The global campaign group Human Rights Watch has accused the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad of committing a crime against humanity through what it calls a state-sanctioned policy of torture. In a new report
, the group documents torture methods including electrocution, the pulling of fingernails, and prolonged beatings.
Irina Lagunina of RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's deputy director of its Middle East and North Africa division, about the report's findings.
RFE/RL: There were 200 interviews that Human Rights Watch put together for this report. How did you check the information that was presented by the interviewees and what was the evidence that struck you most?
These interviews have been conducted over the past year, many of them in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, but also in northern Syria. Many of the interviewees were people who were themselves detained or they were defectors who had worked in these detention centers.
The most compelling parts of the interviews were really the level of the detail that these former detainees had of their torture at the places they spent time in. But also, many of them still bore the signs of torture, be it on their backs, on their bodies. This would be really torture that even two or three months later you could still the signs of.
All the detention facilities which are included in the report, which are 27, are detention facilities where we interviewed separately, and in different places, different people who have been to these centers, who were able to corroborate the information. [Detention] centers where we only had one or two interviews and could not confirm [the information], we did not include [in the report].
WATCH: Syria's Torture Centers Revealed (HRW video)
RFE/RL: What is the age range of those people who you witnessed to be tortured and what is their political affiliation?
The majority of people who have been detained and tortured are usually between 18 and 35, but at the same time we have interviewed and documented the detention and torture of children, some as young as 11, and the elderly as well -- there was one man who was 74 and who was beaten and tortured in detention. And while most were men, there were also a number of women whom we have interviewed.
Most of those people were those who participated in protests against the government. Some have been accused of supporting logistically the protesters, mainly by printing flyers, organizing, or giving money to the opposition, and some may have been as well suspected of being fighters.
For the first nine months, the overwhelming number of the [detained] people were actually peaceful protesters and peaceful activists. A lot of them, for example, may have also been seen online in some information footage. There were additionally targeted arrests because the internal security service [collected] the names of the people who were at the protests, who called meetings, who were on a university campus and told their friends to raise the opposition flag on campus. But in parallel to that we saw a lot of men, particularly men between 18 and 35, who were simply rounded up when security forced entered areas that were known to be supportive of the antigovernment movement.
RFE/RL: How high does this hierarchy of those responsible for torture in Syria go, to your knowledge?
What we've done in this report is based on evidence, a lot of it, frankly, collected from defectors who were able to name some of the high-ranking generals who oversee some of these facilities. Where do we go higher than that? We don't have specific names. We don't have specific documentary evidence. But one thing is clear: This is not the act of one or two rogue generals.
We've documented a network of 27 detention facilities all across the country, in multiple cities, and across multiple security agencies that are doing it. So for us, this is pretty compelling evidence, an indication that this is a state-sanctioned policy which indicates, at that point, the commission of a crime against humanity.
RFE/RL: You suggested that this case should be referred to the International Criminal Court. With the position that Russia is now taking, it seems highly unlikely that the Security Council will do it. Are there any means to bring those responsible to justice?
For us, the main worry at this stage would be a referral to the International Criminal Court. It's true that today Russia is opposing it. So one argument we'll be making to Russia is -- they accuse and we agree that some of the opposition groups have also committed grave violations.
The only way to bring anyone responsible on either side to accountability is to refer it to the International Criminal Court. And if Russia is comfortable and confident that its ally, President Bashar al-Assad and his government, is not committing grave crimes against humanity, then they have nothing to fear by referring the case to the International Criminal Court. In the absence of a referral, there, sort of, are two ways to continue to push for accountability.
One way is to push for access for the UN-mandated commission of inquiry applied by the Human Rights Council. They are not an adjudicate body. They are not a court, but they can collect the evidence that, one day, can be used. The second way is to push for countries with universal jurisdiction laws -- many European countries, for example -- to pursue any Syrian official who may be visiting their territory in the future.
Ultimately, we hope that, one day, if there is a new government in Syria, a transitional government or new form of government, [it] will give jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court to go in and investigate and hold those responsible.