Monthly Archives: September 2011

Horror in a Syrian prison

Mursel Almaz, 40, says he saw fellow prisoners bleed to death after they were tortured and mutilated in a Syrian military intelligence jail in Idlib. (Photograph © Johann Rousselot/Signature)

My interview from the Times last week:

When Mursel Almaz went missing in Syria for nearly two months his family feared that he was dead. There were days, he says, when he wished he had been. The 40-year-old father of five was deported back to his home in Turkey last week after spending 51 days in some of Syria’s most feared prisons.
He claims to have watched fellow inmates bleed to death after being severely beaten or mutilated under torture. “All I was doing was counting the hours and minutes up to the time I would die,” he told The Times, speaking shortly after his deportation.
Mr Almaz, a construction worker from the city of Antakya, close to Syria, said he often travelled there for business, and to visit friends in the country. In June and July he made trips into Syria to visit several of them, some of whom were dissidents involved in the anti-regime uprising that erupted in March.
On June 15 he was arrested at a roadblock in a village near the border and accused of spying for Turkey and aiding the rebels, allegations that he denies. During the weeks that followed, he was locked up in Syria’s most notorious jail, the Palestine Branch military intelligence facility in Damascus.
However, the most horrifying and harrowing days of his incarceration were the first, spent at a military jail in Idlib. During eight days spent in a large cell with about 200 other prisoners, he claims to have seen nine people bleed to death after being tortured.
“The cell smelt of blood and death,” he said. “They kept taking people one by one. They would come back without an eye, one had been castrated, another’s legs were broken. There was no water, no medicine. It was inhuman.”
The torture and mutilation were carried out just beyond the cell door, so inmates were forced to listen. “I was preparing myself to die, I felt that every one of us would be killed,” he said.
Mr Almaz was given electric shocks on his hands and feet, and beaten so badly about his waist that he urinated blood for 20 days afterwards, he said.
After eight days he was transferred to Damascus. Here he was kept in darkness and solitary confinement for another month, facing more beatings and torture with electric shocks.
Eventually he was told that there was no evidence against him and that he would be released. He was transferred to a cell with other prisoners where he was allowed to recuperate. He still has scars on his wrists, which he says were caused by shackles. He has kidney problems and is on painkillers.
An official at the Turkish embassy in Damascus confirmed Mr Almaz’s imprisonment and deportation on September 12. His passport shows he was in Syria during the dates he claims.
The Times also spoke to human rights organisations and other former Syrian detainees, who said that Mr Almaz’s account was credible and consistent with reports from the country’s prisons. Amnesty International documented 88 deaths in custody between April 1 and August 15 of this year. In 52 cases there was evidence that torture had been the cause of death or a contributing factor.
Most notorious are the cases of 15-year-old Thamer al-Sahri and his friend, Hamza al-Khatib, 13, who were arrested by security forces. Videos of their corpses surfaced on the internet in late May and June. Among other mutilations, Hamza’s penis had been severed, and one of Thamer’s eyes had been gouged out.
Avaaz, a UK-based campaigning organisation, has estimated that from the start of protests up to the end of July, about 3,000 people have disappeared after being abducted by security forces. Mr Almaz knows that, compared with many, he was lucky. “I can’t believe that I can see my children in front of me,” he said, speaking from his home in Antakya. The house, he said, was crowded with relatives who were celebrating his “return from the dead”.

The strange, sad case of Hussein Harmoush

Captured defecting Syrian soldier Hussein Harmoush delivers a ‘confession’ on Syria’s state TV. Picture from AFP.

I’ve written an article for Eurasianet about the worrying case of Hussein Harmoush, the defecting Syrian soldier who disappeared in Turkey and reappeared two weeks later in Syrian custody.

This from the story:

Exactly how Lt. Col. Harmoush returned to Syria remains a mystery. Friends say that on the morning of August 29, he left the refugee camp in which he was staying in Hatay Province, bordering Syria, for what he said was a meeting with a Turkish intelligence agent. He was not seen or heard from again until he appeared on Syrian state television more than two weeks later, “confessing” his crimes and denouncing the Syrian rebel movement.
Syrian state media said he had been captured in a raid inside the country the previous week. It is an explanation fellow Syrian dissidents find difficult to accept. According to friends, Harmoush never mentioned any intention of returning to Syria and left without taking any belongings. “I called him in the morning because we were due to meet for an interview,” said al-Muqdad. “He said he was meeting an intelligence officer and then would come and join us. We never heard from him again.”
As the head of an organization of disaffected Syrian soldiers, the Free Officers Movement, Lt. Col. Harmoush had been in daily contact with other dissidents.
“It’s very unlikely he would go without informing us,” said another defected officer who worked with Lt. Col. Harmoush, speaking anonymously for fear of his safety. “We were in daily touch with each other because he was the head of the Free Officers Movement.”

I’d been looking at Harmoush’s case for a good few days before his appearance on Syrian TV; dissidents were already worried about his whereabouts, and convinced Turkey had arrested him.

I did one interesting interview with a fellow defector who believed the Turkish authorities arrested Harmoush for trying to set up weapons deals to aid Syrian rebel soldiers.

I didn’t use material from the interview in the Eurasianet story, but did so, briefly, in another piece I did on Harmoush for the Times last week.

Since it’s an interesting side angle on his story I’ll include what I was told here.

Lieutenant Abdullah Auday, who I met about a week ago, before Harmoush’s reappearance on Syrian television, said he had worked closely with him in Turkey trying to buy ammunition and small arms on the black market.

It was after all the avowed aim of the Free Officers’ Movement – which Harmoush headed – to take up arms in defence of Syrian demonstrators.

