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S1E2: Al Khatib Street or "Hell on Earth"

Branch 251
May 7, 2020
27
 MIN
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English
May 7, 2020
27
 MIN

S1E2: Al Khatib Street or "Hell on Earth"

This episode takes you into Branch 251. Or Al Khatib Branch, as it is known among survivors. Your hosts Karam and Fritz talked to them. Based on their accounts, this is how a detainee's journey looks like from arrest and arrival at the Branch, to the cells and interrogation rooms -- or better: torture chambers.

This episode takes you into Branch 251. Or Al Khatib Branch, as it is known among survivors.

Your hosts Karam and Fritz talked to them. Based on their accounts, this is how a detainee's journey looks like from arrest and arrival at the Branch, to the cells and interrogation rooms -- or better: torture chambers.

A word of warning: better not listen with kids or just before going to bed. This will likely be the most gruesome episode of the entire podcast. But it is reality. It is the 21st century. In Syria. It is Branch 251.

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Subscribe to keep every episode coming to you automatically every week. If you would like to support the podcast, go to our website and click 'Support This Podcast'.

You can follow us on Twitter @Fritz_Streiff and @KaramShoumali.

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Some additional sources on this episode and the trial here:

Bernard for The New York Times, 'Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent', 11 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/11/world/middleeast/syria-torture-prisons.html

Violations Documentation Centre, 'Report on Khateeb Branch- State Security, The Testimony of the Detainee Yaser Abd Al-Samad Hussen Karmi', August 2013: http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/khatibbranch#.XrPe9xMzZE4

Will Christou and Walid Al Nofal, 'Torture and death: Life in al-Khateeb detention center', 29 April 2020, https://syriadirect.org/news/torture-and-death-life-in-al-khateeb-detention-center/#.XqmQsc2e9co.twitter

@ECCHR Berlin hearing summaries can be found here: https://ecchr.eu/en/case/trial-monitoring-first-trial-worldwide-on-torture-in-syria/…

Weekly monitoring reports by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC): https://syriaaccountability.org/topic/trial-monitoring/updates/…

@MansourOmari survived the Syrian regime’s torture and is blogging for @AmnestyUK, Part 2 here: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/blogs/campaigns-blog/syrian-torture-trial-koblenz-germany-part-2

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Logo design by laurenshebly.nl -- Photo by James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images.

Episode Transcript

Karam Shoumali: Hey, hey. You're good?

Fritz Streiff: Hey, Karam. I'm just trying to find Branch 251 on Google Maps actually, but I can't seem to find it.

Karam: Well, you're not trying to Google Branch 251, right, on Google Maps?

[laughter]

Fritz: I did put in Branch 251, Damascus, Syria. Obviously, I didn't really expect any results. What we know is it's close to Baghdad Avenue, right?

Karam: You're in Google Maps now, right?

Fritz: Yes.

Karam: Near there, we know that it's close to Al Hilal Hospital. If you look now [crosstalk].

Fritz: Al Hilal.

Karam: A hospital sign, that's the Red Cresent hospital.

Fritz: Okay, Al Hilal.

Karam: Do you see it? [crosstalk]

Fritz: I see, yes. I found it. It's on the South end of Al-Khatib Street, right?

Karam: Yes, exactly. Al-Khatib, actually, is how Branch 251 is referred to in Syria by survivors. They call it [Arabic language] in Arabic. You see where Baghdad Avenue meets Al-Khatib Street?

Fritz: You mean the large, green spot in between the apartment blocks?

Karam: Right, yes. I think to the South, there is a row of apartment blocks. The central one. From all we know, it's the central one. That's it.

Fritz: That's Branch 251?

Karam: Yep.

Fritz: Up the road from the Red Crescent hospital?

Karam: Yeah, that is your branch, Branch 251.

Fritz: Wow, so close to the hospital. That is morbid.

[music]

Karam: Welcome back, listeners. This is the second episode of Branch 251, the podcast about the world's first criminal trial dealing with accusations of atrocity crimes by Syrian officers. My name is Karam Shoumali.

Fritz: I am Fritz Streiff.

Karam: Well, what will we be talking about today, Fritz? There's no court this week.

Fritz: Right. After the first four intense days of court sessions, there is a break now until the 18th of May. Today, we'll give you, listeners, some background on the case. We'll take you on a journey into Branch 251 itself.

