Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Syrian security officers hung Muhannad Ghabbash from his wrists for hours, beat him bloody, shocked him with electricity and stuck a gun in his mouth.

Mr. Ghabbash, a law student from Aleppo, repeatedly confessed his actual offense: organizing peaceful antigovernment protests. But the torture continued for 12 days, until he wrote a fictional confession to planning a bombing.

That, he said, was just the beginning.

He was flown to a crammed prison at Mezze air base in Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he said guards hung him and other detainees from a fence naked, spraying them with water on cold nights. To entertain colleagues over dinner, he and other survivors said, an officer calling himself Hitler forced prisoners to act the roles of dogs, donkeys and cats, beating those who failed to bark or bray correctly.

In a military hospital, he said, he watched a nurse bash the face of an amputee who begged for painkillers. In yet another prison, he counted 19 cellmates who died from disease, torture and neglect in a single month.

“I was among the lucky,” said Mr. Ghabbash, 31, who survived 19 months in detention until a judge was bribed to free him.

Muhannad Ghabbash, left, with his colleagues at an organization for refugees in Turkey, survived 19 months in Syrian detention. Credit Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

As Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, closes in on victory over an eight-year revolt, a secret, industrial-scale system of arbitrary arrests and torture prisons has been pivotal to his success. While the Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, fought armed rebels for territory, the government waged a ruthless war on civilians, throwing hundreds of thousands into filthy dungeons where thousands were tortured and killed.

Nearly 128,000 have never emerged, and are presumed to be either dead or still in custody, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group that keeps the most rigorous tally. Nearly 14,000 were “killed under torture.” Many prisoners die from conditions so dire that a United Nations investigation labeled the process “extermination.”

Now, even as the war winds down, the world’s attention fades and countries start to normalize relations with Syria, the pace of new arrests, torture and execution is increasing. The numbers peaked in the conflict’s bloodiest early years, but last year the Syrian Network recorded 5,607 new arrests that it classifies as arbitrary— more than 100 per week and nearly 25 percent more than the year before.

Detainees have recently smuggled out warnings that hundreds are being sent to an execution site, Saydnaya Prison, and newly released prisoners report that killings there are accelerating.

A satellite image of the military-run Saydnaya Prison, where the Syrian government has executed thousands of prisoners. Credit Amnesty International, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Kidnappings and killings by the Islamic State captured more attention in the West, but the Syrian prison system has vacuumed up many more times the number of people detained by ISIS in Syria. Government detention accounts for around 90 percent of the disappearances tallied by the Syrian Network.

The Syrian government has denied the existence of systematic abuse.

However, newly discovered government memos show that Syrian officials who report directly to Mr. al-Assad ordered mass detentions and knew of atrocities.

War crimes investigators with the nonprofit Commission for International Justice and Accountability have found government memos ordering crackdowns and discussing deaths in detention. The memos were signed by top security officials, including members of the Central Crisis Management Committee, which reports directly to Mr. al-Assad.

A military intelligence memo acknowledges deaths from torture and filthy conditions. Other memos report deaths of detainees, some later identified among photos of thousands of prisoner corpses smuggled out by a military police defector. Two memos authorize “harsh” treatment of specific detainees.

A memo from the head of military intelligence, Rafiq Shehadeh, suggests that officials feared future prosecution: It orders officers to report all deaths to him and take steps to ensure “judicial immunity” for security officials.

In an interview in his office in an Ottoman palace in Damascus in 2016, Mr. al-Assad cast doubt on the truthfulness of survivors and the families of the missing. Asked about specific cases, he said, “Are you talking allegations or concrete?” and suggested that relatives had lied when they said they saw security officers haul away loved ones.

Any abuses, he said, were isolated mistakes unavoidable in a war.

“It happened here, all over the world, anywhere,” he has said. “But it’s not a policy.”

