Skip to main content

Tracking down torture in Syria

By Ole Solvang, Special to CNN
July 3, 2012 -- Updated 1907 GMT (0307 HKT)
Syrians pray at the funeral of Mustafa Mahmud Badawi, 68, in Idlib province in June. A sniper killed him on his way to the dentist.
Syrians pray at the funeral of Mustafa Mahmud Badawi, 68, in Idlib province in June. A sniper killed him on his way to the dentist.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ole Solvang: Report based on more than 200 interviews tells about Syrian government torture
  • Syrian authorities are running a network of underground detention facilities, he says
  • Solvang: With this information now public, Syrian authorities' crimes will not stay secret
  • The question now, Solvang says, is: Who will hold those responsible to account?

Editor's note: Ole Solvang is an emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Paris (CNN) -- The new Human Rights Watch report "Torture Archipelago" documents in excruciating detail the use of torture in government detention facilities in Syria, including how, where, when and under whose command this torture was carried out. Documenting human rights violations in Syria is anything but easy, so how did we do it?

Since the beginning of anti-government demonstrations in March 2011, Syria has been doing whatever it can to keep independent observers from finding out what exactly is going on. For many months, it refused to issue visas for such work, and widespread violations were committed with few independent witnesses.

Some journalists from outside Syria bravely crossed the border without official permission, to provide valuable first-hand accounts of attacks and violations. But crossing the border illegally can be dangerous. Several journalists have been arrested and others killed on these assignments, making Syria one of the deadliest countries for journalists at the moment.

News: Report describes brutal torture in Syria

Ole Solvang
Ole Solvang
A Syrian military defector

In April of this year, Syria finally agreed to the deployment of 300 United Nations observers and to grant visas to some journalists, but those who got into Syria have faced difficulties on the ground. When members from the U.N. observer mission, accompanied by several journalists, tried to investigate claims of a massacre in the small village of Qubeir on June 7, Syrian government forces initially prevented them from entering the village. When the observers finally entered the village one day later, they saw clear evidence that something terrible had happened.

Journalists on the scene reported that "the smell of burnt flesh still hung heavy in the air" and that "blood was in pools" in a house. But somebody had removed the bodies. It is hard to not draw the conclusion that government forces held up the U.N. observers while somebody tried to clean up the crime scene.

News: In Syria, a massacre feels eerily familiar

On June 16, the U.N. observer mission suspended its patrols in Syria because of increased fighting. The observer mission had also come under attack on several occasions.

Further complicating the work of impartial observers is the increasing amount of propaganda from both sides. We have long since stopped trusting any information coming from the government, but we cannot always trust information from opposition activists either. Some are reluctant, for example, to admit that a victim was an opposition fighter, instead presenting the person as a civilian.

So how does Human Rights Watch overcome these challenges?

We get the best evidence when we are able to examine the crime scenes ourselves. Despite significant risks, we have entered Syria without official permission on several occasions to investigate alleged violations. The last time, in April, we visited five towns that had just been attacked in the northern province of Idlib. We photographed bullet marks and blood traces on walls where people had been executed during the army's attack. We interviewed neighbors who had found the bodies, and in one case, we even spoke with a wounded person who had survived an execution attempt.

But rights-abusing governments cannot count on hiding the truth even if they manage to keep observers out. Syrians are still leaving the country in large numbers. By comparing information from multiple, separate, detailed witness accounts, we are wresting out the truth despite the best attempts of Syria's intelligence agencies.

"Torture Archipelago" is based on more than 200 long and detailed interviews. We asked former inmates of government detention centers not only about the torture, but also about the layout of buildings, the location of the interrogation rooms and torture chambers, and the names of guards and fellow inmates. We documented scars and studied photographs. We asked former detainees to draw the layout of the detention floor, and we asked them to point out on satellite imagery the exact building where they were detained and tortured.

We posed the same questions to defectors from the army and intelligence facilities who visited or worked in these facilities, many of whom gave us names and ranks of their superiors overseeing these detention facilities.

What we found is that Syrian authorities are running a network of underground detention facilities. We have identified the locations, names of commanders, and torture methods of many of these. While the actual number is probably higher, the 27 detention facilities listed in our report are those for which multiple witnesses have indicated the same building and described in detail the torture methods being used there.

By publishing this information, we are putting Syrian authorities on notice that their crimes will not stay secret. It can take time -- it has taken us several months to map these detention facilities -- but with enough perseverance, the truth will come out about the violations taking place in Syria. The question then becomes: Who will hold those responsible to account?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ole Solvang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT