A tour across Syria's archipelago of torture

What you say does not matter. What matters is that any person who sits on the flying carpet will get his share of beating for hours on end, depending on the official working hours and the officer on duty, of course.

27 June 2018

Hazem Mustafa

Hazem Mustafa (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer and journalist residing in Latakia.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Syria.

Latakia, Syria — There lies the Citadel of Aleppo. Staring at its gate, which seemed quite close from his street, the man remembers all the times he and his childhood friends had jumped above the citadel walls playing games and throwing stones. A saying by the famous poet Al-Mutanabbi — who fought with the ruler of the citadel, Emir Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamadani, in the 15th century — kept coming to mind. Al-Mutanabbi told Sayf al-Dawla at the time, “You are the controversy, the opponent and the judge combined.”

Mohammad Hassan (pseudonym, 54) owned a fruit and vegetable cart which he parked next to his house in the Al-Saliheen neighborhood of Aleppo near the famous citadel. Hassan had six children who led their own lives, either working or studying. He was known as “Abu Sabri” in the neighborhood.

In 2013, he could see the street protests go by but he did not dare get closer to their rumble. He only watched the demonstrators and implicitly agreed with their words, songs and slogans. He was among those who had tasted bitter torture in the past, having spent several months touring the detention centers of Syria’s notorious security apparatus because his neighbor reported him on a whim. The neighbor claimed Hassan was hiding Muslim Brotherhood brochures in his house. Luckily, those who carried out the security “raid” came back empty-handed because Hassan is simply illiterate.

Early February 2013, Abu Sabri was arrested on the grounds of “supporting” these protests, as he would give any protester passing by his cart an apple, an orange, or anything they would ask for gratuitously. A neighbor or somebody whom the humble vendor will never meet till kingdom come — and then only provided that Abu Sabri remembers the story and asks God to point out that mole to him — reported him to the security forces.

Aleppo, 2013, State Security Department

Abu Sabri’s tour began at the State Security department in Aleppo where he stayed for nine months. During this time, he was put in a room that normally fits ten people. But, due to the abundance of “terrorists”, more than thirty people, sometimes even forty, were squeezed into the same cell, depending on the case and investigations. The cell was three levels underground, with no opening for sun or air. Water flowed from a faucet in the bathroom and another dripped over the head of a person sleeping under it.

Abu Sabri admitted to everything before the interrogator asked him to do so. He confessed that he was forming an armed organization that receives support from an Arab and a foreign country paying him in green, brown and blue banknotes. He was also accused of acquiring unlicensed weapons and of communicating with the Arab and foreign “enemies” of the Syrian state. Of course, documents implicating him were found, and they were written in languages with illegible letters to Abu Sabri, since he was illiterate. But, he must have written them a long time ago himself.

And, of course, these confessions were taped and confirmed and were not given under any physical or psychological “pressure”. In reality, Abu Sabri repeatedly “stumbled on” a rolled out “carpet” placed on the floor for his own comfort. His whole body was swollen but the report made no mention of that. But claims that Abu Sabri suffered repeated beatings were dismissed as nothing but rumors targeting the standing of the state and its high status among nations. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people.”

To the Political Security Directorate in Aleppo

After nine months of tourism at the State Security Department, Abu Sabri was transferred to the Political Security Directorate in Aleppo, where he opened a new chapter in his prison journey, and received new pertinent advice.

At this department, the truth must be told once again, in a new way that pleases the interrogators. Denial is inevitable, and people like Abu Sabri must spill the beans without any pressure, torture or intimidation.

The man spent six months hanging from a wall first, then lying on the “flying carpet” [a torture technique], consisting of a wooden or metal chair on which the person is placed upside down or in a normal position but tied up. The interrogator then either beats him on his feet or steps on his head.

What you say does not matter. What matters is that any person who sits on the flying carpet will get his share of beating for hours on end, depending on the official working hours and the officer on duty, of course.

Abu Sabri spent six months being tortured, Lakhdar Brahimi-style (a torture technique which consists of a green baton taken from sewage pipes and used to torment and beat up detainees; Brahimi was the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria until 14 May 2014). Abu Sabri would jump from pain; his body covered with traces of blood clots, scars and blue and green bruises — a green unmatched by the meadows depicted in the television show Ardouna al-Khadra [Our Green Land] which no Syrian has ever watched.

Another accusation was added to Abu Sabri’s alleged formation of an armed organization: smuggling weapons to an armed group that was intending to attack the station in his neighborhood. Any talk about his being tortured was dismissed as biased rumors. He lost weight because he decided to go on a diet. He had been overweight in another life.

