara’ Falastin. All of the men had been placed on US watch lists with Arar being the only one to have been rendered by the US from the US mainland to Jordan, and then subsequently taken to Syria.
Fara’ Falastin is located in the Massa section of the Syrian capital; just a mere five minute drive from Damascus[i]where people live their day to day lives with their human rights in tact which could not differ more from the torturous events which take place inside the cellars of one of the world’s most notorious prisons.
Fara’ Falastin was originally established for the Palestinian fighters but in the context of the War on Terror used as a base where suspected ‘terrorists’[ii] are taken from their homes around the globe and brought to the prison for ‘questioning’. This was all part of the US-led proxy-detention programme.
Detainees at the prison are held in dark underground cells which reek of urine and are infested with mice, cockroaches and lice; they are provided with very little and that is excluding what would be considered as the bare essentials for day to day living. Maher recalls “There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this. There were cats and rats up there and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes and two bottles. Nothing else. No light”.[iii] The blankets provided were damp due to the leaking water[iv]which inevitably made them rotten and useless to the detainees. During the summer, the water condensates on the walls and in winter, it was so cold that the cockroaches are seen lying dead on the floors of the cells.
The cells are referred to as the ‘grave’ due to the size and conditions and feeling of claustrophobia. There are two types of cells, individual and group: Muayyad was held in a five by six meter group cell along with forty other prisoners[v]; Ahmad on the other hand, was held in an individual cell which was roughly one hundred and ninety centimetres high and less than a metre wide[vi]. The size of the cells differ from one detainee to the next but all of which highlight that the cells were so small that they could neither stand nor move around. It was impossible to pray as Maher along with others could only bend (prostrating is a part of the Islamic prayer) one way[vii] due to the lack of space. The detainees, all of whom were Muslim, were not allowed to make the call to prayer and whoever did so, was beaten so the men took it in turns to take the brunt of the daily abuse. Maher and Ahmad were held down and had their beards shaved (an act of ritual humiliation, especially for those who kept a beard for religious reasons).
They were given three meals a day; Mohammed’s meals consisted of yoghurt and tea in the morning, bulgur wheat for lunch and lentil soup in the evening[viii]; Abdullah was given tea, a few olives and either just one spoonful of jam or yoghurt in the morning, rice and boiled vegetables for lunch[ix]. The portions were so small that it would not fill a young child so it is far from sufficient for a grown man. The food was scarce and was so spoiled that the majority of the detainees including Abdullah and Mohammed had permanent diarrhoea. The small portions along with the diarrhoea caused many prisoners to lose a vast majority of weight including Mohammed who lost one hundred and ten pounds and Maher who had lost forty pounds.
There are a mere two Turkish style bathrooms for the twenty cells[x] and even then, detainees were only allowed to go to the washrooms when the guards agreed to supervise them, which was not often and as a result Arar along with others had to use one of the two bottles provided to urinate in or their food bowls as a make shift potty. Detainees are only allowed to go to the toilet three times a day at designated time slots and are given two minutes, if they do not come out within that period of time, they are beaten[xi]. In this time, detainees such as Abdullah would have to try to use the toilet, empty the urine bottle, wash out the food containers and fill their water bottles. At times the water supply would be switched off from noon until the following day and as a result they would have to ration the little water they had very carefully.[xii]
The detainees faced daily intense interrogation which the majority of the time resulted in them being tortured as they did not give the correct information, or what was thought to be correct or what the guards themselves wanted to hear. The initial stages often involved the detainees being kept in a room whilst they listened to the screams of the other detainees as they were tortured; this stage was also carried out in the middle of investigations, in order to intimidate them into making statements, be it true or false. Maher was taken blindfolded into a room where he could hear taunts such as “He knows a lot of people who are terrorists” which were followed by slaps across the face[xiii].
Muayyad was questioned regarding the money he had brought to him and whether it was for specific organisations, when all the while it was just for charitable donations from the local community for those in need in the third world.[xiv] Many detainees were questioned regarding their so called connections with Al-Qaeda and Abdullah had to go to the extent of saying he personally knew Osama Bin Laden[xv], just to put an end to the torture.
Guards forced the men to sign and place their thumbprints on statements which they were not allowed to read. Maher was given a document which guards had filled in the first two questions about who his friends are and how long he had been out of the country but Maher was forced to write the third answer while guards dictated to him to state that he has been to Afghanistan and then forced him to sign and place his thumbprint on the entire document. Maher faced the same process on more than one occasion, “They called me up to sign and place my thumb print on a document about seven pages long. They would not let me read it, but I had to put my thumb print and signature on the bottom of each page. It was handwritten”[xvi].
Many of the men themselves resorted to signing false testimonies in order to stop the mental and physical abuse and possible release such as with the case of Muayyad who was made to write a statement saying that he had been treated well while detained in order to be released[xvii]. Maher, who on one occasion felt he could take no more having being beaten on and off for eighteen hours and stating “I was so scared I urinated on myself twice” he signed a confession stating that he received military training in Afghanistan and randomly chose the name of the camp from the list provided by the guards[xviii].
