Horrific death toll of Syrian civil war

Syrian doctor has told how he was tortured and forced to watch other prisoners die in regime jails as a report reveals almost 18,000 detainees have died during the country's brutal civil war.

Amnesty International says an average of 10 people have been killed every day by beatings, disease and neglect in secretive detention facilities controlled by Bashar al-Assad's forces over the past five years.

Survivors have given horrific accounts of rape and abuse in overcrowded cells where prisoners are left to suffocate and succumb to illness or starvation.

Bashar Farahat, a 32-year-old doctor, was working in a hospital in Latakia province when he was arrested by officers from Syria's notorious Military Intelligence Directorate in July 2012.

"The minute you get in the car you disappear," he told The Independent. "You don't know anything about the world outside and the world outside doesn't know anything about you.

"Once you are detained you become the property of the guards and the interrogators can do anything to you to get a confession."

Mr Farahat believes he was reported to the authorities for supporting anti-government protests and treating those injured in the ensuing regime crackdown.

The trainee paediatrician was taken to the headquarters of the Military Intelligence branch in Latakia and subjected to a so-called "welcome party", where new arrivals are beaten publicly by groups of officers armed with metal bars and electric cables.

"They hit you with whatever they want, whatever they have - I arrived alone, so I had a full party," he said, with a bitter laugh. 

It was only the start of the ordeal Mr Farahat would go through for a fortnight of torture at the hands of government interrogators, who were searching for the names of other suspected revolutionaries to hunt down.

Unsatisfied, officials transferred him to the much larger headquarters of Military Intelligence Branch 291 in Damascus.

"I was blindfolded and they handed me over to an officer who started insulting me," Mr Farahat recalled. "He said: 'I will make sure you will never, never see the sunlight again.' I thought it could be true."

He was put in a cell measuring just five by six metres that contained more than 100 men, mostly suspected of conspiring against the Assad regime.

"I just don't remember how I survived," Mr Farahat said, describing horrific conditions during his four-month imprisonment including extreme heat, a lack of water and food, and dire sanitation.

He shared a 30cm by 150cm patch of concrete with a cellmate, taking turns to stand and sleep to gather their strength for endless rounds of questioning and beatings.

The prisoner witnessed seven people die during his detention, hearing tales of many more.

"Some people were beaten to death during interrogation," Mr Farahat said.

"The torture is to make people confess but it's also a method of punishment so they will never, ever think of joining the revolution. This has been going on for 40 years in Syria.

"Others died from illness or weakness - a small injury can become life-threatening because of the conditions in the cells and lack of medical supplies."

The doctor said others succumbed to the extreme conditions, describing watching three men die in front of him after going into seizures brought on by heat and dehydration.

"I would try to help the injured people and knocked on the door asking the guards for medical supplies, or to be allowed to take them outside for fresh air," Mr Farahat said.

"The guards would come to the bars and tell me: 'Knock on the door when they die.' It became a famous saying."

His account has been echoed by numerous other prisoners, including a man jailed at the Syrian capital's Military Intelligence Branch 235.

Ziad said dozens of people suffocated to death when a ventilation system stopped working in their cell.

He added: "The guards began to kick us to see who was alive and who wasn't. 

"They told me and the other survivor to stand up - that is when I realised that I had slept next to seven bodies. Then I saw the rest of the bodies in the corridor, around 25 other bodies."

Detainees reported method of torture including contorting victims' bodies to fit in a rubber tyre, hanging from the ceiling, burning them with boiling water and cigarettes, or pulling out their nails.

Mr Farahat was eventually moved to another prison in Damascus and tried by a "terrorism court", which freed him after finding no evidence to support his continued detention.

But he returned to his hospital to be refused work, having been blacklisted by the authorities, and had his dream of qualifying as a paediatrician within months dashed.

While continuing to seek medical work, he was re-arrested with a group of friends in April 2013 as they ate at a restaurant.

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