Jaish al-Islam's leader Zahran Alloush was killed by Syrian government airstrikes last year, but his successors are keeping his brutal legacy alive in Eastern Ghouta. Syria Deeply spoke to residents and former prisoners of the "Army of Islam" about the group's severe punishment of dissent.
Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaish al-Islam, or "Army of Islam" was killed in December last year in a government air strike. His death, however, did nothing to stop to the group’s totalitarian rule in Eastern Ghouta, where residents say torture and imprisonment without trial occur routinely in the name of "liberation" and Sharia law.
Al-Tawba prison, supervised directly by Jaish al-Islam, is one of the most infamous institutions in Eastern Ghouta. Although people thought that the death of Zahran Alloush would perhaps lead to its closing, the arrests and abuse continue.
Saeed, not his real name, spoke to Syria Deeply about his imprisonment in al-Tawba. “I was arrested nine months ago. Members of Jaish al-Islam raided my house and kept yelling and asking: 'You terrorist. Where are the explosive belts? Where do you hide the money you receive from the Islamic State?'” he said.
The group accused Saeed of plotting to assassinate one of its members and of belonging to the Islamic State – one of the group’s main rivals.
Saeed said he sees a similarity between the group and the Syrian security forces. “Their accusations were no different from the regime’s accusations against those who opposed it,” he said. “Doesn’t the regime also accuse the opposition of being terrorists and spies?”
The young man said he was interrogated and tortured by being electrocuted and beaten with metal wires while hanging from a wall. “I was detained at the regime’s air force security prison once, and I found no difference between the two, except that Jaish al-Islam claims to be part of a revolution,” he said.
“I was determined that no matter what they did, I would never admit to something I had not done. I believe my stubbornness frustrated them, so they started a new cycle of torture – they starved me.”
After two months of torture, Saeed was transferred to another cell, where he spent another six months. He was never brought before a judge nor allowed to have any visitors.
He recalled: “[Six months later] they finally called me to the interrogation room again. There, one of them said to me, 'This was a lesson, so that you learn not to criticize Jaish al-Islam’s leaders. If you do it again, your punishment will be serious.'”
Many of the prison’s occupants are under the age of 16, and some of them have been detained for longer than 18 months for criticising Jaish al-Islam policies.
Eastern Ghouta's security situation has long been unstable, with a myriad of factions sharing control, each imposing their own rules. The Assad regime frequently attempts to regain control of the area, located very close to the capital, Damascus, and has held it under siege since 2013.
Abu al-Wafa from Eastern Ghouta spoke to Syria Deeply about the faction’s iron rule. “Jaish al-Islam is one of the most powerful factions in Eastern Ghouta. By the end of 2015, they [had] imposed some very repressive policies and arrested anyone who opposed them,” he said.
“The group’s pretext was always ready: opposition to their policies means belonging to the Islamic State, and any criticism of members of Jaish al-Islam itself could lead to execution,” he added.
Jaish al-Islam recently launched a campaign of arrests against its rival faction – Jaish al-Umma. This led to the execution of the group’s leader Abu Ali Khayba and the imprisonment of high-ranking official Abu Subhi Taha.
Like Saeed, Abu al-Wafa finds it hard to see the difference between the practices of Jaish al-Islam and those of the Syrian government when it comes to silencing opposition, in particular their targeting of activists and journalists. Al Jazeera correspondent Samara Quwatli received death threats from the group and had to go into hiding for months until she managed to flee to Turkey with her mother.
While there is a large network of activists in Eastern Ghouta, there are no accurate statistics for the number of detainees or those tortured and killed in Zahran Alloush's prisons. A man’s body was recently returned to his family three days after his arrest. Jaish al-Islam directly threatened them, telling them that if they spoke to the media or published pictures of the body they would all be killed.
Jaish al-Islam was first established under the name of Liwa al-Islam ("Brigade of Islam") in late 2011 when the Syrian government released Alloush, the group’s chief commander, from Sednaya prison after serving time for Salafist activities. In late September 2013, Liwa al-Islam, along with 50 other Salafist factions, merged into one group called Jaish al-Islam.
Alloush was accused by a number of Syrian opposition groups and activists of being responsible for the kidnapping of activists. On December 25, 2015, he was killed in an airstrike carried out by the Syrian government in the village of Uthaya, east of Damascus.
Many people in Eastern Ghouta have challenged the policies of Jaish al-Islam – despite the group's power – and organized peaceful protests in Saqba, Hamouriyya, Misraba, Ein Tarma, Jisreen and Kafr Batna. The protests called for an end to Jaish al-Islam’s practices, as well as the holding to account of businessmen – many of them members of armed factions – who have allegedly profited from the years of unrest.