Forced confessions: A Syrian drama yet to reach its peak

Forced confessions: A Syrian drama yet to reach its peak

After every confession aired on the pro-Assad television channels, one usually comes across expressions of the following sort online: “It’s been three years now and Syrian TV still hasn’t thought of sending its employees to acting classes? Forget acting classes, what about getting their accents right?” [1] Or perhaps: “He has memorized all the answers to the extent that he is close to answering questions before they’re asked!” [2] These forced confessions, first aired in the second week after the start of the Syrian revolution and which continue to be shown to this day, negatively impact the credibility of the regime’s narrative, even for some of its supporters. This is chiefly because the confessions are unconvincing, due to their mediocre production values or incoherence. Rami, a 33-year-old government employee from Damascus interviewed by Reuters over Skype, says, “I don’t believe that state television is lying in all its reports, but the information contained in these confessions are genuinely contradictory and confusing.” [3] This article will look at the filmed confessions aired on pro-regime stations which many believe to have been extracted by threats or torture, in an attempt to shed light on their most important features and to provide a rough categorization of their different “types”. [4]

Mr. Presenter, sir – Pre-revolutionary confessions

The televised broadcasting of the confessions of convicted criminals began some years before the start of the revolution. Most Syrians still remember The Police in the Service of the People, a programme that highlighted the police force’s achievements in arresting criminals and thieves. Broadcast once a week, the show’s purpose was to remind Syrians to stay out of trouble, because the Syrian security forces would be lying in wait for them, not to mention the fact that the multi-talented presenter, Alaa al-Din al-Ayoubi, would make an example out of them in front of the rest of the country. The show normally began with the presenter giving a quick overview of the case, followed by the criminal going into the details of the crime he or she had committed. It would finish with a brief interview with the police chief or prosecutor in order to thank them and let them advise viewers to stay away from bad company. The programme provided Syrians with a rich source of mockery: the presenter’s moustache and the way he acted were expressive of his obvious, yet unrealized wish to be a police officer, plus the way the criminals would refer to him as “sir” as though he really were one. Furthermore, all confessions followed the same script: How did you spend your ill-gotten gains? On my personal pleasure, sir. And did you need to steal? Not at all, sir. So why did you? The devil and bad company, sir. Are you sorry now? Definitely, sir: very sorry. What would you like to tell the viewers? I’d tell them to keep clear of the path I followed, sir. It was so predictable that lines could be quoted in general conversation to raise a laugh or mock.

Confessions of a saboteur – Foreign intervention

From the outset of the revolution the Syrian regime constructed a narrative in which it was fighting armed gangs and terrorists, a narrative which it disseminates and entrenches using all available media. The same regime loyalists appeared over and over again to dispute accounts of peaceful demonstrations and the excessive targeted violence which they met at the hands of the regime and its militia. News reports and “terrorist confessions” [5] were aired to contradict the video clips disseminated by regime opponents. It all began with the Confessions of a Saboteur series, which broadcast the coerced statements of detainees at irregular intervals on state television. The series began with on March 26, 2011, with a video of Mohammed Radwan, an “Egyptian spy” who had been arrested in the country and who confessed to taking pictures and selling them—at a rate of 100 Egyptian pounds a picture—to a Columbian. The “spy” was released after just one week in detention and returned to Egypt. It subsequently emerged that Mohamed Radwan, an Egyptian engineer with US nationality, had come to Syria nine months before the start of the revolution to work for a petroleum company and had been arrested on March 25, 2011, after he had found himself by chance in the middle of a demonstration and had started taking pictures. At the state security branch where he was taken he was tortured and forced to record a false confession. Mohamed was released after a major media and diplomatic campaign on his behalf. Syrian television did not comment on the fact that this “spy”, who had attempted to “destroy” the country, had been released just one week after his arrest. Nor did his confession do anything to support the regime’s claims, but rather had the opposite effect once the true story of his detention subsequently emerged. [6]

The domestic terror cell

For three weeks after this first confession was aired there was a period of relative calm, during which videotaped confessions disappeared from Syrian screens while the authorities evaluated what had happened. The haphazard application of the The Police in the Service of the People model had been a failure for two main reasons: Undue haste in recording and broadcasting confessions within twenty-four hours of an arrest being made; and Mohamed Radwan’s good fortune in being a US national and belonging to a well-off family in Egypt. Amendments that were introduced to subsequent confessions can be summarized as belonging to one of two principle categories: the first, an increasing reliance on Syrian citizens, to avoid any potential outside political pressure, and the second, the introduction of a new element into the confessions—the commission of acts of armed terrorism.

