Torture of prisoners is a crime

Reports from Hell : This is what women suffer in Syrian prisons

The war in Syria has disappeared from the headlines of the newspapers. But that doesn't mean that the bombing, dying, torture, arrest, and disappearance of people has stopped. The horror continues, day after day.

This is confirmed by the Syrian human rights activists and feminists Joumana Seif and Wejdan Nassif, whose book “Voices against Silence” (Hirnkost Verlag, Berlin 2020, 126 pages, 12 €) has just been published. It is a report from hell - by women who fell into the clutches of the Assad regime.

23 women and four men who witnessed violence against women report on their experiences in Syrian prisons from 1980 to 2017. The interviews were conducted in July 2018 in Turkey, France, Sweden and Germany.

In 2019, the Syrian Network for Human Rights published a report on violence against women and how they were used as weapons in war. Almost 8,000 women are still in custody or have disappeared; in total, there have been over 98,000 people since 2011.

"But there were no reports from women from the time of Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current ruler," says lawyer Joumana Seif, who works in Berlin at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, on the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes to be held accountable against humanity.

Before Assad came to power, Syrians were active in NGOs

Seif was politicized by her father, the entrepreneur, member of parliament and opposition leader Riad Seif. When he was imprisoned from 2001 to 2006 for ideas about economic reforms and the fight against corruption, the young lawyer Joumana Seif established the link between the prison and the opposition.

"During that time, the secret services followed us everywhere, our phones were tapped," she says. The human rights activists from Damascus Spring 2000 met in their father's house. As early as the 1980s, rape was threatened in front of family members.

Before Hafiz-al-Assad came to power in 1970, Syrian women were active in NGOs and in education, they studied and, shortly after independence from France, already had the right to vote.

The arrest as a threat against the man

But Assad has formed an alliance with conservative religious leaders that pushed women out of the public eye and cast political activity in a bad light, says Seif. In the 1970s it was mainly left-wing groups that opposed the Assad dictatorship and called for freedom.

It was then that the forced disappearance policy began. “Before Assad, you were imprisoned for a few months and then you were free again. But that was different under Assad. My uncle was arrested out of bed and disappeared when his daughter was one year old. When she was 18, she asked about her father and was told that he had been executed, ”says Seif.

The women in the book also report such inhumane practices. “They surrounded my school with tanks; I still remember today that I just had an exam in Citizenship Studies. When they brought me to court, I was 15 years and four months old, ”writes Lama from Aleppo, who was arrested in 1981 and spent nine years in prison.

Arrest as a threat against the man, alienation from the children, threats of rape in front of family members, uncertainty, discrediting and character assassination are still common torture methods of the Assad regime today. With the revolution of 2011 things got worse. Now women have even been arrested for providing humanitarian aid.

During the revolution, the regime invents new practices

Although Bashar al-Assad ratified the UN Convention against Torture in 2004, this did not prevent the regime from further perfecting the system of torture. “Most of all, I felt humiliation and shame because I was tortured without knowing what I had done. They never told me why, ”Lama writes.

During the revolution, the regime invents new practices. "They burned my feet so that I could no longer take part in the demonstrations‘, as they said, "reports 23-year-old Jana, who was arrested and tortured in 2014.

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It is hard at times to read these accounts of psychological and sexual violence. But it is important that women can speak publicly about their suffering and the violence that has been inflicted on them, so that they are heard. "We had to delete a lot of places in the minutes because the women are still afraid and it is difficult to bear," reports Seif.

Families often do little to help ex-prisoners

For many women, however, it is not over with their release from prison if they stay in Syria. Often the time after that means the transition to an even bigger prison.

“Everyone around you forms a circle of oppression, from the regime to the opposition, including family, clan, relatives and friends. They are constantly influencing each other, ”says Ayat. Often the family is more concerned with family honor and reputation than helping the ex-prisoners.

Co-author Wejdan Nassif can confirm this from her own experience. As a student, she was imprisoned near Damascus for over four years. “In Syrian society, women should be quiet and stay out of politics. Nobody spoke to me out of fear, ”she says today.

Civil society can play an important role

In 2011, she had dreamed of hope and sent letters to her friend in France to tell about the everyday life of the "Intifada", as she calls it. This resulted in her book “Letters from Syria”. She has lived in France since 2014, works with refugees and continues to write books.

“Women are the victims of the regime and the patriarchal system. We have to find a solution to the conflict, ”says Nassif. For both, the overthrow of the regime and the prosecution of the crimes is a prerequisite for a fresh start.

"The refugees in Europe and Canada have now experienced a different society in their host countries, they are learning how a society can function," says Nassif, which gives her hope. “Civil society can play an important role. Syrian women are strong when the circumstances are good, ”adds Seif.

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