x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Prisons harden Syrian dissent

Punishing conditions push inmates to take up arms against the regime after they are released from jail

DAMASCUS // Syrian prisons have become incubators for the armed rebellion to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad and take revenge on security forces, say former detainees, community leaders and activists.

Instead of deterring protesters, jail - often in extremely brutal conditions - hardens their will to topple Syria's autocratic regime, regardless of the cost.

Even if that means civil war.

Widespread violence by security forces, including torture - documented by human-rights groups and the United Nations but denied by the Syrian authorities - has convinced growing numbers within the opposition that armed resistance is the only choice, activists say.

A leading protest organiser, freed in January after six months in custody in Damascus, described appalling conditions in a makeshift detention centre.

Prisoners are humiliated and tortured by guards. Some are sexually abused. The abuses sparked a riot recently. Infested with lice, prisoners wear the clothes they were arrested in throughout their detention, he said.

"I assure you that not one of us, not one, ever said 'Why did I do this?', none of us ever regretted protesting," he said. "People talked about revenge, about the next demonstration they would take part in."

Prisoners whisper among themselves about what they would do if released, he said. Ahead of dreams of political asylum abroad or even a change of clothes, they speak only of the revolt.

"Those who were committed to a peaceful uprising would say, 'When I get out I'll have a coffee and a cigarette then go out to demonstrate'," he said.

"But more than half decided to join the Free Syrian Army - a growing group of thousands of defectors from the security forces.

"They say, 'I'll go and visit my family, and then I'll get a rifle and go and fight until the regime has fallen or I'm dead'."

An influential tribal leader from the eastern desert province of Deir Ezzor said many prisoners entered as peaceful protesters but come out as armed rebels.

"The majority of prisoners say when they get out there will be no more peaceful demonstrations, he said the tribal leader, whose son has been repeatedly detained since the uprising began in March.

"They will fight. They have been tortured and humiliated and they will fight."

The Free Syrian Army leadership lives in a refugee camp in Turkey, protected by the Turkish military. They are short of money and arms, but have tens of thousands of members, their leadership told The National.

An advocate of unarmed revolution, the tribal leader said he and other moderates had lost the battle to try to prevent demonstrators using guns.

"The young people are released and they come to me and say, 'You had your peaceful politics and where did it lead us?'," he said.

Anecdotally at least, this has been repeated across the country, especially in areas hit by the heaviest military assaults, among them Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idleb, Deir Ezzor and the outskirts of Damascus.

While the uprising has largely comprised peaceful protests demanding political reforms, there has been a growing armed element with rebel forces increasingly attacking security units and guarding demonstrators.

Syrian officials, who insist this is a foreign-backed terrorist uprising, say 2,000 of their forces have been killed since March. Human rights groups say more than 7,000 civilians and defecting soldiers have been killed.

Another dissident, recently detained for a few days after a raid on his house in Damascus, said widespread abuse by government security units had bred a new generation of radicals.

In the 1980s, he volunteered with Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon to fight the invading Israelis. Believing their cause just, he was surprised to find other fighters were not all political idealists fighting out of principle, but that some were "criminals and mercenaries".

A similar pattern was now emerging in Syria, he said.

"The regime has pushed moderates and liberals to take up weapons and once you pick up a rifle it is very hard to put it down," he said.

"Liberals are now finding themselves fighting alongside criminals and killers, they are not natural allies, but there is no way back for them," he said.

Muslim clerics allied with the opposition say more and more young protesters are asking approval to take up arms.

"They come and tell me they are going to fight, and they ask if it is permissible under Islam," said an opposition cleric from Damascus - an advocate of unarmed rebellion.

"I can't tell them 'no'. They have the right to self-defence and most of them have been through such bad situations that they will fight anyway, whatever I say.

"I tell them, 'Do what you must do, and God be with you',"

Human-rights groups and activists say more than 75,000 people have been detained since the uprising began.

Tens of thousands remain in jail despite an amnesty issued by Mr Al Assad last month.

State television routinely airs interviews with prisoners upon their release, in which they repent for protesting and promise not to do so again. Activists say this is pure theatre.

"The prisoners are angry and they will come out of jail and they will fight," said an opposition leader based in Damascus.

"There is nothing that can stop them.

"Each killing, every act of abuse by the security forces creates at least one new [rebel] soldier," the opposition leader said. "The regime is building the army that will help destroy it."