25 Oct 2011

Journalist witnesses Syrian authorities torturing activists

Internationally renowned film-maker Sean McAllister describes what he saw and heard while detained in a Syrian cell by the authorities.

His account reveals an insight into how dissent is handled amid the ongoing rebellion, and he speaks of his fears for those Syrians who had assisted him – they are now targets for the regime.

Working undercover

Sean was arrested while working undercover on a report for Channel 4 News last week. Seized while in a Damascus café, he and his activist contact Jihad were blindfolded and driven at speed to a prison in central Damascus.

Sean began to observe his surroundings: “I was placed on a seat in an empty room on my own. Outside I could hear beatings in a neighbouring room. People being slapped and wailing painfully as they were being whacked.”

He was held with activists who had been detained by the security forces for rebellion against the al-Assad regime. He describes how they were treated.

“When they are taken out of the cell they are blindfolded and their hands are tied. They are taken down the corridor to this, well, they don’t know where they are going, the whole thing, having been blindfolded for a little bit, the disorientation, of never seeing and the person you keep meeting is just a voice that you hear and you have to see him on one knee, you are forced to kneel on one knee.


“It’s a very awkward position to be in for maybe an hour of interrogation. If they are not satisfied with the info, you would be brought out at three in the morning into the torture chamber and whipped with the cable or there was like a hundred leather belts, like a big ball of leather belts in the corner.

“I’d seen these things that they’d use, because the cable was next to my bed one night. They’d manufactured the end of the cable to become like a proper handle and the cable was so solid that it had formed its arc and the arc as it hit someone’s back.

It must have broken bones. Journalist Sean McAllister

“It was so heavy, it was so awful, it must have broken bones and the howling, the noise of a human being hit with that is something that just, you know, you shiver and shake. You hear a sound that you’ve never heard before, I’ve never heard before. And I’ve seen people dead. And I’ve seen people dying. And I’ve seen people decapitated, but this sound, hearing a man cry, is just like, awful, there’s nothing to compare it with.”

Activists’ bravery

Of the bravery of the activists who spoke to him, he says: “I didn’t realise exactly what those guys are risking until I went into that experience and my God those guys are brave. Too brave.”

Sean says he does not know what happened to Jihad, his contact in Syria who was being held with him. But it was not just Jihad, Sean is worried about the welfare of all the people who had been in contact with him during his filming. He knows that these activists, although peaceful, have become targets for the authorities just for expressing their opinions and a number have had to flee the country or go into hiding.

He describes the feeling on the ground in Syria. “The voice I got from Homs is that we just need help. We need outside help. We need foreign intervention. We need a no-fly zone. We will take any of those options to move thing things forward, because they are killing us every day.”

To read more about Sean McAllister, visit his website here

Sean’s documentary The Liberace of Baghdad received a 2005 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury award. View the documentary below.

The Liberace of Baghdad from TenFoot Films on Vimeo.