Karam: Like you tried to do on Google Maps, right? [laughs]

Fritz: I just wanted to see where it was. I just wanted to get an impression and to get a feeling for the location. It's really very interesting that it's right in the city. It's not in some sort of a desert location or something. It's not in the center, center, but it is in a completely normal neighborhood. To be honest, it kind of reminds me of the infamous interrogation and torture prison that East German Intelligence Service, the Stasi, used in Berlin in a neighborhood called Hohenschönhausen. That prison also was hidden in plain sight in a residential neighborhood like that and I find it fascinating.

Karam: Yes, it's not far from where I live, actually, here in Berlin. Well, at this point, I think it's the right moment to give a bit of a warning. In this episode, we will go on a journey inside the torture prison of Branch 251. Survivors have actually called it Hell on Earth. This episode will contain descriptions of the inside and the circumstances of being imprisoned there, the torture methods. It will be heavy, but we talked to survivors. These are their stories, their accounts, and their memories. This is their reality. Look, the victims in this trial were at Branch 251 between April 2011 and September 2012. Out there, there are so many victims that were at the Branch after that. In 2013, 2014, '15, and up until now. This is how it's still today. This is still happening while we're talking. Better not listen with kids or just before going to bed.

Fritz: Okay, let's do this. How do I have to imagine this back in 2011, Karam? Is it enforcers like what Eyad A is accused of, that they would hunt down so-called illegal demonstrators, ambush them, arrest them, put them in mini busses, and drive them down to Branch 251?

Karam: Yes. Those enforcers are plain-clothed officers in nondescript vehicles. They ambush you, sometimes, trick you into coming to a certain place. They make a friend of yours call you and arrange a meeting and that's where they show up. they arrest you usually after a demonstration, after the Friday prayers, or maybe a political sit-in on just another Sunday in Syria, on the street, or wherever they would find you. Even in front of your kids. It just doesn't matter. They are on a mission to arrest you. They use zip ties to handcuff you, very tight ones. It feels like it's cutting into your wrists.

They push you into some sort of mini busses usually with other detainees inside already with your jacket or sweater pulled all the way over your head so you can't really see where the car is going or the faces of the agents. While they push you into the car, they are constantly beating you all over your body and swearing at you with insults.

Fritz: What kind of insults do I have to imagine?

Karam: Well, profane insults like [Arabic language] which means something like 'your brother' or 'son of a whore' [crosstalk] stuff like that. I'm sorry for the language. Of course, the swear words in Arabic are gender-based. When they arrest women, they call them whores and bitches. That comes with also electric shocks with these kinds of sticks. They are loaded with high voltage. They are like tasers, like improvised ones.

Fritz: In a way, during these arrests, the violence and the real abuse and early stages of torture already start on the way to Branch 251.

Karam: Yes, they would take you straight there or to one of its nearby subsections. It depends really where you are picked, but eventually, you would end up at Branch 251. You just arrive at the parking lot and it's really just another parking lot of what used to be, and still looks like a residential building. They drag you inside, down, straight to the basement where nobody can hear you or hear your screams. Not really straight to a cell because first, there is what the guards would call the 'welcoming party' which is a--

Fritz: The welcoming party?

Karam: Yes, the welcoming party, which is strange, right?

Fritz: Yes.

Karam: According to some of the survivors we talked to, this is how the guards actually refer to your first round of beating at the Branch. The welcoming party. It's really dark how humor finds its way into the craziest of places and horrifying and moment.

Fritz: Dark humor.

Karam: Dark humor, yes.

Fritz: What happens at that welcoming party?

Karam: Whether you arrive on your own or with other detainees, any soldier or agent present at that facility at the time of your arrival would take part into beating you. It's a sadistic spectacle. They'll just whip you with electric cables, when you fall down, they kick you on the face and on your head with their military boots, heavy leather ones, on your back, your hips, thighs, face. A big chance you will leave the welcoming party with some broken ribs, or fingers, or nose. The cursing you heard in the car was just the appetizer. This can take up also to an hour or so basically, until whenever they feel like they had enough or maybe you go unconscious. They don't want to kill you at this stage. They still need to interrogate you. They are not done with you yet.

Fritz: In a way, they're just setting the tone for what's to come. What happens then after the welcoming party? They get thrown into the cell?

