Women who have been detained in a Damascus prison have described the appalling living conditions they were subjected to while inside.
Mayyada, 28, spent five months in Damascus Central Prison, known as Adra, on charges of supporting terrorism and forming a terrorist organization.
She was released in June following a presidential amnesty which pardoned certain detainees.
According to human rights groups conditions inside Adra, which houses mainly male inmates, are not as bad as at other detention facilities in Syria. However, mistreatment is still widespread.
“We saw things that we thought were taken straight out of a movie,” Mayyada said in an interview with Damascus Bureau about her time in Adra. “Guards would hold a sick woman and push her aggressively into the wall or the floor just because she asked for help.”
According to Mayyada, accessing basic healthcare inside Adra is also “a huge problem”.
“Those who need it can only get it through bribes,” she said. “Otherwise, they are denied medical attention. This is just one of the things we experienced.”
“No one offered any financial support to poor or sick prisoners,” she added.
A report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network published in November 2013 documented accounts of Syrian women who had been arbitrarily detained, raped and tortured at the hands of the Syrian authorities.
The report also stated that such abuses did not receive adequate attention.
“Crimes committed against Syrian women are absent from politicians’ and human rights groups’ agendas. The media also ignores the complex consequences and dimensions of their suffering,” the report stated.
According to rights organizations, hundreds of Syrian men and women have been charged or prosecuted on grounds of supporting terrorist organizations or participating in terrorist activity. The charges are based on Syria’s Counterterrorism Law that was passed in July 2012.
Advocacy groups like the New York-based Human Rights Watch say the law has been broadly overused and applied to acts like distributing humanitarian aid, attending protests, and documenting human rights violations.
A United Nations Security Council resolution passed in February condemned the arbitrary detention and torture of civilians by the Syrian government and demanded their release. Nevertheless, groups like Human Rights Watch say there has been little change in the last eight months.
“Despite the passing of [the resolution] in February we do see that the government does persist in unfairly detaining and torturing detainees,” Lama Fakih, Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
Besides the appalling living conditions, Mayyada said prisoners in Adra were routinely denied effective legal representation.
“There was no accountability for the bad performance of lawyers appointed to defend the prisoners, especially those who don’t even bother to visit their clients,” she said.
“I only saw the lawyer who was supposed to defend me once. A volunteer lawyer started visiting me and following up on my case.”
Sarah, 30, who spent seven months in Adra prison, described similar conditions in an interview with Damascus Bureau.
She, too, was released after the presidential amnesty in June. Sarah and her husband used to provide support to victims of the conflict.
Two years ago, Sarah’s husband disappeared and his whereabouts are still unknown.
Sarah was charged under the Counterterrorism Law with supporting terrorism and forming a terrorist organization.
According to Sarah and Mayyada, female prisoners inside Adra are either opposition activists or regime supporters who have been convicted of various crimes. They said both suffer neglect and ill-treatment, although conditions were worse for opposition activists.
The awful conditions also extend to children who are born in the prison.
One mother gave birth to her son, Hussam, in Adra prison. In 18 months Hussam did not receive any vaccinations.
“He now has asthma and scabies,” his mother told Damascus Bureau.
She said she often wishes Hussam would die because his father left them after she went to prison and she has received death threats from her own family.
Sarah said some organizations were getting certain supplies to prisoners but could only meet “the most basic of needs, such as a few types of medicine and clothing”.
According to Suhad, a lawyer who works with detainees, money dictates the kind of conditions a prisoner lives in. She said some assistance does reach prisoners and more notorious political prisoners received more support.
“In Adra prison, money allows people to live in the same way they would in their own homes,” she said.
“Different organizations might spend money on a certain prisoners, while others receive no support at all. Often their families are also in no position to support them.”
The lack of assistance for prisoners like Sarah made the conditions almost impossible to bear.
“I forgot everything I had heard about the defamation and false accusations in prison…during my experience there,” she said. “The reality of it was so much worse. There are no words to describe the feeling of being unjustly accused and abused.”
Campaigns run by human rights groups opposing arbitrary detention left Sarah bitter and frustrated at their inability to intervene.
“Facebook pages of many people I didn’t even know were filled with photographs of me and appeals for my freedom,” Sarah said. “But I received no real support when I needed it inside prison. They satisfied themselves with naïve slogans.”
“Most organizations claim they are defending human rights, but in reality all they do is promote themselves to secure more funding,” Sarah added.
Sarah and Mayyada both acknowledged the risks involved for outsiders who seek to communicate with prisoners or attempt to provide support. Some prisoners have reported instances where their relatives have been imprisoned for seeking contact with them.
Fakih at Human Rights Watch said it was simply not possible for organizations to provide direct legal assistance to detainees.
“The ability for civil society organizations to operate in Syria obviously decreased exponentially because the government has shut down and targeted individuals that advocate on behalf of detainee rights,” she said.
“We do know that there are some Syrian lawyers who continue to advocate on behalf of individuals in detention in Syria but their numbers are dwindling because they themselves have been targeted by the Syrian government.”
It is also largely impossible to deliver even basic supplies such as medicine or clothing.
“The challenge is that outside organizations do not have access to detainees in detention,” Fakih said. “We have been calling for the Syrian government to allow independent monitors into detention facilities to monitor conditions and provide services for detainees. Obviously the government is not allowing that to happen.”