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In Syria, more than 100,000 have entered Assad’s prisons — and never returned

While one phrase of Syria's brutal nine-year civil war may be concluding, the systemic forced disappearance, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of Syrians has not ceased. Amna Nawaz talks to Anne Barnard of the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly The New York Times about the staggering inhumanity of Bashar al-Assad's regime and what accountability, if any, it will face.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The brutal civil war in Syria is now in its ninth year. Hundreds of thousands are dead, millions more displaced or forced out of Syria as refugees.

    Through it all, Bashar al-Assad and his regime survive.

    Amna Nawaz now has a conversation about the extraordinary system of cruelty that has made that possible.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The peaceful protests that spread across Syria as part of the 2011 Arab Spring quickly ran into the already existing prison and torture system in Syria.

    That was part of Bashar al-Assad's cruel inheritance from his father, who ruled the country before him. That system would become an industrial-sized obscenity, pulling in hundreds of thousands of Syrians, forced to suffer in squalor and endure extreme torture. More than 120,000 have been murdered in these prisons by Assad's regime and never returned.

    This was all chronicled in Sunday's New York Times, the result of seven years of work by the paper's former Beirut bureau chief, Anne Barnard. She's now spending a year as the Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and she joins me here now.

    Anne, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Anne Barnard:

    Thank you so much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, this isn't the first time we have seen evidence of this kind of torture or these kinds of killing inside the Assad regime.

    What was it about now that made you want to pull together seven years' worth of reporting into this one?

  • Anne Barnard:

    Well, I think it's the fact that now the general consumer of news about Syria might feel that the war is coming to an end.

    And it certainly is coming to the end of one phase. And now countries are starting to think about normalizing with the government. And there might be an impression that this system would ease up. Maybe the government would be magnanimous in victory, would not feel the need to arrest so many people.

    But, in fact, it is still continuing. It is doubling down on the system. And all indications are that there is no hope any time soon for the people who are still missing in these prisons to surface or for the system to be reformed or changed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You share these stories that are just shocking in their details of inhumanity and the sadism. What did you hear in those accounts from the people who spoke to that lends credibility to the accounts?

  • Anne Barnard:

    Well, we spoke to dozens of people who had been through the system and had survived, as well as to people whose relatives are still missing.

    We were often able to interview multiple people who had spent time in the same facility and could establish patterns about what had been happening. So, we were also able to match those accounts with government memos that had been smuggled out of Syria and are being archived by legal groups.

    And they are — together, they build a picture of this vast system.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What kind of things did they tell you? What was going on inside these prisons?

  • Anne Barnard:

    Well, I haven't spoken to anyone who was in one of them who wasn't tortured. So there is a routine system of torture.

    Some of it is, you know, several standard methods, hanging from wrists, hanging — being put into stress positions inside tires or strapped to boards, and being beaten and electrocuted and sexually humiliated.

    But, sometimes, there were much more sort of baroque torture methods that were really creative in their sadism. One activist protest organizer, Muhannad Ghabbash, told us about a guard who would direct kind of plays for his fellow guards during dinner. They would make the prisoners act like different animals.

    And if they didn't act the way he wanted them to, he would beat them. Some of them had to act as tables or chairs for the people watching. And they were naked while doing this. And other prisoners were nearby hanging from walls and having cold water doused on them in this outdoor courtyard, so that other prisoners could hear what was going on, so this whole scenario, almost like a play.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And there are both men and women being held in these prisons. Are they treated any differently?

  • Anne Barnard:

    Well, both men and women were frequently subjected to sexual assault or sexual humiliation.

    There was a particular double-edged weapon used against women, which is that, in the conservative societies that many of these people came from, a woman who had been detained would often be assumed to have been raped. And whether she was or wasn't, she could be subject to being shunned or even being killed in some cases because of a sense of that she had lost the family's honor.

    It really was just one of the many methods that was used to put pressure on families and communities to raise the price of any kind of civil disobedience to the regime.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You document some of the memos that were leaked out that you got to see, some of the officials who signed off on some of these methods and the deaths.

    Is there any way that Bashar al-Assad doesn't know this is going on?

  • Anne Barnard:

    I don't think so.

    The memos that ordered crackdowns and the memos from intelligence chiefs who asked to be apprised of all deaths inside the prisons, these are people who report directly to Assad through originally a group called the Central Crisis Management Cell, which was formed to deal with the uprising, and then later through the National Security Bureau.

    So there are structures here that report to Assad as the commander in chief.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what about accountability here? That's the next question. Right? What country, what international body has leverage or authority to do anything about this?

  • Anne Barnard:

    Well, the reason that Syria hasn't been referred to the International Criminal Court is because it's not a signatory to the treaty establishing that court. Neither is the United States.

    But the Security Council of the U.N. would have to make that referral. And Russia has vetoed all those attempts, because it's allied with Assad. So that's — that way is blocked. So, instead, universal jurisdiction is a — is a strategy that lawyers are using.

    It means, in some countries, there are universal jurisdiction laws, which allow them to prosecute for war crimes and crimes against humanity, even that don't take place on their soil.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We mentioned the 120,000 number. You report in here that you believe that could be an undercount.

    And you spoke to people who escaped the prisons. But for the people you spoke to, there are so many more who have never been heard from, who never emerged. Tell me about some of the stories you heard from their family members.

  • Anne Barnard:

    Most people who are sucked into the system, their families never hear anything about them.

    So of the 128,000 people who have been counted as having gone into the system and not come out, 80 — more than 80,000 of them are listed as forcibly disappeared, which means that there has been no word of them whatsoever.

    Now, those family members are in limbo, because they do not have any news of these people. And they may be dead. But, without death certificates, the family cannot proceed with inheritance. People can't remarry. Children can't inherit.

    So — and there's just no closure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Anne Barnard, it's a stunning piece of work. Thank you so much for being here today.

  • Anne Barnard:

    Thank you for being interested.

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