Torture is an evil as old as conflict, and there is much more to it than the sort of thing usually seen in the movies. It is, sadly, a skill that appears to be passed down from generation to generation, and is widespread.
Individuals with such skills are not only found in criminal gangs and non-state militias, but are also employed by governments that the international community regards as legitimate representatives of the people. And just as some states specialise in the production of certain products or dominate particular industries, others specialise in torture.
Syria is one such state. Torture has been instrumental in President Bashar Al-Assad’s quashing of the revolution which broke out in 2011. Statistics showed last year that over 14,000 Syrians have been tortured to death by the regime over the past decade. According to a report by the Syrian Network of Human Rights (SNHR) in 2019, it is estimated that at least 1.2 million Syrians have been detained and tortured by the regime during the same period.
The horrific extent to which the regime will go in this respect was documented in the 55,000 photographs of Syrians tortured to death which were smuggled out of the country by a former military photographer in 2014, codenamed “Caesar”.
This systematic campaign of arrest, detention and torture is arguably one of the reasons for the protests which led to the ongoing conflict. People should not have to put up with being carted off to an overcrowded prison and tortured for months on end; nor should their fears of it ever happening be very real and justified.
Much has been written about the crimes, atrocities and violations of human rights committed by the Assad regime, but light is rarely shed on how it acquired such a reputation. The fact is that state torturers in Syria learnt their odious trade from a former Nazi from Austria.
Alois Brunner was a member of the infamous SS, and a leading figure of the Nazi movement in Vienna before World War Two. He was responsible for the capture and transportation of an estimated 128,000 Jews all across Europe, sending them to concentration camps, one of which he commanded in France. According to Adolf Eichmann, one of the most prominent SS officers behind the Nazi Holocaust, Brunner was his “best man”.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Americans helped post-war Germany to form a new intelligence agency. Headed by former Nazi spy chief Reinhard Gehlen, it apparently recruited thousands of SS and Nazi veterans, of which Brunner was one. He escaped detection by the international community by working as a driver for the US military.
Brunner left Germany in 1954, going first to Rome, then Cairo, before ending up in Damascus where he became an advisor to the government. There, it is said that he taught torture and interrogation techniques to the Syrian intelligence services throughout the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez Al-Assad.Having survived two assassination attempts by Israeli agents, as a result of which he lost an eye and the fingers of his left hand, Brunner was guarded by Syrian agents. The regime in Damascus repeatedly refused to extradite him to stand trial as a Nazi war criminal.
The date of Brunner’s death is uncertain. Some reports claim that he died in 2001 after spending his last years neglected and locked up in a Damascus basement living on army rations; others say that he died in 2010. Nevertheless, he was a mass murderer who continued to kill people long after he fled from Europe by passing on his skillset to torturers employed by the Assad regime.
In the SNHR report mentioned above, at least 72 methods of torture used by the regime against detainees are documented. Ranging from physical and psychological to sexual violence, it is a catalogue of the degradation of human dignity.
One former prisoner of the Syrian regime, Omar Alshoghre, spent three years being tortured. He confirmed to Middle East Monitor that, “Most of the torture is systematic and well-organised to break the prisoners physically and mentally. I believe it’s taught to break prisoners in a way that makes them never to try to attack the guards, and if they survive, they survive filled with fear.”
Systematic torture is not limited to Syria; it is found in other states across the region. In September last year, Amnesty International released a report detailing torture methods used by the Iranian authorities against protestors. They look eerily similar to those used by Iran’s ally Syria.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also been accused of using systematic torture both at home and abroad in places such as Yemen, where its forces run secret prisons in which physical and sexual torture is carried out. Another example is Egypt, in which torture has long been on a scale similar to that in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is also reported to have tortured activists, critics and African migrants. The Kingdom’s use of torture does not appear to be as systematic as the other states mentioned.
Even opposition groups in north-west Syria which are supposed to be “Islamists” have used torture against critics in ways that are reminiscent of the regime that they oppose. This was seen in the repeated arrest and torture by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group of the recently-released British aid worker Tauqir “Tox” Shariff, who was subject to techniques such as the infamous tyre and cable beating.
In Israel, Palestinian prisoners are tortured routinely, even children. Indeed, torture is legally sanctioned in the “only democracy in the Middle East”.
What we have now in the Middle East is an Axis of Torture, taught by a Nazi and likely to grow. Although torture is used by numerous states and even more intelligence agencies around the world, Western nations often use Middle Eastern states to do the dirty work for them. They are not known for having systematic torture sites within their own jurisdiction on the sort of scale that we see elsewhere, but so-called extraordinary rendition has been used to “circumvent laws on interrogation, detention and torture”.
It was revealed last year that the UAE had been training Syrian intelligence agents in a joint programme between the two states, which likely included interrogation techniques, a euphemism for torture. It would not be surprising if it is soon revealed that more of such “cooperation” between these governments has taken place or will in the near future.
None of the governments in the Middle East appear to have hands clean of the taint of torture. All are allies of prominent states within the international community.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.