Amid the Syrian civil war and economic crisis, members of the Assad regime continues to amass large bribes from the families of detainees as they are forced to pay in order to free relatives or just to visit them in prison.
A new report by the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) reveals the vast scale of extortion in the detention system, with sums involved rising as high as £2m in one jail.
The money exchanged are likely to be helping senior members of the Assad regime avoid sanctions, a survey of more than 1,200 former prisoners and family members suggests.
ADMSP says guards, judges, members of the military and in some cases middlemen receive cuts as part of a corrupt network that feeds large amounts of cash into the country’s security apparatus.
About a quarter of those surveyed said they had been asked for extortion money. Some paid a few thousand dollars or less, while others – particularly families living in exile – paid up to US$30,000 (£22,000). Officials at one jail extorted about US$2.7m in total, the report suggests.
Diab Serrih, the report’s author and ADMSP co-founder, said the money ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials, warlords and what he called the “deep government ruling Syria behind the scenes”.
“It’s an industry of detention,” he said. “The Syrian regime is built on security and intelligence branches. They pay poor salaries to encourage corruption and the bribes finance this infrastructure of detainment.”
Serrih claimed the system was endorsed by figures within the regime, many of whom are subject to sanctions and unable to hold bank accounts abroad. The total amount in bribes is likely to be much higher than that revealed in the report.
According to estimates by humanitarian watchdogs, between 100,000 and 250,000 people were arrested or forcibly disappeared, beginning before the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011. That number had sharply escalated by the end of 2012.
Tens of thousands of people are believed to have been tortured or killed in Syrian jails since the Arab spring began. Sednaya prison, a military facility on the outskirts of Damascus, has long been considered one of the most formidable institutions in Syria.
The report says forced disappearance is a major strategy of the Syrian state, designed to control and intimidate people. “Arrest and monetary extortion of the population constitute a great source of funding of the state, and its repressive apparatus specifically,” it says.
The report calls for the international community to pressure supporters of the regime, particularly Russia, into revealing the fate of the disappeared and to allow families to visit those still alive. It also demands that officials reveal where the dead were buried and allow DNA testing of remains so that victims can be returned to their families.
Ahmad is one former prisoner who thought he would never see his family again. He was detained in nine different prisons in three years and his family paid US$30,000 in bribes to get him out.
“Like many families, mine kept paying US$1,000 here and US$1,000 there, hoping they were giving it to a person who could get them information,” he said. “Eventually they paid a large sum to a lawyer who told them that some of it will go to a judge and some to the security forces.”
Many families have spent thousands of dollars trying to obtain news of their loved ones but received nothing in return.
Nadia, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, said she last saw her husband when he travelled to Damascus in December 2012 to renew identity papers. “He was in a car with his father and seven others,” she said. “The last thing we heard was that they had reached Homs. All nine disappeared.”
In 2016 a neighbour told Nadia that a nephew in the military could help release her husband and father-in-law in exchange for cash. To raise the money, she sold land and a house in Syria, borrowed money from relatives and even sold her jewellery.
“We paid US$5,000,” said Nadia. “Later, we were told that their release was imminent but that another US$5,000 was needed. After the payment was made through a western Union transfer, they disappeared. It was a scam.
“It felt like it was so close and all in my hands, and when it didn’t happen, I broke down.” (Source: The Guardian)