Special Reports  ::   A Special Report on Military Security Branch 261 Division of Military Intelligence - Homs


A Special Report on Military Security Branch 261

Division of Military Intelligence - Homs

Violation Documentation Center in Syria

March 2014

 

 

Introduction

In this report, the Violation Documentation Center (“VDC”) draws attention to the conditions suffered by thousands of indiscriminately arrested detainees in various detention centers, especially those arrested by Military Security Branch 261, a subsidiary of the Military Intelligence in Homs. This Branch is one of the cruelest in Syria, to judge from dozens of testimonies and interviews conducted by VDC activists with many of the former detainees from there. These former detainees confirm that Branch 261 is responsible for arresting tens of thousands of people, and for killing thousands via torture and disease.

 

In this report, we try to describe the circumstances suffered by the detainees of Branch 261, drawing on testimonies that are diverse in terms of detainees and their detention periods. The report covers an adequate period of time to clearly present human rights organizations and any other readers with the regime’s crimes and violations.

 

Background

Homs was one of the first Syrian governorates to participate in the revolution, being a participant from the very beginning. However, the demonstrations and protests were brutally cracked down upon by the regime’s forces. These forces used a variety of techniques such as indiscriminate arrest, deliberate shooting and, later on, shelling with all kinds of weaponry which displaced the majority of Homs’ population. There were many reports about Military Security Branch 261 as former detainees told gruesome stories about the suffering they had seen being inflicted on fellow detainees – detainees who included civilians, military men, women and children.

 

Methodology

The report depends on testimonies of former detainees, especially four testimonies that were conducted in various ways – in-person meeting, Skype and telephone. The four testimonies were by the following individuals: a dissident agent from the branch itself; a civilian; a soldier who was arrested by Branch 261 on charges of having dealt with the Free Syrian Army and a female activist from Homs. The female activist is the main witness. She was exposed to many types of torture, from beatings to psychological harassment and violation, which included being forced to perform oral sex on her interrogators.

 

Eyewitnesses

1. Abu Yamen, a dissident sergeant from the branch itself. After finishing his security training, he was transferred to Military Security Branch 261 in Homs in June 2011 and stayed there until July 2012 when he decided to dissent and return to his hometown of Idlib.

 

2. ‘A,A’, a sergeant in the regime’s army who was arrested along with several officers on charges of 'providing logistical support’ for the rebels. He was arrested in May 2012 at al-Touq checkpoint in Bab Amr, Homs, where he was serving. He stayed in Branch 261 for almost 20 days before he was transferred to Branch 293 to stand a trial before the Military Field Court. He was then transferred to Sednaya Prison to be released in April 2013, pursuant to a Presidential Amnesty.

 

3. Layal al-Homsi, a 23 year old detainee from Homs. She was arrested by Military Security Branch 215 in Damascus in November 2012, on charges of helping the displaced civilians from Homs. In that same month she was transferred to Military Security Branch 261 in Homs. She was released in January 2013, in an exchange deal between the regime’s forces and the Free Syrian Army.

 

About Military Security Branch 261 in Homs

This branch is a subsidiary to Military Intelligence in Damascus. It’s located by the train station, next to Political Security Branch, 200 m away from the Electricity Company. It consists of many buildings that were possessed by Military Intelligence in 1981. It contains two detention dormitories. The first, a gathering location where they put the newcomers, is 15m by10m in size and contains more than 10 solitary cells. Due to the large numbers of detainees, they put some detainees in the corridor and on the roofs of the cells.

 

In the other building, there is the interrogation dormitory which is smaller than the first dormitory. It consists of two floors. According to witnesses, the first one is used for interrogation and severe torturing. The second one is a vault of two rooms for officers, and 14 solitary cells. Each cell is 100cm by 170 cm, where 8 detainees are put together. There is also a room measuring 250cm by 250 cm with 40 detainees in it.

