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Documenting Death Inside Syria’s Secret Prisons

JULY 14, 2015 3:42 AM ET
Images of dead bodies in Syrian prisons, taken by a Syrian government photographer, are displayed at the United Nations on March 10. The photographer, who goes by the pseudonym Caesar, took the pictures between 2011, when the Syrian uprising began, and 2013, when he fled the country. His photos will be on display at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Images of dead bodies in Syrian prisons, taken by a Syrian government photographer, are displayed at the United Nations on March 10. The photographer, who goes by the pseudonym Caesar, took the pictures between 2011, when the Syrian uprising began, and 2013, when he fled the country. His photos will be on display at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Landov

A Syrian forensic photographer, who now uses the pseudonym Caesar, documented the death of thousands of detainees in Syria’s brutal prison system. He made more than 55,000 high-resolution images before he fled the country, fearing for his safety, in 2013.

He spoke publicly for the first time in July 2014, when he appeared before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, wearing a blue jacket with a hood to protect his identity.

Dozens of Caesar’s photographs will be displayed again in the halls of Congress on Wednesday.

The exhibition is sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in cooperation with the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The graphic images show beaten and bruised bodies, many are skeletal, most with signs of torture. Now, Syrian families are searching the photos online after Syrian opposition groups posted more than 6,000 images in March.

NPR spoke to a member of the group that posted the pictures, as well as a friend who identified a victim, and a lawyer working on a war crimes case. Here are their stories:

Amer fled Damascus two days after his friend, Kutabia, a 40-year-old father of two, was seized by government agents from a bookstore in Damascus. The two friends demonstrated together through 2011. They took even larger risks together, smuggling money and medicine into restive neighborhoods besieged by the Syrian government.

“They invaded on New Year’s Eve at 6 p.m. I was at a café nearby. And when I finished I said, ‘Let’s go and say hi [to Kutaiba].’ I knocked and there’s no one. No lights inside. And I continued home and that’s when I heard that my friend was taken to the detention center or the torture center.

This is where the story begins. Once your friend is detained by the government, you try to figure out where he is.

His parents started to ask. They usually go to people in the intelligence service and the guy will say, ‘I can’t tell you, you have to give me money.’

For two and a half years his parents are paying money. Sometimes they take a couple of thousand dollars and [they] get back and say, ‘He’s alive and well, and says hi to his sons.'”

In March 2015, Syrian opposition groups published 6,000 of Caesar’s photos online. For the first time, Syrian friends and families could search the gruesome photo gallery and identify the victims. Kutaiba’s picture was among the dead, killed within a month of his arrest.

Rep. Ed Royce (center), R-Calif., speaks during a July 2014 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with "Caesar," a Syrian army defector who wore a blue, hooded jacket to protect his identity. Caesar smuggled out of Syria more than 55,000 photographs that document the torture and killings in Syrian prisons.

Rep. Ed Royce (center), R-Calif., speaks during a July 2014 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with “Caesar,” a Syrian army defector who wore a blue, hooded jacket to protect his identity. Caesar smuggled out of Syria more than 55,000 photographs that document the torture and killings in Syrian prisons.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

“It was him. His eyes were closed. He had stitches on his forehead like the ones you see in horror movies. And I was shocked. I was in the middle of work. I don’t know what sort of people can do this harm and torture to another person.

I saw his color, and was like, ‘Thank God he wasn’t starved to death.’ He didn’t have his ears taken off or his nose. So, I thought he made them furious enough to kill him right away rather than being tortured on a daily basis. It’s always better to know, is he alive or is he dead.”

Dr. Mohammed Ayash works with the Syrian Association for Missing and Detainees of Conscience, based in Istanbul. In March, the group published some of the Caesar photos online and has organized private showings in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and even in some rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus. Dr. Ayash is scanning all the images and documenting the dead. It is a grim task made harder still because Dr. Ayash has seen friends and neighbors among the dead.

“We have about 6,700 victims in this website. I am a doctor, I’m not a pathologist, but I describe what I see in every picture. We have children in these pictures. There are older men. There is one woman.

It comes to my dreams sometimes, because of the horrible methods. By torture, by starvation and eye gouging, and it’s very hard for me.

(The work) is very important because we need the families as witnesses in any court. We need families to say, ‘Yes, this is my father and my brother,’ and they were taken and killed by the Assad regime.”

Muna Jundi, an attorney in Flint, Mich., works with United for a Free Syria, a coalition of Syrian-American nonprofit organizations. She was part of a team of Syrians who got Caesar to testify to Congress last year and will be in Washington for the event on Wednesday. She took part in the decision to publish the photos online.

“It was systematic, the regime was using it as a way to quell the revolution.