Karam: Not yet. After that round of beating, because you've just arrived, right? There's a procedure for some sort of a check-in. After that round of beating is done, they would ask you to strip naked, take all of your clothes off and they inspect you thoroughly. Thorough inspection. Survivors actually described this part as traumatizing. It's very degrading.

They conduct a thorough search of your cavities, your private parts. Female survivors actually told me that this was one of the most traumatizing experiences at the Branch because they just arrived and they don't expect.

This is their first experience at an interrogation branch and they don't expect such a thing to happen right away. What usually happens after the beating is that they call your name one by one to go into another room. There is a guy who basically checks you into the facility. He's your totally average bureaucrat. All he wants from you is your ID, address, and some personal information. He asks you to write down all of the information on a sheet of paper. This has happened right after the beating, so you're not in a position to be able to think straight or write down things. Imagine even doing that with a broken hand, or a finger, or a bleeding nose.

Fritz: After you get in and you get tortured at this weird welcoming party, you get stripped and you get checked thoroughly. Then, you would meet the bureaucrat, the administrator, who "just does his job" and registers your information like that?

Karam: Yes. These state torture systems and branches still need bureaucrats to run them, right? Not just torturers, and jailers, and stuff.

Fritz: Yes, it reminds me of the category of the let's say, so-called desk criminals during similar state-sponsored crimes against humanity in history. You always have these guys behind the desk doing the paperwork. It's fascinating I find how criminal regimes like that just document their activities pretty meticulously. Then one day, that document administration could be used as evidence in a court of law against those perpetrators. Like at this trial in Koblenz now, you know?

Karam: Yes.

Fritz: I guess then really the cells.

Karam: Well, as for the cells, from the description of survivors, Branch 251 has some two rows of cells on each side of the basement, and there is a small space in between. That's where usually the guards and jailers would install their bunker beds. The total number of cells is 29, 24 for solitary confinement. Those are usually 270x70 centimeters.

Fritz: That's small.

Karam: There are five criminal cells. Those are bigger ones. Up to 16 square meters. The cells have no indoors or ventilation and they are lit 24 hours a day with some fluorescent light. That's part of one you would use in a parking lot. It can be blinding, the first few days. You just stare up there and it takes some maybe getting used to. That's why most of the people lose track of their night and time.

Fritz: There's already a psychological torture method as well right there?

Karam: Yes, totally. Maybe for sleep deprivation or you become disoriented. Around the time that Anwar R was in charge of this facility, cell number 28 was dedicated for women detainees, then at the women section. Around that time survivors told us that it would take up to 50 or 60 women.

Fritz: In that cell at the same time?

Karam: Yes.

Fritz: Crowded.

Karam: Yes, after the welcoming party and the bureaucrats job, you would be thrown into one of these. Filthy, smelly, damp cells and infested with bugs. Blood splashes on the walls and really cold in winter and suffocating in summer. After busy days actually, these cells get overcrowded. They would sometimes put you with one or two other inmates in the individual cells. The communal ones would sometimes take up to 120 detainees. You would be standing stuck next to one another. It is relatively a small prison for the massive numbers that were and are detained there over the years. It's just a basement of a two-story middle-sized residential building.

Fritz: Yes, I was going to say what we saw there on google maps. It looks like two-story-high, and not super wide and long either. Then you have the cell structure in the basement. That cell structure roughly had a capacity of up to 500 inmates at any given time, depending on how busy it was. Because it was a relatively small building, it could get totally overcrowded, right?

Karam: Yes, roughly around 500, but that's a big number for that small space. That's actually one of the reasons also the lack of hygiene. The fact that it's very crowded causes health problems and chances are you would get skin rashes, and other easily contagious diseases. One disease that survivors described as widespread is a large swelling, mainly on the feet and hands. The affected area gets swollen and blood and pus comes out. Of course, you don't get to wash yourself or take care of your wounds. In the communal cells, for example, you and your fellow inmates would use a valve next to the hole in the ground toilet for washing your face and arms. Also, for drinking, you're drinking actually from toilets.

Fritz: Oh my God, yes. Yes, this is unfortunately not where a regular detainee's journey ends. At this point, this is just a cell. Where does the journey take us next, Karam?

Karam: Yes, unfortunately, it continues. If you're brought to Branch 251, they usually want to get information from you. Where the police make you confess to whatever they accused you of, whether you did or did not do it. That happens in the interrogation rooms.