Over seven years, The New York Times has interviewed dozens of survivors and relatives of dead and missing detainees, reviewed government documents detailing prison deaths and crackdowns on dissent, and examined hundreds of pages of witness testimony in human rights reports and court filings.

The survivors’ accounts reported here align with accounts from other prisoners held in the same jails, and are supported by the government memos and by photos smuggled out of Syrian prisons.

The prison system was integral to Mr. al-Assad’s war effort, crushing the civil protest movement and driving the opposition into an armed conflict it could not win.

In recent months, Syria’s government has tacitly acknowledged that hundreds of people have died in detention. Under pressure from Moscow, Damascus has confirmed the deaths of at least several hundred people in custody by issuing death certificates or listing them as dead in family registration files. The Syrian Network’s founder, Fadel Abdul Ghany, said the move sent citizens a clear message: “We won, we did this, and no one will punish us.”

There is little hope for holding top officials accountable anytime soon. But there is a growing movement to seek justice through European courts.

French and German prosecutors have arrested three former security officials and issued international arrest warrants for Syria’s national security chief, Ali Mamlouk; its Air Force Intelligence director, Jamil Hassan; and others for torture and deaths in prison of citizens or residents of those countries.

Yet Mr. al-Assad and his lieutenants remain in power, safe from arrest, protected by Russia with its military might and its veto in the United Nations Security Council. At the same time, Arab states are restoring relations with Damascus and European countries are considering following suit.

President Trump’s planned pullout of most of the 2,000 American troops in eastern Syria reduces already-minimal American leverage in the conflict, now in its ninth year.

That impunity is not just a domestic Syrian problem. Without security reforms, the five million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe are unlikely to return home to risk arbitrary arrest. And in an age of emboldened authoritarianism from the European far right to Saudi Arabia, Mr. al-Assad has demonstrated that maximum violence against civilian dissent can be a winning strategy.

“This will not stay in Syria,” Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights lawyer, said in Berlin, where he has assisted prosecutors. “People forget what is dictatorship, because we have 70 years of peace after World War II. But human rights is not in the DNA of states or politicians.”

“Justice is not a Syrian luxury,” he said. “It’s the world’s problem.”

Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights lawyer, with his wife, Yara Bader, in Berlin. Both were imprisoned in Syria. Credit Laura Boushnak for The New York Times


An expanding gulag

The Syrian detention system is a supersized version of the one built by Mr. al-Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad. In 1982, he crushed an armed Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, leveling much of the city and arresting tens of thousands of people: Islamists, leftist dissidents and random Syrians.

Over two decades, around 17,000 detainees disappeared into a system with a torture repertoire that borrowed from French colonialists, regional dictators and even Nazis: Its security advisers included Adolf Eichmann’s fugitive aide Alois Brunner.

When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he kept the detention system in place.

The Syrian detention system under President Bashar al-Assad, right, is a supersized version of the one built by his father, President Hafez al-Assad, left. Credit Marko Djurica/Reuters


Each of Syria’s four intelligence agencies — military, political, air force and state security — has local branches across Syria. Most have their own jails. CIJA has documented hundreds of them.

It was the detention and torture of several teenagers in March 2011, for scrawling graffiti critical of Mr. al-Assad, that pushed Syrians to join the uprisings then sweeping Arab countries. Demonstrations protesting their treatment spread from their hometown, Dara’a, leading to more arrests, which galvanized more protests.

A flood of detainees from all over Syria joined the existing dissidents at Saydnaya Prison. The new detainees ranged “from the garbageman to the peasant to the engineer to the doctor, all classes of Syrians,” said Riyad Avlar, a Turkish citizen who was held for 20 years after being arrested in 1996, as a 19-year-old student, for interviewing Syrians about a prison massacre.

Riyad Avlar, a Turkish citizen, was imprisoned in Syria for 20 years after being arrested as a 19-year-old student for interviewing Syrians about a prison massacre. Credit Laura Boushnak for The New York Times


A photo of Mr. Avlar, saved on his phone, showing him at age 18. Credit Laura Boushnak for The New York Times


Torture increased, he said; the newcomers were sexually assaulted, beaten on the genitals, and forced to beat or even kill one another.


