Syria Crisis

Worse Than Prison, The Life Of Syria’s Female Ex-Inmates

Women held in Syria’s government prisons report psychological abuse, sexual assault and torture. But for many, the suffering they experience after their release is even worse.

Leo about to drop
8,400 women are currently in Syrian jails
Lizzie Porter and Mohammed Hassan al-Homsi

When Luna Watfa refused to reveal any information to her interrogators, they took her son, 17, and threatened to torture him. "They put my son's hands behind his back, his T-shirt over his head and they took him," she says.

Watfa, now 35, was a law student when the popular uprising broke out in Syria in March 2011. But when she witnessed President Bashar al-Assad's forces shooting at and beating protesters, she decided to devote herself to documenting what she saw. In January 2014, she was arrested on a Damascus street by a gang of men whom she quickly recognized as government officers. "There were three cars with 12 guards. They came only for me," she says over Skype from her new home in Koblenz, Germany.

The men escorted her to her home, demanded access to her laptop and detained her son, threatening him too. "I tried to say that they had no right to take him," Watfa says. "The officer looked at me and laughed. ‘I am the law, I can do anything I want," he replied."

Mona Mohammed Aboud, 29, was a teacher at the start of the revolution and a vocal opponent of the regime. She has twice been a prisoner of Syria's intelligence and security services network. During one 63-day period of detention in 2014, she says she was subjected to torture including electrocution, beating and starvation — and she still suffers physical pain as a consequence.

"There was no such thing as living. Just hell and hunger," she says. "The security forces are not trying to kill you; they want to keep you alive — but only just."

Ostracized and exiled

Watfa and Aboud are among the thousands of women in Syria who have been detained by the regime since the beginning of the uprising. There are no official figures on how many women have been held in government prisons, or by any other group in the country. But a report released in November by the Syrian Network for Human Rights said that more than 8,400 females, including 300 girls, are currently in government jails. Around 5,000 more are reportedly being held captive by militant groups such as the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

Many of these women face brutality and sexual violence while in detention. But the struggles they face upon their release — ostracism, shame, broken relationships and health issues — can often be even harder to cope with.

When she was in al-Khatib prison in Damascus, Watfa was once beaten so badly she could not walk for three days. She wasn't raped, but she and others were the targets of sexual harassment, she says. "The guard started to put his hand on my breast and opened my shirt. I screamed at him and said I would tell the officer, so he left," Watfa says. "When I did tell the officer, he did nothing, as usual." She was later transferred to Adra Central Prison in northeast Damascus, where she stayed until her release in 2015.

Aboud was imprisoned after being tricked into meeting regime security forces who befriended her on Facebook. She, too, was eventually transferred to Adra Central Prison. There, she says, the male guards would approach the prisoners for sex. "The warden would tell the detainee that he could secure her better food and send messages to her family provided that she slept with him," says Aboud.

But upon their release, both Watfa and Aboud discovered that some things are worse than the grinding horrors of detention. In part because of the presumption that female prisoners have been raped, many are ostracized by friends and family once they get out.

"My family was torn over whether I had been raped or not," says Aboud. "The first question asked by the lawyer who was assigned to my case when it appeared in front of the anti-terror court was whether or not I had been raped. My answer was a conclusive no," she says.

Aboud's parents said they believed her, but limited her movements once she was back home. "Other relatives broke away from me and would not visit us in Damascus for a long period of time afterward," she says.

Fearing another arrest, she found support from a network of Syrian media activists (that she asks not to be named), who helped her escape across the border to Turkey. She lives there now, in the city of Gaziantep.

"They took my feelings'

Sakher Edris, from the Working Group for Syrian Detainees, says his team often sees female former prisoners suffer social rejection and the breakdown of relationships after they get out. "Many of the detained women are either divorced after their release, married forcibly to a person they do not like or, as a reaction to society, take off their hijab and travel to Europe, staying away from their parents and communities."

Often unable to discuss the perceived shame of imprisonment with friends or relatives, many female ex-detainees lack access to healthcare and support networks. "You feel that the regime did not take anything from you, but they took your soul," says Watfa. "What hurt me the most was the fact that when I was released and saw my kids again, I did not feel anything. In prison, they the guards tortured me — OK — but this was not the worst thing. The worst thing was that they took my feelings."

For the first three months of her detention, Watfa did not know whether her son had really been arrested, as she had been led to believe. When she finally got the chance to ask her son what had happened to him that day, she says, "He told me that they put him in the bathroom in our flat. They said, "If you breathe and your mother hears you, we will punish you hard, so keep silent and don't breathe or move." For one month after, he couldn't speak about what happened. It was very bad for him."

Civil society groups are helping women ex-prisoners from Syria access psychological help in places such as France, Turkey and Germany. But the need far outweighs the supply, and some experts say the possible consequences for the future of Syrian society are grave.

Sema Nassar, author of a report on the subject for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, concluded that the detention of women in Syria is contributing to the "disintegration of society" in the country and forced migration. "It contributes to increasing the refugee flows to neighboring countries as well as to Europe, since many women, rejected by their family and community, see themselves forced to leave the country upon their release," she says in the report.

Among female former detainees there is determination to find a glimmer of light in the dark chapters of their past. Watfa and Aboud are both working to lessen the stigma for women who have been imprisoned, encouraging them to report their experiences. "For me, still the greatest aim — greater and more important than fear — is not betraying my friends in Adra prison," says Aboud.

In November, Watfa received the news that her children would be allowed to join her in Germany, under family reunification laws. "They are here," she says in a recent WhatsApp message. "Everything is great. I can rest much better now."

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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