Sunday, September 2, 2012

Syria's road from jihad to prison: For the first time, a Western journalist has been granted access to Assad's military prisoners

    Sunday, September 02, 2012   No comments


by ROBERT FISK

They came into the room one by one, heads bowed, wrists crossed in front of them as if they were used to wearing handcuffs. In one of Syria's most feared military prisons, they told their extraordinary story of helping the armed opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime. One was French-Algerian, a small, stooped man in his forties with a long beard; another Turkish, with what looked like a black eye, who spoke of his training at a Taliban camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border. A Syrian prisoner described helping two suicide bombers set off a bloody explosion in central Damascus, while a mufti spoke of his vain efforts to unite the warring factions against the Syrian government.

Given the unprecedented nature of our access to the high-security Syrian prison, our meetings with the four men – their jailers had other inmates for us to interview – were a chilling, sobering experience. Two gave unmistakable hints of brutal treatment after their first arrest. It took 10 minutes to persuade the prison's military governor – a grey-haired, middle-aged general in military fatigues – and his shirt-sleeved intelligence officer to leave the room during our conversations. Incredibly, they abandoned their office so that we could speak alone to their captives. We refused later requests by the Syrian authorities for access to our tapes of the interviews.

Two of the men spoke of their recruitment by Islamist preachers, another of how Arab satellite channels had persuaded him to travel to Syria to make jihad. These were stories that the Syrian authorities obviously wanted us to hear, but the prisoners – who must have given their interrogators the same accounts – were clearly anxious to talk to us, if only to meet Westerners and alert us to their presence after months in captivity. The French-Algerian wolfed down a box of chicken and chips we gave him. One of the Syrians admitted he was kept in constant solitary confinement. We promised all four that we would give their names and details to the International Red Cross.


Ed Isr

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