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.