GENEVA — The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay is condemning what she says is the widespread and systematic use of torture in detention facilities in Syria. A report just issued by her office finds detainees are routinely tortured by the government of Bashar Al-Assad and by some armed opposition groups.
The report describes conditions of detention in some Syrian government-run facilities as absolutely horrific, with dozens of people crammed into a tiny cell, forced to use one hole as a toilet. U.N. investigators say some detainees are subjected to physical, mental and sexual torture, which often leaves the victims permanently scarred. They say some have died.
The report finds men, women and children are picked up from the street, their homes and workplaces. Some are arrested at Syrian government checkpoints. It says many are activists, including students, lawyers, medical personnel and humanitarian workers.
A U.N. human rights commissioner spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, tells VOA her office has received extremely disturbing reports of the type of torture meted out to detainees.
“We have reports of this one 30-year-old university student describing how he was beaten, how his beard was pulled out in clumps, his feet were burned, his toe nails were torn off with pliers at an air force intelligence facility. We have a woman who told how she was first berated and insulted, then beaten and then raped. Another man also spoke about sexual violence against him," said Shamdasani.
U.N. investigators say torture by armed opposition groups appears to be on the rise since 2013, particularly in Al-Raqqa in northern Syria. But they say torture is not committed by all armed groups, and when it occurs it is sporadic and not systematic as is the case with the government.
The report describes torture committed by two al-Qaida linked rebel groups - the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Al-Nusra Front. Testimony from victims indicate those most at risk of being detained and tortured by some rebel groups are activists trying to document human rights violations and people believed to be pro-government or affiliated with a rival opposition group.
Shamdasani says it is difficult to know how many people are being detained or how many have been tortured to death because U.N. human rights monitors are unable to enter Syria. She says the U.N. investigators interviewed 38 people who had been tortured and witnessed others being tortured.
She says it is difficult to document the number of people who have died in custody because the Syrian government uses various ploys to keep this information hidden.
“There is a very good attempt at cover-up. Sometimes families are requested to go to the hospital to pick up their relative's body and then their corpses are received in closed coffins, which prevent the families from seeing the body or verifying the cause of the death. In other instances, families are simply given the identity documents of their loved ones and do not actually see the body. And, occasionally, they are asked to sign papers saying that their loved ones were killed by armed opposition groups and to immediately and discreetly bury their bodies," said Shamdasani.
Pillay says international law prohibits the use of torture, at all times and under all circumstances. She says in armed conflict, torture constitutes a war crime. She adds when torture is used in a systematic or widespread manner, as appears to be the case in Syria, then it also amounts to a crime against humanity.