Syria: 'Assad tortured my father'


A Syrian protestor mocks being tortured during a sit-in to mark International Human Rights Day, outside the United Nations offices in downtown Beirut on December 10, 2009. The demonstrators were protesting against what they said were torture methods used in Syrian prisons.


Ramzi Haidar

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Being the son of a man who was hideously tortured by Syrian security forces, al-mukhabarat, I found it very difficult to take the regime seriously when it denied engaging in acts of torture.

Bashar al-Assad stated recently in an interview, “There was no command to kill or be brutal. We don't kill our people … no government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person."

Recently, Amnesty International released documentation of more than 30 different types of torture currently practiced by the Syrian authorities against Syrian detainees. The details of the torture in the 45-page report were based on interviews with hundreds of detainees.

Some of the torture tactics mentioned in the papers were the same ones that my father endured during his imprisonment including: Hafet al-istiqhba , a reception party that beats detainees on arrest; dolab, where the victim is forced inside a vehicle tire and beaten; and Falqha which is the lashing of the soles of the feet while the detainee is tied, slapped and/or beaten, sometimes with boots.

A common method is called Kursi alAlmani or ''The German chair,'' in which tremendous pain is inflicted on the neck and back. My father was subjected to another type of torture, called Sollom, in which he was tied to a ladder that was repeatedly pushed over so that he fell directly onto his back.

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These are only a few of the torture methods used to extract information or to silence any individuals who disagree with the regime. Other methods of torture recently documented by Amnesty International include Shabeh; in which a detainee is hung by the wrist for a long period of time. Sometimes the victim is beaten, crucified, forced into stressful positions and tortured by electric shock.

Prisoners are forced to watch others being tortured by cigarettes being stubbed out on their bodies and the use of sexual violence. Sometimes, detainees are kept with dead or dying prisoners. These are only some of the torture methods being practiced in 21st century Syria. It may also be worth mentioning that Syria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture.

The Assad regime not only targets individuals in isolation but also is systematic in the manner in which it employs methods of torture. The regime has used torture to consolidate and reinforce the power it gained four decades ago. The torturer attempts to use the detainee’s body to dehumanize, humiliate, and degrade the individual. The goal is to alienate the person from him or herself. After invading and taking control of detainee’s body, the torturer turns to possessing the mind of the detainee.

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Torturing individuals is practiced by the Syrian regime to ultimately influence society as a whole. When a tortured body is returned home, it instills a profound sense of fear and terror in the family and associates of the torture victim. The purpose is to deter anyone considering engaging in acts that the regime does not approve of. This message reaches not only the extended family but the neighborhood as well.

My point is: all of Syrian society has suffered a collective anxiety and trauma that must be dealt with eventually, particularly for the thousands of detainees being held by the regime.

Systematic torture may help an autocratic regime maintain its grip on power for a long period of time, if those standing up to it are few. However, when the numbers of resisters have grown exponentially and will only continue to increase, how much longer can the regime sustain itself on such gruesome tactics? When this many people stand in solidarity to demand basic values of justice, rule of law, and democracy, it will be hard for Assad’s regime to maintain its power for much longer.

Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-Syrian scholar and columnist for Harvard International Review. He is also ambassador for the National Iranian American Council. 

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