We have contacted many former detainees of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, "al-Nusra Front." They all seemed intimidated, terrified, and unwilling to talk about their experience. We contacted many of them and some agreed to include their experiences in our investigative report.
We have contacted all the former detainees who were subject to various methods of psychological and physical torture in the prisons of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in northern Syria, particularly “al-Aqab Prison,” “Harem Central Prison,” “Idlib Central Prison,” “Marian,” “Jabala,” and “Women’s Prison al-Omniet, in Idlib” as well as local detention centers "Nadhara" in Idlib countryside. None of them received any consultation from a lawyer or legal specialist; of course, they were not informed of any legal procedures that they could resort to during their detention by al-Nusra, and the majority of them were not allowed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to meet their relatives or communicate with the outside world during their detention.
The former detainees that we have contacted are currently residing in different regions in Idlib, Turkey and Europe. Their real names were not revealed and we used fake names in this investigation due to security considerations. Their audio testimonials were modified through audio montage operations, or their voices were replaced for safety reasons.
This investigation was carried out for the Rozana Media Foundation, as part of the "Syria In-Depth" project, in cooperation with the Guardian Foundation and the Danish IMS.
"Al-Nusra Front" or the "Jabhat Fath al-Sham," which later became "Hayat Tahrir al-Sham," are the multiple names of one extremist organization founded in 2011. The United States declared it a “terrorist organization” in 2012, followed by a 2013 United Nations Security Council declaration. In mid-2016, the leader of al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, changed the name of "al-Nusra Front" group to the "Jabhat Fath al-Sham."
The organization was involved in committing war crimes in various areas of Syria, such as Deir al-Zour and Adra in Damascus countryside, Idlib and Homs, in addition to mass liquidation of civilians and mass executions. Al-Nusra claimed responsibility for mass graves and the kidnapping of civilians as hostages, including women and children. Human Rights Watch condemned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and considered arresting people without fair trials and holding them in prison as a war crime. The organization in question owns many prisons and detention centers, known for daily violations.
Detention .. Blindfolded.. You are going to die!
"They threw me in the truck. It was small, narrow and frightening. I stayed there and didn’t know the destination. After a while, they stopped and threw me into a white minibus to complete the second part of the trip ..When I arrived, someone greeted me: Welcome, welcome ... welcome to the prison of “al-Aqab.” Also, Kamel described the details of his arrest by members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, "al-Nusra Front."
According to them, the young man, "16-year-old" was accused of collaborating with US intelligence, specifically with the FBI "US Federal Bureau of Investigation." Later, the young man knew that “al-Nusra Front” had heard that he was working for the AFB, which is the “French News Agency”. Thus, they got confused between the two, that’s why they have had to arrest him and charge him with dealing with foreign intelligence services.
According to Kamel, they were ten or fifteen people who broke the door of the house and then the door of his room and arrested him. While thirty or forty masked people were outside the house. He could see them before closing his eyes while they were putting him in the trunk of the car. "Kamel" accused of collaborating with American Intelligence, and during his prison, he moved between “Al-Aqab prison”, “Marian” and “Jabala.”
The charges of other people we met include leaking information to the Syrian regime, or "media" coverage against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or communicating with for foreign countries, or the Islamic State "ISIS".
The organization “Syrians for Truth and Justice”, said in a report issued in the middle of last year, that the arrest of any journalist or a citizen journalist in areas which are subject to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is applied either by a notification letter or by checking the security office in the region. In fact, the security apparatus sends a paper to review the "al-Maasara checkpoint", which is affiliated to "al-Aqab" prison or the Jisr al-Shughur court. The second way is immediate arrest or by masked people scattered on the external roads.
Muhammad al-Salloum lost his brother in the al-Nusra Front prisons. He told us that he could not communicate with his brother, Samer al-Salloum, throughout the period of his detention from 2017 until he was informed by his death in prison, and that his wife and children could not see him or visit him even once.
Samer Al-Ali, who was detained for four months, said that his family did not know whether he was alive or dead for two months during his detention, and that the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham did not recognize his arrest. “My family used to communicate with the Follow-up Center affiliated to the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which used to receive some stuff from them and deliver it to me,” he added.
As for Abd al-Rahim, a young man who was arrested for his media activity and detained in the Harim Central Prison, he asserted: “All the detainees I met in Harem Prison were not visited by their families, despite being jailed for months and years.” He added that he was blindfolded the whole time; "they only took the blindfold off when I was in solitary confinement.”
