The high price of protesting in Syria: jail and abuse

The fear of a hand, its owner invisible, snatching protesters from the crowd, looms large for those demonstrating against Assad.

Protestors in Syria 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protestors in Syria 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
BEIRUT - For thousands of protesters who have been marching in the streets of Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, the fear of a hand, its owner invisible, snatching them from the crowd, looms large.
It means they have been caught by security men, in plain clothes, mingling in the crowd. It marks the beginning of a detention, probably involving beatings, blindfolds, handcuffs and verbal abuse -- and possibly worse punishment for daring to protest against 40 years of autocratic rule by the Assad family.
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Syrian authorities have expelled Reuters correspondents and banned most independent media from reporting on the unrest that has gripped the country for more than two months, making it hard to report on every aspect of the pro-democracy protests inspired by other uprisings in the Arab world.
Reuters spoke to three people who participated in protests in Damascus who detailed tales of abuse at the hands of Syrian security forces when they were in detention.
One of them, particularly harshly treated, was sworn to secrecy about his treatment while in detention. For fear of being identified, names have been left out as well as other details about where they were held and which protest they had participated in.
While their testimonies could not be independently confirmed, they match similar accounts that international human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented.
A Syrian information ministry official declined to comment on the witnesses' testimonies. In general, Syrian authorities do not comment on the methods used to subdue dissent. They say they are keeping order in the face of a revolt by violent Islamists.
All three of the men Reuters interviewed said they were beaten with sticks and batons once security forces dragged them away from the various protests they had joined.
"Then there was the welcome party before the interrogation. They pushed us to the floor, security forces stood on our back and jumped hard. Five or six of them. One jumps, finishes his turn, and the next one takes over," said a 22-year-old man who had been detained for more than three weeks.
He was also electrocuted -- in the nipples, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles and his back -- for refusing to disclose the names of friends he went to the demonstration with.
"For the first six days, I was not taken to a cell. I stayed in the corridor, blindfolded, handcuffed and not allowed to sleep. I was given water only every two days. We were only permitted to use the bathroom once a day and if we took longer than 30 seconds, we would be squeezed into a tyre."
He lost sensation in his knees and legs after days sitting cross-legged, and asked to see a doctor. A man appeared, introducing himself as a doctor.
"The doctor hit my knees with his legs, and said 'There is it better now?' and then he slapped me."
The man was detained in March when the unrest had not yet spread to many parts of the country. One night, after the protests broke out elsewhere, "we were beaten all night until I was asked to stand up and they pushed a stick into my anus".
Beyond the physical abuse, security forces employed tactics designed to psychologically tire the prisoners.
One man said that for the length of his detention, security forces would order them to get up, giving them the impression that they and his fellow prisoners were about to be released only to take a step out of their cell and be pushed back in.
"The manner in which they opened and slammed shut the door was very jarring. You woke up in a fright. When you hear a sound like that, you think it's a gunshot."
"I was between thinking 'I'm going to get out of here in a couple of hours' and thinking 'They will shoot us in this cell," said the 23-year-old who lives in Damascus.
While interrogations included questions about why they had joined the protest and how they knew about it, other questions seemed designed to reinforce authorities' claims the unrest is a foreign conspiracy fuelled by Islamists and outside powers.
"They asked am I a member of the Baath Party?," in reference to the officially secular party in power since 1963. "They asked am I a Muslim? A practicing Muslim."
"This question's purpose is to know if you support the Muslim Brotherhood. They check your clothes, your beard, the way you speak, if you say you're a practicing Muslim, that's a mark against you," he told Reuters.
The third man said he had been dragged away from a protest in which demonstrators were singing the national anthem and carrying signs saying 'End the siege in Deraa' in reference to the southern town where protests first broke out on March 18.
"I felt fear," he said. "Not knowing when I'll get out, not knowing if anyone knows you're detained. They threatened us that we'd never see the sun again," he said.
He said security forces were specifically more brutal with older prisoners or those who had medical conditions.
"We were made to stand naked sometimes. At one point, we were 27 in a room not bigger than two by three meters."
"We felt, in this room, that the instructions to security forces were 'Don't kill anyone. But if you do, it doesn't matter," said the man who was detained earlier this month.
The men said there was no way Assad could continue as before and expected the mass movement against him to grow.
"I've experienced the worst thing, so after that nothing can be worse. My barrier of fear has been broken. You don't care about anything else," said one of the men.
A Syrian human rights group said the unrest had cost the lives of 1,100 civilians. Syrian authorities blame the violence on armed groups backed by terrorists and foreign powers, and say 120 police and soldiers have been killed.
The death toll has overtaken the 846 people killed in the uprising which overthrew Egypt's Hosni Mubarak three months ago. Protests have broken out across Syria, though the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo have been relatively unscathed and Assad's army, unlike Mubarak's, has helped crush demonstrations.
Criticised by some in their own countries for being too timid in confronting Assad, the European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions against the 45-year-old president and other senior figures.
A security crackdown has, however, fended off the collapse of leadership that was seen in Tunisia and Egypt, though many protesters say they still hope for eventual change.
The 23-year-old Damascene said: "I believe that after all these killings, the regime has no chance."