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Report from Syria: Men, women and children sexually assaulted in detention, raids

NEW YORK -- Syrian government forces have used sexual violence to torture men, women and children detained during the current conflict. Witnesses and victims also told Human Rights Watch that soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 former detainees, including two women, who described being sexually abused or witnessing sexual abuse in detention, including rape, penetration with objects, sexual groping, prolonged forced nudity, and electroshock and beatings to genitalia.Many of the former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were imprisoned because of their political activism, including for attending protests. In other cases, the reason for the detention was unclear but detainees suffered the same abusive tactics.

“Syrian security forces have used sexual violence to humiliate and degrade detainees with complete impunity,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The assaults are not limited to detention facilities – government forces and pro-government shabiha militia members have also sexually assaulted women and girls during home raids and residential sweeps.”

Human Rights Watch documented over 20 specific incidents of sexual assault, five of which involved more than one victim, that took place between March 2011 and March 2012 across Syria, including in Daraa, Homs, Idlib, Damascus, and Latakia governorates. The majority of cases were from Homs governorate. Interviewees described a range of sexual abuse by Syrian security forces, the army, and pro-government armed militias referred to locally as shabiha.

The full extent of sexual violence in and outside of detention facilities remains unknown, Human Rights Watch said. The stigma in Syria surrounding sexual violence makes victims reluctant to report abuse. Survivors also may face dangers when they make crimes public, and researchers have had limited access to the country to document abuses. In many cases interviewees told Human Rights Watch that victims did not want their families or others in the community to know about the assault because of fear or shame. In one case, a female rape victim who was willing to be interviewed was not permitted by her husband to speak to Human Rights Watch.

Even when they may wish to seek help, Syrian survivors of sexual assault have limited access to medical or psychological treatment and other services in Syria. Survivors who have fled to neighboring countries also face obstacles in seeking treatment, including limited service options and inability to access services that are available because of social taboos surrounding sexual abuse, families restricting their movement, and the fear of being subjected to so-called “honor” crimes.

It is critical that survivors of sexual assault have access to emergency medical services, legal assistance, and social support to address injuries caused by the assault; prevent pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections; and to collect evidence to support prosecution of perpetrators, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government, countries hosting Syrian refugees, and donors to ensure that survivors have information about relevant health and psychosocial services, including that they should be accessed on an urgent basis, as well as facilitate victims’ access to them through safe and confidential mechanisms.

Examples of sexual abuse of men and boys

Salim (all names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees), a soldier who was detained in June 2011 while on leave at the Air Force Intelligence branch in Latakia, was questioned about his brother’s and father’s roles in demonstrations. He told Human Rights Watch:

They started torturing me here (gesturing toward his genitalia) [with the electricity]. They were also beating me and there was a guard behind me turning the electricity on. I passed out. They were beating me and shocking me. The interrogator was beating me with a cable over my whole body. I still didn’t have any clothes on … they asked me every thirty minutes if I would confess. I said no. At a point they said, “We will kill you,” and I said, “Ok, ok, kill me. Death is better than the torture you are putting me through.” ... When he shocks you the electricity hits your whole body. I was there for hours. They had to carry me on a mattress to the cell. I couldn’t walk after that.

Khalil, who was detained in Idlib governorate in late June 2011 and spent about two months in several detention places, including about one month in the Idlib Central Prison, told Human Rights Watch in a face-to-face interview that when he was detained there:

They forced me to undress. Then they started squeezing my fingers with pliers. They used a stapler to put nails 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. They used two wires hooked up to a car battery to give me electric shocks. They used electric stun-guns on my genitals twice. I thought I would never see my family again. They tortured me like this three times over three days.

Amer, a man from a town in Idlib governorate, described to Human Rights Watch in a face-to-face interview how he was tortured during his 42-day detention in the Political Security Branch in Latakia:

They undressed me, tied my hands behind my back, and hit me on my private parts. They clipped my hands to a metal pipe and lifted me so that my feet hardly touched the floor. They kept me like that for two days. When they released me I couldn’t stand, my feet were completely swollen. I then spent five days in a single cell with six other people. After that 15 officers took me to a separate room. They were cursing my mother and sister and threatened to rape me. They put me on a flying carpet – I was lying on my back, tied to a board, and they lifted my head and legs. All this time I was undressed. They wrapped wires around my penis and turned on the electricity. I could just hear it buzzing. They did this maybe five times for about 10 seconds. I passed out. When I regained consciousness they were pushing my legs and hands into a tire. My entire body was blue from beatings.

Hussein, who was detained in Daraa at the end of April 2011 after he was shot in both legs and then held in Military Intelligence Branch 248 in Damascus told Human Rights Watch:

When I arrived at Branch 248 I was screaming from pain because my legs were broken [from gunshot injuries]. They laid me down in an underground corridor. After five minutes five guys came and started to beat me. I was still blindfolded, but I was able to see a bit under the blindfold. They punched me in the face so I started bleeding from the nose. They left me alone when I pretended to be unconscious. Afterwards another guy came and smacked my head into the ground. Finally an officer came. They wanted to transfer me to a cell, but there was no room for anybody with broken legs so they transferred me to Hospital 601 instead. After six days in the hospital they took me back to 248. In the cell, two guards held my legs apart and beat me in the groin.

Examples of sexual abuse of women and girls

Selma, from Karm al-Zeitoun, Homs told Human Rights Watch in a face-to-face interview that she heard her neighbors being raped while hiding in her apartment in March 2012.

The girls were protesting. I could hear them saying not to grab the mother and she was just saying, “Don’t touch my daughters.” I could hear one girl fighting with one of them. He was saying, “Oh, you are going to scratch me too?” She pushed him and he shot her in the head. She was the oldest. 20 years old … They grabbed the youngest. She was 12. You could hear her say, “Don’t take my clothes off.” The mother said, “This girl is 12.” The youngest, I saw her [later], her sweater was torn, all the way down the front. They raped her and they raped the two others … The other girls were 16 and 18 … I waited, hiding after they left. I didn’t move for one hour or so until the thuwar (revolutionaries) came ... The girls had closed the door to their house and were crying … I knocked on their door and said, “I am your neighbor let me in.” The scene on the inside was unreal. The 12 year old was lying on the ground, blood to her knees. I told them to get up, that this happened against their will. More than one person had raped the 12 year old. I heard them from my hiding place, saying, “Come on, enough, my turn.” She was torn the length of a forefinger. I will never go back there. It comes to me. I see it in my dreams and I just cry.

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