Syria's Silent War Crime: Systematic Mass Rape

Evidence is piling up that the Damascus regime has used rape - of daughters in front of fathers, wives in front of husbands - as a targeted weapon.

A Syrian woman looks over Damascus
A Syrian woman looks over Damascus
Annick Cojean

AMMAN — It is the most dreadfully silent crime currently perpetrated in Syria. A mass crime, carried out by the regime in the most barbaric ways that relies on the most deep-rooted taboos of traditional Syrian society — and on the silence of the victims, convinced they will be rejected by their own family, or even sentenced to death.

United Nations investigators and numerous NGOs say because of the silence they have failed to adequately document the widespread accounts of systematic rape since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria.

Mentions of the crime were utterly absent from the Geneva talks, even though activists believe there have been tens of thousands of victims. Yes, rape has been Bashar al-Assad’s secret weapon of war for the past three years.

Alma (all the names of victims have been changed), is lying, scrawny, on a hospital bed in the heart of Amman. She will never walk again, her spine has been shattered by blows inflicted by a militiaman of the regime with the butt of his rifle. In the first months of the revolution, this 27-year-old mother of four, a graduate in management, started working with the rebellion. First, she brought over food and medicine. Then, she carried ammunition in a knotted package on her stomach, pretending to be pregnant.

“You wanted freedom?”

One day, she was arrested at a checkpoint in the suburbs of Damascus. She spent 38 days in a detention center of the air force intelligence services, with around 100 other women.

“Compared to this, Abu Ghraib must have been paradise,” she says with a faint smile, alluding to the American prison in Iraq. “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarette butts in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity in my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded every day by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: “You wanted freedom? Well here it is!”

Many of the women, she explains, in addition to their pain, thought their families might kill them if they found out what had happened to them. Her determination to enroll in the Free Syrian Army became only stronger. When she was released, she became one of the rare women to lead a battalion, at the head of 20 men, before being seriously injured and evacuated by her fellow rebels.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have flowed into Jordan, and this is where, thanks to doctors, lawyers, psychologists, we managed to gather and cross-reference a large number of testimonies, as well as meet several victims, face-to-face.

“Affect the fathers, brothers and husbands”

Burhan Ghalioun, the former president of the Syrian National Council and prominent member of the opposition, said international attention should be focused on the mass rape carried out by the regime. “This is this weapon that made our revolution, which aimed to be peaceful, turn so violent.”

As early as spring 2011, he says, campaigns of rape by militias were organized inside homes, while families were still there. Daughters were raped in front of their fathers, wives in front of their husbands. Men became crazy with anger and yelled that they would defend themselves and avenge their honor. “I used to think we had to do everything we could to avoid getting into a militarized phase, and that arming the revolution would multiply the number of dead by 100,” Ghalioun said. “But the use of rape decided otherwise. And I think Assad wanted it this way. Once the revolutionaries were armed, he could easily justify the massacres of those he already called ‘terrorists’.”

This theory is hard to prove. But what is established is that sexual violence has risen, thus contributing to the climate of terror. “Women are used as means to affect the fathers, brothers and husbands,” says the writer Samar Yazbek, who has taken refuge in France. “Their bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers. The silence of the international community on this tragedy seems deafening to me.”

Several international organizations have reported rapes committed by the regime — Amnesty International, the International Rescue Committee, the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch. But all of them also mention the extreme difficulty of obtaining direct testimonies, the obstinate silence of the victims, the fear of honor crimes committed against raped women and the anxiety born from the generalized perception that a woman who has been arrested has necessarily been raped.

A particularly well-documented report, published in November by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, confirms the extent of the tragedy and points out the urgency of investigating these war crimes — which, if their premeditation is proven, could be qualified as crimes against humanity.

“The regime has made women their first target,” Sema Nassar, the main author of the report, says, speaking via Skype. “They are aimed at, as such, by snipers, especially pregnant women. They serve as human shields, like in the Ashria neighborhood, in Homs, in Feb. 2012, when the army forced women to walk in front of the troops, or even made them board tanks during patrols. They are also subject to kidnappings for ransoms or exchanges. Systematically raping them, whether they are 9 or 60 years old, is a way to destroy the entire social fabric over the long term.”

Gang raped in front of a camera

Yes, she does have stories to tell, says Sema Nassar. Specific cases, with dates. Dozens of them. Like this young girl from Hama, currently a refugee in the United States, who was at home with her three brothers when soldiers burst in and told the three men to rape their sister. The first refused; they decapitated him. The second refused; he suffered the same fate. The third accepted; they killed him on the girl, whom they then raped.

