Cultural events in Syrian prisons: The regime’s attempt to polish its image
In the same geographical spot, the landscape and fate differ. In the Syrian prisons, which are divided into two types, namely: prisons for political detainees and others for civil prisoners, the regime makes frantic efforts to draw the public’s attention to some of the artistic and cultural activities carried out by some inmates, aiming to cover up the darkness of the other bloody scene, which is dominated by death, torture and genocide.
“Rehabilitation institutions that sponsor talents and arts”, in such way, the regime attempted to promote its civil prisons, which, despite being the least dangerous prisons, include thousands of inmates who have been unjustly detained, subjected to unfair trials and many human rights violations, according to Amnesty International.
The Syrian Ministry of Interior has recently organized activities which included prisoners the authorities prefer to call “guests”. The Syrian regime promoted through official media outlets that these activities “helped the inmates to employ their energies into positive paths in order to become active citizens in their communities.” According to the president of the Union of Arab Writers in Syria, Riad Saleh, “the restrictive space of prisons, as normal people think, is, in fact, a space for creativity, art, and beauty.”
On the other side, there are military prisons, which are disreputably known to be stage for terrible events. As it is not a secret anymore, many dissidents from the Syrian regime revealed the atrocities taking place in these detention facilities, most notably “Caesar”, who leaked thousands of pictures. The captions were of detainees who died under torture and the massacres, murders, and extrajudicial executions committed against them. After the leaks took place, many human rights organizations nicknamed the regime’s detention centers as “human slaughterhouses” and “human milling factories”.
So, has the Syrian regime been able to polish its image through these activities? Has it managed to distract the public opinion in Syria and worldwide away from the atrocities committed in the military prisons?
Previous activities highlighted again
Nour al-Khatib, head of the detainees’ section at the Syrian Network for Human Rights told Enab Baladi that “these activities used to be carried out before the Syrian revolution by the prison-related support organizations. However, the regime’s media has been focusing on such activities recently.”
Al-Khatib added that the central prisons occasionally authorizes some activities to be undergone by inmates, who have been charged for various offenses, usually criminal ones; in addition to allowing a limited participation of political prisoners from time to time.
She pointed out that the regime is trying a maneuver to hide what is going on inside the security branches and military prisons, i.e. the violations and scenes of brutal torture committed against the detainees, by increasingly focusing on these events which have been taking place since 2011 and before.
Al-Khatib expressed her belief that these activities are not capable of influencing the public opinion, as systematic forced disappearances, executions and torture amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed against inmates. These violations cannot be overlooked by all means.
Political prisoners are denied cultural activities
Bassam al-Ahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), focused on the fundamental difference between the central civil prisons such as As-Suwayda, Adra and Hama prisons, where most of the detainees are criminals who committed looting, stealing and others offences, and the security branches where political prisoners are detained. He pointed out that these cultural events, when conducted, are often attended by those arrested on criminal charges.
Al-Ahmad added that when he was detained in Adra prison, he noted that a large number of political prisoners were deprived of many advantages obtained by criminal offenders.
He stressed that while criminal offenders are entitled to attend such events, political prisoners are often excluded even from tutoring and training sessions, in addition to other activities. He indicated that the regime is promoting a particular image of the detention facilities and exploiting this propaganda to serve its interests. However, in reality the situation is totally different. In fact, behind these pretences, repressive practices of torture and deprivation are being committed against political prisoners in the majority of prisons.
An attempt to erase and distort facts
Syrian activist Hanan Halimah noted that since the beginning of the revolution in Syria, the regime has been distorting the facts that occur on a daily basis, which unfortunately included the detainees’ situation in prisons. These detainees are introduced by the regime as the party willing to destroy Syria
She added that with all the stories of torture and murder taking place in the regime’s prisons, a very small part of the story reaches the Syrian people and those concerned with the Syrian file. Some think that the Syrian prisons are meant for correctional and rehabilitative reasons by means of highlighting artistic and cultural activities.
She continued: “Unfortunately, some inmates are talking from inside those detention facilities about the importance of these activities and how it helped them make good use of their time and develop their talents.”
These testimonies may be understood by some actors working on the detainees’ file as a step towards reform and change.
Halimah noticed, through her work on the file of detainees with some women survivors and the dialogue she conducted with some international bodies, that many of them are unaware of the secret prisons and the detention centers of the security branches, and the murders committed there.
Covering up abuses against women in prisons
Journalist and human rights activist, Suad Khbiya, confirmed that the regime’s efforts to polish and embellish its image in public will not work after all the scandals that have been revealed in prisons and the horrific leaks showing pictures of mistreated and tortured detainees. This confirmed news has been published and became accessible to the world.