Sahar, who was arrested at a checkpoint on the road and detained for one day in a “temporary detention” center of the HTS in Idlib countryside, accompanied by 11 men and another woman, insisted that she was not beaten, but “the elements terrified us, me and another woman.”
She said that they called her husband screaming and accused him of being an officer in the Syrian regime’s army, which was not true at all. Sahar added that they did not provide her with food during her detention, and that they released her and the woman later in the same day.
Hala, 40, told us that she remained for 18 days in the female officers’ jail, a former security center that the Syrian regime used under the name “Political Security” previously. “While taking me to the jail, the officers bothered me and were screaming; they put a black cloth over my head so that I could not know where I was going,” said Hala. She was charged with dealing with the Syrian regime due to her work as a housemaid in areas controlled by the Syrian regime forces in Idlib city.
Hala added: “They dumped me in a cell for women, with many imprisoned women, including those who had been sentenced to 9 months and 4 or 5 months in prison. Although I was not beaten, I stayed in prison for 18 days, and I was humiliated and insulted.”
Food is served in various ways in the HTS prisons in Idlib. According to the testimonies we obtained, starvation is used as a tool to pressure the detainees in most cases, and the provision of food is often accompanied by humiliations, beatings and screaming. Abdul Rahim says: “It is not the type of food that matters, but the way it is served. They served us food in metal bowls used for animals, and they put a bowl for about twenty people; we had to eat with our hands," explained Abdul Rahim.
Abdul Rahim added that the jailer used to inform them that they had less than one minute to finish their meal, and before the minute ended, the jailers pulled the bowls and plates.
The food types are basically rice and bulgur. While the types are slightly better than Idlib’s central prison, where there are dining areas, they are worse in secret prisons and temporary detention points, such as Al-Aqab, Marayan and Jbala.
The witnesses said that the detainees held by the regime’s prisoners receive better food and better care than the local prisoners, but we were unable to meet with any of the Syrian regime’s prisoners who were arrested by the HTS to make sure that the conditions of detention were different for them.
Points, prisons and detention centers
The HTS “al-Nusra Front” holds detainees in official prisons, secret prisons, or small temporary detention centers, which they call “Nadhara.” The number of prisons and detention points cannot be completely counted, for reasons related to the secrecy of some prisons, their use as temporary detaining centers, or the moving of headquarters, since the HTS gathers detainees in prisons that they open temporarily, and it applies identical names to more than one prison, for camouflage.
The most famous and most controversial of the HTS prisons is al-Aqab Prison. According to the information we got, the main al-Aqab Prison is located in the Harshaya area between the cities of “Kafr Nabl” and “Al-Barah” in Idlib countryside. There are also two other prisons called al-Aqab; one on the road to "Kansafra" and the other near "Khan Sheikhoun" in Idlib countryside.
Former detainees say that the main and largest “al-Aqab prison,” located in the bush of Kafr Nabl, was a cave inside the mountain in the past, and it can be reached via an unpaved agricultural road that has been dug, developed and divided. The Cavern of “al-Aqab” is located under the ground, and you must go down 13 steps from street to reach it.
A 360-degree graphics clip. It was implemented based on testimonies of former detainees in the punishment prison
According to the former detainees, whom we obtained their testimonies, there are three group cells in the punishment prison. Kamel said that while he was in detention, two of the three cells were reserved for local prisoners, while the prison administration assigned the third collective cell to the “Alawite prisoners,” according to what the prisoners call the hostage group in the cell.
There are 12 solitaries in “al-Aqab Prison” in which three detainees are often held together, while there are very small solitaries that are one meter by one meter long and one meter high, so the detainee cannot stand inside them. He cannot even sit easily because of its extreme tightness, and is known as “the doghouse.”
Kamel spoke about the investigation room in the aforementioned prison: “There is one investigation room. The investigator in the room gives the impression that he has higher powers than the rest, as he was giving orders to the rest.”
Torture and death threat at every moment
Detainees in prisons or temporary detention points, "Nadhara," are subjected to repeated mistreatment and torture. According to the testimonies we obtained, torture aims to extract confessions from detainees, or intimidate them as part of the punishment imposed on them.
The HTS elements, “Al-Nusra,” use the majority of the known torture methods in Syrian intelligence prisons, such as beating, hands or feet hanging, and electrocution, in addition to other psychological and physical methods.
