Syria is operating detention centers where guards and interrogators torment Syrian prisoners by ripping out their fingernails, burning them with battery acid, inflicting electric shock and other methods of torture, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Tuesday.
“They put staples in my fingers, chest and ears. I was only allowed to take them out if I spoke. The nails in the ears were the most painful,” a 31-year-old detainee told the group last month. Intelligence agents used electric stun guns on his genitals and used a car battery to give him electric shock, he said.
“I thought I would never see my family again,” the detainee told them.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented torture at 27 detention sites across Syria since the uprising against the government began in March 2011, based on interviews with more than 200 witnesses. It named the officials who allegedly run the detention centers, mapped out the sites' locations and provided bleak sketches to illustrate the kinds of torture described by Syrians who had escaped.
“We are putting those responsible on notice that they will have to answer for these horrific crimes,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. The systematic abuses point to a state policy of torture and “constitute a crime against humanity,” the group said.
Syria has previously rejected accusations of human rights abuses and argued that it is defending itself against armed terrorists funded from abroad, pointing to kidnappings and other abuses at the hands of the rebels, which Human Rights Watch has also reported. The Syrian government did not immediately respond to the new allegations, the Associated Press reported.
More than 500 people are believed to have died in custody, according to a monitoring group that Human Rights Watch cited in its report. Witnesses, including five security force officers who defected, told Human Rights Watch that detainees had been executed or beaten to death in at least six facilities.
Others survived to describe the torture they endured.
“It is a beating you cannot describe .... I couldn’t sleep on my back for 25 days,” a Damascus detainee told Human Rights Watch. “It takes you away from anything called humanity.”
Most of the victims were adult men, but women, children and the elderly were also tortured, the report said.
The group called on Syria to immediately halt torture and urged world powers to demand unfettered access to detention centers, target the officials tied to torture with sanctions, and put the abuses before the International Criminal Court -- a step to which Russia and China would have to agree. Russia has backed the Syrian government and resisted efforts to make President Bashar Assad step down.
“Russia should not be holding its protective hand over the people who are responsible for this,” Solvang said.
World powers have been mired in disagreement and indecision over how to stop killings and abuses in Syria, which has devolved into an armed conflict now compared to a civil war. The newest plan for a transitional government in Syria has been dogged by arguments between Russia and the United States over whether Assad could be part of a new government, an idea the rebels flatly reject.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Video: Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch describe torture in Syrian detention centers. Credit: Human Rights Watch