Preface: Daraa, as well as most other Syrian provinces, is full of secret and public detention facilities, where tens of thousands of persons are arbitrarily detained and/or forcibly disappeared. Let alone thousands who died resulting from torture and ill-treatment and/or who have died as a result of health neglect and many widespread diseases, especially the skin diseases.
Although the Syrian regular army controls a relatively small area, geographically speaking, of Daraa province, nevertheless, the area they control is characterized by an intense presence of security and military checkpoints compared to the numbers in other provinces. The Syrian government forces in Daraa control the entire international Highway that links Damascus, with Dara. In addition, they seize most villages and towns on both sides of this Highway, starting from Jabab in the north towards the south, to Daraa al-Balad located in the center of Daraa. The regular army along with the security apparatus desired to "secure" this route militarily as it was the only supply route from Damascus. The Syrian government installed many security checkpoints on the road and created dozens of security centers and temporary detention facilities in the areas it controls. The field researcher of Syrians for truth and Justice/ STJ, through a thorough survey, could recognize a number of these centers, they include:
The Military Security Branch in al-Sanamayn, affiliated to the main branch in Daraa.
The Military Security Branch in Izraa, affiliated to the main branch in Daraa.
The State Security Branch in Izraa, affiliated to the main branch in Daraa.
The Political Security Branch in Izraa, affiliated to the main branch in Daraa.
The Military Security Branch in Daraa.
The Political Security Branch in Daraa.
The Air Force Intelligence Branch in Daraa.
The State Security Branch in Daraa.
Al-Shar’e checkpoint, also known as Maghsalat al-Shar’e checkpoint, located in Khirbet Ghazaleh, 11 km towards Daraa. It is established on the entrance to Daraa from the side of the international Highway (Damascus-Daraa Highway). Activists from the area believe it is one of the first checkpoints installed since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, on the first day, second or the third day. At first, only elements of the Syrian regular army were stationed around the checkpoint, but after the Syrian regular army re-controlled Khirbet Ghazaleh on May 12, 2013, other elements of the security branches stationed there, such as the Military Security among others. The checkpoint contained the "wanted" lists by these branches, and it was responsible for thousands of arrests, including for children under 18.
Al-Khirbeh checkpoint, also known as the Khirbet Ghazaleh checkpoint, installed by the Syrian regular army in 2011. However, as in several other checkpoints, it expanded to include elements of other security branches as well as elements of the regular army after the re-capture of Khirbet Ghazaleh by the army on May 12, 2013. This checkpoint is considered the gateway to the eastern countryside, which is under the control of the Syrian armed opposition factions, and it usually transfers the detainees to Izraa or to Daraa.
The Panorama Stadium in Daraa was considered one of the most important places of detention and torture during the previous years. It is known nationwide not only in Daraa, as it arrested tens of thousands of citizens. However, it was transferred to a security center in 2011. The activists spoke of a large Syrian regular army headquarter in the stadium, as well as it is a place to assemble foreign militias that fight with the regular army such as Hezbollah the Lebanese militia forces, and Iranian and Iraqi militias among others.
Hamida al-Taher checkpoint is a detention center established in December 2011, and administratively affiliated to the Military Security Branch in Daraa. It is located in an important strategic place for the Syrian regular army. We will talk about this checkpoint in some detail in this report.
The archaeological castle in al-Masmiyah village, the Syrian security apparatus transformed it to a detention facility. Administratively, it follows the Military Security Branch in Daraa.
The State Security checkpoint is one km after "al-Share checkpoint" and near the Engineering Institute and al-Barmawi Driving School, and it is affiliated to the State Security Branch, whose patrol stands from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and arrests people based on the lists it has.
Methodology of the Report
The report adopted in its methodology on the narrative of seven detailed stories and testimonies of survivors from “Hamida al Taher” detention center at different intervals. The report-based team also analyzed many videos and photos; especially those linked to the site of detention itself or to persons work there, for example, the STJ could get a video tape, dates back to November 2015, showing many elements on the checkpoint. The faces of the elements that appeared in the video were linked to the testimonies of the survivors; ultimately, a number of elements from Hamida al-Taher checkpoint were identified.
In addition, the report interviewed activists and people from the region and the province, who added important contributions, especially those related to explaining the mechanism of the checkpoint’s work and the overall context of the region.
Challenges and Difficulties
The fear of giving a testimony by former detainees and survivors from Hamida al-Taher center was one of the most significant challenges that the report-based working group faced. The fear prompted many witnesses to ask not to disclose their identity. In addition, over the course of several months STJ tried to obtain testimonies from elements "defectors" of the checkpoint but in vain. It was very difficult to persuade the families of the missing victims to testify or report on their missing children and to disclose their names because of the fear of being settled inside the detention.