 

In this regard, the dissident sergeant Abu Yamen says:

 

“This branch consists of six buildings that were possessed by Military Intelligence years ago. It’s headed by Brigadier General Abulkareem Sallum from al-Qurdaha, Latakia, who speaks coastal dialect. There are also many other officers including: the Vice Brigadier Muhammad Assaf and Colonel Sami Hassan. The later was assigned to the Middle Area of Homs, and was responsible for killing many detainees as he was one of the cruelest in terms of torture. There is, also, Lieutenant Colonel Ghalib from Jableh, Lieutenant Colonel Raed Abboud from Homs, Captain Ribal from Western Homs, and Captain Muhammad from al-Nabik in Damascus Countryside. In addition to many other officers, I remember Assistant Hussam Saqer, Fadi Khalil from Homs, Fadi Mazyaq from Latakia, Ali al- Haj from Aleppo and Ali Naser from Golan.

 

There are about 60 recruits guarding the prisoners, who are detained in many different places within the building. One place, in the vault, is out of bounds to any of the soldiers or low-ranking officers. It is a big vault that was part of the Electricity Company before the building was possessed by the Military Security to be turned into a huge detention center.

 

All the officers reside in the main building, whereas the low-ranking officers reside in houses that belong to the Electricity Company.

 

Torturing During Interrogation

Torture and beating techniques in this branch evolved as the demonstrations expanded more and more in Homs. They moved from beating with truncheons, electric sticks, and whips to even more systematic methods, used on most of detainees of this branch,; such as detaching fingernails, hanging detainees upside down and dipping their heads in very hot water for a few seconds, and electrifying specific body-parts like toes, nails and the head. Alongside these physical methods there was psychological torture. Female detainees fare no better, being subjected to the same methods, as well as psychological ones like constant harassment and being forced to perform oral sex on the guards and the interrogators themselves. They were also threatened with rape unless they confessed the alleged charges.

 

  • Before the Transfer to Branch 261:

 

Layal al-Homsi’s suffering was double in that she was beaten, tortured and interrogated in two different branches. First, she was arrested in Damascus by Branch 215 or ‘Raid Brigade’, a subsidiary of Military Intelligence that is located in Damascus’ Sixth of May Street. Layal described her ordeal to VDC as follows:

 

“Some civilian agents stopped me in al-Baramika neighborhood in Damascus and asked for my ID. Then they asked me to accompany them to the branch, but I refused so they forced me into a ‘Kolba’ (guarding cabin), beat me brutally and took me to the branch which was 10 to 15 minutes away. Once we were there, they took me to the office of the Head of the Branch which was on the second floor. He was short and quite old, with white hair and a thick moustache. He said “I'm the Head of the Branch and still I don’t have such an expensive mobile ’phone; you are ‘Araoria’ (a follower of the Salafi Sheikh Adnan al-Araor)”. After he said that, one of the soldiers in the office started beating me.

Next he asked them to take me to the sixth floor where they put me in a long corridor. There were five rooms on each side of the corridor, three of which are interrogation rooms. There was also a small room filled with hundreds of copies of the Holy Koran and many laptops. The last room on the right was an entrance to a huge dormitory with 13 cells in it. Cell number 13 was for women. Cells from 1 to 11 were for Muslim Brotherhood detainees, all of whom had been there for more than 6 years. There was also a room for male revolutionary detainees, as well as a solitary cell for women in which only one detainee, accused of being a member 'Al-Qaida', was imprisoned.

 

There were four female detainees in the cell in which they put me. The first, called Dou’a, was from Jabal al-Zawia but she had been in the cell since 1 Aug 2012. The second, from al-Sanamain in Daraa, was 37 years old and charged with ‘setting up bombs’. The third detainee, from Damascus, was charged with ‘helping the soldiers who wanted to dissent from the army’. The fourth, 37 years old and from al-Midan in Damascus, was charged with 'dealing with an armed group’.

 

It wasn’t long before a tall interrogator came and took me to some room. He put me on a couch and sat on my right side while another interrogator sat on my left. Both of them started beating me in turn by hitting me on my face, head and back without any question or request. Fifteen minutes later, I felt as if I was a sack of sand. The tall interrogator was from Damascus. He has got white skin, reddish cheeks and black eyebrows with his hair brushed backward. They asked me for my mobile's password and threw me in the corridor along with another female detainee. I had with me three 'flash memory cards’ with the names of the families that I was providing with relief supplies, in addition to an important paper. I had to swallow the cards and the other detainee helped me ‘eat’ half of the paper.


