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Syria regime extorts money from detainees' families to fuel prison network, report reveals

An outside view of a prison in Syria on 4 March 2018 [Hişam El Homsi/Anadolu Agency]
An outside view of a prison in Syria on 4 March 2018 [Hişam El Homsi/Anadolu Agency]

A large-scale money extortion system is rampant within Syria's vast prison network in which the families of detainees are forced to pay guards and officials to visit or secure their release, a report has revealed.

According to the report by the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), prison guards, military officials and members and judges receive money from detainees' families for information of their whereabouts, appointing a visit, and having them smuggled out.

The bribes, which sometimes involve middlemen who receive a lucrative cut, have been reported to amount up to a few dollars, and sometimes up to $30,000 for families living abroad after fleeing the country. In one prison, it is reported that a total of around $27 million was paid.

Widespread corruption has long been known to be at the centre of Syrian politics and the prison system, but the report by ADMSP reveals the true extent to which it exists as a network that works as a significant means of funding the regime's security apparatus.

Furthermore, it proved that the practice is fuelled by the low pay of prison guards and the siphoning of money to more corrupt officials at higher levels, as well as warlords who profit from such a system.

It works as a "deep government ruling Syria behind the scenes," according to the report's author and co-founder of ADMSP Diab Serrih. "It's an industry of detention. The Syrian regime is built on security and intelligence branches. They pay poor salaries to encourage corruption and the bribes finance this infrastructure of detainment."

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Serrih himself is a former political detainee of Syria, having been imprisoned in 2006 for five years, before he was released in 2011 at the breakout of the Syrian uprising. His release and the release of numerous others was reportedly a tactic used by the regime to clear the prisons and make room for a huge influx of protestors and activists being arrested. He then fled to Turkey and now lives in the Netherlands.

The money extortion system used by the regime is not only for adding to the salaries of corrupt officials, but is also used for circumventing sanctions imposed by the United States and others in the international community. Many of the figures within the regime are included in the sanctions, which means that they are unable to hold bank accounts abroad.

Amongst the testimonies included in the report is that of a man named Ahmad, who was detained and moved between nine different prisons within three years. In efforts to get him released, his family paid a total of $30,000 during the period of his detention.

"Like many families, mine kept paying $1,000 here and $1,000 there, hoping they were giving it to a person who could get them information. Eventually they paid a large sum to a lawyer who told them that some of it will go to a judge and some to the security forces," Ahmad said.

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