News Syrians missing, dying from torture in militant-run prisons

HARBANUSH, Syria: Ahmed Al-Hakim’s 27-year-old brother was tortured to death in prison in Syria’s militant-run northwest, sparking rare protests amid accusations from residents and activists of rights violations in the opposition bastion.
“We protested and rose up against the Assad regime in order to be rid of injustice,” said Hakim, 30, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Now “we find ourselves ruled with the same methods,” he told AFP, crouched near his brother Abdel-Kader’s grave, flowers and plants placed in the freshly turned soil.
Syria’s 13-year-old conflict, sparked by Assad’s brutal repression of anti-government protests, has drawn in foreign armies and militants and killed more than 500,000 people.
Around half of Idlib province and parts of neighboring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces are controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an alliance of Islamist factions led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Accusations of torture and other rights violations have increased since last year when HTS launched a crackdown on suspected “agents” for Damascus or foreign governments.
Security forces from the Islamist group have detained hundreds of civilians, fighters and even prominent HTS members, providing no information to families, said residents and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
Abdel-Kader’s death triggered rare protests in Idlib province — home to some three million people, many displaced from government-held areas — in recent weeks and calls for the release of detainees, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
The war monitor said demonstrations are taking place daily in towns and villages, most recently on Sunday evening, when protesters chanted slogans against HTS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani.
Jolani has said the protesters’ demands were “mostly justified,” and announced changes including the restructuring of the security force running the prisons.
HTS’s media office told AFP the group was “seriously examining” the protesters’ demands and would “tighten security bodies’ work (and) improve prison infrastructure… to deal with any dysfunction.”
Hakim, an accountant originally from Aleppo province, said his brother participated in anti-government protests before becoming a fighter and was part of the small HTS-aligned Jaish Al-Ahrar group.
He said the faction told Abdel-Kader to report to HTS, considered a terrorist organization by several Western countries, on suspicions of collaborating with the government.
Abdel-Kader handed himself in on March 16 last year “on the understanding that he would be out… in a week at most,” Hakim said.
After detaining him for several months and then saying he was “in good health,” HTS stonewalled the family’s requests for information, according to Hakim.
Months later, a factional contact and a former fighter told the family Abdel-Kader had died due to torture.
Jaish Al-Ahrar only notified them formally on February 22 that Abdel-Kader was dead.
The family found his grave was “new but the date of death written on it was around 20 days after his arrest,” a distraught Hakim said.
Former detainees told Hakim his brother was “beaten with piping until he lost consciousness, and tied up by his hands for days without food or water.”
Abdel-Kader denied any wrongdoing “so they increased the torture until they killed him,” they told Hakim.
One former detainee said Abdel-Kader was tortured so severely that “he couldn’t walk because his feet were swollen and filled with pus.”
The day he died, the guards “tortured him for six hours” and after he was returned to the cell he “kept vomiting,” Hakim was told.
The grim treatment echoes torture that rights groups have reported in Syrian government-run prisons, particularly since 2011, with tens of thousands of people forcibly disappeared and arbitrarily detained.
Amnesty International in 2017 accused authorities of committing secret mass hangings in the notorious Saydnaya facility.
The Observatory said HTS this month released 420 prisoners in an amnesty aimed at quelling the discontent in the northwest.
But it made no difference for Noha Al-Atrash, 30, whose husband Ahmed Majluba has been detained since December 2022, accused alternately of theft and belonging to an extremist group.
“He has been arrested five times… there is no proven reason for his detention,” she said from her home in Idlib city as her two young children held photos of their father, 38.
Majluba, a laborer, was shot in the leg “during a previous period” in HTS detention, Atrash said.
“I go to the protests, I make posters with pictures of my husband on them, and I take the kids,” said Atrash who was covered head-to-toe in a niqab.
She and her children were themselves detained for around 20 days after she hounded authorities for information.
During one prison visit, she saw her husband’s hand was broken and “his face was swollen from beatings,” she said.
“They’ve asked us to pay $3,000 to have him released,” Atrash said, but added that she doesn’t have the money.
“I have no choice but to protest… I won’t give up as long as they have my husband,” she said defiantly.
The UN’s independent commission of inquiry on Syria said recently it had “reasonable grounds to believe” HTS members had committed “acts that may amount to the war crimes of torture and cruel treatment and unlawful deprivation of liberty.”
Bassam Alahmad from the Paris-based Syrians for Truth and Justice said people were “fed up with HTS violations” such as “arbitrary arrests and torture.”
He urged families and rights groups to gather independent, credible evidence for potential future investigations.
In a camp near the Turkish border, Amina Al-Hamam, 70, said her son Ghazwan Hassun was detained by HTS in 2019 on suspicion of “informing for the regime.”
“Some people tell us he’s dead, others say he’s alive,” the distressed elderly woman said, sitting with her son’s children, aged five and nine.
Days before being detained, Hassun, a defector from the Syrian police, had published a video criticizing HTS, his family said.
During Hamam’s only visit — eight months after he was detained — Hassun told her guards used a torture method notorious across Syria where the victim has their hands tied behind their back and is suspended from them for hours.
The family has heard nothing since about the 39-year-old but has vowed to keep fighting.
“I cry for him night and day,” said Hamam.
“We fled from injustice, but here we have seen worse.”

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