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Syria regime continues extortion of money for detainees' release, despite Assad amnesty

Syrian women stage a protest in demand of the release of detainees prisoned by Assad Regime in Idlib, Syria On 12 November 2021 [İzzettin Kasim/Anadolu Agency]
Syrian women stage a protest in demand of the release of detainees prisoned by Assad Regime in Idlib, Syria On 12 November 2021 [İzzettin Kasim/Anadolu Agency]

The families of detainees in Syria's prison network are still having to resort to paying large sums of money to secure their release, despite the regime of Bashar Al-Assad issuing a wide-ranging amnesty earlier this month and guaranteeing the release of thousands of detainees.

According to the Turkish news outlet, Anadolu Agency, a recently-released detainee informed it that the Syrian regime is still engaged in the practice of extorting a significant amount of money from the families of prisoners in exchange for their release.

Mohammed Shilash, who hails from the town of Sor in the eastern Deir Ez-Zor province, told the paper that he and some of his friends were arrested by regime forces in the capital, Damascus, in 2019, after arranging to meet a human smuggler to take them across the border into Lebanon due to the economic crisis in Syria.

They were then handed over to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, who interrogated him over the identity card he was carrying, which belonged to a younger relative and which he took in order to avoid forcible recruitment into Syrian military service if he was caught.

"The identity issue made things worse", he said. "They accused me of being Iraqi. After that, the torture began. As a result of the torture, I confessed everything they wanted. I was subjected to beatings and torture for about one and a half months. I was subjected to humiliation and unspeakable curses."

He was then transferred to the notorious Sednaya prison near Damascus, where he was stuffed in a three-meter wide ward with many other detainees, before being placed in a single cell. In that prison, the torture became even more common. "We had no rights. They tortured without question. We were hanging from the ceiling by our arms. This was the worst of the torture. While we were in this state, they would pour water on us and hit us. The persecution usually took place after midnight."

READ: Syria: 'I finally learnt how to enjoy the torture,' says former prisoner

Shilash told the paper of the conditions in the prison, saying that "We couldn't go to the toilet. We had to relieve ourselves where we were held." Food was also a major issue: "We would be left hungry. They would give three olives and a piece of bread. They only gave cheese once a week and they would dirty it, too."

In those conditions, he said, "Dozens of people died from torture, disease and filth." To make it worse, "they wouldn't remove the corpses until they rotted. They used to eliminate most of the corpses by burning. When I witnessed all this, I thought I would suffer the same fate as them. I never thought I would be free."

Finally, and through a large payment, his family was able to get him transferred to Adra Central Prison, which is also near the capital. Held there for around six months, Shilash said it was "better than Sednaya. It was as if I had escaped from hell."

Then, the Assad regime issued the wide-ranging amnesty which allegedly included prisoners detained on charges of "terrorism" – the first amnesty of its kind throughout the ongoing decade-long civil war. That was only a display, Shilash stated, revealing that "despite this, my family paid millions of Syrian liras [at least hundreds of US dollars] for my release."

The regime's common practice of forcing families to pay huge sums of money – even up to tens of thousands of dollars, in many cases – in order to secure detainees' releases, or even just to visit or know the whereabouts of their detention, is still reportedly being enforced. "Those in charge of prisons have turned our situation into a business. They extort big money from families," he insisted.

According to the organisation, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the Syrian government has so far only released 476 people in accordance with the amnesty. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands are estimated to remain detained within the regime's vast prison network.

READ: The Axis of Torture was taught by a Nazi and is likely to grow

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