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Syrian rebels hold pro-government prisoners in former school

By Ivan Watson and Raja Razek, CNN
updated 4:14 PM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
  • The rebels are using a former elementary school as a prison
  • The warden insists conditions are far better than at government detention facilities
  • In brief supervised encounters, journalists saw signs suggesting beatings
  • Captured soldiers and army officers appear to be treated better than militia members

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Aleppo Province, Syria (CNN) -- In what has been one of the hottest summers many Syrians can remember, the classrooms of an elementary school in the north of the country are packed full -- not with schoolchildren but with pro-government prisoners captured by rebels.

In one classroom this week, at least 40 adult men sat barefoot on cushions on the crowded floor in front of the teacher's chalkboard. Their heads were shaved. Most of them hid their faces as armed men showed visiting journalists the room.

"They are shabiha," said one of the armed men, referring to Syria's much-feared pro-government militia.

Months ago, Syrian rebels from the Tawheed (Unity) Brigade converted this school into a makeshift detention center that now houses at least 112 detainees. Jailers invited CNN reporters to visit the facility, provided its exact location not be identified for security reasons.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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The prison warden, a former employee of the Agriculture Ministry who asked only to be called Abu Hatem, insisted that conditions at the school are far better than at government detention facilities.

"See, the prisoners and the guards eat the same food," he said as he showed eggs, a bowl of plums and a boiling pot full of potatoes in the prison's kitchen.

But during brief supervised encounters with prisoners, there were signs suggesting some of the captives had endured beatings and perhaps far worse during or since their capture by rebel forces.

One of the prisoners could barely see, his eyes were so swollen and purple. But it was unclear how long he had been held and whether his injuries might have been suffered in battle.

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While showing CNN the room housing suspected shabiha members, the jailers ordered another captive to approach and strip off his shirt.

The man rose and hobbled to the door, unable to stand flat on his bare feet.

He removed his shirt and revealed a complicated network of tattoos coating his chest and back, suggesting he was a fanatical supporter of the Syrian government.

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The prisoner's body was decorated, quite literally, with the faces of the Syrian regime.

A portrait of former president Hafez al-Assad was tattooed on his chest, accompanied by smaller drawings of al-Assad's long-dead son Basil and another son, the current president, Bashar.

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There were two leaping lions -- Assad means "lion" in Arabic -- on the prisoner's back, as well as phrases in Arabic script declaring "Syria-Bashar al-Assad," "the men of al-Assad" and "Greetings Hezbollah," referring to the Shiite movement in Lebanon that is closely allied with the Damascus regime.

Even more disturbing were the dozens of fresh cuts and gashes criss-crossing the tattoo portraits of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad.

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The warden insisted his men had not tortured the prisoner. Instead he offered an unlikely explanation for the painfully disfigured torso.

"He confessed to committing crimes," Abu Hatem said. "So he cut himself and wanted to donate blood to the rebels."

"He had a nest, he was in charge of a group that crushed protests. He was connected to the security forces and the intelligence agencies," Abu Hatem continued, adding that the tattooed prisoner had been captured last week by rebel fighters in Aleppo.

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The top enforcer at this rebel-run prison was a hulking man who wore a pistol in a shoulder holster over his gray galabiya, a long tunic. He asked to be identified only by his nickname, "Jumbo."

Jumbo was a former taxi driver whose only experience running a prison stemmed from a stint in a government detention center.

"I spent six days hanging in a bisat al-rih," or flying carpet, he said, referring to a torture device that Syrian security forces use systematically against captives, according to CNN interviews with more than a dozen former inmates and defected security officers.

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"I want to hurt (the prisoners)," Jumbo added. "But we work according to God's will. Once we capture them, we don't even want to slap them because we control them. Of course, its different during battle."

Jumbo's men brought a prisoner into the warden's office for a conversation.

The man, who asked to be called Mohammed, was barefoot and had bruises on his wrists from what may have been ropes or handcuffs. He was trembling with fear. Every time he spoke, he shot terrified glances at Jumbo.

His captors called him a member of the shabiha. Mohammed indirectly denied that accusation, saying instead that he had been a bureaucrat at a city accounting office in Aleppo until a rebel raid destroyed the building.

"After the office exploded, I needed a job and kept looking for work," Mohammed said. "I had to pay rent for my house, and my wife was having a baby and needed a caesarian operation, and I was looking for money. ... The municipality told me there is a job for you. You work one day, and you get the next day off. I only spent five days at the job. And they caught me at the checkpoint. I was on guard duty by the park."

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Mohammed said he was promised the equivalent of $190 a month to carry a Kalashnikov rifle for the Syrian security services.

At one point during the interview, Jumbo suggested Mohammed lift his shirt, "to show there were no signs."

"There ARE marks!" Mohammed whispered fearfully to Jumbo.

Down the hall from the suspected shabiha prisoners, rebels had established another classroom-turned-prison cell for around 40 men described as captured soldiers and army officers.

Jumbo and his men treated these prisoners with noticeably more respect than the men in the shabiha room. Several prisoners introduced themselves as majors and colonels in the army. The marker board and the chalkboard in front of them were covered with quotations and excerpts from the Quran.

When asked, the warden, Abu Hatem, said observers from the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as other journalists, would be welcome to look at his improvised facility.

"We want all the news channels around the world to report the truth, so everyone can see what has happened to the Syrian people while the rest of world just watches," Abu Hatem said. "No one is doing anything, because we don't have any oil. In Libya, they instantly came with an international decision to attack Gadhafi's forces. But because we don't have oil in Syria, they left us here to deal with this mess alone."

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