Syrian jihadist rebels are torturing and killing civilians, including children, for flouting "sharia" laws such as smoking cigarettes - and exacting the brutal punishments in a bid to replace the Assad regime with a hardline Islamic state, Amnesty International has reported.
Secret jails in Aleppo and Idlib, run by Al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham militants, hold people for sex outside of marriage and alcohol consumption, and have targeted locals who broach any opposition.
Amnesty said the group was inflicting "cruel and inhuman punishments such as flogging and summary killings in public" - with children as young as eight detained.
On one occasion, an anguished father had to endure the screams of pain from his 13-year-old son who was being tormented by his captors in a nearby room.
Two other detainees related how they witnessed a child of about 14 receive a flogging of around 100 lashes during an interrogation.
Victims told Amnesty of prisoners being flogged with rubber generator belts or cables, tortured with electric shocks or forced to adopt a painful stress position known as aqrab [the scorpion], in which a detainee’s wrists are secured together over one shoulder.
A 20-year-old man, held at Maqar Ahamad Kaddour, October 2013, for smoking tobacco
“He shouted loudly ‘smoking, smoking’ and left hurriedly and returned with others. They searched the room but didn’t find any cigarettes. They asked repeatedly who had smoked.
"We all had, but we remained silent. Then one guy came forward and said it was him who smoked. They ordered him to sit on his knees and tied his hands to the back.
"Then a Chechen man came and spoke to us in formal Arabic, saying, ‘You are thieves and you should be killed.’ The Chechen man ordered the confessed smoker to stand up and he slapped him hard on the face. A Moroccan jailer held the Chechen’s arm and they went outside and spoke for around a minute.
" They came back and the Chechen said, ‘Religiously I cannot hit you on your face.’
"He then took a whip and flogged the detainee four times on his back. Every time, he whipped him, the Chechen jailer would raise his arm until his armpits showed before hitting hard.”
“After years in which they were prey to the brutality of the al-Assad regime, the people of al-Raqqa and Aleppo are now suffering under a new form of tyranny imposed on them by ISIS, in which arbitrary detention, torture and executions have become the order of the day," said Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther.
“Flogging anyone, let alone children, is cruel and inhuman, and a gross abuse of human rights. ISIS should cease its use of flogging and other cruel punishments. Gulf states that have voiced support for the armed groups fighting against the Syrian government should take action to prevent arms flows, equipment or other support reaching ISIS in view of its appalling human rights record.
Amnesty has identified ISIS prisons at seven locations: Mabna al-Mohafaza, Idarat al-Markabat and al-Mer’ab, all in al-Raqqa city; Sadd al Ba’ath and al-‘Akershi oil facility, both elsewhere in al-Raqqa governorate; and Mashfa al-Atfal and Maqar Ahmed Qaddour in Aleppo.
The Sadd al-Ba’ath prison is beside a dam on the Euphrates River at al-Mansura, Amnesty said, where the local Shari’a court judge - wearing an explosive belt - has been accused of presiding over grotesquely unfair “trials” lasting no more than a few minutes before he hands down death penalties. On at least one occasion, he is said to have personally joined in flogging a detainee.
A 25-year-old man, detained at Mashfa al-Atfal in Aleppo, August 2013, who says he was tortured
“They took me to a room that smelled of sweat and diesel. They sat me on the floor, tied my hands behind my back and fastened the handcuffs to the extent that I lost any feeling in my hands after five minutes. I was wearing my undershirt.
"A man, possibly ‘Abu Huraira’, asked me: ‘How are you, Ali?’ When I said I was OK he gave me an electric shock.
"This was the first of many electric shocks, which continued for about 40 minutes. Some shocks were stronger than others. I felt as if there was a device that controlled the strength of the shocks. I was screaming throughout.
“They kept on giving me electric shocks until my muscles started seizing up. They also gave me a shock on my neck; after that my sight became very blurry. It only came back to normal the following day.
"The man ordered me to stand up, but I couldn’t. They pulled me up to stand but I kept on falling. I lost feeling in my body. When I couldn’t stand, they sat me on my knees and made me drink water.
“My hands were still cuffed behind my back. They then put a rope through my cuffs and pulled me up while tightening the rope to the pipes on the ceiling. I was pulled so high up that my toes could hardly touch the floor.
"My shoulder could not bear the weight of my body and it broke... So my body fell a little bit closer to the floor and I was able to stand on one leg. Then they started hitting me using the cable.”
More shocking still are the reports of children in several detention centres, with one victim saying he had heard the screams of a child "no older than 12".
One said that he counted "94 lashes" falling on a child accused of theft.
A former detainee interviewed by Amnesty who spent 18 days at the detention centre said that he one boy who was about eight years old; the other was 14.
"As they pushed them into the cell, one of the guards shouted “Teach this donkey how to pray”, in reference to the younger of the two boys, who was crying and continued weeping in the cell."
Amnesty has said the pressure is now on world leaders to act. “The Turkish government, in particular, should prevent its territory being used by ISIS to bring in arms and recruits to Syria,” said Luther.