National Academies Press: OpenBook

Scientists and Human Rights in Syria (1993)


Suggested Citation:"AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT ." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
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Suggested Citation:"AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT ." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
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Suggested Citation:"AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT ." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
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Suggested Citation:"AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT ." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
Page 18
Suggested Citation:"AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT ." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
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An Eyewitness Account The CHR recently received testimony from an eyewitness who pro- vided the details of a case of an engineer detained without charge or trial for more than 10 years. As a protective measure, the eyewitness will re- main unnamed and we refer to the engineer as "Abdul Raouf." Prior to the arrest of Abdul Raouf, he had been a successful engineer and an active member of the Damascus branch of the Engineers' Association. In late 1979 the branch set up a committee to take up the cases of persons arbitrarily arrested and detained and to appeal to the Syrian authorities for their release. To protect its members, the committee was composed of different engineers at different times. Abdul Raouf played an active role and raised with the Syrian authorities the cases of individual political de- tainees. He urged the authorities to abide by Syrian law and to charge or try persons accused of offenses or to release them. According to Abdul Raouf, the committee was sometimes successful in securing the release of political detainees. Abdul Raouf also was active in the efforts of the Engineers' Associa- tion to press for human rights reform in Syria. He was present on April 4, 1980, when the government sent a group of military engineers to the Engi- neers' Association to try to secure a repudiation of its position on human rights (see below), and he was one of the engineers who resisted the gov- ernment initiative. As a battle of wills developed between the government and the Engi- neers' Association and the government threatened the association with dis-

16 SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA solution, a group of engineers on April 8 quickly went over the association's finances. The association operated like a credit union—all of the members paid a certain percentage of their salaries into the association and in return held shares in it. Fearing that the government would confiscate the association's money, they made an effort to ensure that the members were returned their shares. Following the dissolution of the Engineers' Association on April 9, the government detained hundreds of engineers and health professionals throughout the country. According to Abdul Raouf, most were abducted rather than formally arrested. In Damascus, engineers and lawyers whom Abdul Raouf knew were taken away by two security officers accompanied by four men with machine guns. Neither they nor their families were informed of the reason for their "arrest." Sometimes, according to Abdul Raouf, security officers used ploys to enter homes. They would identify themselves as "repairmen" coming to fix something broken in the house. Sometimes they would tell friends or family members of the prospective detainee that the individual should report to security for questioning and would give assur- ances that the person would be promptly released. Once in detention, how- ever, the engineers were kept for years without the opportunity to appeal or challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court. Unlike most of the other engineers and scientists arrested, Abdul Raouf was not subjected to torture or mistreatment. He later learned that this was on the direct orders of President Assad, who had requested good treatment for 21 engineers and lawyers from Damascus and Aleppo, known as "the association group." The orders for good treatment were contained in a letter that Abdul Raouf later saw. This letter appears to demonstrate the president's awareness that torture and ill-treatment are meted out to most political prisoners as a matter of course unless he intervenes. During the interrogation of the engineers in the association group, they were asked about their activities in the Engineers' Association and also about the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Abdul Raouf and the others insisted that their activities in the association accorded with Syr- ian law. Abdul Raouf states that they were able to refute allegations against them, and that the Syrian government had no evidence of any wrongdoing on their part or even of any statements made by them that could be con- strued as critical of the government. At first, the 21 were assured that they would be promptly released, but an assassination attempt on President Assad's life in June 1980 changed the situation. The assassination attempt, by members of the Presidential Guard, was blamed by the President on the Moslem Brotherhood, but government retaliation was felt everywhere. The 21 engineers and lawyers were kept in detention, most of them for nearly 12 years. Two were released early—one lawyer almost immediately and one engineer in 1983. Another engineer

SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA 17 who had terminal stomach cancer, Abdul Majid Abu Shallah, was released on April 15, 1989; he died 4 months later. The rest remained in detention until December 14, 1991, when all but one were released; one engineer, Salim Khairbek, was not released because he refused to sign a statement saying that he would not participate in political activities. (As above noted, Khairbek is now facing trial in a state security court following this refusal.) Those released also had to promise that they would provide information to the security forces about anyone who planned to destroy public property or threaten the security of the state. During their incarceration, members of the association group at times went on hunger strikes to protest their continued detention. In mid-1984, group members staged a hunger strike to protest the conditions in Al-Qala' Civil Prison. One of the engineers in the group, Ghassan Najjar, did not eat for more than 58 days. When his blood pressure dropped dangerously low, he was rushed to a hospital, where he remained for several months. He developed a serious back condition and heart problems and had to be hospi- talized many times prior to his release in December 1991. The members of the association group were well aware of their "privi- leged" position in not being tortured because they were not isolated from other prisoners who were tortured. Abdul Raouf estimates that more than 90 percent of those detained on political grounds were tortured; they in- cluded engineers, health professionals, and scientists. During the group's initial years in interrogation centers, persons who were tortured were subse- quently brought into cells with group members. Some had been severely beaten; others had been subjected to electric shock; one young boy from Aleppo, who was 13 or 14, had his toes chopped off with an axe. The group heard about or saw quite a number of different types of torture inflicted on prisoners in Syrian jails. The group, Abdul Raouf said, would never have believed that such things happened in their country had they been told of them before their arrest. They hadn't realized that torture was practiced, let alone that it was inflicted in interrogation centers located off busy streets in the middle of the Syrian capital. Some of the professionals with whom they came in contact had been imprisoned, like them, for their activities in the engineers', medical, and bar associations. Others had been imprisoned for belonging to banned political parties, in particular, communist, and Nasserite parties. In 1990, one of the detainees saw Samir Haddad, a civil engineer (and CHR case) who had been charged with membership in a communist political group. The soles of Haddad's feet were entirely cut open as a result of torture and skin had to be taken from his legs to be grafted onto his feet.10 Another engineer 10 It is reported that Samir Haddad nearly died in detention, having suffered kidney failure. He was subsequently released in the December 1991 amnesty.

