Syrian Detainees Speak of Sexual Abuse by pro-Assad Forces, Says Human Rights Watch

In some detention centers in Damascus, detainees say sexual abuse focuses on men, to draw confessions that they were involved in protests or information about other activists.

Syrian government forces and pro-government militias, known as Shabiha, have been using sexual violence to torture men, women, and boys as young as 12 in detention, Human Rights Watch said Friday.

The New York-based group interviewed 10 former detainees, including two women, who described being sexually abused or witnessing sexual abuse in detention, "including rape, penetration with objects, sexual groping, prolonged forced nudity, and electroshock and beatings to genitalia."

Many of the former detainees said they had been imprisoned because of their political activism, including attending protests.

In some detention centers in Damascus, the sexual abuses focused on men, applying electric shocks to genitalia to draw confessions that they were involved in protests or information about other activists.

"They were beating me and shocking me. The interrogator was beating me with a cable over my whole body," said a soldier who was detained in June 2011, while on leave, at the Air Force Intelligence branch in Latakia.

"I still didn't have any clothes on ... they asked me every 30 minutes if I would confess," Salim - who was questioned about his brother and father's roles in protests - told Human Rights Watch.

HRW has documented more than 20 specific incidents of sexual assault, five of which involved more than one victim, which took place between March 2011 and March 2012 across Syria.

Most cases were from the central province of Homs. The watchdog said many victims did not want not to tell their families or community about the assault because they were ashamed.

"Sexual violence in detention is one of many horrific weapons in the Syrian government's torture arsenal and Syrian security forces regularly use it to humiliate and degrade detainees with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.

"The assaults are not limited to detention facilities - government forces and pro-government Shabiha militia members have also sexually assaulted women and girls during home raids and residential sweeps," Whitson added.

The group reported one case of a woman who had been raped and wanted to be interviewed, but was prevented from doing so by her husband.

HRW said survivors who had fled to neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, were facing obstacles in seeking treatment, "including limited service options and inability to access services that are available because of social taboos surrounding sexual abuse."

One woman, identified as Sabah, told HRW that she had been sexually abused while being detained in November in the Military Intelligence facility in Jisr al-Shughur, in the northern province of Idlib. She said she was then beaten until her ankle broke.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government "to end all use of, or tolerance of, sexual violence by its forces or by Shabiha under its command or control, and to investigate and punish those responsible."

The watchdog also urged the United Nations Security Council to demand that the Syrian government grant the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry "unrestricted access" to all parts of Syria, especially detention centers, so that the commission can investigate all allegations of human rights violations.