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University of Damascus student body tortured students amid Syria revolution, report reveals

June 19, 2024 at 5:18 pm

University of Damascus logo [damasuniv]

A student body at Syria’s University of Damascus committed acts of detention, torture and gender-based violence during the first few years of the Syrian revolution, a new report has revealed.

According to a report by the Syrian British Consortium (SBC), which was the result of a year-long investigation, the University of Damascus’s National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS) committed crimes which violated international law between 2011 and 2013, with the student body reportedly serving as a branch of the Syrian regime’s state security apparatus at the University.

Drawing on evidence from open source research and witness testimonies, including 20 in-depth interviews with former students, professors and NUSS members, they revealed that the student body would patrol university grounds, lecture halls and student residences in an effort to inform on potentially dissenting students, professors and staff. Online activity was also reportedly monitored.

The NUSS members would then detain them, often physically torture them on campus, and then hand them over to Syrian security service,s which would presumably forcibly disappear the students into the regime’s vast prison system. Within those three years, over 35,000 students had been arrested across Syria, according to the report which cited statistics from the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).

Not only did the NUSS conduct patrols and surveillance on campuses, but they also participated in violent crackdowns against peaceful student protests and even acquired weaponry, including wooden sticks, stun batons and, sometimes, guns.

According to witnesses, it was the NUSS that the regime largely made responsible for action on the University of Damascus’s campus and other university grounds, with state security personnel usually remaining absent from the sites unless being called upon to help suppress protests or detain a particular student. At times, detentions and arrests would also be made by NUSS members, despite it not being within their official jurisdiction to do so.

When detained at sites on campus, some of the torture the students would undergo included beatings by hand or feet, hitting by sticks or batons or thick plastic (PVC) pipes all over the body, shocking by tasers, as well s psychological torture and threats of sexual assault or a life in detention.

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The report highlighted the case of a master’s degree dental student at the University, named Ayham Ghazoul, who was severely tortured on campus by NUSS members in November 2012. After being beaten with an iron rod, having his nails pulled out and having boiling water poured on him, he was transferred to the regime’s Air Force Intelligence and soon died under its custody.

A former student, Noor Altal, recalled being detained and beaten by the NUSS at the University before being handed over to the State Security Branch. “University was meant to be a step towards the future, a place to write our own story, meet friends for life, but it turned into a place of nightmares. I was detained by the NUSS and physically assaulted. I’m now in Europe with my family and thought I would be far from war criminals here, but now a NUSS official will be part of the Paris 2024 Olympics. He is being welcomed as if he has committed no crime.”

That NUSS official he referred to is apparently Omar Aroub, formerly a senior member of the NUSS leadership in Aleppo, where he reportedly oversaw violations, recruited students to suppress protests, armed them and instructed them to throw dissenting female students out of fourth-floor windows. Aroub now sits on the position of Syria’s Vice President of the General Sports Federation, as well as the Chairman of the Syrian Paralympic Committee.

“It is as if the regime is saying, ‘look at us. We committed crimes against you and we are still committing crimes against other Syrians, but the world approves of us and even allows us to be here at the Olympics. When the games are over, we will be returning to Syria to commit more crimes’”. Altal called on France and the Olympic committee to “stand up for human rights and ban war criminals from the Olympics.”

With the report focusing on crimes against international law recorded between 2011 to 2013 at the University, the extent of any of the NUSS’s current and ongoing actions against students in service to the Assad regime has not yet been revealed.

The SBC report, however, highlighted the fact that in January this year – after almost six decades since its establishment in 1966 – Syria’s Law No. 1 of 2024 granted the NUSS full financial and institutional independence from the Baath Party and government, formally breaking the official tie between the student body and the security services.

Critics have argued, though, that the reform is only an attempt to polish the Syrian regime’s image after thirteen years of conflict and international isolation, as well as to avoid international sanctions on the student body and its members, and that it will not truly permit the NUSS’s independence or students’ academic freedom.

READ: Assad regime continues to torture, disappear detainees: UN