To the capital

The touristic tour culminated with a visit to the capital. The man was transferred to the Counterterrorism Court in 2015, and his case landed in the hands of an investigative judge who only reads security briefings.

The judge was limping while he saw Abu Sabri in. The detainee was accompanied by two policemen after having had his hair and beard shaved, because one must be well-groomed to be fit to stand before the keeper of justice. One of the policemen sprayed Abu Sabri’s clothes with cheap perfume. In prisons, showering is a luxury that can only be attained after long weeks of waiting.

The judge stared at Abu Sabri who sat in the chair before him. The judge read some lines from the security reports and asked the man what he did in his other life. Abu Sabri said he was a vegetable seller. The judge shook his head, saying, “Why would you get yourself into this hype?” Then, he closed the report and continued, “I, the presiding investigative judge at the seventh Counterterrorism Court in Damascus, sentence the accused Muhammad Hassan to jail, pending further investigation.” Abu Sabri was thus arrested and transferred to Kaboun prison (near the capital).

Abu Sabri spent around half a year waiting for his case to develop, even if slightly. He talked to his family, which was able to learn his whereabouts only after laborious efforts. They assigned an attorney who immediately asked for 4 million Syrian Pounds (SYP) [$7,763] to bail Abu Sabri out. Since it was impossible to provide this amount, the slow case did not budge.

To Latakia

Abu Sabri remained in Kaboun prison for a couple of months, then he was transferred to Latakia’s prison because Kaboun was overcrowded. Dozens of accused people with similar cases were transferred with him. They were divided into two main groups: charges of terrorism or charges of rioting. The detainees in Latakia were put with inmates accused of committing crimes like theft, drugs, fraud, and others, in overcrowded cells that normally fit 20 people at most, but that now accommodated 50 to 60 prisoners, depending on how favors were distributed in the jail.

Abu Sabri remained in Latakia’s civil prison from 2015 until 2017, and he lived on food from his friends on that Syrian journey. He would eat from the oh-so-appetizing prison “soup” that became a staple of his tour across security departments. That soup consisted of heated water with salt added to taste — the taste of the cook who was another prisoner with a weighty recommendation.

Days passed by while Abu Sabri was in that jail, trying to find an escape from this situation. He called a relative whose number he had memorized, and that person promised him to follow up on his case with a “decent” lawyer. Days and months went on, and that decent lawyer did not move a finger. During those years, the judge adjourned Abu Sabri’s case several times, each time for three months. Abu Sabri lost track of time and of life and only thought about eating, drinking and sleeping.

Freedom and death combined

When Abu Sabri received the news of his release, he was in his cell getting ready to eat. It happened suddenly. The policeman who had gotten to know Abu Sabri due to their long acquaintance in jail found him eating. After failing to find a way to tell him the news, he shouted out to the cell, “Guess what, boys? Abu Sabri has completed his sentence.”

Abu Sabri did not even know the trial was over and that he had been sentenced to three years and a half in prison.

His inmates, including myself, can attest he was out of breath for a couple of minutes until his friend slapped him and sprinkled water on him. He then awoke from his trance and heard the birds chirping in his head and in the outside world, for the first time in five years.

Time had gone by quickly in the outside world. When Abu Sabri was released, he found is house destroyed, his neighborhood turned into rubble, and his six children scattered across the world because of the war. Some of them emigrated, while others went to Damascus or died.

He did not know that his wife had died of sadness over his fate. She spared no civil department official or authority in the quest to find him, but they always had their answer ready, “We know nothing about your husband.”

Abu Sabri packed the few belongings, clothes and medication that he had managed to keep in the different stages of his journey. He aimed for the steel door to take back his identity card. A few more meters, and he could hear for the first time in years the voices of regular people, the honk of cars and chirping birds. There was no time to go to the beach. He called his Latakian friend who sounded welcoming and invited him over to shower.

Abu Sabri spent a few days at his friend’s place (who was from the countryside). He then left for the coastal Baniyas city because he had found out that the rest of his family was renting a place near greenhouse farms. He headed to his relative’s house, completely unaware those were the last moments of his life. His freedom and death collided. While he was crossing the highway, absent-minded and lost, a truck hit him.

When his body was removed off the cement road, he had in his pocket a receipt of 10,000 SYP [$47] which he had borrowed from an inmate in Latakia’s prison, as well as a group photo showing a child laughing from all his heart.

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