Amnesty International says Syrians who have been detained during the yearlong uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule have been subjected to "systematic torture" by regime forces that amounts to a crime against humanity.
In a new report, the international rights watchdog says the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible prosecution of Assad-regime officials.
The report was released as Syrian government forces were reported on March 14 to have bombarded the southern city of Deraa with antiaircraft fire. Forces loyal to the government have also reportedly intensified an assault in the northern province of Idlib.
Opposition activists claim troops have killed dozens of people in Idlib. Armed rebels claim to have hit back, killing some 22 soldiers in ambushes.
The claims cannot be independently verified due to reporting restrictions.
On the diplomatic front, international mediator Kofi Annan has confirmed he received a response from Assad's government after making "concrete" proposals to Damascus about how to bring an end to the country's crisis. A statement from a spokesman for Annan, the joint United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria, says he "has questions and is seeking answers" to Assad's response.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 14 criticized Assad for a "big delay" in implementing reforms. Lavrov accused Assad of "inertia" and said Moscow's controversial policy on Syria was not aimed at defending Assad's regime. But Lavrov also offered little hint of an immediate shift in Russia's policy of equally blaming violence in Syria on opposition fighters and government forces.
Amnesty International says its report -- titled "'I Wanted to Die': Syria's Torture Survivors Speak Out" -- was based on interviews and testimonies from dozens of Syrians who have fled the conflict to neighboring Jordan.
The report details 31 alleged methods of torture or other ill treatment that have been inflicted on Syrians -- including severe beatings, sexual violence, exposure to excessive cold, electric shock, and prolonged solitary confinement.
The report says former detainees told Amnesty International that after they arrived at detention centers, they were forced to endure "prolonged and repeated beatings with fists and various instruments including sticks, riffle butts, and electric cables, as well as kicks." They said the beatings are usually accompanied by insults and other verbal abuse.
According to the former detainees' accounts, they were kept in cramped cells, with severely restricted access to a toilet or bathroom.
The former detainees said rape and ill treatment of a sexual nature was one of the widespread methods used in Syrian detention centers and prisons.
Several of those interviewed in Jordan said it was common to be hit in the genital region with truncheons. In one case, a former detainee told Amnesty International that he was forced to watch as a male detainee was raped in front of him. Another said his cellmate had been raped with a metal skewer.
The report says torture methods employed by government forces and pro-government armed gangs also included stubbing out cigarettes on prisoners' bodies, pulling their hair, beating them on the soles of the feet, threatening them with execution, and denigrating the victim's religious beliefs.
Neil Sammonds, the lead author of the report said the scale of "abuse and the horror of some of the methods of torture is a return to the horrible days of the 1980's, when in fact it was Bashar al-Assad's father who was in power."
"The fact that it happened across the country and across the security agencies and the armed forces leads one to the assumption that the regime is directing and knows what's going on and is encouraging its guards and security officers to do this," Sammonds said.
The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died and some 230,000 Syrians have fled their homes in the past year of conflict in the Middle Eastern nation.
With Reuters and AFP reporting