First: Hamida al-Taher Checkpoint
Hamida al-Taher checkpoint is a security checkpoint named after the park next to it, Hamida al-Taher Park, located in the center of Daraa in al-Saharah neighborhood. Moreover, the name of this garden belongs to a Syrian girl identified as Hamida al-Taher, born in Raqqa, 1968, who was a suicide bomber detonated herself in southern Lebanon in the 1980s, and killed more than 50 Israeli army troops, according to reports released on the incident at the time.
This park was transformed in late 2011 from a place for hiking and for children to play into a purely security center, spreading terror in the hearts of Daraa inhabitants and civilians coming to it from other villages, towns, and provinces. Shortly after the construction of that checkpoint, it was expanded to include other surrounding buildings, such as the Afaq Educational Institute that turned to be the main building in the checkpoint. In addition to the majority of the residential buildings surroundings as a building belongs to Musa family, a building belongs to al-Mahdi family, and other buildings including a house of the former chief of the Political Security Branch in Daraa. The checkpoint contains more than 100 security elements, including elements of the Syrian regular army, such as the Special Forces and other security elements affiliated to the Syrian security apparatus.
Elements from the checkpoint were deployed near al-Nitaqayn school, and sand berms were erected and equipped with short-range artilleries and "howitzers/mortar shells" to target nearby areas such as Daraa al-Balad, the Dam road and the Syrian opposition- held eastern villages.
Hamida al-Taher checkpoint is not like other military and security checkpoints given it turned from a security checkpoint to be a huge security detention facility with secret rooms underground in the basement of Afaq Educational Institute, which became a place to exercise the most gruesome kinds of torture according to people interviewed by STJ.
The following image, taken from a video tape posted by Daraa Media Union on June 30, 2013, shows a targeted building of Hamida al-Taher checkpoint in al-Saharah neighborhood.
Another video tape, posted by Daraa Coordination on September 12, 2013, shows closely and for the first time a building from Hamida al-Taher checkpoint in al-Saharah neighborhood, Daraa. To upload the video or to watch it on STJ special You Tube, please click on this link.
The Citizen (Ahmad. M), a resident from al-Saharah, who declined to disclose his identity because of the security risks, told STJ that danger of the checkpoint and its violations against citizens increased after the agencies had brought large human reinforcements estimated of dozens of people, some of whom are residents of the region given they have the ability to discriminate the regime opponents from the loyalists.
“Patrols of this checkpoint, whose number of elements exceeds 100, always go out, raid and storm the city's neighborhoods without warning, accompanied by attacks on civilian property, either plundering or vandalizing, as well as the arrest of youths and women on various charges. The checkpoints elements sealed a number of civilian houses known for their opposition to the regime, such as Jabr al-Massalmeh’s house, Anwar al-Massalmeh’s house and Amin al-Massalmeh’s house. Because of this checkpoint, the population could leave and return to the neighborhood through only one entrance that also has another checkpoint. The latter checkpoint keeps the information of all residents of the neighborhood and prevents them from going out after 9:00 pm until 6:00 am, as well as prohibits them from entering any food, agricultural, industrial or electronic items except with a security consent."
Al-Saharah neighborhood in Daraa became like a large detention, where the security apparatus "numbered" the residents instead of their names, so the person is known for his number instead of the explicit name on the identity card.
Satellite image shows the location of Hamida al-Taher Park that contains the checkpoint in al-Saharah, neighborhood, Daraa, in addition to the surrounding buildings, which the Syrian regular army has transformed into secret detention facilities.
Second: Testimonies of Former Detainees by Elements of Hamida al-Taher Checkpoint
STJ was able to reach many eyewitnesses and survivors of elements from Hamida al-Taher checkpoint. The young man M. Al-'asmi, from Dae’l located in Daraa, described the moments before his arrest by the elements of this checkpoint:
"On January 15, 2013, al-Shohadaa Market (the Martyrs Market) was overcrowded as usual, and at about 1:00 am people began to run in panic. Soon, we heard the sound of gunfire from elements driving approximately 15 military and civilian vehicles. They blocked the roads leading from, to the market, besides a large number of elements got off and began to beat the pedestrians randomly. They gathered dozens of young people in the market square; I was one of them, put us in a big car dedicated for transporting vegetables and took us to Hamida al-Taher checkpoint. We were over a hundred young men.
We were taken to Hamida al-Taher Park, specifically to the Afaq Educational Institute. As soon as we entered, they forced us to undress so we stayed in the underwear, and we were thoroughly searched even the sensitive areas of our body. Then, they distributed us in solitary confinements, which were classrooms, but changed to resemble other cells and prisons. At that moment, I remembered pictures of other detention facilities where I was arrested previously by security apparatus affiliated to the Military Security and the Political Security. However, the situation is quite different here, as the place of science and knowledge has been transformed into a detention facility to commit crimes. After that, they put us in a tight space, a single cell was 5 x 5 m and the number of detainees in it was about 60. We could only sleep in a sitting position and keep each other standing for two hours in order to let another prisoner sleep in one’s place, and shifted every two hours. Moreover, we breathe hard given the great pressure generated by the huge number of prisoners in that room."
