The prisoners lay in a row, their cheeks pressed to the concrete and their hands tied behind their backs as the five armed men milled around them on the street. A youth in a military issue bullet proof vest, jeans and trainers beat a screaming captive repeatedly with his cane: “You are a revolutionary rat aren’t you? You son of a bitch!” The onlookers laughed.
As president Bashar al-Assad continues his violent struggle to retain power, bands of his paramilitaries are running wild on the streets of Damascus. Carrying out executions, drive-by shootings, theft and sectarian attacks with lawless abandon, it is these men, the Shabiha – the “ghosts” – that residents say they most fear.
“They have weapons and a licence to kill,” said Omar al-Khani of the Syrian Revolution Co-ordinators Union. “The government brings these gangs to protests. They give them military uniforms and identity cards calling them riot police.”
In March of last year the Syrian regime hired unemployed youths, school drop-outs and former criminals as extra manpower to help deal with the burgeoning anti-government demonstrations across the country. They were armed, and paid a daily rate of 2000 Syrian pounds (£22), explained Mr Khani.
Outside of demonstrations, the men can be seen on the streets of Damascus. Gangs of Shabiha are terrorising the neighbourhood of Moaddemiya in the city, residents told The Scotsman this weekend.
“They imprisoned Nasser Serir, a peace activist, for six months. Five days after he was released, a gang broke into his home and shot him in front of his children and his mother. They pushed his body from the balcony of the second floor apartment,” said “Obeida”, a middle-aged woman.
The day before, a group had arrested her 60-year-old father, said Bola, a student in the group. Insisting that he had never before been to an anti-government protest, she said she could not fathom why he was taken. “He was leaving the mosque after praying. He is a peaceful man, he is frightened of the security forces,” she said. “They do what they want. They arrested a traffic policeman too, just because he is from Idlib, a town that is rebelling now.”
After taking her father captive, the group stole the family car said Bola. They drove it fast through the streets, swerving round corners, and firing their guns into the air.
Residents report near random house raids by opportunistic groups of Shabiha, looting with impunity. Whilst Bola and her brothers moved away from home, fearing a follow up to their father’s arrest, their mother had decided to remain and keep watch on her home. “Maybe if she is there, she can stop them from trashing and stealing our possessions,” said Bola.
Derived from the Arabic for “ghost”, the word Shabiha has come to mean “thugs” in modern day Syria. It reportedly first entered the lexicon of the Syrian uprising after a government crackdown was launched in the port city of Latakia, where a notorious mafia-like crime syndicate called Shabiha has existed for decades.