Fritz: I guess you could also call those interrogation rooms torture chambers almost, right? There was a whole arsenal of torture methods used in those interrogation rooms. There are really too many to mention, but you have for example the so-called German chair. That is a torture method used for breaking the victim's back by basically binding the victim with the back towards the lower middle back of the chair. Then another one is they handcuff you by one hand on the ceiling for hours and hours and hours. Then when you fall asleep they wake you up by splashing cold water in your face, trampling on your face and head, electroshocking or tying up the male sex organ to obstruct urination and inflict incredible pain like that.

Other sexual violence as well, segued burns all over your body. The accounts from survivors are really incredible sometimes. One of them told us that one of his torturers was special. Whenever he wouldn't corporate they would call this special torture guy. They would yell out, "Bring the one-eyed guy, bring the one-eyed." Then this guy would come into the interrogation room and continue the torture. The survivor could see him through his blindfold because it wasn't 100% tight. Indeed, that guy, that torturer really just had one eye and was blind on the other. When you hear about this stuff, it seems like you are walking through a medieval torture museum. This is the 21st century in Syria. This is Branch 251.

Karam: This is like a horrible horror movie. This all sounds like a nightmare. I would be dreaming about this guy.

Fritz: Yes, after these horrible interrogation and torture sessions, detainees would probably just be thrown back into their cells? How does that continue?

Karam: Well, yes. If you could walk. You would be accompanied back to your cell, but if you are limping, you would get forcefully dragged. Especially during the first days of your stay, when they want to break you. This is what the system is built for, to break you.

Fritz: Right, perhaps this is a good moment to remind ourselves and the listeners here that this Syrian state-sponsored torture machine is really an apparatus and a system that is, of course, much bigger than Branch 251. A report in the New York Times from May 2019, referred to 128,000 detainees who were presumed to be either dead or still in custody over all these years. At least 14,000 individuals killed under torture over the years. Just to remind ourselves, that this is really a systematic torture and a killing apparatus that we're talking about here.

Karam: These numbers, Fritz, are not small. When we say 128,000 and 14,000. For this trial, we're looking at 58 counts of death, murder, and 4,000 of torture. Look, this number, 128,000. Also, it's not for a good psychological impact as well. What we just rightfully called the apparatus also, uses psychological torture that inflicts pain. Unseen pain, pain you can't see. During interrogation, they would tell you that your mother or brother or sister or any loved one actually is next door being tortured. On many occasions that's true. They will go through hell until you confess to whatever they are charging you with.

Fritz: Yes, talking about psychological torture, one of the survivors says that he knew a man who was so incredibly tortured psychologically like that that he completely lost it. Especially when his torturer started talking about his three daughters like that. Yes, that man died in custody and he never saw those daughters again.

Karam: Yes, and if you don't die in custody, you carry this with you for the rest of your life. Another survivor we talked to says that when she realized that she would fall asleep to the screams of torture and wakes up again to the screams of torture, she would never be the same person again.

Nuran: After a few days of being there in that tiny space, and after I realized that I'm falling asleep to screams of torture and I'm waking up to screams of torture and I am still at that tiny space. I know that isn't just a nightmare. Your feelings die at that moment. you know that you might not be the same person afterwards. It is a psychological torture.

Fritz: Thank you so much for that comment, Nuran, and thank you for contributing to this podcast again. We really appreciate it. What then, Karam? How long would you usually be detained?

Karam: Well, it depends on how lucky you are. Some for a few days, others for a few months, but we also know of survivors who stayed at the Branch for about a year or a year and a half and then they usually would get transferred to either another branch or a so-called regular prison. It all depends on your case and what you're being accused of.

Fritz: That was our journey into Branch 251 or into, "Hell on Earth." Like we said, this is some really crazy stuff and it's not easy to digest. Like we said, it's real. I think one thing that we can promise our listeners, Karam, or I don't know if we can promise it, but I think it's fair to say that this is likely the most gruesome episode of our podcast now. It's right at the beginning, but--

Karam: This is what this trial is all about, right?

Fritz: Yes.

Karam: I think we have some questions from our listeners. I'm not trying to change the topic, but like [laughs], we reached the end of our journey. Now we have couple of questions from our listeners.

Fritz: There was one question in particular that actually two listeners wanted to know more about. Came from Felina, from Leipzig, and Natasha from New York City. They wondered why the trial is taking place in Koblenz of all German cities and not for example, Berlin.

