Rare Glimpse Into Syrian Detention Centers

Al Jazeera English was a leader in covering the Arab Spring. In April, its own reporter Dorothy Parvaz spent days in Syrian detention before being handed over to Iranian authorities. She was released after about three weeks. Host Michel Martin speaks with Parvaz about her detainment in two countries with track records of imprisoning journalists.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, school may be out, but the need for financial literacy is year-round. In our Money Coach conversation, we'll hear about a new initiative in some schools to make money management part of the curriculum. That's in a few minutes.

But first, we go back to a story that's captured the attention of the world. The demand for political freedom that has swept across North Africa and the Middle East, and we turn our attention to Syria.

Since anti-government actions started in March, Syrian authorities have reportedly killed more than a thousand demonstrators. Countless more have been injured or detained. And today, tensions have been heightened further. Government forces have sealed off the city of Hama, where protests last week drew hundreds of thousands to the streets.

Getting the real story out of Syria has been a challenge, because during most of the unrest the government has not allowed foreign reporters into cover the protests. And journalists who tried to get around that ban have faced the same fate as demonstrators.

One of those reporters was Dorothy Parvaz of Al Jazeera English. She found herself part of the story when she was detained by Syrian authorities. Parvaz who claims U.S., Canadian, and Iranian citizenship arrived in Damascus on April 29th and was immediately taken into custody.

Syrian authorities later said Parvaz had entered on an expired Iranian passport and failed to identify herself as a journalist. She spent three days in Syrian detention before being handed over to Iranian authorities. She was released nearly three weeks later.

I'm pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Dorothy Parvaz so she can tell us about her experiences herself. She's with us from the studios of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar. Dorothy Parvaz, thank you so much for joining us. We're so glad to be speaking with you.

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, how are you doing?

PARVAZ: I'm fine, I just - you can't stop thinking about people who aren't as fortunate as you and people who are still there locked up, but I am fine.

MARTIN: Now, this day, of course, very few Western journalists have been able to cover the protests in Syria let alone glimpsed the inner workings of the country's detention centers. So, can you just tell us as much as you can about the conditions there?

PARVAZ: The conditions in Syria are appalling. You're sort of taken into this dark world, these detention centers. The one I was taken into was roughly 20 minutes outside the airport and it's just - you feel like you've fallen into a black hole.

And I can only imagine what it must be like, well, I have a small idea of what it must be like for all the thousands of Syrians who have gone missing. They haven't disappeared, they're unfortunately in those situations. And most of them are being treated appallingly.

They're being beaten. They're not being cared for. Their rights are being abused. We've all heard about Hamza al-Khateeb, the 13-year-old boy who was mutilated and killed by Syrian forces. It's a really horrific situation there.

MARTIN: It's been reported that thousands of Syrians have been detained. And I'm not sure what the right word is to use. We're using the word disappeared, but you're saying they haven't disappeared, they're being probably being held somewhere. What were some of the things that you witnessed while you were there? One of the things that you write about is that you heard constant beatings and they seemed to be vicious.

PARVAZ: Yes, without a doubt they were. These sounded like young men. Fortunately, I didn't hear children being beaten, because I think if I had I probably would have lost it. But I heard young men being beaten pretty much around the clock. It seemed like these guys just never took a break, these Syrian security services.

But I saw one guy, a teenager, chained to a radiator blindfolded with a pen in his hand and a legal pad in his lap as though he was supposed to write a confession, but he was completely shaking. There was blood smeared on one of the cell walls, where I was being kept.

At one point, I was able to glimpse from the bathroom window the third room I was in had some kind of bathroom most of which wasn't working. So, I'll spare your listeners the details. But I was able to glimpse at a young man being tied up in a stress position and being beaten by several security force members.

So, you know, these people who have just appeared, you know, one person's disappeared as another mans detained, right? So, you know, these people haven't stopped existing hopefully. They're just being held somewhere, being treated horribly and their families have no idea. They don't have, you know, the support I have from my employer. They don't have Facebook pages. They're just gone.

MARTIN: Were women, to your knowledge, being treated the same way? You were not beaten while you were there, but were other women being beaten to your knowledge?

PARVAZ: No. The two women I saw there were not being beaten. And I never heard a woman screaming, although I guess if they were to beat women and perhaps they would have taken them elsewhere. But to my knowledge, women were not being beaten.

MARTIN: But one of the disturbing things you talked about was that there was - one of the young women whom you met, she had no idea why she had been detained. She worked in a store in a clothing store.

PARVAZ: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And she seemed to have no idea why she was there.

PARVAZ: Yes. Neither of the two women I met while I was there knew why they'd been picked up. So, one of them had been picked up while talking on her cell phone. She was the one who worked in the clothing store. She had a pair of stiletto heals in the cell with her, which is of course not something you wear if you're going to go protest and try and overthrow a government.

The second girl I was in a cell with, in a room rather less of a cell more of a room. She'd been there by the time I left for 10 days and she constantly wept begging for the agents who checked on this to call her family or to interrogate her further in order to understand that she didn't belong and to please send her home, but to no avail.

MARTIN: What were you told about why you were there? And when you were questioned, what was that experience like?

