(CBS News) Human Rights Watch today called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to the International Criminal Court, for crimes that include the illegal detention and torture of hundreds of men, women and children.
It also demanded that international monitors be given access to detention facilities in Syria where mistreatment has been documented, both by former detainees and the families of those detained and by defectors from the Assad regime's security forces.
The New York-based rights organization issued a report Tuesday, "Torture Archipelago," based on more than 200 interviews conducted since the beginning of anti-government demonstrations in March 2011. Human Rights Watch spoke with former detainees, families of detainees, and members of Syrian security forces who have defected and who actively participated in or witnessed the abuse and torture of prisoners.
The report details specific known detention centers throughout the country run by the government's four intelligence agencies (Department of Military Intelligence, Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate and Air Force Intelligence Directorate). Included are maps of government detention facilities as well as temporary holding centers (stadiums, schools, hospitals); video accounts from former detainees; and sketches depicting various torture techniques as described by those who were subjected to them or witnessed the abuses. Several former detainees claim they witnessed people dying from torture. Defecting members of the country's intelligence agencies also told the group that they either participated in or witnessed the torture and ill treatment of detainees.
"The report on torture supports the case that the U.N. human rights chief is making, to urge the Security Council to refer the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court," said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, who is also an international lawyer.
A defector who was a sergeant in the Syrian military, identified as Ghassan (the report employs pseudonyms to protect witnesses' identities), told Human Rights Watch that on January 11 or 12 he saw 12 corpses of men at his base in Zabadani, who had been brought in alive earlier that night:
"All of them were wearing civilian clothing and two of them were wearing pajamas. None of them had beards. I saw their faces as I walked by them and their faces were disfigured from blunt force trauma. Near the bodies, I saw shovels that had blood and what looked like brain particles. A soldier in the 4th Division who participated in their killing told me that they were ordered to kill them because they were all foreign terrorists. But when I went into the Colonel's office, I saw the dead men's identification cards in plain view on his desk. All the men were Syrians, from Sarghaya. The soldier told me that he and other soldiers had killed the men. He didn't say how but that they were all alive when they brought them in."
As of mid-June 2012, a Syrian monitoring group had recorded the names of 575 people who died while in custody since March of last year.
Because independent verification is extremely difficult, and due to the extreme secrecy of the Assad government, the exact number of those detained since anti-government protests began last year is impossible to tell. However, a Syrian monitoring group had documented more than 25,000 detentions through June 2012.
The Assad regime typically has dismissed such reports, blaming the country's ongoing violence on terrorists. On Monday, U.N. high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay reported to the Security Council that both government and opposition forces are escalating the conflict, but laid most of the responsibility for some of the deadliest episodes - namely the massacre of dozens of civilians in Houla - at the feet of government-supported forces.
Torture victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch - while predominantly young men - included women, children and the elderly.
Through mid-June 2012, according local activists, 635 children and 319 women were detained. At least twelve children were tortured.
The conditions of detention were described as raw and inhumane - extreme overcrowding, inadequate food, and denial of medical care. Human Rights Watch documented more than 20 different methods of torture used, including prolonged beatings with such objects as batons and wires; painful stress positions; the use of electricity; burning with car battery acid; sexual assault and humiliation; the pulling of fingernails; and mock execution.
Most of the detentions documented in the report were carried out during and immediately following anti-government protests; in the course of large-scale "sweep" operations conducted house-to-house; at road checkpoints; and in raids on the homes of "wanted" individuals (whose relatives might be detained instead if the targets were not there) - usually without legal justification. Raids were often accompanied by looting and property destruction, and by beatings - actions usually ordered, authorized or condoned by commanding officers.
Interrogators and officers usually demanded detainees confess to participating in anti-Assad demonstrations. They also asked for names of other demonstrators and organizers, or information about alleged support from abroad. But many ex-detainees believe the torture was inflicted merely to punish and intimidate those being held.
"Syrians have been under the iron hand of the Assad family for decades, and the report documents some of the atrocities that have taken place, which explains why, several diplomats have argued, it has been difficult for the opposition to organize," Falk reports.