After that, the Head of Prison, whom all detainees called ‘SharshabilGargamel’ arrived. He’s about sixty years old, short, fat, and bald. He’s from Damascus and a graduate of a French University. He took me to the ‘deposits’ room and asked me to take off all my clothes so he could search me. I firmly refused, so he threatened that he would ask all the agents to come and strip me. I refused again so he started insulting me and accusing me of having sexual affairs with members of the Free Syrian Army. After that, he forced me to take off all my clothes, underwear included; I was completely naked.

 

The other interrogator came back after he had seen all my personal photos on my mobile. He asked for the permission of the Head of Prison to interrogate me. He took me to the interrogation room again. I was crying after the humiliating inspection there. He kissed my hand, so I kicked him away, whereupon he tried to hug me but I refused. He brought handcuffs and tied my hands to the chair while I was kneeling on it, my body facing the wall and my legs at a right angle. He started beating me on my feet. He closed the door after I started screaming. He tried to kiss me and I prevented him. He started harassing me again, his body all over mine. That lasted for more than 15 minutes and was accompanied with beating.

 

He opened the door and continued beating me all over my body. This lasted for almost two hours; I felt I was about to die, and then I fell down with foam coming out of my mouth. His cruelty was more intense after harassing me. For the following seven days, I couldn’t walk on my feet; I had to crawl to the bathroom. When they brought me back to the cell, all the female detainees were crying from hearing my screams.

 

Three days later, they interrogated me again. They accused me of planning the al-Qazaz Bombings of 10 May 2012.

 

One day, 20 days into my detention in Branch 215, an interrogator asked the agents to bring me for a new interrogation. He asked me to remove the blindfold and sit near him on the couch, and then asked me whether I was still denying the charge of al-Qazaz Bombings. I said that I had nothing to do with it. I was so surprised when he brought up a file with my very ‘personal photos’. I knew I had deleted them but he had apparently used a retrieval program to get them back. He threatened to publish those photos and the photos of my family and friends. He literally said ‘I swear to God, these photos will be on the net if you don’t confess; you have ’till tomorrow’.


When they brought me back to the cell I immediately fainted out of fear and anger. I had hypertension and many doctors, so the other detainees told me later, checked me and gave me an injection. Two hours later, I regained consciousness and on the next day the interrogator asked me about the charges; I refused, however, to sign the papers so he got furious and showering me with insults. After a while, another interrogator came. He forced me to sign seven papers and took a photo of me which was added to my profile.”

 

B-In Military Security Branch 261, Homs:

With regard to Branch 261 and the systematic torture there, witnesses and former detainees say most of the detainees there, especially those from rebellious neighborhoods, are exposed to brutal torture.

 

According to the dissident sergeant Abu Yamen, all beating and torture orders come directly from the Head of Branch himself; even more shocking is that…

 

“…there have been many field executions in this branch, mostly against those charged with heading armed groups. The executions were carried out by masked members of Labenese Hizbullah who were called different nicknames, mostly ‘Hajjy’ or 'Muhahammad’. These members live away from the Syrian officers”.

 

Detainee ‘A, A’, who was arrested with several officers on charges of supplying the rebels in Bab Amr neighborhood, confirmed that he had been exposed to brutal torture. It was especially bad during his first interrogation, which lasted for several hours. The fact that he was a sergeant in the regular army meant he received twice as much torture. When they hanged him for several hours and beat him all over his body, he confessed to everything he had been charged with. After that, they left him in a solitary cell for 15 days before they transferred him to Branch 293 in Damascus.

 

C-Harassment and Rape in Branch 261:


There are many logical reasons to believe that the harassment and rape committed in this branch is systematic; when Layal complained to one of the officers (rank undetermined) about the constant psychological and sexual harassment she had suffered, he did nothing about it.

 

Rape was not limited to female detainees alone; it also happened during house raids and at other times. According to Abu Yamen, Branch 261 raped a newlywed woman in front of her aunt and uncle after failing to find a ‘wanted’ man through a house raid. When they finished, they stole her jewelry. That was at the beginning of March 2013 in one of the neighborhoods in Homs.

