Syrians are dying from torture in jihadist-run prison camps, according to Arab News and agencies’ report on March 27th.

In north-western Syria, Islamist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) run about half of Idlib province – and parts of the neighbouring provinces including Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia. Formerly led by Al-Qaeda, the group is considered a terrorist organisation by several Western countries, running detention facilities accused of carrying out gross human rights abuses.

27-year-old Abdel Qadar was recently tortured to death in one such camp. The death sparked protests with residents and activists crying out against the severe human rights abuses – rare actions in the repressive, militant-controlled provinces.

“We protested and rose up against the Assad regime in order to be rid of injustice,” said Abdel’s brother, Ahmed, adding that they still “find ourselves ruled with the same methods”.

The conflict in Syria, beginning with the Arab Spring in 2011, was ignited by Assad’s harsh crackdown on widespread anti-government protests. Foreign military forces also grew entangled in the situation, resulting in over 500,000 dead.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has also recently reported a concerning escalation in violence, the highest since 2020. The Commission’s findings reveal a grim state of affairs, with over 90% of the population living in poverty. This is further compounded by an economic crisis, and crumbling healthcare system – worsened by international sanctions.

READ: UN Syria commission says violence at four-year high

Life is little better for those under HTS’ control in Syria’s northwest.

Since last year, when HTS initiated a campaign against individuals suspected of acting as “agents” for Damascus or foreign governments, there has been a rise in allegations of torture and other violations of human rights.

According to residents and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, the Islamist group’s campaign has seen a relentless detainment of hundreds of civilians from all affiliations – be they civilian, combatant, or even HTS – with no information for the victims’ families.

The Syrian Observatory reported Abdel’s death sparked daily demonstrations in towns and villages across Idlib province. Protestors chanted against the HTS leader, Mohammed Al-Jolani, calling for the detainees’ release.

Leader Jolani acknowledged the protestors’ demands as “mostly justified”, and has sought to implement changes, including overhauling the present militant security force in charge of the prisons.

The Islamist group’s media office also said it was “seriously examining” the protestors’ demands, to “tighten security bodies’ work (and) improve prison infrastructure…to deal with any dysfunction.”

According to Ahmed, his brother Abdel had participated in protests against the government, before becoming a combatant for a small group affiliated with HTS, named Jaish Al-Ahrar.

After suspicions Abdel was spying for the government, he was instructed to hand himself in to a HTS-run prison on March 16th 2023. Abdel believed the case would be straightforward and that he would be released within the week.

But he was detained for months.

Ahmed recounted that several months following his brother’s arrest, they were informed he was in “good health”, only to be prevented further information. It was only later, through an unofficial source linked to the militant group, that they learned of Abdel’s death by torture. His fate was only officially acknowledged on February 22nd this year – nearly a year later.

The family also faced further discrepancies when the death date on Abdel’s brand-new grave was several weeks following his initial arrest.

Fellow detainees revealed to Ahmed that his brother was “beaten with piping until he lost consciousness, and tied up by his hands for days without food or water.”

As Abdel maintained his innocence the prison guards reportedly “increased the torture until they killed him”.

Ahmed listened to a former detainee’s account of how his brother “couldn’t walk because his feet were swollen and filled with pus”. On the day he died, the guards had “tortured him for six hours”, before returning him to the cell where he “kept vomiting,”.

Government-run prisons in Syria have also been accused of similarly brutal treatment by human rights organisations, with tens of thousands of citizens forcibly “disappeared” and detained on unknown grounds.

The notorious government-run prison, Saydnaya, was accused by Amnesty International in 2017 of conducting mass hangings in secret.

The Saydnaya Detainees’ Association also recently claimed that the government has deliberately obscured evidence of mass graves last year. Since 2011, the Assad regime has conducted widespread campaigns of detainment and torture, with over 130,000 Syrians estimated to still be captive.

READ: Detainees’ association claims Syrian regime levelled graves

As part of a move to increase public support, HTS released 420 prisoners earlier this March, according to The Syrian observatory.

But for 30-year-old Noha Al-Atrash nothing has changed. Her husband, Ahmed Majluba, has remained in detention since December 2022, held on inconsistent charges ranging from theft, to membership of an extremist organisation.

Noha said, “He has been arrested five times…there is no proven reason for this detention”.

During one of Ahmed’s arrests, and subsequent period of detention, HTS allegedly shot him in the leg. When Noha visited him during yet another detainment in prison, his hand was fractured and his face swollen from beatings. On another occasion, in her quest for answers about her husband’s condition, she and her children faced their own ordeal of detention, lasting almost three weeks.

Caught in a dire situation, Noha faces a heart-wrenching dilemma: the authorities have demanded $3,000 for her husband’s release, a sum she cannot afford. The only means she has left is to resist with words.

“I have no choice but to protest…I won’t give up as long as they have my husband,” she declares, her determination unwavering.

Ahmed and Noha’s stories are sadly commonplace, with a recent UN independent commission on Syria announcing it has “reasonable grounds to believe” HTS guilty of committing “acts that may amount to the war crimes of torture and cruel treatment and unlawful deprivation of liberty”.

The pervasive injustices carried out against those imprisoned unjustly within the jihadist-run detention centres marks yet another grim chapter of Syria’s bloody history. In an effort to gain justice for families such as Ahmed’s and Noha’s, a human rights group, Syrians for Truth and Justice, has called upon families to record accurate evidence of their loves ones’ detainment. Such records are essential to potentially serve as evidence in future inquiries that could one day bring about justice for the countless victims of this protracted conflict and those responsible of gross human rights abuses to account.

Arab News / Agencies

 

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