Karam: That's actually a good question because we discussed last time why Germany has universal jurisdiction, but not why this trial ended up taking place in Koblenz. I've been living in Germany for over two years now, and this is the first time I've heard of Koblenz.

Fritz: I haven't been there either.

Karam: We'll be going there soon.

Fritz: Yes, we'll be going there soon and we'll check it out ourselves. From what I hear from people, it's a really picturesque town in West Germany, on the Rhine River, between Cologne and Frankfurt. It's not far from the borders with Belgium, Luxemburg and France. The reason the trial is taking place there is pretty simple. The criminal investigation was led by the Federal German police BKA which is like the German FBI. Then the defendants were arrested in two different places in Germany, Anwar R in Berlin and Eyad A in Rhineland Pfalz, which is the federal province that Koblenz is also in.

Karam: Oh, yes, that's the link to Koblenz because Eyad A was arrested in Koblenz, but Anwar was arrested in Berlin so why not Berlin then?

Fritz: Right, Eyad A was arrested in the province that Koblenz is in, in another place, but that was the jurisdiction. It's true that Anwar R was arrested in Berlin and you might say that would be the more likely location for a trial like this.

Karam: It's the capital, it's a big city.

Fritz: We talked to some people who know how these things go behind the scenes and they said that Berlin courts were probably just too busy and did not have the capacity to deal with a complex trial like this. That is why the indictment was eventually filed at the Koblenz court and it was accepted there. It seems that also Anwar R is in the meantime been transferred from Berlin to Koblenz for detention.

Karam: Well, it's good to have you as the lawyer guy on this podcast. [chuckles]. Here's the second question that's from Maarten in Haarlem in the Netherlands. He's asking us why this trial will take so long after they already went through so much of the story in the first four days. It feels like so much, right? Reading the whole thing. We said in our previous episode that it will take two to three years.

Fritz: Yes, and that is a long time obviously.

Karam: Well, then we are in for a long podcast if this trial lasts that long, you know?

Fritz: Yes. Just to explain the reason that these trials can take so long is that they are really complex, obviously. Let's just look at the amount of charges the defendants are facing. You said it before, 4,000 counts of torture, 58 of murder and so on and so on. The prosecutor will have to prove all of those charges. Obviously, that takes a while, especially because in Germany you have what they call principle of immediacy. That means that every single piece of evidence has to be presented individually to the court. Looking at the amount of charges that we just mentioned, you do the math, Karam.

Karam: Yes, we got at least a couple of years pretty fast then. Also from what I understand, this all depends on the defendant's strategy. If they decide--

Fritz: Yes. If the defendants decide to admit everything or parts and maybe even cooperate, not all of that evidence has to be proven in the same way in court. We don't know that yet. They haven't spoken yet. We're expecting that to happen during the next court sessions. If that happened, that would shorten things significantly. On the other hand, if they decide to use all the defendants' rights as they are entitled to, then that whole thing could take even longer than two, three years.

Karam: What you are saying is we really can't tell at this stage, it's a little bit early.

Fritz: Exactly. If any other listeners have questions about Branch 251, the podcast, the trial, the case, do let us know, send us a message. You can find us on Twitter and we'll also put our Twitter handles in the show notes. We will try to answer as many questions as we can.

Karam: That's it for the second episode. What do you think we should do for next week?

Fritz: There will still be no court sessions next week. The trial will resume on the 18th of May. We are going to take another journey into the background of the case. This time we'll talk about the investigation that proceeded the trial. How did the case come about? What role did victims organizations play in that whole investigation? How were the two defendants arrested in early 2019?

Anwar Al-Bunni: I ran into Anwar at the refugees camp where we both lived. I didn't recognize him at the first time. My friends later told me that Anwar R is staying at the same camp. That it's when I knew it's was him.

Karam: That was the Syrian lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni. Fate brought him face to face with Anwar R here in Berlin at the refugee center where they both lived. Now justice brings them face to face again, in a court of law. We will listen to Anwar's story in the next episode or better say, the two Anwars.

Fritz: Yes, two Anwars.

Karam: Until then, thank you for listening. If you like this podcast, subscribe and tell your friends and colleagues.

Fritz: You can also support this podcast by following the link in the show notes or clicking on the Support This Podcast button on our website.

Karam: Branch 251 is produced and hosted by us, I'm Karam Shoumali.

Fritz: I'm Fritz Streiff. We'll see you next time on Branch 251.

Karam: See you then.

 


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