PARVAZ: Well, first of all, you know, they stamped my passport, so I entered the country legally and my passport had been extended. The issue was that I had a satellite phone with me, which led to subsequent searches. They discovered then that I had an American passport, which made them initially think I was a spy. Then they found the Al Jazeera pass, visa, my residence permit and my American passport. And that just raised the stakes further.

So, they were primarily interested in journalism. Oh, you know, what do you hope to report? I entered the country as a tourist, because they're not giving journalists visas. So, I think they're starting to now, but they're only allowing them to interview pro-Assad supporters. So, I'm not sure how that's going.

So, I entered as a tourist and I just was kind of hoping to be able to get some stories. But I was lectured on the role Al Jazeera had played in creating this false crisis in Syria, and how we're on par with Human Rights Watch in creating problems for Syria, and that we're really making a big deal out of nothing.

MARTIN: And who was saying these things to you? And did any of these people ever identify themselves?

PARVAZ: Absolutely not. So the man who questioned me, the most he told me about himself was this interrogation business he was involved in at that point was not really his job. He was trained as an attorney. He seemed concerned about the fact that I was a woman and being kept over there, which at times kind of amused me because I thought, you know, whatever sanctity my gender seems to hold to them, I really wished that they'd applied it to their brothers and not beaten them.

However, he was just very curious as to why I was there and wanted me to come back and tell my employer how to cover Syria.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Dorothy Parvaz. She's a reporter for Al Jazeera English, who spent three days in detention in Syria after she entered that country to try to cover the anti-government protests there and she was later sent to Iran.

Just three days after you were detained, then you were handed over to the Iranian authorities. How did that happen? What did they tell you was going to happen and what actually did happen?

PARVAZ: Well, they told me that they were going to send me back to Doha. And I said, they gave me a rather lengthy lecture. And then at the airport it became quite clear that I was not going to be on the flight to Doha, because it took off. And then I was forced onto a flight to Tehran instead. I was basically shoved into a seat, forced onto a plane by three men kicking and screaming, told to shut up, sit down, don't speak to anybody.

MARTIN: And why were you kicking and screaming?

PARVAZ: So, Iran, of course, most of your listeners probably know, it's a bit of an X factor for journalists. And I've done reporting that perhaps is not what's favorable to the government. I mean, I report the news. Sometimes perhaps a government official might like what I've written, sometimes they might not. But that's neither here nor there. It's news.

So there's the fact that I have an American passport. There's the fact that I don't know what the Syrians have put in a dossier to give to these guys. They've had access to my luggage for three days. What have they put in there? I mean, it's just not a situation I wanted to find myself in.

MARTIN: But you also have Iranian citizenship, correct?

PARVAZ: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But - and it's also the case that a number of dual citizens, Iranian citizens who've gone to check on family members who are either academics or journalists, scholars, have been held in recent years. I think many people will be familiar with the situation of Haleh Esfandiari, who we recently reported on, who was arrested for reasons that to this day people don't understand.

So you were kicking and screaming and you were shoved onto this flight. Nobody intervened, nobody said anything. How was that?

PARVAZ: You have to understand. First of all, if you're Iranian, the last thing you're going to do is intervene when you're overseas on a flight. You know, when you see plain clothes security guards sort of doing the hurly burly with this kind of screaming woman putting her in a seat, what are you supposed to do? You don't want to get in trouble yourself, right?

Second of all, to be fair, what do these people know about me? For all they know, I've committed some heinous crime. Why would they intervene? I mean, they were all looking at me and wondering what I had done.

MARTIN: Sure. Were you escorted there while you were there? Or were you just left on the flight alone? Did somebody stay there with you?

PARVAZ: Oh, no. Yes. A gentleman from the Iranian Embassy in Damascus was seated next to me and I was in a window seat, so that was that. And there were two plain clothes officers staring directly at me for the duration of the flight. And every time I moved, they jerked as though as I was somehow going to make a run for it or something. But, yeah.

MARTIN: So when you got to Iran, then what happened? And how did that experience differ from what happened in Syria?

PARVAZ: Well, in Syria I was a stranger in a strange land for sure. You know, I don't speak Arabic really much at all. Very basic, you know, hi, how are you? And, of course, I can pray with someone if they want to. But that's about it. But in Iran, of course, I'm Iranian. I speak the language. I understand the customs and the culture. And I understand a thing or two about the government.

And there's this awful feeling that came over me. You know, if you're Iranian and you're a journalist and you follow the news and you know what's going on, it's sort of like your lot in life a little bit to sort of get dragged into an interrogation or a situation where you're locked up for a while. It's just - you sort of have to accept that.

So it was pretty rough, though, psychologically, I mean, just to realize that I've been crammed into this plane and brought in there. And I wasn't sure if my family knew where I was. I was pretty sure they hadn't contacted Al Jazeera to tell them where I was. So, I also realized that people are looking for me.

And as we were talking about earlier, there's a massive difference between detained and disappeared. And how I desperately wanted them to just contact my employer or my family and just say, we have her. She is here. She's alive. We're asking her some questions. But they didn't do that.

MARTIN: Dorothy, we need to take a short break. But when we come back we're going to continue this conversation. We're speaking with Al Jazeera English reporter Dorothy Parvaz about her detention first in Syria, then in Iran after she tried to enter Syria to cover anti-government protests there. In a minute, we'll hear more about what happened after Parvaz was taken into Iranian custody.

Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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