Khbiya focused on the situation of women in the prisons of the regime which tries, through highlighting the activities, handicrafts, and exhibitions carried out in some prisons, to cover up the violations committed against them. The regime usually uses women and arrests them instead of men, in order to rape them and extort their connections and families.
In this way, the regime tried to convey the idea that what is said about prisons and ill-treatment was wrong and unrealistic, and thus provided a material to help its media and voices, which work to polish its image so that they have available material to be presented for public opinion.
The regime exploitation of the recalcitrance in Hama Prison
Khbiya expressed her belief that the disobedience cases that occurred in Hama Central Prison were within this framework.
The regime can usually suppress the wanted prisoners whether in its apparent central prisons, or even the hidden and secret prisons, which constitute the vast majority. However, in light of what happened in Hama Prison of great media focus on the detainees’ resistance and allowing them to pass many messages from inside the prison, the regime tried to deny the opposition’s version that these prisons are hidden and secret and no one knows anything about them. It therefore left the detainees broadcast messages from inside the prisons and carry out various activities.
Khbiya added that, through this system, the regime was trying to convey the idea that, like any democratic regime, it acquiesced to the demands and released the detainees. This is part of the image-improving policy through which the regime tries to deceive international public opinion and convince the Syrian public at least that actually there is no central issue called the detainees issue and there are no tens of thousands of detainees held in prisons today whose places of detention, fate, or any issue related to them are unknown.
An attempt to cover up the poor living conditions
For his part, the Executive Director of “Caesar” Files Group, lawyer Ibrahim al-Kacem stressed that the Syrian regime tried by various means to reestablish itself as capable of ruling Syria again, taking advantage of its military progress on the ground, using all illegal weapons, including chemical weapons. However, it did not provide any means to cover its crimes and the poor living conditions in areas under its military control with its allies.
He expressed his opinion and said that all these activities and desperate attempts cannot blur the facts and proven truths about the regime’s systematic policy of using violence against its citizens in the worst forms, especially detainees and women detainees. A number of celebrations and exhibitions inside the central prisons of the Ministry of Interior (Damascus, Homs, As-Suwayda…) cannot improve or distort the truth that is confirmed by all. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this brutality is the victims’ photos leaked by army photographer “Caesar”.
Poor conditions in civil prisons
Al-Kacem pointed out that under Decree No. 1222 of the prison system and its subsequent amendments, prisons must be affiliated to the Ministry of the Interior, not the Ministry of Justice, which in itself puts prisoners at risk of torture, as well as poor conditions in civil prisons, since the food served does not provide sufficient nutritional value to maintain health and its quality is very low. Preparing food and serving it properly is considered of the luxuries that cannot be provided inside the prisons of the Syrian regime.
As for the prisoners’ dormitories, it is not possible to talk about the provision of a private bed for each prisoner. Heating is not provided during the winter. Medical treatment is almost formal, except in rare situations where patients are sent in emergency cases to hospitals.
In addition to this, families find difficulties in visiting prisoners and education is not available for those who wish to continue their studies. Also, some of the police officers in these prisons exercise power against the prisoners either directly or by directing some criminal prisoners to pressure the political prisoners.
Al-Kacem pointed out that this is generally the situation of all prisons, which would become worse if the prisoner was detained on the background of his involvement in the Syrian revolution after 2011.
Al-Kacem talked about the situation of women prisoners and detainees in women’s prison in Damascus countryside (Adra), describing it as very bad. Most women sleep on the floor. There is lack of heating, blankets and food, which is of poor quality. In addition, the women prisoners are exposed to various forms of sexual violence, especially since most of the prison supervisors are male police officers.
As for the health situation, women suffer from the lack of their private needs, and the situation is worse if the detainee or prisoner is pregnant or a mother of a child detained with her. Several births were documented inside the women’s prison without the most basic conditions of health and hygiene, which resulted in the death of babies or abortion of women.
In addition, there were cases of disappearances from inside prisons, as happened with a number of detainees, such as Basil Khartabil from male Adra prison, and Faten Rajab, Sara al-Alaw and other women from the women’s prison.
Al-Kacem pointed out that this constant danger inside the prisons led the detainees in the prisons of Hama, Homs, and As-Suwayda to declare their sit-in several times to preserve their lives, and out of fear of taking them to an unknown fate.
Al-Kacem pointed out that the situation in the detention centers of security branches is much worse at all levels, including food, dormitories, health, visits, and education, as the minimum of any of these rights is not available.