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Report: Syrian forces are using sex abuse in crackdown

By Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 2:48 PM EDT, Fri June 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Human Rights Watch: Security forces use sexual violence "with complete impunity"
  • Commanders knew or should have known about the abuses, the report said
  • A prisoner says detained boys were raped, and "we would cry for them"

Editor's note: Note graphic content.

(CNN) -- Syrian security forces, soldiers and pro-regime militias used sexual violence to torture people in detention and sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 in raids, a new report said Friday.

The Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews with victims of sexual abuse, tells of shocking accounts of rape, penetration with objects, sexual groping, prolonged forced nudity, and electroshock and beatings to genitalia.

"Syrian security forces have used sexual violence to humiliate and degrade detainees with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the human rights organization.

"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."

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The details emerged, the report said, despite a stigma surrounding sexual violence and a reluctance to talk publicly because of fear and shame. It is the latest report of abuses in the turbulent country, in the throes of a 15-month-old nationwide uprising after the government launched a crackdown against protesters.

Male and female detainees -- many of whom were political activists or simply attended protests -- reported "sexual torture" at Military Intelligence Branch 248 and Branch 235 (known as "Palestine Branch") in Damascus; the military intelligence facilities in Jisr al-Shughur, Idlib, and Homs; the political security branch in Latakia; the air force intelligence branches in Mezze, Latakia, and Homs; and the Idlib Central Prison.

Using pseudonyms, Human Rights Watch recounted the victims' stories.

Khalil, who had been detained in Idlib province, described extensive torture over a three-day period.

"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."

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Nour, detained at the "Palestine Branch," said she and three other women "were repeatedly raped."

"They would take turns with us. More than one man would rape you. It wasn't every day, but it was regular ... "

Amer, imprisoned in Latakia, said, "They undressed me, tied my hands behind my back, and hit me on my private parts."

Samih, a man detained in Latakia, described beatings and "rape for the boys."

"We would see them when the guards brought them back to the cell. It's indescribable. You can't talk about it. One boy came into the cell bleeding from behind. He couldn't walk. It was something they just did to the boys. We would cry for them."

Toufiq, a military defector, said a friend in his unit admitted to having participated in a gang rape of two women during a home raid in Homs. He said saw video on his friend's cell phone that confirmed the gang rape.

Suha said Shabiha members raped her 28-year-old neighbor in Homs province. Selma, also in Homs province, heard her neighbors being raped. Yousef said he watched soldiers from security forces rape his wife in Daraa.

Women in Syria and those who've fled to neighboring countries have had a tough time getting help. Emergency responders know about the abuse because they have worked with sexual abuse survivors.

A women's rights activist, called Leila, said Syrians have limited access to medical and psychological treatment and have worked to provide abortions and safe houses. She said her group worked to help two teenage girls raped by Shabiha members during a house raid.

Human Rights Watch lacks evidence that high-ranking officers commanded their troops to commit sexual violence during home searches, ground operations or in detention. But commanders in many of the cases "knew or should have known" about the crimes, the group said.

"Information received by Human Rights Watch, including from army and security force defectors, indicates that no action has been taken to investigate or punish government forces and shabiha who commit acts of sexual violence or to prevent them from committing such acts in the future," the report said.

"The international community urgently needs to address the human rights violations going on in Syria," Human Rights Watch's Whitson said. "The Security Council should send a strong signal to the Assad government that they will be held accountable for sexual violence and other human rights violations -- by referring the situation to the ICC," the International Criminal Court.

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