A series of confessions of “terror cells” began, and ran for more than two years. Perhaps the most significant of these for our purposes was the confession of Shaaban Abdallah Hameidi [7], a child born in 2000, who, his voice confused and his face drained and broken, explained how he had been recruited by a group affiliated with the Free Army’s Ahfad al-Rasul brigade in Aleppo’s Maysar neighbourhood. He received intensive training from his maternal uncle and in just three months operating as a sniper had shot dead thirty-two civilians and Syrian Army soldiers—not to mention members of the Free Army his superiors had asked him to eliminate in return for cash. The boy’s confession concludes with his father finding out about his work and moving from Aleppo to Tartous to free him from his uncle’s clutches. He does not explain how he came to be arrested but finishes with his claim that he is capable of killing absolutely anybody without feeling any regret.

Exporting terrorism

After nearly a year of broadcasting the confessions of Syrian citizens, the pro-regime channels began airing a new type of confession starring foreign Arab nationals, mainly Tunisians and Libyans. These confessions were designed to reveal the role of al-Qaeda and extremist Jihadist groups in sending fighters from other Arab countries to come and fight in Syria. The timing of this series of confessions, which appeared as preparations were being made for the Geneva 1 Peace Conference, was designed to emphasize the importance of the regime’s survival to fight against terrorism in the region. From the very outset, the regime had been careful to portray what was happening in Syrian as a war between secularism and extremism; between the regime and al-Qaeda. The overall message of these confessions was that religious leaders overseas were exploiting the anger of young men (itself the result of watching falsified news reports about events in Syria) and smuggling them over the Turkish border to fight with al-Qaeda.

Sex jihad

After about three months of videotaped statements by Arab mujahideen coming to fight in Syria came the confessions of young women who were engaged in jihad al nikah, or “sex jihad”. The majority of these confessions had the following features:

1. Exaggerated recall of detail to lend the account credibility: Some of the women claimed to remember the full names of all those they had slept with as part of their “sexual jihad”, and some were able to describe exactly what these men looked like.

2. Clear contradictions within confessions: This may be due to discussing on detail at the expense of the overall coherence of the story.

3. Although most of the women had been pressured into performing sexual jihad at first, their subsequent performances would be entirely voluntary—pressure-free—even though they remained unconvinced by the practice.

4. Fear and sadness in the voices of the women.
The confession that received the most negative media coverage was that of young Rawan (born 1997) which was broadcast on September 22, 2013. Rawan [8] stated that her father had forced her to have sex with fighters, terming it “sex jihad”, until she managed to flee and seek refuge with the Syrian Army. It later emerged that Rawan was from the town of Nuwa in Daraa Governorate, and had been abducted at an army checkpoint on her way to school in November 2012. The purpose of the abduction had been to put pressure on her father to hand himself in. Later she was forced to record this confession, which was then broadcast. [9]

An open space

On March 5, 2014, the “confessions” [10] of Maryam Haid, Sheyar Khalil and Hazem Wakid were aired as part of the Unsleeping Eye programme - formerly The Police in the Service of the People. The charges confessed to included participating in peaceful activism, carrying signs containing political demands and fabricating media reports and selling them to actively hostile media outlets. Among the notable features of these confessions were:

1. The videotaped confession turning full circle, its only purpose being confessing to fabricating media reports and dealing with hostile media outlets and foreign agencies.

2. The three activists in question admitted to no more than undertaking peaceful activism to further legitimate political demands.