18 SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA arrested with him, Munir Fransis (noted above), died as a result of the torture. The group came to believe that substantial numbers of detainees had died as a result of torture under interrogation or had been killed in detention. According to Abdul Raouf, hundreds of members of the Moslem Broth- erhood who were held at Tadmur Military Prison (also known as Palmyra Prison) were massacred in June 1980 by Syrian defense forces under the command of Rifaat Assad, the president's younger brother, following the assassination attempt on President Assad's life. The association group met a number of detainees who had witnessed the massacre. About 850 prison- ers were reported to have been killed.11 Abdul Raouf reported that some of the worst abuses against prisoners were carried out at Tadmur Military Prison. Suspected members of the Moslem Brotherhood were consistently ill-treated. They were regularly beaten, for example, on their way to the exercise yard and baths. From the end of 1979 until the mid-1980s, 150 prisoners (of possibly 8,000 held at that time) are said to have died weekly at Tadmur.12 The number is re- ported to have decreased after that time. (Thousands of suspected members of the Moslem Brotherhood were detained in the late 1970s and early 1980s following violent clashes between armed members of the Brotherhood and security forces. Not all of those arrested, however, were necessarily in- volved in violence; rather, many were under suspicion of belonging to or sympathizing with the organization.) Some prisoners whom Abdul Raouf met were jailed because they had "withheld information": That is, they had failed to report on or turn in government opponents or members of the Moslem Brotherhood. Other pris- oners were held as hostages for family members who could not be found (a common practice in Syria). One prisoner, Abdul Raouf discovered, had been sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment because he had dared to vote "no" in a referendum for the president. High-ranking military personnel and former Ba'ath Party officials were among those imprisoned. During most of their detention, those in the association group were held in 'Adra Civil Prison near Damascus. During their first year, however, they were moved around to various interrogation centers and then placed in "the 11 Other sources put the total killed in the June massacre at more than 1,000. According to documented reports, about 80 heavily armed special forces entered Tadmur Prison on June 27, opened cell doors, and machine-gunned prisoners; see Collello (1988:269) and Middle East Watch (1990:24,75). 12 During this period, summary trials were held within Tadmur Military Prison, in which military tribunals ordered the execution of many Moslem Brotherhood members; see Middle East Watch (1992c:22; 1990:90). According to the U.S. Department of State's most recent country report (1993), "it is widely believed that the regime continues to execute detainees held in secret at security facilities such as the one at Tadmor."

SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA 19 Citadel," a former fortress, also known as Al-Qala' Civil Prison. When this prison was closed down in 1984 and made into a tourist attraction, the group was placed in 'Adra. Unlike most prisoners, those in the association group were allowed regular contact with their families. For most of their years in detention, the group was allowed visits from their families every 2 weeks although only in the first years were their families allowed to sit next to them and touch them. In later years, at 'Adra, this was not allowed; bars separated prison- ers from their visiting family members, but the prisoners and their families were sometimes left alone by the guards. Members of the association group also were given access to their own personal physicians, although they were sometimes treated by detained medical doctors, who helped other inmates when they were sick.13 Like other political detainees, however, those in the association group were not allowed to receive or send mail, although some letters did get through secretly. (Criminal detainees, by contrast, are reportedly allowed to receive mail in Syrian prisons.) At different times, they would learn that a letter had been received by the prison authorities from a human rights organization, but they could never see the letter. Their clothing was regu- larly searched for mail. Family members were allowed to bring some books to the association group prisoners—but only books published in Syria. Po- litical detainees were not allowed to receive any foreign literature. During the time the association group members were in prison, their families made appeals to President Assad for their release. The govern- ment-controlled Engineers' Association, however, tried to discourage the families from making these appeals. Officers of the association told the families that, rather than complain about their relatives' detention, they should be grateful that they could visit them every 2 weeks. After his release from more than a decade in detention, Abdul Raouf received visits from more than a thousand relatives and friends at his home. Little or no social stigma seemed to be attached to his having been a political detainee. Those who visited Abdul Raouf apparently felt free to welcome his release. Like many other recently freed scientists, engineers, and health professionals, however, he is under surveillance and has experi- enced difficulties in resuming his professional career and life. 13 According to Middle East Watch (1992c:15), detained health professionals also were enlisted by prison authorities to treat fellow inmates who had been tortured.

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In 1976 the Committee on Human Rights (CHR) was create with members from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The CHR works on behalf of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who are detained, imprisoned, or exiled or who have disappeared for the nonviolent exercise of their fundamental rights. Thus, the CHR has taken on the case of 287 scientists, engineers, and health professionals who have been incarcerated for political reasons.

Syria has held the record for the country with the highest number of scientists, engineers, and health professionals detained for political reasons. It is estimated that the Syrian government has freed more than 3,500 political detainees but no list of their names have been published. Due to this, the CHR cannot confirm how many of the 287 persons whose cases it has undertaken have been freed. The CHR currently knows that at least 49 of the 287 have been freed.

Shedding light upon this issue, Scientists and Human Rights in Syria presents the current state of the situation, an eyewitness account from a former prisoner, the controls present in Syria over the professional associations and prospects for liberalization and the CHR's conclusions. The report also includes a list of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who have been detained.


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