What it's like inside a Syrian government prison

Suqur al-Sham brigade commander Ayachi Abdel Rahman, who orchestrated the mission to overtake Idlib prison, gives orders to his men before heading into their positions Sunday afternoon.
Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost

IDLIB, SyriaLimestone mountains form a stunning backdrop to the imposing Idlib Central Prison. Tank blasts mar the walls. Glass and debris litter the floor.

On Jan. 20, after days of fierce battle, rebel forces stormed the prison complex and seized control from the Syrian regime. By the following week, gunfire and tanks blasts had given way to an eerie silence.

A look inside the prison, as well as conversations with many who were released the day the rebels took over, provide rare insight into how the regime treats its prisoners nearly two years into a conflict that has claimed as many as 90,000 lives.

Many rooms in the prison appear to have been used as crowded but adequate cells, but three underground floors tell a different tale.

In one dark room, two ropes hang above an execution platform. Other rooms house piles of heavy chains inside large metal cages. Traces of blood are still present on several cell walls.

The mission to storm the prison was part of a coordinated attack that signaled the beginning of the "War for Idlib," according to rebel leaders.

The taking of the prison was a strategic move opening the way into Idlib city, a final stronghold of regime forces. During the battle, rebels won a stockpile of weapons, ammunition and several tanks.

Mohammed Ali, a rebel fighter for Suqur al-Sham brigade, was among the first to enter the cells to free the prisoners.

"There was a state of panic and fear among the prisoners," he said as he walked through the now empty and largely destroyed cells.

"They had undergone the worst kinds of torture. As we entered, the regime guards had conducted field executions, shooting on some prisoners who were screaming for help and asking us to save them."

During the prison raid, opposition forces released 300 inmates, around half the total number of prisoners. The rest, including around 30 registered female prisoners, were taken to Idlib city as the officers and prison director -- a relative of President Bashar al-Assad -- fled under the cover of heavy tank and sniper fire.

Around 100 km from the old prison, the rebels set up a secret holding prison to provide a secure place from air raids for around 200 prisoners taken from the original complex.

These prisoners, who were arrested for criminal acts as opposed to political ones, wait to be retried in an Islamic court run by the opposition. They tell tales of degrading treatment and torture under government officials.

"It feels like we have been freed from the grave," said Yusef Sheikh Mohammed, who was serving a sentence of 21 years for theft.

He described being paraded through the prison wearing only underpants and being made to lick an officer's shoe. "Under the regime we felt like dogs. Now we feel human again."

In a recent report, the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights documented methods of torture prevalent in regime prisons.

The report lists 957 cases of death from torture in 2012. The report lists the name and location of each death, and in many cases provides photos or video evidence and testimony from fellow inmates or family members who received the bodies. The tally includes 34 children and 17 women.

Forty-five torture methods where described: severe beating, electric shock, being hung or tied in painful positions for long hours or even days, withholding food or access to toilet and shower facilities, sexual torture and rape against both men and women, and psychological torture including being kept in a cell with a dead or dying prisoner and being forced to watch the torture of others.

As the prisoners gathered on their sleeping mattresses in a large unlocked room that has become their temporary holding cell, several armed men stood guard.

Many maintained their innocence or complained of unfair sentencing.

Twenty-four-year-old Ahmed Anagi, crippled in both legs since birth, admitted to his crime. According to prison records, he received six years for stealing a gas bottle.