Concerning what he witnessed in the checkpoint, and the torture other detainees were subjected to, al-Asmi said:
“Inside this checkpoint are a number of interrogators who are officers on the top floor and have nothing to do with the judiciary. Every day, one of the elements used to come in and called the name of one of the detainees, and after two hours or more, this detainee came back after being beaten and his blood spilled, with a change of his skin color because of the brutality and cruelty of torture. The elements prevented us from asking him or inquiring about the course of the investigation but sometimes we were talking with low voices to know the nature of the interrogation and the kind of questions they asked. One of the cases was a young man identified as Muhammad Aba zed, who spoke to me and said that they exposed him to Shabah position for several hours as well as subjected him to electric shocks on the background of his participation in a demonstration. In addition to the arrests of young people, there were also arrests of women whom we heard their voices from one of the distant rooms of the Institute. In the facility, I also met a young man identified as Khaled al-Massalmeh from Daraa, who said that he had witnessed the killing of two young men by elements of the checkpoint near the electricity building, tens of meters away from the checkpoint. There was a person, as well, who had been arrested for almost six months and had aconuresis because he had been tortured on the German Chair several times."
Al-‘Asmi speaks about the investigation and the methods of torture inflicted on him:
On the seventh day of my detention, one of the elements opened the door of the cell and said, “hey al-‘Asmi, come here and put the blindfold” then he took me upstairs, and halted me for more than half an hour in a place where I heard only the sound of beatings and the voice of the tortured detainees during the interrogation process. Moreover, every element who passed every few minutes hit me, until the order came to put me in the interrogation room, I stood up handcuffed behind my back. They started asking me about my personal information and the nature of my work, and then asked about my relationship with the rebels and my support for them. Through the investigation, I knew there were two rebels who sneaked from Daraa camp, for the Palestinian refugee, or from the Dam road and assassinated a high-ranking officer of the regime army. The interrogator asked me about the names of those rebels, where they came from, what was my relationship with them, and what facilities I offered them to conduct the assassinate.
I denied the all questions, and after each denial, I received a beating with sticks on my abdomen and my back by the elements standing there. Because of the severe beatings, I fell on the floor, and one of the elements hit me on the head from the back but the interrogator told him not to hit me in the head as they needed my memory, and he said to me:
"Since you are educated, you must be subjected to further torture so that future generations can learn the meaning of Hamida al-Taher checkpoint.” He asked me to confess everything so I would not die there. Indeed, I confessed under beatings and torture that I took part in the funeral of a martyr a year ago until the two elements stopped beating me almost an hour and a half after the investigation, and then I was sent back to the cell.
During my detention, I knew the name of the officer in charge of the administrating the checkpoint, he was called Ayman Ayosh, from Al-Qusayr in Homs province. After the investigation, I stayed at the checkpoint for 35 days, and every night the warden in charge of us entered the cell and started insulting our reputation on the pretext of making a sound from inside our cell. He used to cornered all of us in the corner of the room and beat us with electric cables on the heads.
On the ninth day of my detention in the checkpoint, it was striking when we learned of a "Presidential Amnesty" of detainees who had not been stained with blood. Nevertheless, nobody went out of the cell at all, and we were originally denied access to a lawyer to help us get out of that place. After that, they released me directly but without any trial or without giving me an official document that explained the reason for the arrest or proving it."
Testimony of the Survivor Identified as (Russell) about the Detention Center at Hamida al-Tahir Checkpoint
Russell, a pseudonym for a girl detained in the same place, from Daraa and one of the first activists in this city, worked in the media secretly until it was discovered and arrested by elements of the Hamida al-Taher checkpoint in 2015. After her release, she continued her media work but outside the city after she displaced.
Russell says in this regard:
"On January 11, 2015, after a rainy midnight, I heard sounds of military vehicles outside our house, where I live with my family and only a few moments the door of our was house removed, , soon 30 elements in their camouflage uniforms stormed the house and started hitting my father and my brothers with the butts of guns. Then they handcuffed our hands after taking the identity cards, and when the officer knew my name, he started hitting only me without the rest of my siblings saying bad words and indecent insults. He dragged me and beat me with his fists on my face until I fell on the floor, then he started hitting me with kicks on my body in front of my parents who could do nothing to rescue me from this situation, all of us experienced the same position that we were unable to speak. The rest of the elements searched the house, broke its contents, vandalized all the furniture and plundered the whole money as well.
