Skip to main content

Tracking down torture in Syria

By Ole Solvang, Special to CNN
updated 3:07 PM EDT, Tue July 3, 2012
Syrians pray at the funeral of Mustafa Mahmud Badawi, 68, in Idlib province in June. A sniper killed him on his way to the dentist.
Syrians pray at the funeral of Mustafa Mahmud Badawi, 68, in Idlib province in June. A sniper killed him on his way to the dentist.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ole Solvang: Report based on more than 200 interviews tells about Syrian government torture
  • Syrian authorities are running a network of underground detention facilities, he says
  • Solvang: With this information now public, Syrian authorities' crimes will not stay secret
  • The question now, Solvang says, is: Who will hold those responsible to account?

Editor's note: Ole Solvang is an emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Paris (CNN) -- The new Human Rights Watch report "Torture Archipelago" documents in excruciating detail the use of torture in government detention facilities in Syria, including how, where, when and under whose command this torture was carried out. Documenting human rights violations in Syria is anything but easy, so how did we do it?

Since the beginning of anti-government demonstrations in March 2011, Syria has been doing whatever it can to keep independent observers from finding out what exactly is going on. For many months, it refused to issue visas for such work, and widespread violations were committed with few independent witnesses.

Some journalists from outside Syria bravely crossed the border without official permission, to provide valuable first-hand accounts of attacks and violations. But crossing the border illegally can be dangerous. Several journalists have been arrested and others killed on these assignments, making Syria one of the deadliest countries for journalists at the moment.

News: Report describes brutal torture in Syria

Ole Solvang
Ole Solvang
A Syrian military defector

In April of this year, Syria finally agreed to the deployment of 300 United Nations observers and to grant visas to some journalists, but those who got into Syria have faced difficulties on the ground. When members from the U.N. observer mission, accompanied by several journalists, tried to investigate claims of a massacre in the small village of Qubeir on June 7, Syrian government forces initially prevented them from entering the village. When the observers finally entered the village one day later, they saw clear evidence that something terrible had happened.

Journalists on the scene reported that "the smell of burnt flesh still hung heavy in the air" and that "blood was in pools" in a house. But somebody had removed the bodies. It is hard to not draw the conclusion that government forces held up the U.N. observers while somebody tried to clean up the crime scene.

News: In Syria, a massacre feels eerily familiar

On June 16, the U.N. observer mission suspended its patrols in Syria because of increased fighting. The observer mission had also come under attack on several occasions.

Further complicating the work of impartial observers is the increasing amount of propaganda from both sides. We have long since stopped trusting any information coming from the government, but we cannot always trust information from opposition activists either. Some are reluctant, for example, to admit that a victim was an opposition fighter, instead presenting the person as a civilian.

So how does Human Rights Watch overcome these challenges?

We get the best evidence when we are able to examine the crime scenes ourselves. Despite significant risks, we have entered Syria without official permission on several occasions to investigate alleged violations. The last time, in April, we visited five towns that had just been attacked in the northern province of Idlib. We photographed bullet marks and blood traces on walls where people had been executed during the army's attack. We interviewed neighbors who had found the bodies, and in one case, we even spoke with a wounded person who had survived an execution attempt.

But rights-abusing governments cannot count on hiding the truth even if they manage to keep observers out. Syrians are still leaving the country in large numbers. By comparing information from multiple, separate, detailed witness accounts, we are wresting out the truth despite the best attempts of Syria's intelligence agencies.

"Torture Archipelago" is based on more than 200 long and detailed interviews. We asked former inmates of government detention centers not only about the torture, but also about the layout of buildings, the location of the interrogation rooms and torture chambers, and the names of guards and fellow inmates. We documented scars and studied photographs. We asked former detainees to draw the layout of the detention floor, and we asked them to point out on satellite imagery the exact building where they were detained and tortured.

We posed the same questions to defectors from the army and intelligence facilities who visited or worked in these facilities, many of whom gave us names and ranks of their superiors overseeing these detention facilities.

What we found is that Syrian authorities are running a network of underground detention facilities. We have identified the locations, names of commanders, and torture methods of many of these. While the actual number is probably higher, the 27 detention facilities listed in our report are those for which multiple witnesses have indicated the same building and described in detail the torture methods being used there.

By publishing this information, we are putting Syrian authorities on notice that their crimes will not stay secret. It can take time -- it has taken us several months to map these detention facilities -- but with enough perseverance, the truth will come out about the violations taking place in Syria. The question then becomes: Who will hold those responsible to account?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ole Solvang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT