Invisible Scars: Torture in Syria and its Legal and Socio-Economic Implications



I. Introduction

Like many countries that are ruled by totalitarian regimes, torture in Syria has been conducted and carried out systematically in the security departments across the country during the last six decades, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deceased men and women and a similar number of people who survived with both physical and mental disabilities. It has been the main instrument to terrorise Syrians and seal the lips of those who show any minimal signs of dissatisfaction with the status quo. 

Arguably, accumulated reasons had led to the popular movement in Syria that took place in the spring of 2011. The tipping point, however, was detaining and torturing school children in Dara’a, a southern city in Syria, which led to protests and demonstrations in the city. The human rights violations against the children sparked similar demonstrations across the rest of the country. Unfortunately, what started as peaceful demonstrations had become armed clashes by September 2011 and escalated to an armed conflict and civil war in July 2012. The civil war resulted in millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of casualties and caused enormous damage to the people of Syria and to the infrastructure of the country. It is unclear when this conflict will come to an end, but what is clear is that Syrians have been impacted for generations to come. 

While this report does not intend to provide a historical background of torture in Syria, it should be noted that torture in the country was practiced way before the uprising. There is a plethora of evidence that details its methods and atrocities resulting from torture over decades before 2011. Although to a less severe level than that practiced across security departments, torture is also used as a tool in the criminal justice system, presented in the body of police and its stations across the country. Violent behaviour by police was sometimes portrayed as funny and humorous. Syrians, by and large, are familiar with the ‘Rule of Justice’, a radio show which has been running since 1977 on Radio Damascus. It features Warrant Officer Jamil, a brutal officer who is often summoned by his superiors to draw confessions from stubborn suspects. His name was sufficient to scare off the suspects and lead them to agree with the version of the investigating officers. Here, there is irony and a phenomenon. The phenomenon is that Syrians found Officer Jamil to be a humorous character, which was often used as a reference in slang and short sayings. The irony though is that this show was written by a prominent lawyer (and later on by his son, who too is a lawyer), who should be aware of the illegality of methods used by Officer Jamil and his commanders. 

The experience of torture itself, its methods, and its physical, mental, and emotional implications resulted in a broad range of relevant studies. This report does not aim to re-state these valuable works and papers. It aims to explore beyond the torture experience itself, to reach its impact, and how it may complicate the lives of its survivors. Torture destroys lives and its long and short terms effects manifest themselves physically and psychologically. These effects not only hamper the rehabilitation of torture survivors in Syria but also their social and economic opportunities by both formal and informal factors. The formal ones present themselves in the lack and/or the incapacitation of medical and social services and facilities that have a vital role in the restoration and the rehabilitation of torture survivors. This is complicated further by the lack of legal mechanisms that may safeguard, compensate, and/or restore the legal status and capacity of torture survivors. In terms of informal factors, the stigma surrounding the experience of torture survivors and community responses to their plea result in social and economic impediments that isolates them and drives them away from their society and communities. 

While there is evidence that details the impact of torture on the social and economic mobility of its survivors, this report will demonstrate how this lack of mobility results from the legal status of torture victims following their release from detention. The report also establishes how Syria is not only in breach of international law and the international customary law, which prohibits torture and calls for the rehabilitation of its survivors, but also its own laws and legal provisions and how this impedes the social, medical, and economic restoration of torture victims in the country. The character of the conflict in Syria triggers the prohibition of torture under the Geneva Convention. Torture is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions by virtue of Article 50 of the First Convention, Article 51 of the Second Convention, Article 130 of the Third Convention, and Article 147 of the Fourth Convention. In addition, the prohibition of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment is recognized as a customary rule in the ICRC’s study ‘Customary International Humanitarian Law (Rule 90)’ and by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

This report makes the case that in hindering the rehabilitation of torture victims, Syria is in breach of the following international conventions: 

1-     Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Ratified in 2004)

2-     Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Ratified in 2009) with the Optional Protocol.

3-     International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Ratified in 1969).

4-     Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Ratified in 2003 with reservation).

5-     International Convention on Economic, Social or Cultural Rights (Ratified in 1969).

6-     Convention on the Rights of the Child (Ratified in 1993).

The report also makes the case that relevant Syrian legal provisions and laws are either ignored, breached or in some cases manipulated to inflict further punishment and pain on torture survivors. This not only hinders their medical, mental, social, and economic rehabilitation but also establishes what we may call an extended and exacerbated method of punishment. The role of the civil society organisations in helping and supporting the reintegration of torture survivors has featured in the course of the research. The report dwelt on this role from legal, organisational, and technical angles. The report ends with suggestions on moving forward and how to support torture victims, from their point of view.

This report was written and researched by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) in cooperation with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) through a project funded by the European Union to address torture and accountability in the Gulf region and neighbouring conflict zones.


II. Methodology

A total of 15 torture survivors and six experts took part in this research, through semi-structured interviews by trained researchers who work for the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). While survivors’ accounts provided insight on how their torture experience has impacted their social and economic potentials, social, health and legal experts supplemented these accounts by shedding light on how social factors and legal measures in Syria may hinder the social and economic rehabilitation of torture survivors.  In addition, the report’s authors reviewed previous data and reports that were either collected by or shared with the SCM. In this research, SCM has chosen not to name or identify any individuals named by the participants as perpetrators. They should be subject to due process and fair trial standards that are not feasible at the present time. 

The research process adhered to ethical guidelines set by SCM in its code of ethics, which governs its research projects.  The research design ensured the diversity of the participants in terms of age, gender, and location. Consent procedures were discussed and agreed upon in advance by the project team and the lead researcher.  Before each interview, an information sheet was provided to each participant. The sheet included the details of the research, its objectives, how the participant’s contribution will enrich and advance the research project, and the nature of the questions being asked. This enabled the participants to decide whether the nature of the research is something they feel they can cope with. Also, consent forms were signed before any interview taking place.

Participants in this research are either in exile as refugees or asylum seekers or are torture survivors. This triggered various ethical issues that were taken into consideration. Necessary measures were taken to eliminate the trigger of emotional distress during the interviews and establish a balance of powers between participants and researchers.  

Collected data were stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act 2018, and securely stored in line with the SCM’s policy and relevant privacy and confidentiality measures. The findings were analysed against the elements required for international crimes in customary international law, where socio-economic and legal implications resulting from torture could amount to a breach of international conventions and treaties signed and ratified by the Syrian Arab Republic. Findings were also analysed against relevant law provisions and measures that are implemented in the Syrian Justice System, which may constitute a direct and indirect impact on the rehabilitation and the reintegration of torture survivors in their society. 

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