The tortures employed are so well known to Syrians they have their own names: jailers can summon up the “German chair”, “the tyre”, or “the flying carpet”; but the favourite now is the “shabeh”, hanging people by the wrists, a practice so deeply ingrained in Syrian life that no one knows what it means any more, though some say it is related to the Arabic word for “ghost”.
Months after his escape, Samir still twitches uncontrollably as a result of the shabeh, and is hoping for a visa to the West so he can receive medical treatment. Even then, the results will not be quick: Jimmy, whose arms eventually came out of their sockets, said it was four months before he could feel his hands again.
“At that time I thought I was going to die – no, in fact, I was sure I was going to die,” Jimmy said. “Mind you, when you were there, you wanted to die.”
As the revolution against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was taken over by jihadists, many of those involved in the initial protests were forced out of the country, bit by bit. Nowhere were the changing fortunes of a city, from Assad dictatorship to rebel revolution to jihadist authoritarianism, speedier or more dramatic than in Raqqa.
Until the beginning of last year, it was so firmly in regime hands, and so remote from the fighting, that families fleeing the battles for Homs and Aleppo poured into it.
It was overwhelmingly Sunni, with an Armenian Christian minority, and had a reputation for being relatively liberal in the otherwise largely conservative north. Many women went unveiled, there were a couple of alcohol shops, and even a casino.
Far from their home town in Raqqa, Syria, liberal activists Jimmy Shahinian (L) and Hazm al Hussein (R). Jimmy was imprisoned and tortured by the Syrian regime, Hazm was imprisoned and tortured by ISIS
There were also politically liberal activist groups, to some of which all three men, Hazm, Jimmy and Samir, belonged. Many ended up in jail, like Jimmy, a Christian whose family fled the massacres of the Armenian community in Turkey a century ago and who – now that so many co-religionists have fled – regards the regime’s claims to be the protector of Christians with a degree of irony.
The regime’s men caught up with him in May 2011, after they realised he had been printing posters for anti-Assad demonstrations at his computer shop. He was arrested again that September, but the torture only reached its final depths when he was seized on a visit to Damascus in June last year, after rebels had finally overrun Raqqa.
He was held in the Palestine Barracks, a notorious base for the Air Force Intelligence unit which is known as the regime’s first-line security force, for 137 days. His cell was so tightly packed that two men died of suffocation.
The shabeh – the practice has been outlined in Amnesty International reports on the country for years, if not decades – is when the arms are handcuffed behind the back, and the handcuffs then used the hoist the body in the air, putting intense pressure on the shoulder-sockets.
In Jimmy’s case, this seems to have been occasionally combined with the “German chair”, where the body is strapped into a chair, whose back is adjusted to inflict pain on the spine.
“They hanged me upside down in an upturned chair,” he said. “They came and did this every day for four days. This is a traditional way to torture people in Syria – they leave you there hanging for anything from two to 12 hours.”
In the spring of last year, Raqqa had some heady moments of relative freedom. Jihadists among the rebels smashed up the alcohol shops and the casino, and planted the black flag over the Governor’s Palace, which became the headquarters first of Jabhat Al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and then Isil, when it split away.
But at the same time, the jails were opened – only just in time for some activists, who had been told they would be executed – and liberals were able briefly to come out into the open. They set up a human rights group, Haquna, which hosted weekly philosophical discussion groups to discuss ideas ranging from Aristotle to the founding principles of the European Union, and whether they would be suitable for the Arab world.
There was a new radio station, and news agency. There was even a “guerrilla gardening” environmental awareness group, which planted tomatoes in dual carriageway central reservations and encouraged residents to grow vegetables on their rooftops.
It lasted four months. As the jihadist movement split, Isil took over, driving out first mainstream Free Syrian Army rebel groups, then Jabhat Al-Nusra. The activists knew they would be targeted, and some fled, but others remained.
“They said I was kuffar (unbeliever) and against Sharia, even though I am Sunni,” said Hazm. “In their minds, they have their own project, for Sharia, while others have theirs, for a nation state, and to serve the revolution. For them, there was no difference between us and the regime.”
He was on an empty Raqqa street one day in October last year when three masked men came up behind him, wielding pistols and a Kalashnikov, and put a gun to his head.
“All you think about is pain,” was his description of undergoing the shabeh at Isil’s hands. “You can’t think about anything else. You just have to be patient: if you get angry, they will just take your head off. You know they want to do it.”
He was moved from jail to jail immediately on his “arrest”. Amnesty International has identified five places, including oil installations, used as prisons in and around Raqqa by Isil. Hazm ended up sharing a “cell” – actually, one installation’s control room – with another prisoner.
As with Jimmy at the hands of the regime, he was treated to the shabeh every four days or so, being left each time for around two days: this seems to be the torture’s recommended interval. The accusation was that he was helping the Americans and Turkey against Isil, and the purpose to give them any information that might help their cause, or their interrogation of other captives.
His “extra” punishment was to be beaten with electricity cables, four of them knotted together, as he swung from the ceiling. Samir’s “special treatment” was that for ten hours his wrists were forced into one handcuff. He was also once left suspended for three days consecutively.
That was this year, at the hands of Isil. Two years previously, he had been seized by the regime’s military intelligence, who did not, in fact, use the shabeh, but “the tyre”, in which the victim is forced inside the rim of a large tyre which then holds you immobile as you are beaten. It exaggerates the effects.
Samir had both arms broken, and a leg.
The astonishing cruelty of Syrian prisons has been recorded again and again over the years, long before the revolution, along with the diversity and imagination of the tortures available. “They have made an art form out of torture,” said Samir.
In the “flying carpet”, the victim is strapped down to a hinged board, with the ends brought towards each other, bending the spine. With the relatively mundane “falaqa”, the victim is beaten on the soles of the feet.
Obviously, there are also the usual add-ons – male rape, sometimes with kebab skewers, and starvation. The defector known as “Caesar”, a police photographer, earlier this year revealed graphic evidence of the deaths of 11,000 people in regime cells since the start of the uprising.
Meanwhile, in Raqqa and elsewhere, Amnesty recorded that torture in Isil prisons had also reached “chilling” levels. Prisoners, though, generally say the regime’s torture is worse.
The cause and effect is no mystery. It is a universal phenomenon that the tortured can become torturers. Hazm said his incarceration and punishment was overseen by an Isil “emir” known as Abu Luqman, head of security in Raqqa. Although he wore a mask, Abu Luqman is well known, and Hazm recognised his voice immediately.
His real name is Ali al-Shawaq, and he is a lawyer from Raqqa. A well-known Islamist radical, when the revolution broke out, he was serving time in the regime’s notorious Sednaya prison.
Along with many other Islamists who went on to form militant cells, he was released under an amnesty in June 2011, a still controversial move many secular activists say was a deliberate attempt by the regime to give the uprising a jihadist flavour, to win support from the West.
If it was deliberate, it worked. On a more mundane level, it meant that a new wave of jailers, well-versed in torture, could be unleashed on those who argued for democracy, even after the regime’s troops had withdrawn.
As Hazm said, Abu Luqman was almost certainly treated to the shabeh himself, in his long years inside. He knew how to do it.
“The shabeh,” he said, “is like a contagion.”
(Source / 14.12.2014)