‘It is a Forever Stigma’ The role of gender discrimination in the Syrian government’s detention and torture system

The government of the Syrian Arab Republic has wielded a vast detention and torture system over its citizens for decades, the terror of which is felt by Syrians inside and outside the country to the present day. In 2011, the torture perpetrated by government officials was one of the sparks that ignited the Syrian revolution, with some of the earliest protests breaking out in response to the detention and torture of teenage boys in Dara’a. Since that time, the government has ramped up its practice of arbitrary detention and torture to an industrial scale. As many as 155,604 people have been imprisoned since the start of the uprising and outbreak of armed conflict, and it is estimated that over 17,000 have been killed in government detention facilities. The actual number of victims is impossible to calculate and many entities, including United Nations (UN) investigative mechanisms, do not even provide estimates.

It is well-recognised that people of all genders number among the victims of torture in Syria, and that women, girls, men, boys, and non-binary people suffer in distinct ways behind the walls of detention centres. However, the extent to which gender discrimination pervades the detention system, and animates the actions of individual perpetrators within it, has been insufficiently documented. Yet gender is one of the main factors determining the treatment that detainees receive at the hands of government officials. With the Syrian government coming under increasing scrutiny in courts throughout the world, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the role of gender discrimination in driving the government’s actions cannot be neglected. In fact, understanding the role of gender discrimination unlocks a systematic approach for analysing – and indicting – the Syrian government’s actions.

This report demonstrates the role of gender discrimination in the Syrian government’s detention and torture system by recreating the detention experience through the words of 69 former detainees- 33 male detainees and 36 female detainees, including three children – who were captured by the system and spent a combined total of approximately 15,285 days (more than 41 years) in detention. The information provided by survivors shows that gender discrimination occurs from the moment of arrest and continues throughout the period of detention, influencing everything from the conditions in which detainees are held to the interrogation and torture methods inflicted upon them. The report concludes that gender discrimination is not peripheral to the way in which the system operates. It is central to the Syrian government’s purpose, revealing some of the main objectives behind the terror campaign that has been waged against the Syrian people for the past 13 and a half years, namely domination, humiliation, dehumanisation, and discord.