People view the scene at one of the Saturday explosion sites that killed 46 and injured about 50 others, in Reyhanli, near Turkey's border with Syria, Sunday, May 12, 2013. The bombings on Saturday marked the biggest incident of cross-border violence since the start of Syria's bloody civil war and has the raised fear of Turkey being pulled deeper into the conflict. (AP Photo)
BEIRUT (AP) — Rights activists have found torture devices and other evidence of abuse in government prisons in the first Syrian city to fall to the rebels, Human Rights Watch said in a report Friday.
Raqqa, in eastern Syria, was overrun in late February by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. The rebels facilitated the New York-based group's access to facilities that had belonged to a security agency and military intelligence in late April.
In a report Friday, the HRW said its researchers found physical evidence indicating Syrians were tortured in cells in detention facilities inspected, including with a device which former detainees said was used to stretch or bend victims' arms and legs. The group also found documents indicating Raqqa residents were detained for legal actions like demonstrating or helping the injured.
Rights groups and opposition activists have long claimed that civilians have been detained arbitrarily, tortured, and sometimes have disappeared since uprising against Assad's regime began. HRW's findings detailed in a report Friday appear to be one of the largest finds of physical evidence bolstering those claims to date.
"The documents, prison cells, interrogation rooms, and torture devices we saw in the government's security facilities are consistent with the torture former detainees have described to us," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director for HRW.
HRW has been documenting abuses on both sides of Syria's civil war during the 26 months of conflict.
The group says abuses by the Assad regime remain far more deadly, systematic and widespread, including on civilians with indiscriminate battlefield weapons such as widely banned cluster bombs. But the rights group also says rebel abuses have increased in frequency and scale in recent months.
The conflict has killed at least 70,000 people and forced millions out of their homes to seek shelter in neighboring countries or in other parts of Syria where fighting has subsided.
In Raqqa, the group's researchers inspected the State Security and Military Intelligence branches and three other detention center formerly managed by Criminal Security, Political Security, and Air Force Intelligence. Government forces abandoned all these institutions that are now controlled by the rebels, the group said.
On the ground floor and in the basement of the State Security facility, HRW found "rooms that appeared to be detention cells," the report said. They also found a pile of documents, including what appeared to be lists of security force members who had worked there.
Four former detainees said that officers and guards in the facility tortured them, HRW said..
In one method of torture, the victim is tied to a flat board, sometimes in the shape of a cross. In some cases guards stretched or pulled their limbs or folded the board in half so that their face touched their legs, causing pain.
The group also interviewed five people formerly held by Military Intelligence in Raqqa. They said security services questioned them about lawful activities, such as participating in anti-Assad demonstrations, providing relief assistance to displaced families, defending detainees, and providing emergency assistance to injured demonstrators.
Syria's conflict started as a peaceful uprising in March 2011. After months of nation-wide protests and street marches against Assad's rule, the revolt turned into an armed conflict when opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.
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