There is another story about a woman who came to the branch asking for her detained husband. Abu Yamen says,

 

“In addition to the prison for male detainees there is another one for women. There, women were exposed to similar torture techniques. One time a woman came to the branch asking for her husband. She was received by Fadi Mazyaq from Latakia. He got her inside the branch and raped her, and he didn't tell her anything about her husband who was inside the branch”.

 

Witnesses describe similar torture techniques being used against both male and female detainees, with females often suffering doubly through harassment and rape. Layal al-Homsi, whose mistreatment by Branch 215 has been described above, says:

 

“At the beginning of December 2012, I had spent more than a month in Branch 215 in Damascus. They summoned me by name at around 9:00 am one morning and took me along with other detainees to the Military Police in al-Qaboun. Due to the bad security situation on the Homs-Damascus Road, they put us for three days in Barza Police Station. Here I met a 40 year old female detainee called Lawahiz who had also been in Branch 215. They transferred me then to Military Branch 261 in Homs, as I know from reading my file.

 

On the fourth day, they transferred me to Homs in a vegetable truck, along with 60 other detainees. During the journey the driver, to whom I was near in the cabin, asked me if they had raped me in Branch 215. I said they had not, but that they had forced me to completely undress during the inspection. He informed me that the officer who inspected me usually does that with women during inspections, and that he had been serving in this branch for about thirty years now. He said “you’d better thank God no one raped you – in my role as driver for the Branches I’ve transferred female detainees between Military Branches in Tartous, Damascus and Homs. Most of these girls have been raped in the branch. One of them once told me five military agents had raped her together in the Military Branch of Tartous” Then he said “God be with you, the Branch we're going to is more horrible.”

 

Once we’d got to Homs they took me to the Military Police Branch (al-Balona). The moment I was there, three agents started beating me severely while others were insulting me. This lasted for an hour or so. Then they put me somewhere that was like a ‘bathroom’ for a while, before taking me to Branch 261 near the Train Station. In this branch, they took my deposits and accused me of being “the sniper” - the Syrian TV had previously presented an interview of a “female detainee” who appeared to confess to sniping at many security agents and soldiers in Homs. I denied this charge firmly, so one of the agents punched me, spat in my face and threatened me with hanging if I didn't confess.

 

They put me in one of several cells. In the corridor, I saw six hanged detainees with torture marks and blood all over their bodies. As for the women’s cell, it was like a bathroom. It was 200 by 150cm in size and contained five female detainees.

One of them was about 38 years old, from Maheen in the countryside near Homs.

 

Another was a pregnant woman was from al-Insha’at neighborhood. She’d been arrested with her husband and two daughters, one aged 3 years and the other 6 months. Her story is very odd - after arresting her with her family, the officer asked the agents ‘why did you bring the little children?’ and ordered them to put the children in the street. She and her husband were tortured and electrified after being sprayed with water. Black spots and torture marks were all over her body. She also lost her embryo. Her name is M. K and her husband's last name is al-Ali. Later on, the Syrian TV broadcast her confessions. Although she wasn’t raped, she was harassed so many times during the detention period.

 

The third detainee was Faten Ghintawi from al-Siteen Street, a widow with one son. She was detained for a tragicomic reason - while searching her mobile at the check point, they had found her sister’s name, 'Arabia' on the phone, and accused her of dealing with al-Arabia Channel. She was beaten and tortured by the “Quaternary Committee”. They used to take her to the Committee in the morning and bring her back in the evening. This committee, which is in charge of “dangerous cases”, consists - according to the activists - of four officers from four different branches who carry out the interrogation together.

 

The fourth detainee was from Bab Amr neighborhood.

 

“On the next day, the integrator asked the guards to prepare me for the interrogation. It was about 6:00 pm when they handcuffed and blindfolded me. They took me to the interrogation room where they hanged me with my feet above the floor and kept torturing me for almost 6 hours. The hanging lasted for three hours after which I fell down and passed out. They woke me up with cold water.”

 

Layal adds that praying was strictly prohibited in the branch.

 

“At the same time of the next day, they took me for another interrogation session. They hanged me again, but for a longer time; I was hanged with my feet above the floor from the evening ’till early morning of the next day. During that time, I passed out for hours. One of the interrogators - about 50 years old, from Tartous and similar in looks to the late president Hafiz al-Assad, except that he was bald, thin and had dark skin - wanted me to confess new charges regarding the recent explosions in al-Insha'at neighborhood.