No one knows exactly how many Syrians have passed through the system since; rights groups estimate hundreds of thousands to a million. Damascus does not release prison data.

By all accounts, the system overflowed. Some political detainees landed in regular prisons. Security forces and pro-government militias created uncounted makeshift dungeons at schools, stadiums, offices, military bases and checkpoints.

The Syrian Network’s tally of 127,916 people currently caught in the system is probably an undercount. The number, a count of arrests reported by detainees’ families and other witnesses, does not include people later released or confirmed dead.

Because of government secrecy, no one knows how many have died in custody, but thousands of deaths were recorded in memos and photographs.

A former Syrian military police officer, known as Caesar, in blue hooded jacket, at a 2014 congressional briefing in Washington.CreditAlex Wong/Getty Images


A former military police officer, known only as Caesar to protect his safety, had the job of photographing corpses. He fled Syria with pictures of at least 6,700 corpses, bone-thin and battered, which shocked the world when they emerged in 2014.

But he also photographed memos on his boss’s desk reporting deaths to superiors.

Like the death certificates issued recently, the memos list the cause of death as “cardiac arrest.” One memo identifies a detainee who also appears in one of Caesar’s photos; his eye is gouged out.

The prisons seem to have been hit with an uncanny epidemic of heart disease, said Mr. Darwish, the human rights lawyer. “Of course, when they die, their heart stops,” he said.

A tour of torture

Mr. Ghabbash, the protest organizer from Aleppo, survived torture at at least 12 facilities, making him, he says, “a tour guide” to the system. His odyssey began in 2011, when he was 22. The oldest son of a government building contractor, he was inspired by peaceful protests in the Damascus suburb of Darayya to organize demonstrations in Aleppo.



Mr. Ghabbash survived torture in at least 12 facilities. Credit Laura Boushnak for The New York Times


He was arrested in June 2011, and released after pledging to stop protesting.

“I didn’t stop,” he recalled with a grin.

In August, he was arrested again — the same week that, a memo from CIJA shows, Mr. al-Assad’s top officials ordered a tougher crackdown, criticizing provincial authorities’ “laxness” and calling for more arrests of “those who are inciting people to demonstrate.”

Mr. Ghabbash was hung up, beaten and whipped in a string of military and general intelligence facilities, he said. His captors eventually let him go with a stern recommendation given to many similar youths: Leave the country.

Even as they released Saydnaya Prison’s most radical long-term prisoners, Islamists who would later lead rebel groups, they aimed to get rid of civilian opposition. Both moves, critics say, appear to have been part of a strategy to shift the uprising to the battlefield, where Mr. al-Assad and his allies enjoyed a military advantage.

He was arrested in June 2011, and released after pledging to stop protesting.

“I didn’t stop,” he recalled with a grin.

In August, he was arrested again — the same week that, a memo from CIJA shows, Mr. al-Assad’s top officials ordered a tougher crackdown, criticizing provincial authorities’ “laxness” and calling for more arrests of “those who are inciting people to demonstrate.”

Mr. Ghabbash was hung up, beaten and whipped in a string of military and general intelligence facilities, he said. His captors eventually let him go with a stern recommendation given to many similar youths: Leave the country.

Even as they released Saydnaya Prison’s most radical long-term prisoners, Islamists who would later lead rebel groups, they aimed to get rid of civilian opposition. Both moves, critics say, appear to have been part of a strategy to shift the uprising to the battlefield, where Mr. al-Assad and his allies enjoyed a military advantage.

Syrian prisoners sign release papers at the Damascus Police Command headquarters in 2012. Credit Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press


“Between me and my conscience, I don’t want to confess something I haven’t done,” Mr. Ghabbash recalled. “Five people asking questions at once. You’re cold, you’re thirsty, lips full of blood, you can’t focus. Everybody is screaming, hitting.”

