One former prisoner described undergoing desperate jailhouse surgery performed with a scavenged razor blade. A woman told of her gang rape by a military commander and his troops, each awaiting his turn. Another man recounted thirst-crazed prisoners licking spilled water from the floor "like cats."
Even before the outbreak of Syria's civil war, the country's detention facilities, particularly those run by the security forces, were notorious for abuse. But prison torture is occurring now on an industrial scale, with more than 17,000 people believed to have been killed in custody and tens of thousands of others enduring horrific treatment on a daily basis, Amnesty International said in a searing new report.
"Since the current crisis in Syria began in 2011, the situation has become catastrophic, with torture committed on a massive scale," the report said, citing interviews carried out with 65 ex-detainees over a span of five months in 2015 and 2016.
The London-based rights group said its findings corroborated those of previous investigations, including one carried out by a U.N.-mandated body, but the 64-page document is notable for the degree of agonizing detail provided by interviewees, the majority of whom had found haven in southern Turkey. Like other international monitors, the group was barred from carrying out research inside Syria.
"The first thing this torture does is take your dignity," a man identified as Omar H. told researchers. "It breaks the human."
Many of the former detainees bear the scars of their ordeal in captivity — badly healed bones, nerve damage, the puckered marks of cigarette burns. For some, the lingering psychological effects are even worse, leaving them unable to cope with work or family life, the report said.
Every former prisoner to whom the researchers spoke said they had been tortured — subjected to beatings, starvation, electric shocks. Sexual violence was commonplace ; one man described an electric-shock device inserted in his anus; women interviewees said guards routinely used rape as punishment.
One woman called Umm Omar, detained by military intelligence in Aleppo, described being beaten to the ground and then kicked into unconsciousness by her captors.
"When I woke up, I was back in the solitary cell," she said. "But my trousers had been opened and moved down, my abaya was open and my undershirt was moved up. Everything was hurting, so I couldn't tell if I had been raped."
The report focuses on conditions in what it describes as Syria's most lethal detention facilities, including those operated by the country's four intelligence services. The prisoners, the group said, came from all walks of life — doctors, teachers, café owners, housewives, lawyers and journalists.
Many had been arrested on the slimmest possible pretext — one man was denounced by a neighbor over a property dispute; another was a farmer who had attended a single peaceful demonstration.
Syria has consistently denied mistreatment of detainees, but Amnesty International charged that the regime of President Bashar Assad had embarked on a systematic campaign to eliminate anyone who was seen as posing a threat to the regime, using torture to terrorize prisoners as well as their families.
Researchers said they found the ex-prisoners' accounts credible, in part because some details were repeated again and again by people who had never met — descriptions, for example, of the "welcome party" – a severe beating administered on arrival at a detention facility — or different methods of torture, including one known as shabeh, in which the victim was suspended by manacled wrists, often for hours, from a hook or a pipe.
A former prisoner called Shiyar told of being beaten as he hung by his wrists, feet dangling in the air.
"After they were done beating me with wooden sticks, they took the cigarettes. They were putting them out all over my body," he said. "It felt like a knife excavating my body."
Amnesty International said upcoming negotiations on ending the conflict provided an opening for putting pressure on the Syrian government to halt "enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions." The group urged that parties to the talks make the issue a priority in negotiations.
One man named Noman told of being denied medical care after developing a severe leg infection while being held by military intelligence in Damascus — resulting, he said, in a cellmate who was a nurse performing makeshift surgery to prevent gangrene from setting in.
"He and another detainee…gave me a towel to put in my mouth. I bit on it," he said. "They burned the razor with a lighter, then they cut open the wound … All the dirty blood came out."
Nicolette Boehland, one of the group's researchers, said that as difficult as it was for interviewees to describe what they had undergone, many expressed the sense that they owed it to those still in captivity to speak.
"History is not going to forget this," she said.