Ten days into my detention in the branch, they interrogated me again. The interrogator brought a bunch of papers and took my fingerprint. I did what he asked immediately. They took me for one more session at the end of December, handcuffing and blindfolding me before taking me to the office of the Head of Branch. He accused me with new charges! He also asked me to be a spy for the Branch!

 

A few days later we were thirteen female detainees in the cell. They called me again. This time they wanted me to falsely testify that a prisoner called ‘Muhammad al-Sagheer’ from the Central Prison of Homs had been responsible for the “Stubbornness” in Central Prison of Homs. When I refused they hanged me from my right hand, which they knew very well was already disjoined from the first hanging…

They left me like this for half an hour, before some interrogator took me to his room and asked me to sit on a chair. He was huge and spoke the coastal dialect. He caught my head and forced me to perform oral sex on him. This lasted some 10 minutes till he finished. I resisted but in vain, especially as I couldn’t scream at all…because…”

 

That was neither the first nor the last time Layal was raped; her ordeal was repeated by a different interrogator not long after New Year’s Eve. As Layal says,

 

“On 2nd Jan 2013, I was summoned by a different integrator. He was drunk and tried to get closer to me, but I refused. He tied me to the bed and sat on my belly and started forcing me to perform oral sex on him after pulling off my veil. This lasted for about 20 minutes.

 

Testimonies of Detainees in Branch 261:

According to the testimonies conducted by VDC, this branch is responsible for arresting thousands of people indiscriminately, in addition to killing and torturing hundreds of detainees since the beginning of the revolution. The number of detainees being highest in Homs, this branch was stuffed full. Dissident sergeant Abu Yamen confirmed that there were more than 2000 detainees, all arrested by patrols which consist of six cars and 4 agents. There were patrols from all the branches especially during anti-regime demonstrations. All the detainees were accused of possessing arms and attacking checkpoints. They were forced to confess these charges under torture, including total deprivation of daylight; the branch witnessed at least 3 death cases a day. Abu Yamen adds:

 

“At the beginning of June 2012, we were asked to take one of the detainees, Khan Sheikhoun from Idlib, to the Military Hospital after he had had his fingernails detached and suffered severe torture, but they refused to receive him. Still, I insisted. Thus, the officer in charge there grabbed his hand so hard that he fell on the sidewalk and hit his head. He passed away immediately, having been in a very critical condition already. In another case we took a detainee who was killed under torture to the hospital. One of the officers noticed a golden tooth in the dead detainee’s open mouth so he took it off.

Activist and former detainee Safwan al-Tudimery, 40 years old, used to work in trading till the beginning of demonstrations in Homs. He says:

 

“Among the cases I've witnessed was that of the detainee Asim al-Misdi, who was sentenced to death later on in Sidnaya Central Prison as we heard. He was exposed to such extreme torture that his feet were black and swollen like an elephant's and his body was covered in blood. His face was distorted, too, as they had used all kinds of torture on him, including burning his body with cigarettes stubs.

 

“Another detainee was Moutasim, a university student from Talbisa. After his first interrogation session he stayed for 24 hours without moving a muscle, due to the severity of the torture he had suffered. For subsequent sessions they carried him using a blanket. Each torture session entailed seven hours in which he was beaten all over his body. There was one toilet for all the dormitories and each detainee got to use it only once a day for no more than 90 seconds.

 

“Among the strangest accusations with which a detainee was charged was watching ‘biased’ channels like ‘al-Arabia’ or ‘al-Jazeera’. Hanging was one of the most practiced techniques in this branch. The detainee’s feet barely touched the ground, leaving all the weight on his wrists. The hanging was accompanied by beating with ‘green pipes’ of the sort used for water extensions, as well as repeated punches to the loins which caused unbearable pain. Most detainees, including the aforementioned ones, were punched in the loints so much that they urinated blood. Consequently, they could urinate once every 48 hours because it was so painful. Detainees were also sprayed with water and forced to pull off all their clothes to stand in the freezing weather”.

