BEIRUT: Leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib has given a Sunday deadline for President Bashar Assad to release all female detainees in Syrian prisons or he will consider his controversial offer of dialogue as having been rejected.
The exact number of detainees in Syrian prisons is unknown. The Syrian Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, a team of activists which records human rights violations, tallying the number of civilian and non-civilian casualties, detainees and missing persons in accordance with international standards, has documented the detention of some 568 women among 35,344 total detained in Syrian prisons.
Explaining the figures, veteran rights activist and lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, who works with the center, said that while most of those women had now been released, there were still some 100 being held in Syrian prisons.
Zeitouneh added that the number had been “stable” for the last several months as some women had been released and others arrested.
She said women on average spend two to three months in prison, although in a few cases some have been detained for longer periods.
She stressed that the center, which works in collaboration with the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground in Syria, only documents those cases of death and detention that can be confirmed through a process of data collection and interviews with family, witnesses and other sources. The numbers are likely to be underestimated, she said, as the families of those detained do not always report arrests or releases, adding that it was especially difficult to document women’s cases.
“It’s very difficult to follow when there is campaign of detention and it’s much harder because families are more afraid to declare a woman’s arrest,” Zeitouneh said.
Numerous human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented the use of both psychological and physical torture, physical and sexual abuse and rights deprivation under detention. Zeitouneh said there was little difference between the treatment of men and women in prison and that sexual violence was used against both men and women alike.
Twenty-year-old university student Khetam Benyan was released three weeks ago after spending 49 days in an intelligence facility in Damascus following her arrest for taking part in an anti-government demonstration.
She relayed her ordeal during a Skype interview with The Daily Star from a secure location after escaping the country some days ago, and called for the safe release of other women prisoners with whom she had shared her cell, who suffered rape, physical abuse and medical deprivation while in prison.
Benyan was subjected to psychological torture and physical abuse at the hands of prison guards and interrogators, she said.
After her arrest, Benyan described being beaten en route to the intelligence building where she was held, which she declined to identify for the security of others still under detention.
Between hourslong sessions of interrogation in an underground interview room, Benyan said she had witnessed and heard torture and beatings of male prisoners.
“They threatened to rape me. They said that they would send me to solitary confinement, or to the men’s prison ... that I would never see my family and friends again ... that no one would help. They asked me: ‘Is this the freedom you wanted?’” she said.
During her incarceration Benyan was held in what she described as a small room, sharing sleeping space on the floor with between seven and 15 other women.
“We originally had two blankets each ... but after more women came, there were not enough. There was not even enough room to turn around on the floor,” she said. “They would turn the heating on for around an hour a day. But then the cold was terrible.”
One woman, whose husband was believed to be working with the opposition Free Syrian Army, she said, was brought into the cell clearly traumatized and physically ill after an interrogation session.
“She was crying and praying to Allah ... there was clearly something wrong. She didn’t speak to anyone,” Benyan said. “After the second time, she came back from the interrogation, and she told us that yes, they had raped her. That was the second time.”
Benyan wrote an open letter this week of her prayers for women with whom she had shared her cell.
“Twenty-two days have passed since my release from detention, and I feel so hysterical, questions never stop in my mind, memories of the people I met in prison never leave me. Everyone is telling me you will forget and you will adapt, but no, I shall never forget what I saw inside those horrible prisons of the regime,” she wrote.
“I shall never forget Umm Tayim, 25, who was called for the captain’s office at midnight to return in total shock after being brutally raped twice. I shall never ever forget the tears on her face, nor her calling on Allah to help her.
“I shall never forget Muna al-Wadi’s face when they told her she is going to be executed tomorrow at 10 o’clock.
“I shall never forget the voice of Ala’a Kayyal, the 20-year-old girl, when she asked me to check her back after coming from a torture session.
“I shall never ever forget the shivering nor the trembling of Elham when she had an epileptic seizure, and the guards mocking her and accusing her of performing a role.
“They are alive but in fact they are not. Please help them, free them.”
Benyan told The Daily Star that the experience had hardened her resolve against the Syrian government.
“I will see these women again. I cherish them. Since being released I have felt more determined, stronger,” she said.
“I knew they were bad. Now I know just how bad they are.”