x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Syrian regime tortured women prisoners, freed female activist says

Syria's jails are believed to house about 35,000 activists and rights groups have said that detainees have faced systematic torture.

BEIRUT // Alaa Morelli, an opposition activist, escaped the worst in Syrian prisons but to secure her freedom she lied during a forced "confession" on state television and said the uprising was the work of foreigners.

A student of Latakia university, which is on Syria's Mediterranean coastline, Ms Morelli, 23, was arrested on June 12 last year just after sitting one of her second-year exams.

A fellow student reported her for making and distributing pamphlets, which called on Latakia residents to protest against the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

"I came out of my exam and saw members of the security forces standing there with a student. He pointed me out to them and they detained me," she said.

Ms Morelli spent more than two months in detention and was constantly moved between prisons.

"I saw horrible things," she said with a voice that wavered.

"The guards kept threatening me with solitary confinement and gave me very hard psychological treatment. But other girls suffered much worse.

"I saw a cell packed with some 40 women, all naked, blindfolded and handcuffed. They weren't allowed to sit, they could only stand."

Syria's jails are believed to house about 35,000 activists and rights groups have said that detainees have faced systematic torture.

Ms Morelli said she believed she was spared the worst because she admitted her "crimes" on television.

Syria's state television regularly airs "confessions" of detained citizens accused of working or fighting for the opposition.

Ms Morelli's "confession" was broadcast for weeks. It showed her looking serious and with her head wrapped in an austere white veil.

Ms Morelli told viewers she had agreed to report fabricated news of anti-regime demonstrations and crackdowns on dissidents for the pan-Arab TV station Al Jazeera, using a pseudonym.

The Syrian regime has refused to admit the existence of a popular movement against Mr Al Assad's rule and used the term "terrorists" as a blanket designation for the opposition.

The regime had also blamed foreign states for sparking violence.

"What I was saying [on Al Jazeera] was not true. There was nothing happening in Latakia. People were going about their daily lives," Ms Morelli said in her televised confession in which she also gave details of rebels who were smuggling in satellite equipment for activists.

The goal of anti-regime activists' she said through tears in her televised confession was to divide the country and to turn international public opinion against Syria. "They made Syria look like a pool of blood, when there was nothing happening here," she said.

She also confessed to having participated in "spilling the blood of Syrians".

Dissidents launched a campaign for her release, which was secured through a prisoner exchange.

"Eventually, it was thanks to a [rebel] Free Syrian Army brigade that another girl and I got out," she said. "They arranged a prisoner exchange for several soldiers in return for us."

The prisoner exchange introduced her to her husband, Said Tarbush, the rebel commander of the Ahrar Jable battalion that negotiated the deal.

Ms Morelli married Mr Tarbush and moved with him to Turkey.

"Any girl in my shoes would have done the same. He saved my life, and showed me the real meaning of love," she said.

The heavily bearded Mr Tarbush speaks in a deep voice and frequently uses Islamic phrases. He appeared hardened by months of fighting the army in the countryside of Latakia, most of which is in regime control.

He said he is extremely proud of his wife. "Can't you see how strong she is?" he said with a smile.

Ms Morelli dreams of finishing her studies and gaining a degree in history. "I want to go back to Latakia some day, this time as a teacher," she said.

At present, Ms Morelli and a group of friends raise funds in Turkey and make short trips into Syria through rebel-held border posts. They deliver food and basic goods to families forced to flee their homes.

She said about US$1,000 [Dh3,670] is raised at a time and they then use that money to buy provisions, which they take into the Aleppo or Idlib provinces in northern Syria where tens of thousands have been displaced by the fighting.

"It is not enough, but it's better than nothing," Ms Morelli said. "Only we young people can help Syria, because in the world's eyes, we're just numbers."