There’s a lot of missing Syrian people and a lot of people don’t know the fate of their family members. They hear about it through rumors. They pay money to try and find information and really there’s nothing concrete. And unfortunately there’s nothing more concrete than pictures of dead bodies. So the idea was to open up to help people identify their own family members.

For an American audience, I think it was shocking. But the sheer … mass production of this, I think, is what overwhelms. They’ve documented it in such detail.

Syrians inside Syria that had any experience with intelligence [services] automatically knew why the documentation had to happen.

When there’s an order from above, they need evidence that those orders are being carried out. In a highly corrupt government, where you can pay people to release people, they need the evidence. They needed to keep the evidence to show that you told us this is what we need to do, and therefore, this is what we are doing.”


Amy on torture USA



Inside Assad’s Torture Chambers – Syria

via Pulse

Cheating death in Syria

 Razan  Zeitoune

                                        September 16, 2013

                            Escaping hell: Lt. Col. Abu al-Mawt’s detention center


Out of all the stories and horrors documented within the course of my legal work, “Escape from hell” – with its five heroes and the monster figure of Lt. Col. Abu al-Mawt (literally, the father of death), who supervised the torture and execution of fellow detainees – is one I replay every day.

The five escapees delivered testimonies while we were preparing a report on what happened at the documentation center, and speaking about Abu al-Mawt gave them a sense of salvation. That they survived this ordeal can only be described as a miracle – Abu al-Mawt represented the brutality of the Assad regime for decades and throughout the two-and-a-half years of the Syrian revolution.

Out of all the torturers who ill-treated these five prisoners and hundreds of others at the air force intelligence prison in Harasta, Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt was a pure symbol of the hell that claimed more than 100,000 lives since the revolution first broke out.

Lieutenant Colonel Maan, known as “Abu al-Mawt,” represents Azrael, utter power, and the giver of death in the most horrendous of forms. He is the antithesis of anything that is human and has to do with life.

Abu al-Mawt used to call in those who had been detained for more than one year at the air force intelligence prison in Harasta, and tell them they would be sent to forced labor to dig trenches and build barricades for the regime’s army. When physical strength would fail them under the brunt of constant torture and hard labor, he would execute them after “entertaining” himself by torturing them a little more.

Yet, Abu al-Mawt only did this within a framework of special rituals. Detainees chosen to die next would be called in and forced to go down on their knees to kiss Abu al-Mawt’s hand before. But every time, he would close in his hand on the detainee’s throat and choke them for several minutes, exercising his authority over life that was granted to him by the Assad regime.

A survivor gives the following account of his first meeting with Abu al-Hawl: “A short, bearded officer called Maan came in. He was a lieutenant colonel known as Abu al-Mawt. He greeted us and we replied to his greeting before he said: ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Azrael, or, come to think of it, I am God and I am taking you to the other world. But since I am God, I shall extend your life for a few more days.’”

The five detainees managed to escape on Laylat Al-Qadr (literally the Night of Destiny, which commemorates the revelation of the Quran by Prophet Mohammad) this past Ramadan as they were doing forced labor near the prison. One former detainee said that no sane person would have tried this escape, as “guards were all around us and bullets rained down on us. But what we saw at the prison made us go mad, or else we would not have tried this.”

But aren’t all Syrian rebels like these five escapees who rebelled against Abu al-Mawt two-and-a-half years ago? No sane person would have thought to rebel against the most brutal of regimes and to go on with this rebellion even as the international community by-and-large abstained from supporting the rebels – and, therefore, disregarding the suffering of Syrian people.

Western media outlets have recently been airing images of Jihadist groups performing executions with edged weapons, the utmost expression of barbarism. However, no one provides any pictures of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt tying a water-filled bag to one detainee’s penis while torturing him. No one has pictures of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt emptying gunpowder from a bullet on the detainee’s chest and setting it on fire. No one has pictures of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt setting a plastic bag on fire and allowing it to drip down on the detainee’s body. No one could ever have images capturing the stench of scorched skin as Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt emptied his Taser gun on the detainee’s body. Nor are there are pictures of the detainee begging for a sip of water shortly before his execution. All of them were executed while thirsty.

The world would rather deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Abu al-Mawt’s role model who gives him the authority to steal away or extend one’s life. This goes without mentioning the thousands of replicas of Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt who have been torturing and killing Syrians for two-and-a-half years. Yet, the West would then express surprise and focus most at the sight of al-Qaeda-linked groups
emboldened in some liberated areas and performing theatrical executions openly using edged weapons.