After that, they put me in the back of one of their cars (boot). Half an hour later, when they let me down, I saw the Afaq Educational Institute, and realized I am in the notorious Hamida al-Taher checkpoint, which has always frightened us from the beginning of the events (uprising). We feared approaching it at a distance of tens of meters.
In the first three days, I was placed in communicado, which was a bathroom of 1 × 1 meter, designated for classrooms, but an iron door was placed for it to be a very dark place. During the first few days, no one opened the door nor anybody brought in a morsel of bread or any food, but I could drink water from the tap inside this bathroom. However, after the third day they only gave me a loaf of bread."
About the Practices and Torture against Women and Men in that Center, Russell Added
" There were other women in the solitary confinements. I was able to distinguish it by hearing the voice while giving them food or taking them to the investigation. Whenever the elements opened the door or closed it, they told words of insults against those women and against all women everywhere. They practiced terrible psychological war against us by bringing young men and torturing them in front of the confinement’s door, I could distinguish the voice of one of them, he was a man appeared to be very old, they continued torturing him until his voice disappeared altogether, and three elements rotated in his torture. There was another young man; they seemed to have begun to put pieces of embers on his body until his voice finally abated. Another time, I heard an elements saying: "Throw him out with the bodies" after they had tortured a person in front of the solitary confinement where I stayed."
Russell Talks About her Views in Hamida al-Taher Checkpoint
“Seven days later I was kicked out of the confinement and tortured by beating me by one of the elements with his gun-butt all over my body, he said to me: "Here every day we kill one person and you may now be the next."
Then, they placed me in a small room 3 × 2 meters for two days with another girl arrested several days before me on the pretext that she was a media activist. During these two days, two elements used to enter and beat us with fists, kicks and whips, and telling bad languages to us, both elements were hitting the sensitive areas of our body deliberately.
On the tenth day, they moved us to another room of 5 × 5 meters, it was completely dark, we could not distinguish the night from the day, and it contained other 18 women from several neighborhoods of the city as well as from other cities. I reserve to disclose their identity fearful for their safety, all of them were already tortured. "
Russell Met Other Women during her Detention in that Checkpoint, She Said:
"A woman, in her forty from Daraa, drew my attention; she told me that she had spent four months in communicado. She was behaving strangely as if she was mad (psychopath). She used to speak to herself, the lice and skin disease had inflicted her whole body, given shower is completely forbidden inside this center and she was not allowed to have a bath all this time. When I asked her for the reason of her arrest, she replied that she did not know and that they did not charge her of anything. Two days after I met her, they moved her from the room and most likely, transferred her to the Military Security Branch.
Um Ahmad, another elderly woman from Izraa, told me that she had been detained for more than five months and subjected to torture. She suffered from many illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. Despite her bad health conditions, the elements refused to give her medication nor brought her a physician to inspect her. Once she asked the warden to open the door of the cell in order to go to the bathroom, but he refused, so she had to pee in her clothes. It is noteworthy that we were allowed to go to the bathroom twice in 24 hours, with one of the elements accompanied us during these moments. It was something that embarrassed us as well as terrified us, as we had to finish in a few seconds besides filling some bottles of water from the same bathroom to quench our thirst inside the cell later. We asked for many personal needs, but they were denied.
Arbitrary Detention without Legal Justification. In Terms of the Charges Against the Female Detainees, Russell Said:
"Most of the women were not charged of any accusations, we asked the warden to tell the official whose name was Abdullah Merhej that we wanted to be brought before a court and released, but he refused saying: "We will leave you inside this building, bombard it and accuse the opposition forces of this.” Our demand to be brought before a court had a negative reaction to us, as torture became almost daily in the morning or after midnight. They shifted on beating us, they took us to the basement and severely beat us with electric cables for an hour or more and then they returned us in an almost-total fainting. One night after a prisoner, from Daraa countryside, returned from the basement where she was tortured, she told us that the elements attempted to rape her but she had succeeded in preventing them from doing that. While we were taken downstairs to the basement, we used to hear voices of the men inside the cells, they were estimated about dozens, their torture rooms were close to ours so we heard their screams during the interrogation."
In Terms of the Interrogation with her, Russell Said
"On the 20th day, after midnight, I was summoned to the investigation. I stood still in front of the interrogator handcuffed, and he started asking me about my name, date of birth, the place of residence, my education level and everything about my family. He ordered me to confess my" terrorist "activities, but I denied this charge, so the elements started beating me with their fists and kicked me. Meantime, the interrogator was writing on the papers in front of him answers to the questions that he asked me with regard to “terrorist gangs and communicating with tendentious channels”, according to his expression, he was asking and answering himself and writing what he wanted to write.
The interrogator started rape threats to increase my suffering more and more. After a while, I was shocked when they brought one of our neighbors and put him in front of me. The investigator started asking him questions about me and to explain what were the activities I was doing that oppose the regime, but h