Written By Luna Watfa
Translated to English by Diane Lockyer
Since the beginning of the trial of the accused, Anwar Raslan began in April 2020, in Koblenz, Germany, many witnesses and prosecutors have come to courtmost of whom were former detainees, or defectors, but for the first time a former doctor who had worked for two years in Red Crescent Hospital adjacent to Branch 251 Al-Khatib appeared as a witness before the court on 23 June 2021.
« Half of the detainees we saw died due to torture and ill-treatment. Al-Khatib branch members used to take the bodies of detainees to an unknown destination without informing the families. They did not allow us to treat the afflicted correctly. They would beat the sick detainee when he told us that his injury was due to torture or if he asked for water to drink.«
The Red Crescent Hospital doctor’s testimony is one of the most important and impartial testimonies providing a clear picture of what happened and is still happening in the prison cells especially in Branch 251 near the hospital.
Dr. A.D. gave his testimony to the court in German rather than in Arabic and began by saying that he was a pediatrician but had worked in general surgery as a physician’s assistant, as is the case with other specialists in Syria, at the Red Crescent Hospital in Damascus starting from February 24, 2012 until the end of 2013.
The witness described his first encounters with the Al-Khatib Branch around June 2012 when several armed members of the Al-Khatib Branch came to the Red Crescent Hospital and spoke with the head of the ambulance department. They agreed that a medical team from the Red Crescent Hospital would be sent to the Branch whenever needed to treat patients there because the Branch 251 doctor would no longer be present after that date although the witness did not know why.
The Red Crescent Hospital doctors began working at the Al-Khatib Branch around the middle of August which corresponded to the month of Ramadan that year once or twice a week. The doctor described the first time he went there and realized that what was happening in the al-Khatib Branch basement was particularly shocking. A team of three to four doctors was obliged to treat over a hundred detainees in two hours.
“We were completely dazed by what we saw that day because it exceeded everything we had ever studied as doctors. It was unbelievable,” the witness said.
The medical delegation used to go to the al-Khatib Branch under the supervision of Branch members who instructed the doctors where they should enter and how to act – for example how they should not be afraid of what they saw and that they must refrain from talking to detainees about anything other than their illnesses.
If a doctor asked a detainee why he was unable to move his hand for example and the latter answered it was due to torture, an officer would beat the detainee immediately.
The doctor described how he heard many sounds of torture but he had not personally observed a detailed torture process taking place. He described what he had seen and personally treated in the al-Khatib Branch basement: “The injuries were mostly boils, abscesses and wounds on the detainees’ hands and feet, as well as traces on some parts of the body resulting from torture. Most detainees had swelling that was sometimes five times larger than the size of the actual hand or foot. Some wounds on the feet were open ones and some cases of fractures could also be seen.”
“At first, we, as doctors, thought that what had happened to these detainees was the result of previous military battles or confrontations, or perhaps it had happened in another branch, but then some of them started talking to us describing the frequent torment they had been subjected to there while asking for help. As a result, we were convinced that this had happened to them in the Al-Khatib Branch. We had not seen comparable cases in our hospital as the ones we saw there.”
“I also saw chronic diseases such as diabetes and stress which seemed strange to find so prevalent in a prison among young people and it shocked me to see how people of their age had these diseases. Then I began to pay attention to the conditions in which they were placed there: they were in very large numbers, there was no sun and no healthy air, detention was prolonged and I also personally saw the effects of torture on the detainees myself. On one occasion, a detainee’s hand was swollen five times over so we treated it by incising his hand and when the pus was removed it amounted to about 10 litres.”
“People we saw there looked exactly the same as one could see in the Caesar file!”
Doctors were not free to decide who should be transferred to the hospital because of their critical conditions or not as it was up to the officers to decide whether to agree or refuse the transfer. Doctors were not allowed to determine the amount of medicine either even when a patient needed a full box of medicine, the agent would respond by prescribing a single bandage or even just one pill.
The doctor was then asked whether there were cases of angina pectoris – since most of the medical reports issued by the regime for deaths in its prisons indicated that they were the result of a heart attack. The witness replied there were no specific heart attack factors such as age or obesity but the cause of deaths was the poor general conditions which in turn might lead to heart failure and then the heart might cease to function.
Concerning the deaths that he personally observed, the doctor said that the causes varied as some of them had chronic diseases before entering prison, such as kidney failure, asthma, blood pressure and diabetes. However, these cases were rare and most detainees were not aware of their diseases confirming the doctor’s opinion that they had contracted them inside the prison such as kidney failure or heart problems due to the very poor health conditions. He added that there were also many cases of blood poisoning.