He saved toenails they pulled out, and strips of skin that peeled from his beaten soles. He put them in his pocket, dreaming of showing a judge. But then one day they took his pants.

On the 12th day he wrote a confession.

“Make it convincing,” a Capt. Maher told him. “There is someone who drove you. Imagine how he looks. Tall, short, fat?”

Mr. Ghabbash settled on a silver car and “a tall guy, with glasses and light hair.”

“I started to feel my talent in writing,” he said.

Surreal punishment

In March 2012, Mr. Ghabbash was flown to Mezze military air base, named for a well-off Damascus neighborhood nearby.

By then, he and numerous survivors said, there was an industrial-scale transportation system among prisons. Detainees were tortured on each leg of their journeys, in helicopters, buses, cargo planes. Some recalled riding for hours in trucks normally used for animal carcasses, hanging by one arm, chained to meat hooks. Mr. Ghabbash’s new cell was typical: 12 feet long, 9 feet wide, usually packed so tightly that prisoners had to sleep in shifts.

Outside the cell, a man was blindfolded and handcuffed in the corridor. It was Mr. Darwish, the human rights lawyer. He had been singled out for lecturing a judge on Syrian laws guaranteeing fair trials.

He later ticked off his punishment: “Naked, no water, no sleep, forced to drink my pee.”

Prison torture grew more brutal and baroque as rebels outside made advances and government warplanes bombed restive neighborhoods.

Survivors describe sadistic treatment, rape, summary executions or detainees left to die of untreated wounds and illnesses.

Mr. Ghabbash soon got his own special punishment. He was interrogated by a man calling himself Suhail Hassan — possibly Suhail Hassan Zamam, who headed Air Force prisons, according to a leaked government database — who asked how Mr. Ghabbash would solve the conflict.

“Real elections,” he recalled replying. “The people just wanted some reforms, but you used force. The problem is either we have to be with you or you kill us.”

That won him a month of extra torture, the most bizarre in his ordeal.

A guard who called himself Hitler would organize sadistic dinner entertainment for his colleagues. He brought arak and water pipes, Mr. Ghabbash said, “to prepare the ambience.” He made some prisoners kneel, becoming tables or chairs. Others played animals. “Hitler” reinforced stage directions with beatings.

“The dog has to bark, the cat meow, the rooster crow,” Mr. Ghabbash said. “Hitler tries to tame them. When he pets one dog, the other dog should act jealous.”

The audience also included prisoners, in nearby cells or hanging blindfolded on nearby chain-link fences, who confirmed the account. Some guards made those hanging beg, “Master, I’m thirsty,” then sprayed them with hoses, Mr. Ghabbash said.

After weeks or months, many prisoners got so-called trials lasting minutes with no defense lawyers. Mr. Ghabbash’s was typical. At a military “field court” in 2012, he heard a judge rattle off his conviction, “terrorism that destroyed public property,” and his sentence: death.

“The whole trial was one and a half minutes,” he said.

He expected to go to Saydnaya Prison, which by then was a mass execution center. Thousands have been hanged there after summary trials, according to an Amnesty International report.

“Good, it’s finished,” he recalled thinking. But it was not. He would endure another year of daily beatings.

Satellite images show the increase in mass graves at a cemetery near Damascus between 2010, left, and 2016, right. Amnesty International said that bodies of prisoners executed in Saydnaya Prison were buried there. Credit Amnesty International, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

His last stint was in a makeshift prison deep underground near Damascus, a military bunker of the elite Fourth Division, a fief of Mr. al-Assad’s brother Maher. Survivors recall officers with the unit’s insignia visiting and seeing the conditions. But Air Force intelligence ran operations there after Mezze prison overflowed, according to survivors and CIJA’s files.

There were no more interrogations.

“Torture just for torture,” said Mr. Darwish, who was also transferred there. “For revenge, for killing, for breaking the people.”