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”.
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