Or, there is the story that another Syrian woman has recounted, of being brought to a house in the suburbs of Homs in the summer of 2012, along with around 20 other women. They were tortured and gang raped in front of a camera. The videotape was then sent to her uncle, a prominent sheik, television preacher and member of the opposition.

“This practice is very frequent during raids on villages and systematic in secret service detention centers,” the head of the Syrian League for Human Rights Abdel Karim Rihaoui told Le Monde. Currently living in Cairo, he estimates that over 50,000 women have been raped in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons since the beginning of the revolution.

Electric prods

In the Syrian refugee camp of Zaatari, 80 kilometers away from Amman, we met Salma, who looked like she was physically exhausted, with no life in her eyes. She was born in Daraa some 50 years ago but lived in Damascus with her husband and eight children. In 2011, she was stunned to learn that, in retaliation for the uprising of her hometown, her children had been expelled from their school, in the capital. “In what name are you punishing my little ones? They have nothing to do with these events!,” she complained to the school principal.

She had not even finished her sentence when the secret services burst in. They put a bag on her head and led her to the basement of a detention center, where she was thrown into a pitch black cell full of rats. She spent two days in solitary confinement, with no food or water, before joining two other women in a tiny cell where she spent six months. “We couldn’t lie down. We weren’t allowed to wash ourselves, even during our periods. We were raped every day, as they chanted: “We Alawites will destroy you.” A single sign of protest and we had electric prods in the vagina or anus. They beat me so much that they broke my leg. It turned black. My family didn’t hear about me for six months. As I can’t read or write, I signed any confession with my index finger.” When she was released, her husband had disappeared with their car.

“Incurable” traumas

Oum Mohamed, 45, was arrested in the street with her daughter on Sept. 21, 2012, and brought to the Mezzeh military airport. Because the student’s cellphone displayed the flag of the resistance and the photo of a “martyr,” the two women were imprisoned for 20 days during which they were beaten, raped, locked up in a cell measuring four square meters with 17 other women and several children. One woman, the wife of a member of the Free Syrian Army suspected of having been part of the kidnapping of 48 Iranians in a bus in August 2012, was there with her children aged 8 and 9. The husband of another, a prison director who was punished for opposing outrageous torture, was held one floor below, in such a way that he could hear the cries of his wife while she was raped. “Everything was seen as an opportunity for sexual abuse,” she said, as tears filled her eyes. She fears the future of her daughter, who lost almost 45 pounds, is jeopardized for good.

Doctors have described “ravaged” vaginas, martyred bodies, “incurable” traumas. And so the next question: Were these barbaric initiatives carried out by lone groups of mercenaries left to their own devices, or part of a thought-out strategy, deployed by a hierarchy under orders?

The head of the Syrian League for Human Rights Abdel Karim Rihaoui has no doubt: “It is a political choice made to crush the people. Technique, sadism, perversity: Everything is meticulously organized. It is not a coincidence. The testimonies are similar and some rapists have admitted themselves to have acted on orders.”

Lawyers we reached in Syria share this opinion, despite the difficulty of gathering evidence. “I have photos of sexual stimulant boxes that the militiamen pack before leaving for a raid in a village,” Sema Nassar says. Several testimonies also reported the use of paralyzing products injected in the thighs of the women before they were raped.

Worse than death

One of the victims, Amal, explains that, in a Damascus detention center, a doctor — nicknamed “Dr. Cetamol” — went around the cells to note the dates of every woman’s periods, and hand out birth control pills. “We lived in filth, in blood, in shit, with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously. Once, when my period was late, the doctor gave me pills that gave me stomach pains all night.” Experts says this is crucial testimony in order to establish the premeditation of rapes in detention.

But babies have been born from these gang rapes, leading to series of tragedies. In Latakia, a young woman committed suicide because she was not able to abort. Another was thrown off the first floor balcony by her father. Newborn babies have been found at dawn in back alleys in Daraa.

“How can we help these women?”, asks Alia Mansour, a member of the Syrian National Coalition. “They are so scared when they are released from detention that they shut themselves away in their despair, without being able to ask for help.”

In Homs, Syrian poet Lina Tibi tells us about a woman who has managed to organize, in one week and in great secrecy, 50 hymenoplasty procedures on girls aged from 13 to 16 who were raped. “It was the only way to save their lives.”

But families are disintegrating. Husbands are turning away and divorcing. In Homs, the family-in-law of a woman who had not even been released from prison yet gathered her belongings to throw her out of the house. Parents are rushing their daughters to marry the first man who agrees.

“The world is preoccupied with the chemical weapons, but, for us, Syrian women, rape is worse than death,” whispers a law student, in tears. She has not told anyone about her tragedy yet. Especially not her husband.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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