The former detainees we met said that they were forced to open their own accounts on Social media, and read their private messages on chat applications such as WhatsApp, Messenger, etc… and that the HTS elements print screen of activists' publications to use them against the activists on social media websites.
The HTS also recorded the detainees’ statements after extracting confessions from them under torture and posting them on social media, as happened with the activist Samer al-Salloum. Muhammad al-Salloum, Samer’s brother, told us that Samer confessed in the recording on fabricated charges that he was forced to tell after he was severely tortured. The recorded confessions ranged from Muhammad al-Salloum's dealings with the Russian “Khmeimim Air Base,” and forming an assassination cell belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to assassinating foreign fighters from al-Nusra Front. Muhammad al-Salloum said that former detainees who were in prison with his brother told him that members of the HTS had killed him a few days after the fabricated confession.
Witnesses said that beatings and torture often took place overnight, and the detainee remains blindfolded throughout the investigation. Meanwhile, the agents were shooting detainees during torture and recording all what was going on. Sometimes they used to show the pictures to detainees, while talking about the way of archiving these pictures in front of them. "Kamel" said they were shooting the detainees while they were holding boards which contain their own numbers in al-Aqab Prison.
The following list provides the most prominent methods of torture used in HTS's prisons:
Electrocution and burning:
Electric shock tools and electrical current are directed against different parts of the body or particularly at sensitive parts, in addition to burning with cigarette butts, or candles.
Abdul Rahman told us in his speech that agents put hot liquid on his toes for hours as a method of torturing through burning.
Covering the face with a cloth bag that is often dirty, severely obstructing breathing, as well as being irritated by bad odors, which is both a psychological and a physical intimidation.
Torture using light:
The prisoner is placed in an illuminated cell with strong white light "projector." More than one light may be used in the cell, preventing the prisoner from sleeping or even being able to open his eyes. One witness described this method as "white torture" because, as he was watching a white color all the time, when he closed his eyes or tried to open them. It is important to mention that torture through light makes a major psychological pressure on the prisoner.
Threat, intimidation, starvation and sleep prevention:
Methods of psychological and physical torture that lead to the permanent collapse of the detainee. Most of the former detainees we met said that they had experienced at least one of the above-mentioned types of torture. The members of the HTS threaten the detainees with their personal or their relatives’ safety, especially their wives, children and brothers, preventing them from eating for long hours, giving them a very short time to eat and forcing them to listen to the screams of other detainees while they are being tortured.
A metal box opened from the top, and the detainee is put inside of it under the hot sun in the summer. This is often done in the prison yard, and according to detainees who have experienced this, what is called "coffin" creates a feeling of suffocation and extreme fear in the prison, as well as the possibility of a shock due to the extreme heat and the lack of oxygen.
Abdul Rahim said, in his detailed testimony describing "the coffin," that they put him standing in the open prison yard under the burning sun inside the narrow metal box "the coffin," and that he felt burned and very suffocated till "I fell with the coffin on the ground".
Listen to 'Abdul Rahim' testimony about the coffin
Thousands of dollars for mediators:
There are mediators who work between prison administrations and the detainees' families, who ask for money for the release of the prisoners or for information about the prisoner. Each charge has a financial sum that is required, which is commensurate with the seriousness of the charge.
Abu Islam Motaba is known among civilians in the area as "Emir" of the "follow-up" group, and this group works within the HTS as a mediator between it and the detainees or their families, and has powers of investigation and torture as well.
"Mohammed al-Salloum" said in his interview that his family received an offer from people who asked for 5,000 dollars to get him out. But they returned the amount after several days, apologizing for the failure of the mediation process, and said that another mediator asked for 25,000 dollars later, but the family did not have the sum at that time. Thus, they asked the mediators to wait till they sell Samer's house and afford the money, but “they told us later that Samer was martyred.”
The prisons of the HTS (al-Nusra Front) remain without any legal supervision, and the worst forms of torture, humiliation and murder are practiced, without mentioning the inhuman detention conditions of thousands of prisoners who are held in places that are not suitable for human habitation, without any trials or controls. Just as detainees in the Syrian regime's prisons in the regime's areas suffer from torture, repression and degrading living conditions of their human rights according to dozens of reports submitted by international human rights organizations, the HTS (al-Nusra Front) does the same thing with detainees in the areas it controls. It seeks to keep Syrian civilians stuck under dictatorships that pressure and kill them every day amid a devastating war, and in various other ways.