“What he was trying to do was to get things organized outside of Syria,” said Auday, who was adamant the Turks had arrested Harmoush.

“He asked the Turkish government to give him the right to establish his own military and political activities, but the Turkish government refused. I think they took him because of that,” he said.

Auday believed Turkish intelligence had been listening to both their phone calls, and that they were now looking for him as well.

I was slightly taken aback by how candid he was about all this, and his willingness to go on record with it.

He said the arms deals were now a ‘burnt card’, i.e. the Turkish government had thwarted them, and he didn’t care about keeping them a secret. Besides, he added, the Turkish government knows all about it anyway.

Another interesting thing he said was that during the time he and Harmoush were trying to buy weapons, they spent a long time courting a Syrian businessman in Gaziantep who had expressed an eagerness to finance the rebels.

After a couple of weeks of meeting with the man, contacts back in Syria told them he was an Assad spy, and they cut ties.

This account sheds an intriguing light on Harmoush’s disappearance.

Another very real possibility is that he secretly returned to Syria without telling anyone.

Given the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust within the ranks of the dissident movement, it is very conceivable that he might keep his return to Syria a secret from all those around him.

However, it must have been a very well kept secret, because even now, the Syrian dissident movement remains adamant that Turkey arrested him.

If some of them knew he had really gone back of his own accord, would they expend such energy falsely blaming the government that is giving them sanctuary?

I personally believe it is highly unlikely Ankara would have sanctioned handing any Syrian dissident back to the Assad regime in the current environment.

In fact, the Turkish Foreign Ministry has been calling round Western newsrooms trying to scotch the story.

However, I’ve heard anecdotal accounts of Turkish police in Hatay bullying and threatening to send their Syrian ‘guests’ back home, particularly the soldiers.

It is possible a few police officers may have got together, and simply shoved him over the border. Given how closely the Syrians are watching that patch of border, Harmoush could have easily fallen into their hands.

Also, Harmoush had repeatedly absconded from refugee camps in which he was interned, and may have earned the ire of local officers for that or some other reason.

For anyone still interested enough in his case to have kept reading thus far, I thought I’d also include this account, which sent to me by Syria’s Local Co-ordinating Committees, of the truly awful suffering his relatives have endured since his defection:

Since Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush declared his defection from the regime’s army, his family, which lives in Ebleen village in the Zawiyeh mountain in Idleb, has been suffering from a revenge campaign manifested in horrible crimes committed by the security forces and thugs.
This revenge started by kidnapping his brother, Hasan Harmoush (33 years old) by the military intelligence 3 months ago. This happened when he was on his way to visit relatives in Aleppo, and his last known whereabouts were that he was sent to the air-force intelligence division before there were no news of him at all.
Also, security forces invaded the home of his second brother , Mohammad Harmoush (74 years old, sick and has an artificial heart) and arrested him with his son  Ahmad (30 years) and his daughter’s husband Mohannad (34 years). His wife was shot in her shoulder and leg when during the arrest when they were shooting randomly at the home. The injured wife was also kidnapped.
A few days later, Mohammad and his daughter’s husband Mohannad were returned dead and their bodies had marks of severe torture. The wife and her son Ahmad are still kidnapped and no one knows anything of them.
The third brother, Mahmoud Harmoush (44 years) was also shot in his left leg but he managed to escape outside of Syria.
On September 8 2011 around dawn, security agents from all intelligence divisions invaded Ebleen village, wearing plain clothes and riding in two trucks for bread distribution. They arrived to the Harmoush home, where several defected officers were hiding after they announced that they joined the free army of Syria, and surrounded them until 7 BMP vehicles and two tanks arrived. The BMP vehicles shelled the house and destroyed most of it, then the tanks continued destroying what was left. Later they detained:
1.Lieutenant Yussef Jumaa Turki from Deir Ezzor/ Mayadeen neighbourhood after a serious injury in his right shoulder
2.Sergeant Bilal Salloum (intelligence services) from Haysh village
3.Sergeant Malek ‘Aliawi from Aleppo/ Bakkara village
4.Recruit Ahmad Zarzour from Rami village
5.Recruit Mustafa Diqmaq from Ebleen village
Bodies of martyrs were also returned all together while one officer (Lieutenant grade) and 3 soldiers were able to escape from the house through a small balcony at the backside of the house. One Lieutenant and three soldiers were martyred during the raid.

As if the torture and agony of the family on the hands of security forces were not enough, military intelligence agents also kidnapped the cousins of the defected Lieutenant Colonel last week: Mussa Harmoush (22 years old) and his brother Hassan (12 years old) from Ebleen village. The body of the child Hassan was returned after one day at 8.00 p.m. after having been brutally tortured then executed at the Military Security branch of Idlib.
After only a few hours, at 1.00 a.m., another car returned the body of the martyr Mussa after having also been brutally tortured then executed at the Military Security branch.

A two-wheeled solution to Istanbul’s gridlock

A cyclist in Goztepe Park prepares for ‘Critical Mass’, a monthly bike ride intended to reclaim the streets from motorists.

An article I wrote about cyclists in Istanbul has just appeared on Eurasianet, and a podcast I did on the same issue is at SETimes.

Istanbul already faces brutal gridlock, and car traffic in the city is forecast to quadruple over the 15 years to 2023.
This, along with growing environmental awareness among a section of society, has spurred on an increasingly vocal cycling lobby.
It’s a chicken-egg situation: Dangerous roads mean that few people will cycle; few people cycling means there is little incentive for the government to make roads more bicycle-friendly.
But there are signs things are slowly changing. I spoke to some of the cycling ‘pioneers’ who are trying to claim their share of the streets.