 

In this respect, Layal al-Homsi stated the following:

“Every day around 6:00 am, they moved dead bodies of tortured detainees away. I couldn’t say how many. I saw an 18 year old detainee called Zohair S.K, who had been exposed to torture and electrification, especially in his genitals, until he passed away. Through a tiny hole in my cell’s door I saw a detainee that was hanged from his hand for more than 48 hours. When he begged the interrogator to let him go to the toilet it was in vain so he urinated involuntarily, whereupon the interrogator forced him to lick the urine on the floor while he was blindfolded.”

Layal added that about 35 to 40 detainees were detained every day, all of whom were exposed to savage torture. A 50 year old mentally ill detainee from Talbisa had a deep hole in his back because of the torture.

“On 1 Jan 2013, about 6:00 pm, they brought about 40 detainees from Deir Baalba in Homs. I was watching them through the hole; the agents were drunk as it was the day after New Year’s Eve and they were beating the detainees savagely using sticks as thick as a human arm. They pushed the detainees to the wall and the iron doors. The detainees were making strange sounds all the while. The beating continued till 2:00 am. The next day, on our way to the toilet, we saw blood marks all over the walls and the floor in addition to many broken sticks”.

 

Food and Other Personal Needs:

These is no difference between Branch 261 and other branches in terms of food. Although there are three meals a day, they are dirty and inadequate. The meals contained one egg, some rice and some oats put in a very dirty plastic bag. The breakfast was either one egg, expired yogurt, or very hard olives. The lunch contained some rice and oats. In the evening the food was a piece of very dirty potato.

No showers were allowed at all, while using the toilet was allowed only for three minutes three times a day. Private female materials were not available until many of the detainees complained, whereupon these were provided for one time only.


Diseases in Branch 261:

Abu Yamen confirmed that “the Branch was filled with diseases, especially in the case of detainees whose fingernails had been detached. Skin ulcerations were also widespread, often so bad that worms came out of the ulcers. Most of those who were taken to the Military Hospital never came back. As for those who passed away under torture, their bodies were taken to the Military Hospital for nearly a month before their families were told. The bodies that didn’t end up with their families some reason were buried in mass graves, in some place I don’t know."

Detainees suffered kidney problems due to the perishing cold in the Branch, and due to deliberate beating of the kidney area as a matter of policy.

After her release, Layal's medical diagnosis indicated that she had the following injuries: many diseases, two broken ribs in the chest, and another broken rib in the back area, a wound in the womb, an ulcer and a hernia in the belly.

 

Conclusions and Results:

1. According to the testimonies of witnesses the Military Security Branch 261, which is a subsidiary of Military Intelligence in Homs, has since March 2011 been responsible for tens of thousands of indiscriminate arrests. Most of these arrests have been of people from the rebellious neighborhoods of Homs like: Bab Amr, al-Khaldia, al-Bayada, Dirba’alba, Insha’at, al-Wa’ar, Talbisa, al-Rastan, Jourat al-Shayah, al Qarabis, and others.

2. The severe beating and brutal torture of the detainees indicates a deliberate and systematic policy by the regime to coerce detainees into signing confessions whether guilty or innocent.

3. According to the testimonies of eyewitnesses and former detainees, Branch 261 is responsible for at least one death a day, mostly due to interrogatory torture.

4. Many logical factors lead us to believe that the harassment and rape in Branch 261 are done almost systematically and openly, during and after interrogation sessions. According to the victims themselves, no actions were taken against these practices by the Branch administration, despite many complaints. On the contrary, many senior officers are involved in raping and blackmailing female detainees.

5. Widespread disease amongst detainees, and inadequate food rations, are evidence that the administration of the Branch denies the detainees adequate medical care. Those who were taken to the Military Hospital faced the worst fate of all – according to the dissident sergeant Abu Yamen, nobody ever came back from there.

- Attached

An Image had been taken to an area of the detainee ​​Layal's body, where she has been suffering from "syphilis", as a result of the psychological condition ,lack of bathing and the bad environment of the detention place .

Medical report confirmed that: " the detainee Layal suffering from gastric ulcer as a result of malnutrition and the severe psychological pressure, which was subjected to in prison".

 



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