3. The signs and posters shown in the footage contained generalized democratic demands that did not contravene the law, such as, “All equal before the law” and “Neither arbitrary expulsion nor detentions are lawful”. The name of the group which carried these signs was, furthermore, “Syria for all”.

4. The third activist admitted that he had been in contact with armed operatives, and had taken footage with them to fabricate some of his reports. But even this individual criticized the jihadists, saying that he sought a liberal, open-minded Syria and was against the establishment of the Caliphate.

5. This was the first time hashish was shown on-screen, during footage of the investigation.

6. The “foreign agents” that the regime usually blamed for their involvement, such as Saudi Arabia, Saad al- Hariri (leader of Lebanon’s Future Movement) and Qatar, were not mentioned.

This significant break in the policy governing the broadcast of these confessions—which had charted a steadily escalatory tone since the start of the revolution—might be explained by the hard drive that had been retrieved during the raid in which Maryam and Hazem were detained on January 13, 2014. It seems probable that the individual responsible for creating these confessions sensed an opportunity to produce more lifelike statements. For instance: Maryam gave a pragmatic and convincing explanation of how to fake demonstrations; Video clips that Sheyar talked about are shown. The recital of memorized confessions into the camera is absent; instead, space is left for viewers to put the facts together and draw their own conclusions, albeit firmly guided to accord with the regime’s own narrative.

In conclusion, it might be helpful to summarize the most important features of these forced confessions, features that in some cases contribute to the failure of the confessions to achieve their purpose:

1. Most of the confessions are lifeless and are clearly rote recitals of memorized accounts. [11]

2. Information and events related in the confessions are mutually incompatible. Attention to detail is privileged over overall coherence.

3. Excessive attention to detail to give the impression of realism.

4. The lack of important details, such as the way in which the arrest took place, or the time they spent in prison before making the confession, etc.

5. The release of a considerable number of individuals whose confessions have been broadcast without any official explanation of the reasons for the release.

6. The confessions are the responsibility of security agencies which are highly skilled in extracting forcible confessions, but less skilled in presenting these confessions in a convincing light—mainly because they have never had to.

7. There is no overall vision governing the creation confessions, something that might be explained by the fact that they are being created by more than one security agency, plus the fact that they are generally produced in response to short-term and highly changeable circumstances.

8. The regime’s sense that it still owns and controls the Syrian people and thus does not need to make much of an effort to convince them of its version of events.

The fact that those making these confessions have no sense of any legal responsibility for their actions makes it more likely that they will continue to generate fabricated confessions. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood that the practice will spread to others: units from armed opposition groups have aired confessions of individuals who have been tortured and threatened. This is why the confession industry, that has claimed the lives of so many and continues to threaten the lives and futures of many more, must be criminalized.

Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.

Footnotes

1. Comment circulated by activists on Facebook.

2. Comment circulated by activists on Facebook.

3. Syrians: “Terrorists’” confessions are fabricated, http://www.skynewsarabia.com/web/article/21123...

4. Though the article makes a theoretical distinction between different types of confession, in practice these types interact and combine in a variety of ways.

5. The article does not deal with prepared statements that are read out by regime loyalists for propaganda purposes. This includes the story of the young woman who alleged she was raped in Harasta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWc1GEPAhUQ

6. This is not the only time a former detainee has exposed the reality behind the confessions they were forced to make while in prison. See interviews with Wafaa Morelli (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aMzqaPSYyo), Sheikh Ahmed Al Seyasana (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSSpmjBHZLY) and others.

7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6bE35UJWF0

8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixrlIWa09dE

9. Rawan Qaddah: The girl who was raped twice, by Wessam Kanaan, Al Akhbar, 25/9/2013 (http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/191959)

10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cena70AWrOs

11. In the video linked to here the way in which these confessions are recorded is satirized, with a second voice added to the footage to make it sound as if the confessor is being told what to say live on air: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AQZEMNoK2WY

0 Comments

Add new comment

Add new comment