Syrian torture chambers brought to life in haunting drawings

Syrian artist and painter Najah Albukai looks on during an AFP interview on August 20, 2018 in Yerres. (AFP)
Updated 23 August 2018
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Syrian torture chambers brought to life in haunting drawings

  • Held with 70 others in a cell measuring five by three meters, he found it nearly impossible to sleep and illnesses such as scabies and diarrhea spread quickly
  • Dozens of drawings, which he has exhibited across France, depict the horrors he witnessed, from prisoners being hung by their wrists from the ceiling to being folded in two in a wooden contraption nicknamed the “Flying Carpet

YERRES FRANCE: Najah Albukai’s head is filled with the dead and disappeared of Syria’s civil war.
The prisoners with whom the 49-year-old art teacher shared a cell in Syria fill two black ink drawings hanging on the wall in the living room of his French apartment where he lives in exile with his wife and teenage daughter.
One of them shows row upon row of hunched naked men with dark, sunken eyes, their arms shielding their genitals.
In another, they look down on stacks of jumbled emaciated corpses, as if contemplating their fate.
“In prison you’re suspended between life and death. It’s an apocalyptic time. You feel as if you’re in a nightmare,” Albukai said in an interview.
Three years after his escape from the homeland, Albukai’s experiences in the regime’s torture chambers continue to explode on to his sketchpad.
Dozens of drawings, which he has exhibited across France, depict the horrors he witnessed, from prisoners being hung by their wrists from the ceiling to being folded in two in a wooden contraption nicknamed the “Flying Carpet.”
Another prop used by the torturers of President Bashar Assad was called the “German chair,” which saw prisoners lashed to the back of a chair and stretched to breaking point.
“I will draw this German chair until the end of my days to denounce this form of torture,” said the artist with a piercing gaze, whose bookshelf contains works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Like many in the Damascus suburb of Jdaidet Artuz, near the town of Daraya, a longtime rebel stronghold, Albukai was infected by the revolutionary fervor that swept Syria in early 2011.
But it was only when the government’s crackdown on the peaceful protests left 55 dead that he and his wife Abir joined the protests.
In 2012, he was arrested on a bus on his way to work and taken to military intelligence center “227” near Damascus where he was interrogated and beaten for “weakening national morale.”
“They would interrogate several people at the same time and while others beside you are being tortured you have to answer questions,” he said of the sessions, during which the prisoners were blindfolded.
Held with 70 others in a cell measuring five by three meters, he found it nearly impossible to sleep and illnesses such as scabies and diarrhea spread quickly.
Even while behind bars, Albukai found an outlet in art, trying to imagine the horrific scenes on canvases.
“I tried to find comparisons with paintings by Goya, or the Raft of the Medusa by (French Romantic painter Theodore) Gericault, which shows a group of people trying to escape,” he said.
After a month he was released when his wife paid €1,200 ($1,400) to have a judge drop the case.
Using a pseudonym on Facebook he continued to post about abuses by government forces online, but he tried to keep a low profile, fearing he could be arrested again at any time.
In late 2014, he tried to flee to Lebanon, but was caught on the border and returned to center 227.
By now, nearly four years into the war, “even the walls were diseased” and the bodies were piling up.
Albukai saw several people die from torture or common diseases like diabetes left untreated.
The center also acted as a sort of “temporary depot” for bodies collected from other military intelligence centers, with prisoners called on every night to unload bodies from trucks for storage in the basement.
“Some had weak necks as if they had been strangled and most were very thin and bore signs of illness,” he said.
Each had a number inscribed on the head or chest with a marker. He remembers two: 5535 and, 60 days later another: 5874.
Tens of thousands of people are missing, believed to be in government jails across Syria, where authorities have recently begun updating civil records to mark detainees as “deceased.”
In a 2016 report, Amnesty International estimated that 17,723 had died in custody between March 2011 and December 2015.
Were it not for his wife, Albukai might have been another name on a list of the deceased.
A French teacher with a salary of $80 a month, she sold their car and enlisted help from abroad to cobble together 20,000 dollars in bribes to win his freedom after around 10 months in detention.
In October 2015, the pair managed to reach Lebanon with their daughter and applied for asylum in France, where they now live in a quiet suburb south of Paris.
As government forces step up their bombardments of Idlib province, the last region still in rebel hands, Albukai is prepared to admit that “maybe we’ve been defeated and the revolution failed.”
But drawing what he witnessed helps keep the flame alive, says Albukai, who has received offers to publish his output.
“It is a way of not giving in, of not laying down arms,” he said.


Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

Alister Shepherd, the director of a subsidiary of FireEye, during a presentation about the APT33 in Dubai Tuesday. (AP)
Updated 20 September 2018
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Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

  • The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.
  • Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

DUBAI: An Iranian government-aligned group of hackers launched a major campaign targeting Mideast energy firms and others ahead of US sanctions on Iran, a cybersecurity firm said Tuesday, warning further attacks remain possible as America reimposes others on Tehran.

While the firm FireEye says the so-called “spear-phishing” email campaign only involves hackers stealing information from infected computers, it involves a similar type of malware previously used to inject a program that destroyed tens of thousands of terminals in Saudi Arabia.

The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.

“Whenever we see Iranian threat groups active in this region, particularly in line with geopolitical events, we have to be concerned they might either be engaged in or pre-positioning for a disruptive attack,” Alister Shepherd, a director for a FireEye subsidiary, told The Associated Press.

Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

“Iran’s cyber capabilities are purely defensive, and these claims made by private firms are a form of false advertising designed to attract clients,” the mission said in a statement. “They should not be taken at face value.”

FireEye, which often works with governments and large corporations, refers to the group of Iranian hackers as APT33, an acronym for “advanced persistent threat.” APT33 used phishing email attacks with fake job opportunities to gain access to the companies affected, faking domain names to make the messages look legitimate. Analysts described the emails as “spear-phishing” as they appear targeted in nature.

FireEye first discussed the group last year around the same time. This year, the company briefed journalists after offering presentations to potential government clients in Dubai at a luxury hotel and yacht club on the man-made, sea-horse-shaped Daria Island.

While acknowledging their sales pitch, FireEye warned of the danger such Iranian government-aligned hacking groups pose. Iran is believed to be behind the spread of Shamoon in 2012, which hit Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas. The virus deleted hard drives and then displayed a picture of a burning American flag on computer screens. Saudi Aramco ultimately shut down its network and destroyed over 30,000 computers.

A second version of Shamoon raced through Saudi government computers in late 2016, this time making the destroyed computers display a photograph of the body of 3-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, who drowned fleeing his country’s civil war.

But Iran first found itself as a victim of a cyberattack. Iran developed its cyber capabilities in 2011 after the Stuxnet computer virus destroyed thousands of centrifuges involved in Iran’s contested nuclear program. Stuxnet is widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation.

APT33’s emails haven’t been destructive. However, from July 2 through July 29, FireEye saw “a by-factors-of-10 increase” in the number of emails the group sent targeting their clients, Shepherd said.