06/15/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Syria: Sexual Assault in Detention

Security Forces Also Attacked Women and Girls in Raids on Homes

(New York) – Syrian government forces have used sexual violence to torture men, women, and boys detained during the current conflict. Witnesses and victims also told Human Rights Watch that soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas.

Human Rights Watch 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 told Human Rights Watch that they were imprisoned because of their political activism, including for attending protests. In other cases, the reason for the detention was unclear but detainees suffered the same abusive tactics.

“Syrian security forces have used sexual violence to humiliate and degrade detainees with complete impunity,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”

Human Rights Watch documented over 20 specific incidents of sexual assault, five of which involved more than one victim, that took place between March 2011 and March 2012 across Syria, including in Daraa, Homs, Idlib, Damascus, and Latakia governorates. The majority of cases were from Homs governorate. Interviewees described a range of sexual abuse by Syrian security forces, the army, and pro-government armed militias referred to locally as shabiha.

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight Syrian victims of sexual violence, including four women, and more than twenty-five other people with a knowledge of sexual abuse – former detainees, defectors from the Syrian security forces and the army, first responders and assistance providers, women’s rights activists, and family members.

The full extent of sexual violence in and outside of detention facilities remains unknown, Human Rights Watch said. The stigma in Syria surrounding sexual violence makes victims reluctant to report abuse. Survivors also may face dangers when they make crimes public, and researchers have had limited access to the country to document abuses. In many cases interviewees told Human Rights Watch that victims did not want their families or others in the community to know about the assault because of fear or shame. In one case, a female rape victim who was willing to be interviewed was not permitted by her husband to speak to Human Rights Watch.

Even when they may wish to seek help, Syrian survivors of sexual assault have limited access to medical or psychological treatment and other services in Syria. Survivors who have fled to neighboring countries also face obstacles in seeking treatment, including limited service options and inability to access services that are available because of social taboos surrounding sexual abuse, families restricting their movement, and the fear of being subjected to so-called “honor” crimes.

It is critical that survivors of sexual assault have access to emergency medical services, legal assistance, and social support to address injuries caused by the assault; prevent pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections; and to collect evidence to support prosecution of perpetrators, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government, countries hosting Syrian refugees, and donors to ensure that survivors have information about relevant health and psychosocial services, including that they should be accessed on an urgent basis, as well as facilitate victims’ access to them through safe and confidential mechanisms.

Human Rights Watch does not have evidence that high-ranking officers commanded their troops to commit sexual violence during home searches, ground operations, or in detention. However, information received by Human Rights Watch, including from army and security force defectors, indicates that no action has been taken to investigate or punish government forces and shabiha who commit acts of sexual violence or to prevent them from committing such acts in the future.

Many of the reported assaults were in circumstances in which commanding officers knew or should have known the crimes were taking place – for example, assaults committed on an apparently regular basis in detention centers under the full control of particular commanders.

Sexual Abuse in Detention

Detention facilities where male and female detainees have reported sexual torture include Military Intelligence Branch 248 and Branch 235 (known as “Palestine Branch”) in Damascus; the Military Intelligence facilities in Jisr al-Shughur, Idlib, and Homs; the Political Security branch in Latakia; the Air Force Intelligence branches in Mezze, Latakia, and Homs; and the Idlib Central Prison.

Salim (all names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees), a soldier who was detained in June 2011 while on leave at the Air Force Intelligence branch in Latakia, was questioned about his brother’s and father’s roles in demonstrations. He told Human Rights Watch:

They started torturing me here (gesturing toward his genitalia) [with the electricity]. They were also beating me and there was a guard behind me turning the electricity on. I passed out. They were beating me and shocking me. The interrogator was beating me with a cable over my whole body. I still didn’t have any clothes on … they asked me every thirty minutes if I would confess.

While a number of female detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they were not sexually abused in detention, others reported that they were subjected to sexual abuse and other torture. One was Sabah, who was detained in the Military Intelligence facility in Jisr al-Shughur, Idlib in November 2011.

“They took my abaya off,” she said. “I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt underneath, and a guard tied my hands behind my back ... He grabbed my breasts … I said, ‘Beat me, shoot me, but don’t put your hand on me.’ … He came to grab my breasts again and I pushed him ... Then he grabbed me by the chest and threw me against the wall. I fell and he started beating me with a stick. On the knee and on the ankle. My ankle was also broken [along with my hand]…”

At least two male former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported hearing women’s screams – in the Air Force Intelligence and Military Intelligence branches in Homs, and an ad hoc shabiha facility in Latakia. Human Rights Watch does not have further confirmation that women were actually held and sexually tortured in these facilities.

All former detainees who described sexual abuse said they had received no medical or psychological treatment in prison for the sexual abuse. Only one of the 10 former detainees interviewed about sexual abuse in detention said she received medical treatment after her release. All of the former detainees interviewed have left Syria.

Read the full report here.