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Rights group: Syria's 20 ways to torture prove its crimes against humanity

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch commissioned a Syrian artist to produce sketches based on statements received from former detainees and security force defectors. They depict some of the most commonly used torture methods in detention centers across Syria. They are not representations of any specific individuals.

Syrian intelligence agencies are running torture centers where detainees are beaten with batons and cables, burned with acid, sexually assaulted and their fingernails torn out, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Tuesday.

The New York-based rights group identified 27 detention centers across the country that it says intelligence agencies have been using since President Bashar Assad's government began a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011.


Human Rights Watch documented more than 20 torture methods that "clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity."It conducted more than 200 interviews with people who said they were tortured, including a 31-year-old man who was detained in the Idlib area in June and made to undress.





"Then they started squeezing my fingers with pliers. They put staples in my fingers, chest and ears. I was only allowed to take them out if I spoke. The staples in the ears were the most painful," the man told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch

Detainees described being beaten on the soles of their feet with sticks and whips to the point that their skin was raw, their feet swollen and bleeding, making it impossible to walk.

"They used two wires hooked up to a car battery to give me electric shocks. They used electric stun-guns on my genitals twice. I thought I would never see my family again. They tortured me like this three times over three days," he said.

Another man, named “Elias” in the report, described how he was tortured by Syrian intelligence officers in Damascus.

“The guards hung me by my wrists from the ceiling for eight days. After a few days of hanging, being denied sleep, it felt like my brain stopped working. I was imagining things,” he said.

“My feet got swollen on the third day. I felt pain that I have never felt in my entire life. It was excruciating. I screamed that I needed to go to a hospital, but the guards just laughed at me,” he added.

Women, children, elderly people
The report found that tens of thousands of people had been detained by the Department of Military Intelligence, the Political Security Directorate, the General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate.

So many people have been arrested that the authorities had used sports stadiums, schools and hospitals as detention centers, the report said.

From the front line in what looks ever more like a fight for Syria's capital Damascus, members of the Free Syrian Army appear to be closing in on President Assad's stronghold, at a terrible cost to both sides. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

The report said while most of the torture victims who spoke to the group were men aged 18 to 35, they also spoke to a number of women, children and elderly people who had been tortured.

“Interrogators, guards, and officers used a broad range of torture methods, including prolonged beatings, often with objects such as batons and wires, holding the detainees in painful stress positions for prolonged periods of time, often with the use of specially devised equipment, the use of electricity, burning with car battery acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails, and mock execution,” the report said.

It added that several former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed people dying as a result of torture.

'Mildest form of torture'
A former Syrian intelligence officer told the campaign group that the “mildest form of torture is hitting people with batons” on their arms and legs and “not giving them anything to eat or drink.”

“They used … and electroshock machine … it is a small machine with two wires with clips that they attack to nipples and a knob that regulates the currents,” he said. “In addition, they put people in coffins and threatened to kill them and close the coffin.”

At a meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Cairo on Tuesday, participants were unsurprised by the reports of torture.

"I, myself, and my son were victims. I spent eight years in prison,” George Sabra, spokesman for one of the best known opposition groups, the Syrian National Council, told NBC News in Cairo. “They used electricity (to torture me) and beat my legs.” Sabra said his son was also imprisoned twice and tortured more severely because he was a young man. They left Syria five months ago and are now living in Paris.

Khalaf Dahowd, president of the National Coordination Body's Congress in Exile, believes torture in Syria is overshadowed by worse crimes against humanity.

"The regime has committed massacres! Torture is an abuse of human rights. But massacres have happened," said Dahowd.  

Aret Gabeau, of the Kurdish Center for Legal Studies and Consultancy, hoped the report would make others aware of the scope of suffering under President Bashar al- Assad's rule. 

"I was very reassured to see that reports like this are being published so that those outside of Syria can truly be aware of the level of suffering being imposed on the people by Assad’s regime,” said Gabeau. “This is why the regime is so terrified of the press; they have so much power to undermine Assad further." 

Syrian helicopters strike Damascus suburb

Human Rights Watch has called for the U.N. Security Council to refer the issue of Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to adopt targeted sanctions against officials carrying out abuse.

"The reach and inhumanity of this network of torture centers are truly horrific," Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch said. "Russia should not be holding its protective hand over the people who are responsible for this."

PhotoBlog: On the road with Syria's rebel motorcycle army

Russia -- an ally of Syria -- and China have already vetoed two council resolutions that condemned Damascus and threatened it with sanctions and French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters on Monday that reaching a Security Council consensus to refer Syria to the ICC would be difficult.

"As France is concerned it's very clear we are very much in favor of referring Syria to the ICC," Araud said.

"The problem is it will have to be part ... of a global understanding of the council and I do think that for the moment we have not yet reached this point," he said.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay on Monday reiterated her position that the issue of Syria's conflict should be referred to the ICC in The Hague because crimes against humanity and other war crimes may have been committed.

She said both sides appear to have committed war crimes.

The United Nations has said more than 10,000 people have been killed during the 16-month Syria conflict. 

NBC News' Charlene Gubash and Joanna de Boer in Cairo contributed to this report. Reuters also contributed to this report.

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