When asked about the death rate among those he treated he said around half died.
With regard to the corpses, the witness explained that the doctor’s task was to examine them and monitor their deaths although he was not allowed to determine their cause as a forensic doctor would do and he was not allowed to declare that the main cause of death was torture.
The doctors were not allowed to roam around inside the al-Khatib Branch’s basement as they wished or see the torture roomsand yet the doctor was able to see some torture devices such as electric tasers, hot water, sticks and he realized detainees were forced to strip down completely. He also heard people being tortured in these ways.
The witness said that during the first month they worked in Al-Khatib, he personally saw about ten bodies some of whom died later in the hospital and some who died in prison. The first death he witnessed was inside the prison as a result of kidney failure followed by many other deaths varying between chronic diseases, blood poisoning or as a result of malnutrition.
The doctor did not know what happened to the corpses after that but he declared that they were never put in the Red Crescent Hospital cold storage and that the members of the al-Khatib branch took them away but he did not know where. Some of his colleagues though hinted that they were perhaps taken to a military hospital.
When asked if they wrote down the names of the sick detainees on their files when diagnosing the case, he replied that when they were transferred to the hospital, they noted their condition in their files and what they suffered from and if they died, they would add the Al-Khatib branch number to the files.
When the judges asked him about the appearances and how the detainees he treated looked like, he said that their clothes were torn and that they were dirty, they smelled foul, their skins were covered with traces of torture, and their beards were long because, it is believed, they were prohibited from shaving and bathing. The signs of malnutrition were reflected in their pitiful and abnormally thin bodies. The doctor told the judges that none of them had eaten anything in front of him or even drunk water. When he saw detainees who asked for water to drink they were beaten and insulted at once.
The Public Prosecution asked the witness about the approximate number of people he had treated between July and September 2012. He was unable to give an exact number estimating he had treated approximately 1,000 cases during that period although some of them were recurring cases so excluding recurring cases, about 200 detainees.
The doctor estimated he had treated about 200 detainees and 100 of them died. He stressed that none of the detainees’ relatives received the bodies they were seeking.
The treatment of detainees was not limited to the basement of the prison or the hospital, according to the doctor, but also in the garden that belonged to the al-Khatib branch, where bodies could be found too.
The witness was asked about their role as doctors in the event that their assessment of the case differed from that of the Branch’s and which of the two opinions prevailed. He replied that this had occurred and the opinion of the Khatib branch always prevailed. He also admitted that some possible deaths might have been due to the wrong treatment.
The lawyer of the accused Anwar Raslan asked him if he had had a chance to leave his work and not cooperate with the regime. The witness replied that when he started working with the Red Crescent Hospital, everything was going well until the relationship with the Al-Khatib branch began. However, he insisted that what was taking place in that particular Branch was not normal, neither for normal humans nor for the sick.
He described how the situation in Syria had been like that for fifty years where no one could speak and everyone was afraid. The doctors had tried to help the patients as much as they could but they didn’t dare tell their families. On one occasion, the doctor in charge of the Red Crescent Hospital had asked them what they could change and he replied that they had seen with their own eyes that what had not changed would not change for the time being. Their responsibility was to help the sick and that was what they had been doing.
One of his professors at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Aleppo was arrested by one of the security branches who demanded a ransom for his release. When his family did not pay the ransom, he was killed and his headless body was thrown into the street. On another occasion, the emergency doctor at Al-Hilal Hospital refused to go with the officers to Al-Khatib branch because he was the only emergency doctor and could not leave his place of work. Yet any doctor in government hospitals in Syria may be dismissed or transferred should he fail to perform the tasks assigned to him and that was what the situation was like there.
The doctor’s testimony as a witness ended after about five hours during which he recounted everything he witnessed in the Al-Khatib branch, confirming the cases of death, torture and inhuman conditions just as all other witnesses had previously related their own experiences.
After the testimony was completed, the civil rights prosecution attorney, Mr. Sebastian Shermer, confirmed how important it had been and coincided with what many other witnesses had stated during the specified period “from July to September 2012.” The lawyer added that the doctor’s testimony was only what he personally had seen and not everything that had happened during that period. However, the doctor’s testimony provided a clear picture to all of what was happening in the al-Khatib Branch’s basement.