Syria: Secret jails amid Assad’s terror, revealed

Abu Mohammed al-Jolani: Head of Nusra Front
Abu Mohammed al-Jolani: Head of Nusra Front
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Islamist militants are perpetrating “a shocking catalogue of abuses” in secret jails across northern Syria, including torture, flogging and killings after summary trials, Amnesty International has said.

Separately, a United Nations panel probing war crimes in Syria has reported that people are being “disappeared” as part of a campaign of terror against civilians by the government.

The expert panel said it found “a consistent country-wide pattern” of Syrian forces and militia seizing people in mass arrests or house searches and at checkpoints and hospitals, then making them disappear – and denying that they even exist. Most victims have been young men.

A defector from the air force, which is predominately Alawite, a sect aligned with Shia Islam and which runs the security apparatus, described orders not to provide information about the whereabouts of detainees.

Among the cases were a 60-year-old woman put in Homs prison for asking about her missing son, and a peaceful protester’s brother taken in a house raid by political security agents.

Meanwhile, Amnesty said the foreigner-dominated al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (Isis), one of the most powerful jihadi groups to emerge from Syria’s almost three-year-old war, is operating seven secret jails in rebel areas.

Detainees are held for reasons ranging from suspected theft to offences such as smoking or sex outside marriage. Others are seized for challenging Isis authority or belonging to rival groups. “Those abducted and detained include children as young as eight who are held with adults in the same cruel and inhuman conditions,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

At one Isis prison on the Euphrates river in Aleppo province the local Sharia judge sits in court in an explosives belt and issues verdicts after hearings lasting no more than a few minutes, former detainees said.

On at least one occasion, he joined in the flogging of a prisoner after sentencing him.

Amnesty said several children had received floggings and on one occasion a father had to listen to his son’s screams in a nearby room. Two detainees said they witnessed a 14-year-old receive 90 lashes at a Raqqa prison. Raqqa was the first population centre wholly under rebel control. Another boy of similar age accused of stealing a motorcycle, was flogged over several days.

“Flogging anyone, let alone children, is cruel and inhuman, and a gross abuse of human rights,” said Mr Luther.

“After years in which they were prey to the brutality of the Assad regime, the people of Raqqa and Aleppo are now suffering under a new form of tyranny imposed on them by Isis, in which arbitrary detention, torture and executions have become the order of the day.”

The UN report into disappearances enacted by Syrian regime forces identified intelligence officers, soldiers and militias loyal to president Bashar al-Assad as having snatched people whose fate remains unknown.

More than 100 disappearances have been documented, but the total is likely to be in the thousands, a UN official said.

‘We will run this country on the basis of God’s law’

The leader of Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front has said in his first televised interview that his group is not seeking to rule Syria, but future rule must be based on Islamic law.

The hardline Nusra Front is one of the most powerful groups fighting alongside rebels trying to topple president Bashar al-Assad. Its leader, known as Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, rarely gives public messages and had never appeared on a public forum until his interview this week with the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera.

Jolani was filmed from behind, his face wrapped in a black scarf, with only his hands visible but images of him exist, pictured right.

“The Nusra Front does not seek to rule society on its own when we reach the stage of the liberation of Sham [Syria],” he said in the pre-recorded interview.

He proposed a legal council made up of Muslim clerics and thinkers who supported the Syrian uprising.

“They will put in place an appropriate plan for running the country, which of course will be based on Islamic sharia, ruling on the basis of God’s law,” he said.

The Nusra Front pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, which has in turn embraced the group as its franchise in Syria.

The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (Isis) was originally the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq but changed its name and aimed to expand to Syria. Isis has not been accepted by central al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as having a legitimate role in Syria.

Nusra fighters are not seen as being as radical as Isis.

Recently Isis fighters have filmed themselves executing Muslims that they have declared are apostates, an accusation known as “takfir” in Arabic.

In his interview with Al Jazeera, Jolani vowed to stop the takfir phenomenon.

“We consider all Muslim societies to be Muslim, and we consider Syrian society to be Muslim. We reject those who say that this society is an apostate one,” he said.

“We will punish those who do this without knowledge or understanding.”