Ahmad Hamada, Louay Bellor, Fawwaz Badran, Hassane Nasrallah and Mowafaq al-Jandali managed to escape from Lieutenant Colonel Abu al-Mawt’s hell, avoiding a most certainly cruel form of death that would have eventually ensued.

And, every time I am gripped by despair, I recall the story of these five escapees and harbor the hope that we still have some time left for a miracle, which would see us collectively escaping Abu al-Mawt’s hell sometime soon.

This article is a translation from the original Arabic


They have sympathised with the opposition

Assad soldiers place Alawite men in barrels, beat & torture them for sympathizing with the opposition

Syria specialisation in torture

Radio Free Syria ‪#‎Hama‬: These are some of the horrific scars left on just one recent former detainee by torture in one of the Assad regime’s detention centres.


The detainee’s face, torso and other body parts were also horribly disfigured by his torturers, who also hung him by his arms from a hook in the cell ceiling for days on end while carrying out their monstrous and inhuman brutality.

This is not unusual, not an isolated incident; this is the nightmarish norm for Assad regime detainees, male and female, young and old, many of whom are imprisoned and tortured simply for voicing opposition to or protesting peacefully against the regime.

Many die under torture in regime detention –

70 people were documented killed under torture in regime detention in the first week of Ramadan this year alone.

Those are only the documented cases.  These crimes against humanity did not begin with the revolution; this has been the Assad regime’s standard ‘punishment’ for dissidents for over 40 years.

Indeed, so globally infamous is the Assad regime’s unparalleled talent for torture that other nations have even outsourced their own inhumanity to the regime’s universally acknowledged world leaders in the field.

In the words of Bob Baer, former CIA agent, writing about the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program in the ‘War on Terror’, “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.”

Syria, This happened last year

The Khatib branch refused to receive me. I was almost finished from beating, and seriously, the colour of my body was changed and my smell was awful. Because, in addition to the fact that I was tortured on the ground, the “popular committees” (Regime militia) urinated over me, and my clothes were full of blood. I wonder how is that I stayed alive up to this moment. All what I know is that the security branch of “Hafez Makhlouf” continued beating me demanding me to confess that I am a terrorist and that I killed soldiers in Qodssaia. (PS: At that moment there wasn’t any presence of the Free Army in Qodssaia).

So, they refused to receive me and they sent me to the hospital of Harasta. There, they received me in the entrances with whips, then, they put me in the toilette and gave me a bottle of water to shower in a minute, and then to wear the clothes of patients. They tied my hands with handcuffs, and they tied me to the bed. They tied my leg to the leg of the patient next to me, and they covered my eyes.

We were three in the same bed; we didn’t know the names of each other. Everyone had a number, and if someone asked you something, your name, age or where were you from, you must give him the number. Because there is always a soldier in the room, if he ever hears you speaking, you can say to this life goodbye.

I stayed tow weeks in the hospital. During this whole period, they only gave me a Cetamol pill. But I was whipped hundreds of times by a soldier named Maen. They turned off about 20 cigarettes in my body, the soldier did it, and the doctor as well. Even the nurse, who visited us occasionally to insult us and to turn off her cigarette; then she walks away, to continue here noble mission.

Citing the page “We are all the Free Ghiath Mattar”

The drawing is by artist: Suhair Al-Sibai

Obama’s torture policy

January 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment

Al Jazeera’s excellent Fault Lines returns:

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama promised a new direction. Just days after taking office, the new US president issued a series of executive orders banning all acts of torture, discontinuing the use of CIA black sites, and calling for the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay to be closed.

But what will it really take to dismantle the Bush administration’s legacy of torture when there is the same leadership at the Pentagon, the same rhetoric about protecting “state secrets”, and the same refusal to allow victims of rendition to file lawsuits in US courts – not to mention a fully functional US military prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan?

Among other things, since taking office, the Obama administration has asserted in court that prisoners held at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan have no right to challenge their detentions in US courts, pre-empted a supreme court ruling on whether a legal US resident can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial, and argued to dismiss cases brought by alleged victims of rendition on the grounds that they might pose a threat to US “national security”.

The litany of disappointing actions on human rights and civil liberties seems to be growing longer every day.

This week on Fault Lines, we talk to people on all sides of the so-called “war on terror” – from human rights lawyers to former Bush administration officials; from a former US detainee who was rendered to torture to the CIA analyst who helped author his fate.

Where at first glance the US appears to be heading in a new direction, to what extent has the Obama administration turned its back on the abusive


Syria’s Torture Centers Revealed


          Publiée le  2 juil. 2012 par Former detainees and defectors have identified the locations, agencies responsible, torture methods used, and, in many cases, the commanders in charge of 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies. The systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture that Human Rights Watch documented clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity. Interactive Map:

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