Horrors recounted by survivors of ISIS prisons
NORTHERN SYRIA - It has been months since they returned from hell but the scars from having been imprisoned by the Islamic State (ISIS) may never heal.
Since taking control of large portions of Syria in 2014, ISIS has set up several prisons in Raqqa province, incarcerating thousands of people on an array of charges.
The most prominent prisoners are held in the notorious Sadd al-Furat prison in Tabqa, east of Raqqa city, from which prisoners rarely come out alive. Suspects of collaboration with the Syrian regime and opposition groups fighting ISIS are mainly held at the former military tribunal prison and “Point 11” station, the group’s security centre.
Perpetrators of minor offences, such as traffic and dress-code violations, are detained in the governorate’s prison and the Islamic police station. There is a women’s prison of al-Khansa Brigade. Al- Manakher prison houses foreign ISIS members accused of violations and foreign captives.
The depth of horror in Sadd al- Furat was revealed by a former ISIS member who fled to Turkey several months ago. “It is a terrible place,” said Abu Azzam, who spoke to The Arab Weekly but asked to be identified by this pseudonym.
“I have been to the Sadd prison more than once, transporting detainees from ‘Point 11′ detention centre. I never saw the prisoners, who were locked in a closed vehicle escorted by gunmen in two cars,” Abu Azzam said.
He said he was not allowed to enter prison premises. Guards would take the vehicle at the entrance, drop off prisoners and return it to the gate.
“Once I gave a fighter a ride from the prison. He was Tunisian and obviously drunk with his breath stinking with alcohol. When I asked him about the prisoners, he said they are big fish whom we feed to the fish. I knew then that the prisoners are eventually liquidated and their bodies thrown in al-Furat (Euphrates) river,” Abu Azzam added.
Torture remains a common feature of ISIS prisons. Abu Yasser, a former government employee, who requested to be identified as such, said he was born again after being released from the prison in the former military tribunal building in Raqqa city.
“I was arrested last July in a dawn raid on my home. I spent ten days in the prison but each day felt like a year during which I endured psychological and physical torture, privation and humiliation,” he said.
Torture techniques included shooting the limbs of prisoners to extract confessions, Abu Yasser said. “The torture I have witnessed is beyond imagination. In one instance, the militants fired a gun inside the mouth of a prisoner, piercing his cheek. We were forced to watch the torturing of others and many prisoners would collapse before their turn came.”
In Mansoura, west of Raqqa, another notorious ISIS prison, Sadd al-Ba’ath, where Ahmad al-Hajj, a member of Tal Abyad local council, and five colleagues saw “unconceivable cruelty”.
“We were blindfolded, handcuffed and paraded in the city’s streets and forced to shout ‘We are apostates. We are heretics. We are infidels.’ The Islamic State came to implement the Islamic sharia and the rule of God,” said Hajj who has since fled to Turkey.
After being transferred to Sadd al-Ba’ath, group members said they thought they would be killed. “I cannot describe what I have witnessed. It is just beyond description. Although we experienced ‘soft torture’ but what we have seen was worse than torture itself,” he said.
In one of the torture sessions, attended by ISIS emir Abou Ali Al Shar’i (Fawaz Al Ali), a 25-year-old man named Abdel Rahman, accused of fomenting opposition against ISIS, was crawling on the floor after his limbs were broken and fingernails removed under torture, Hajj said.
“Another prisoner they called Abu Saleh was tortured to confess that he was collaborating with the Free Syrian Army. He was lashed and his finger slashed off, plunging him into a hysterical state. He was cursing ISIS and accusing them of heresy. Abou Ali al Shar’i then turned to one of the masked militants and asked him to silence the prisoner. And so it was, with a bullet between the eyes.”
In Aekerci prison east of Raqqa, inmates are mainly media and civil society activists. Very few survive internment, according to activist Anwar Khodr. “No investigators or interrogators are allowed in that prison, which is run directly by (ISIS security chief) Abu Luqman. The guards do not change to prevent any leakage of the identity of the inmates who are all residents of Raqqa province,” Khodr said.
“Torture methods, including electric shocks, lashing, stabbing and burning are used in interrogations. Some detainees admit untrue charges only to get killed and be spared fatal torture,” Khodr said, citing the ordeal of an activist whose hand was chopped off and was left to bleed to death.
The brutal ISIS rule is being documented by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which released a report in December 2014 detailing killings, arbitrary trials, torture and abuse. However, former prisoners’ accounts indicate the conditions and abuses are worse than one could have imagined.