Torture and despair: The Islamic State group's Syrian jails

Torture and despair: The Islamic State group's Syrian jails
The IS group runs a network of brutal prisons across the territory it holds in Syria. Take a look inside.
7 min read
The Islamic State group brooks no dissent [Anadolu]
Since the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) took control of approximately one-third of Syrian territory, concentrated in the north and east of the country, it has imposed its own institutions, laws and punishments on the populations under its rule.

It has established its own judiciary, security agencies, prisons and detention centres. 

IS prisons are crammed full of civilians, fighters from the Free Syrian Army, journalists and activists. Many of the prisoners held in these prisons are anonymous, their identities unknown to the world outside.

Crime and punishment

Anyone who opposes the IS' rules is detained, old or young, civilian or fighter. The charges under which they are held vary. An activist in Raqqa told al-Araby al-Jadeed that civilians were arrested every day for breaking IS laws.

They are punished in accordance with the IS' interpretation of the Islamic doctrine of hisbah ["accountability"], the divinely sanctioned duty of the ruler to intervene and coercively command right and forbid wrong.

This can range from the enforcement of "Islamic" standards of clothing to the mixing of the sexes in public areas, blasphemy or "sins" such as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.
     The intensity of torture varies. The fighters of the Free Syrian Army are tortured the most.
- Bilal Abdul Salam, former IS prisoner

"There are also other reasons for detention, such as not paying taxes on shops in return for protection," said the Raqqa activist.

Those who fail to abide by the law, he explained, have to pay a fine as a first step, then the shop is closed and its owners are detained on charges of blasphemy.

Ahmad Merhej, a survivor of an IS prison, said he was detained on charges of evading IS taxes he should have paid for running a business in the Deir ez-Zour region.

He received a two-month sentence and a fine of 100,000 Syrian pounds (equivalent to $600). Speaking to al-Araby, Merhej explained the punishment meted out to other inmates.

"The sanctions depend on the IS-affiliated religious courts, which review the charges and decide on the punishment," he said. "Abuses range from imprisonment, flogging, fines and exile to death, which may be inflicted through crucifixion, hanging, stoning or shooting."

General prisons

The IS group carries out arrests on an almost daily basis in the territories it controls, placing people in its infamous "general detention facilities", where inmates serve their sentence or undergo further investigation.

Bilal Abdul Salam is a former detainee in his twenties. He was held in a detention facility north of Aleppo on charges of publicly blaspheming.

"Some IS-run detention facilities are like schools or state institutions, with closed doors and strict security measures," he told al-Araby. "The religious committee affiliated with the group determines the punishment.

"The intensity of torture varies from prison to prison. The fighters of the Free Syrian Army are tortured the most. They do not spend a long time at these general prisons as they are immediately transferred to special prisons."

Juvenile detention

There are also children in the IS-run prisons. Abdul Salam recalls that a 13-year-old child was imprisoned with his father for a month and a half, each of them held in a separate cell.

"He was not the only child I saw," he said. Many were imprisoned by IS on a variety of charges, including blasphemy, Abdul Salam said.

Secret prisons

Detention facilities are understood to exist in all regions controlled by the IS group. Abu-Moujahid al-Halabi, a commander who defected from the IS, told al-Araby what he knew about IS prisons in Syria.

He said there were many prisons in the Deir ez-Zour countryside, but the one located in the border city of Alboukamal was the most secret. It even held members of the IS itself, alongside journalists and important figures the group placed there to transfer easily to Iraq in case of the jail coming under attack.

"There are also secret prisons west of Deir ez-Zour, mainly in Jabal Tabous in the town of Al-Shmayta, in Manjam al-Milh near the town of al-Tabni, in Zaghir Shamiyah and al-Wahda al-Irshadiyah," he added.

"The prison of Akirshah, in a village located 20km east of Raqqa city, is one of the most important and largest IS prisons in Syria. It is one of the group's secret prisons, holding foreign and Arab detainees."

IS prisons are understood to resemble those of the Syrian regime, with execution rates high [Anadolu]

The local municipality building is one of the key detention facilities in Raqqa.

But al-Sad prison in the city of al-Tabaqah remains the most important, said Halabi, where most foreign journalists are held, along with faction leaders of the Free Syrian Army.

"One must also mention the prison in the city of Tal Abyad. As for Aleppo, Manbaj and Dayr Hafir prisons are the most important," he added.

According to testimonies of former detainees in these prisons, some IS members were also detained there, including local leaders including Abu Wakid al-Tabaqa, Abu Islam al-Halabi, and Kuwait Hussein Rida.

Organised torture

Those detained by the Syrian regime might be surprised by how closely an IS prison resembles the prisons of President Bashar al-Assad's administration.

In an IS prison, it is common to find bleeding and swollen faces from torture and bodies worn-out from flogging, Radi Niman, a survivor from Akirsha Prison in Raqqa, told al-Araby.

"The inmates ask for death to escape from ruthless torture, which starts with verbal insults, and runs to flogging, the wheel and threats of beheading," he said.

"Most deaths are caused by disease. All who get sick will inevitably die. No doctors or medicines are available, except for the inmates the group wants to keep alive to swap with other prisoners."

Raji Salman works with young people to document IS violations.

"Most IS prisons are secret; only a few are public," he said. "The worst forms of torture and abuses are practiced and there is no reliable figures for the number of detainees held at the group's prisons. Every day more youths disappear into IS prisons, although the group denies it holds them in order to escape responsibility for their death from torture."

According to Salman, 110 deaths from torture at IS prisons were documented in Raqqa between May and September.

Many detainees are tortured. Executions are usually carried out in public as a form of deterrence. Most of those tortured inside the prisons belonged to rival groups, and are tortured to extract information from them.

Raji also said the prison in the governorate building and the al-Sad prison in al-Tabaqa city were two places visited by families on a daily basis to ask about the detainees, but in most cases their visits were faced with stonewalling.


     The inmates ask for death to escape from ruthless torture.
- Radi Niman, former IS prisoner

Sources in regions controlled by the IS said the warders at secret and public prisons alike were foreigners - because the group did not trust the Syrians, many of whom reportedly expressed sympathy with the prisoners and helped them escape.

Zaher Rawwas, a former prisoner in al-Sad prison in Raqqa, spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed about the prisoners he lived with inside the detention facility.

"Prisoners live with merciless warders, some of whom are under 18 years old, torturing men as old as their fathers. Many of the warders come from Iraq and have expertise in running and organising prisons," he said.

Rawwas recalls the name of one of the warders. "If you have been to al-Sad prison or others in Raqqa, you must have heard about Khatib Al-Jazrawi, who runs the Raqqa prisons.

"Most detainees have experienced his cruelty. Once he steps into a cell, the inmates become quiet and turn their faces to the wall. No one even dares to look him in the eye."

International reports

Amnesty International criticized IS practices in its detention facilities prisons across Syria in a recent report. In its 18-page briefing, Rule of Fear: IS Abuses in Detention in Northern Syria, Amnesty says "IS has ruthlessly flouted the rights of local people".

The report identifies seven detention facilities that the IS used in the governorates of Raqqa and Aleppo.

Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Programme, said the list of detainees and abductees known to be held at IS prisons included children.

Human rights activist Lamis Abd speculated that some 18,000 Syrians were detained by the IS in the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour Governorates, saying that extrajudicial executions were carried out on civilians in prisons without charges being formally brought against them.

This is the second in an exclusive al-Araby series examining conditions inside the Islamic State group's prisons. Catch up with the first part: Inside the gulags of the Islamic State group in Iraq

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.