MESOP INSIGHT : Prisons Under Syrian Rebel Groups: Some Considerations

By Jalal Ibrahim. Translated by Maya Milani. – 25 March 2016 – When prisoner turns warden, an odd switch can quickly occur turning him into the very codes and practices he once endured. As soon as fate hands over one of his old torturers, or even those representing them, a revenge flame is ignited to strike back with his worst. It also occurs that this flame catches fire upon the very civilians he once claimed to protect. The victim turns perpetrator, but one with fatal knowledge and precision.

As armed resistance started to sweep into the rows of the peaceful movement in Syria, rebel factions positioned themselves in control over some areas, and expanded eventually to cover most rebellious regions in the country. Those factions became responsible for the local security of areas under their control, especially those besieged by the regime. As expected, some members of regime forces, or regime allied forces, fell into the hands of the armed rebels.

Each faction formed what it called a “Sharia Court”, and annexed to each court a prison to carry out the sentences against the “convicts”. Early in 2012 a civilian police force was formed in eastern Ghouta named “Douma Area Administration” under the supervision of a defecting police officer from the regime’s ministry of interior. The defecting officer trained a group of civilians to be the grassroots of a “police” corps responsible for maintaining the security of the area. This core group was formed of 50 members, most of which were illiterates, then grew to reach a hundred members.

This new body, “Area Administration” maintained the previous administrative structure used in Douma, in that it consisted of an area manager, overseeing peripheral managers in Ghouta, with police stations in three districts. It was costmary to detain those accused of crimes or felonies such as fights, theft, assaults or murders, at the police stations by virtue of a court order issued by the juridical bodies for an extendable period of 48 hours. After the investigation is concluded, the accused are transferred to court where a verdict is reached. After a sentence is passed by the Shoura council of Jaish al Islam (the faction in control of the area), the convicts are then transported to the old women’s prison at the heart of Douma, now a center for convicted criminal prisoners.As for minor convicts (under 18 years old); they were held at a special facility under the supervision of a young general doctor with civilian staff helping him despite both sides lacking previous experience or knowledge in running such facilities. Female prisoners were handed by all fractions into one location, managed by a women named Um Slaiman, known for her ferocity and torture of prisoners. She was arrested after repeated complaints were filed against her, and released later, to remain under parole procedures for her ongoing case. A new women’s’ prison was created several months ago with an all-female staff under the supervision of the “Douma Area Administration”. The minor’s facility was also handed over to an all-female management.

Prisoners that are accused of cooperating with the regime, or taken hostages in battles with its forces and militias, were taken to prisons under the control of the armed factions. Those prisons were kept secret in terms of their location and access. What little information leaked out of them confirm that acts of torture have occurred in them, and that there were even cases of death under torture. There were also cases of prisoners that did not undergo any of the regular types of court hearings, not even by Sharia Committees. These jails do not abide by any specific management system and are run by the whim of the individuals and groups managing them.

We can better evaluate the experiment of “prison institutes and supervisors in eastern Ghouta”, by making the distinction between the “prison” or the “correction facility” on the one hand under the supervision of the “Douma Area Administration” and between the “secret jails” of the armed rebel factions in Eastern Ghouta. Also worth noting in this context is the general acceptance amongst civilians in those areas for the first type of prisons, and a resentment and fear of the other.The forces on the ground have resorted to systems already in use in the regime’s state prisons regarding criminal case prisoners. The convicts are viewed as tenants that may not be punished nor tortured after they are sentenced by “sharia committees” that give themselves exclusive juridical rights to issue jail sentences. Those that commit violations of prison rules are punished by issuing a “warning” to them at first, then sent to solitary confinement for 2 or 3 days in case of repetition.

Prisoners would normally get three meals a day (prepared inside the jail) later reduced to two after regime forces intensified their vicious seige on Ghouta. Each prisoner is entitled to a foam mattress with several covers, and can shower twice a week with hot water. Three nurses take shifts around the clock inside the jail in addition to a daily visit by a non-resident doctor in charge of examining ill prisoners. Emergency medical cases are taken out of the prison to one of the medical points available in Douma for treatment within the available medical capacities.As for women prisoners, a new management was recently formed headed and staffed by female civilian workers. In addition to arrangements for men, the women’s prison also provides for the needs of mothers and their children within available capacities (mainly through donations provided by families), in terms of food and clothes and personal hygiene items. The management takes into consideration the needs of women and of babies especially, in terms of sanitary items and milk. Children of a certain age are sent to special educational facilities according to the available curriculums in Eastern Ghouta.

As for breaches committed by “police officers” against prisoners, the management refers those cases to the “sharia committees” that examine the breach committed and issue a verdict that varies from prison time to transfer, which is what happened to a previous manager of the prison due to his maltreatment of the families of the prisoners. Family members are entitled to visit their relatives in those jails and give them items they may need, which makes these jails a much lighter burden than those secret prisons of the armed factions, like the “Repentance/Tawbah” prison of “Jaish al Islam” or the “Abi Nasr” prison of the “Rahman” brigade.

These types of prisons fall under the direct management of fighters in those factions, and what is called their sharia committees. They are usually surrounded by much secrecy and silence. It may be just some farm out in Ghouta or a residential house on the edge of town. Such is the case of a certain farm with a very telling name to its hidden practices: “The Slaughter House”. The slaughter house is a prison under the control of the so-called “military police”, which is similar in both name and practice to that of the regime. This group is headed by two individuals that carry out kidnapping and ransom demands to release the kidnapped that may be regime officers or wealthy merchants. It is not impossible that some of these kidnappings may end in the execution of the kidnapped and the burial of his corpse inside that farm. Such practices were also carried out by the “Shuhada Douma” brigade, and all of these fractions deal with a certain Abu Abdallah, famous for being the “Ghouta Security Officer”. The hit men managing these secret prisons do not refrain from kidnapping minors, and imprisoning them under various excuses, such as working for the regime or belonging to ISIS.

In a broader overview of those facilities we find that the civil ones are still open to reform as news leaks out about some breach or shortcoming in their management. Such as in the case of the jails and the police station under the “Douma Area Administration”. We cannot overlook the efforts put in attempts to institutionalize it and find solutions for challenges as they appear, such as training their staff, and providing the needs of their prisoners (especially mothers and children) within the very limited financial resources, the lack of management experience and the constant battling and resistance on the side of the so-called “sharia committee”. As for the secret jails, we find no advantages to mention regarding them, due to their obscured management and their total lack of any legitimacy beyond the ill notions and the utter legal and managerial ignorance of those controlling them. Added to that is the raging desire for revenge against the hit men of the regime, according to their own accounts. But the most lethal of all, is the growing addiction to power and control away from any accountability. Under varying slogans be them religious, secular or nationalistic, played around by the waging political moods, the “Justice” for which the revolution set out to achieve can become the main victim in these prisons.