Some Syrian refugees who chose to return to their homeland have been arrested and tortured by the Syrian regime, despite the regime's assurance it would grant safe passage to returnees, activists and former detainees said.
Ahmed Ibrahim, 35, told Al-Mashareq he did not know that returning to his birthplace, the city of Hama, would cost him dearly and that he would be subjected to torture sessions that would lead to memory loss.
"When the regime provided safety assurances, I packed my bags and returned to Hama from Turkey," he said, using a pseudonym out of fear for his safety.
But just a few days after his return, he said, he was picked up by agents from the Hama branch of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate and taken to their headquarters at Hama military airport.
'Permanent marks of torture'
"I was detained in a group cell and subjected to interrogations and all kinds of torture," Ibrahim said.
"They wanted information on who I demonstrated with, the activists and opposition members I communicate with," he said, among other information.
"My torture by the Air Force Intelligence and Information Directorates continued for an entire week until I fully collapsed," he said.
"They hung me from the ceiling every day," he said. "I would be standing on my toes, and they drilled holes in my back with a power drill and tried to punch holes in my toes with a screwdriver."
"Drilling holes in my back was so painful that I lost consciousness, and they had to transport me to the [Hama] National Hospital for treatment," he said.
Ibrahim was later returned to the detention centre and then released, only to be brought back to the Air Force Intelligence Directorate four days later, where he underwent another round of torture and was sentenced to death by hanging.
"However, my dispatch to the hospital a second time saved me, as the imam of the mosque intervened with the National Reconciliation Commission and I was released," he said.
"I fled to Turkey once again, bearing on my body the permanent marks of torture."
Documented detention of returnees
The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented "no fewer than 1,916 detentions by regime forces of Syrians who returned to their original areas of residence", said Nour al-Khatib, head of the network's detainees department.
These numbers, which include returnees from refugee host countries or countries of residence, were documented between early 2014 and May 2019, she told Al-Mashareq, and include 219 children and 157 women.
At least 784 of those detained are still incarcerated, she said, including 638 who have been forcibly disappeared in detention centres in Damascus.
"We have documented the release of the rest, some of whom are wanted for military service and were led away to fulfill it," al-Khatib said.
A large number of refugees returned from Lebanon through the border crossings under the voluntary return programme launched by the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security in early 2018, she said.
Others returned from Jordan through the Jaber-Nassib crossing, or from Turkey.
Most returnees "communicated with reconciliation committees and return settlement committees based in the embassies of refugee host countries to settle their status, or with intermediaries inside Syria", she said.
"Most of those who communicated with these committees received guarantees that they would not be harassed, however, these guarantees and promises turn out to be just words," al-Khatib said.
"Many of them are arrested at border crossings or a few days after their return," she added, reporting that local security branches have been raiding their homes.
Many "are forcibly disappeared, die under torture or are referred to terrorism, military or civil courts, depending on the charges levied on them", al-Khatib said, with the exception of a few who are released after paying bribes.
The regime's promise not to go after those wanted for military service "has not been adhered to, as those men are detained and tortured then led away to perform their military or reserve duty and sent to active battle fronts", she said.
A number of the returnees hail from Damascus, Homs and Daraa provinces, with most between the ages of 19 and 50, she said, noting that most are arrested on charges that date back to before they left Syria.
'Physical and psychological torture'
Qassim, 38, who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al-Mashareq he was arrested upon his return from Lebanon in September 2018, at a checkpoint near Hama.
"I was taken to the Military Security branch [headquarters] where I was placed in a solitary cell for an entire week and then transferred to a cell holding a large number of detainees," he said.
"I was charged with supporting armed and terrorist groups in the city, and was subjected to physical and psychological torture," he said.
These include the use of al-doulab (tire) torture method -- in which a detainee's legs and head are placed into the cavity of a tire -- and al-Falaqa (foot whipping) as well as humiliation and insults," he said.
"They pinned every charge they could on me, but I insisted that I was in Lebanon all that time, and this used to anger them and cause them to dial up my torture because they wanted me to confess to things I did not do," he said.
"I used to be led to the investigation blindfolded and with my hands tied behind my back, so I could not see what was going on around me, not even the interrogator’s face," he added.
After two months, it was ascertained Qassim was not guilty of the charges leveled against him and he was released.
"My extreme fear of a repeat of what I went through drove me to flee Syria and live apart from my family," he said.