The guards often threatened to harm families of detainees; Ahmad was told that if he did not co-operate then they would bring his wife in and rape her in front of him.[xix] Abdullah was told that his lack of co-operation would result in his family being brought in to also be interrogated.[xx] The interrogation and treatment they faced caused psychological trauma for Abdullah, “Memories crowded my mind and I thought I was going to lose control, and I just screamed and screamed. I could not breathe well after, and felt very dizzy”.[xxi] It is inevitable that for the horrific incidents of Fara’ Falastin to leave the hearts and minds of these men will take a vast amount of time.
The worst part of every detainees' experience at Fara’ Falastin was the torture which they faced after interrogation sessions when information was not obtained; this was the method used in order to force information from the detainees. Abdullah was made to undress and was forced to lie flat on his stomach with his hands behind his back and legs up whilst the guards lashed his feet, when he tried to move two guards stood on him (one on his head and the other on his back) and took turns to kick him. The guards poured cold water on his feet and made him jog on the spot, ensuring that blood circulation continued to his feet to so he could feel the pain.[xxii]
Detainees such as Ahmad faced immense amounts of continuous torture including incidents such as being dragged by his hair and beard, kicking and beating him along the way and handcuffing him before beginning to burn his shins with cigarettes (of which he still has the scars) and making threats to move on to his face.[xxiii] Many of the detainees faced being beaten all over their bodies, including their genitals, with a two inch thick black electrical cable. Maher recalls “Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding”. [xxiv]
Abdullah was told by the interrogators that he had been beaten for seven hours and received over 1000 lashes with the cable.[xxv] Another form of torture and something which detainees are threatened with is the now infamous ‘tire’ of Fara’ Falastin. Detainees such as Abdullah were forced to sit in the tire with their backs on the floor and the back of their necks on the inside of the tire and their legs (leaving him completely restrained) whilst they beat their head, body and genitals.[xxvi]
One of the guards only known as ‘Ahmed’ was suspended several years ago for the inhumane torture which he inflicted upon detainees in order to obtain information, often resulting in fatalities, had been reinstated again to continue his terror.
On the rare occasion when detainees were allowed to be seen by representatives of their country such as the consular officials, they were told not to mention the torture they had faced as was with the case of Maher, “I cried a lot at that meeting. I could not say anything about the torture. I thought if I did, I would not get any more visits, or I might be beaten again”[xxvii]. Although visits were made by the officials, they were not of much use to the detainees as they were prohibited from expressing the extent of the trauma which they faced; this only caused frustration amongst detainees, “After the visits I would bang my head and my fist on the wall in frustration. I needed the visits, but I could not say anything there”.[xxviii] During one of the visits, the Syrian officials went as far as telling the Canadian consul that their visit was not necessary as they are already and would continue to take care of them.[xxix]
The ‘torture camp’ that is Fara’ Falastin is best summed up by the words of Maher, “I was not exposed to sunlight for six months. The only times I left the grave was for interrogation, and for the visits. Daily life in that place was hell”. Detainees face a combination of both psychological and physical abuse on a daily abuse. The prisoners soon realised that there was no reasoning with the guards and came to the conclusion that death was better than being detained at Fara’ Falastin. [xxx]
We know of the role that the US has played in the rendition and torture of those who were detained in Syria. This is particularly so in the high profile case of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who was detained in Pakistan in 2003, placed through a programme of secret detention until he was finally sent to Syria to be detained on behalf of the US in 2006. In a move that has been described as provoking the US, the Syrians released al-Suri in January 2012. This move has signalled that the Syrians will no longer play according to the rules that the US has set, and potentially the first indication that they may have distanced themselves from the US-led War on Terror.
Despite the real politik between Syria and the US, the Assad regime continues to use the threat of terrorism to describe the uprisings in Syria. They claim that ‘salafists’ or ‘jihadists’ are attempting to destabilise the country, and have thus resorted to the same propaganda techniques implemented by the US over the last 11 years. Fara’ Falastin continues to stand as a symbol of abuse throughout the War on Terror. With the recent crackdown by the Syrian regime, the reality of what is taking place there is too horrible to imagine.
[iv] Abdullah Almalki Chronology, Amnesty International
[vi] El Maati Chronology, Amnesty International
[ix] Abdullah Almalki Chronology, Amnesty International
[xii] Abdullah Almalki Chronology, Amnesty International
[xv] Abdullah Almalki Chronology, Amnesty International
[xix] El Maati Chronology, Amnesty International
[xx] Abdullah Almalki Chronology, Amnesty International
[xxii] Abdullah Almalki Chronology, Amnesty International
[xxiii] El Maati Chronology, Amnesty International
[xxiv] Abdullah Almalki Chronology, Amnesty International
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)