Nidal: A Journey from Jail

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"Syria is free" on a Beirut wall. (Photo: Rana Jarbou)

By: Mohammad Shalabi

Published Saturday, December 31, 2011

It was not easy for 28-year-old Nidal A to agree to talk about his experience as a prisoner after being detained for participating in the protests. He spent six months being shuffled back and forth between different police stations, examining rooms, and jail cells. Along the way he suffered a lifetime’s worth of torment and degradation.

“I have not belonged to any party or political organization in my whole life,” says Nidal, although he had participated in some non-violent actions with his friends before the beginning of the uprising.

As the uprising gained momentum, and those who are known as the “coordinators of the Syrian revolution” began to emerge, Nidal refused to be associated with any of them fearing they were infiltrated by the regime’s security and intelligence apparatus. But that did not spare him from arrest.

“I was arrested at work,” he recalls. He was carted off discreetly, he says, without causing a commotion or drawing attention.

Nidal recalls that some police would take pictures of the injuries of the prisoners brought in by the military, “and the prisoners would sign papers certifying that the injuries were the result of the arrest carried out by the military.”

Once arrested, a detainee can wait several hours or as long as twenty days before being interrogated or charged. Nidal says that he was questioned the day following his arrest and that “usually the charges are prepared in advance for every prisoner.”

The method of interrogation relies first on direct questions, but is then followed by torture if the detainee denies the charges. The interrogator then continues to use torture in order to extract a confession for the charge he has in mind.

Ordinary protesters are questioned quickly and transferred to another branch. “All this takes place accompanied by torture, beatings, and insults,” says Nidal, “but to a lesser degree than with those the authorities want to confess to some specific felony, such as carrying or firing a weapon; burning a private or public building, working with the coordinators, communicating with the opposition, or similar charges.”

The investigation concludes by forcing the detainee to sign off on completely blank statements. “We were also forced to make verbal confessions to all the charges without exception,” recalls Nidal.

“Sometimes they would call the accused to be questioned several times in order to corroborate what he had previously confessed, in case he had forgotten some small detail, no matter how trivial. They would be tortured once again until they confessed to new charges.”

The conditions in the jail cells are incredibly inhumane. “One of the cells I was in was no bigger than 16 square meters and held more than forty people,” says Nidal.

He describes how, packed like sardines into a tiny holding cell, the prisoners were forced to adapt to the cramped conditions and develop strategies for sleeping that have taken on names such as ‘swording,’ where everyone sleeps on their side throughout the night, and where each prisoner’s head is at the feet of his neighbor.

The food is not much different than that given to soldiers, according to Nidal’s cellmates that had completed their military service. The prisoners usually receive a simple meal of “boiled bulgur or rice with vegetables and bread,” and according to Nidal – the quantity and quality may vary from one branch to another.

The accommodations are as unhygienic as they are uncomfortable, with the toilet, wash basin, and drinking water crammed together into the same corner of the crowded cell.

“There was no sunlight in any of the cells or the torture and interrogation rooms that I had been in,” says Nidal. The prisoners live in total isolation from the outside world, with no news of the developments of the revolution for which they were ostensibly detained.

Some news trickles in with the constant influx of new prisoners. Nidal notes that “the guards would warn us not to talk or communicate with them, but we would talk to them in secret. If a guard noticed that one of us had talked to them, we were punished standing half-naked for hours, or by being beaten outside of the cell.”

Like many prisoners who have been released, Nidal has many painful memories of interrogation: “Once one of the guards stood on my face and began to stomp on my head.” He recalls that following the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, the prisoners were exposed to a sudden and inexplicable wave of abuse.

“They came in and began to beat us indiscriminately, as if we were in a protest inside the prison. One time, they brought some of the prisoners out to the yard and notified them that their death sentences had been issued. They kept them there for some time before putting them back in their cells,” he says.

Despite both the psychological and physical torment Nidal has suffered, he remains firm in the goals and demands that originally brought him to the demonstrations.

“After my experience and meeting a large number of prisoners from across the entire spectrum of Syrian society, I have not and will not ever back down from my positions and my goals. It is the same for all the prisoners that have been released or are still inside,” he says.

Nidal recalls an instance where some supporters of the regime were accidentally detained during waves of arbitrary arrests. This caused these loyalists to curse the regime they had been so devoted to, and swore they would go to the first anti-regime demonstration once they were released.

Nidal is not against any faction of the opposition, and he considers the recent reforms to be nothing more than “an anesthetic and an attempt to demonstrate the regime’s good intentions before the international community.”

Now Nidal is “even more optimistic that the regime will fall.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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Thats exactly how Haitham al Malih describes the Situation in Prison in his Time.

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