A graphic video of the corpse of a 13-year-old boy who appears to have been sexually and physically tortured by Syrian security officials has sparked international condemnation and riots across the country. The video shows Hamza Ali al-Khatib, a resident of the southern village of Jiza, and appears to have been filmed by his family after they retrieved his corpse.
The torture that the prepubescent al-Khatib appears to have been subjected to is unimaginable. His penis was severed, body is covered in bullet holes and cigarette burns, chest is covered in a massive burn mark, neck broken, kneecaps shattered, and face covered in bruises from repeated punches. Al-Khatib was taken into custody while attending an anti-government protest.
Al-Khatib's death appears to have galvanized Syrians. The death and horrific torture of a 13-year-old child, spread via social media, has spawned protests by shocked ordinary citizens. While the sadistic interrogation and punishment methods used by state security and military services have been an open secret for quite some time, the Arab Spring has bought discontent against the al-Assad government into the open.
The video clip is playing out almost like a funeral of Emmett Till for the age of social media. In the Emmett Till case, an open casket funeral was used to demonstrate the brutalities of Southern racism. In this case, al-Khatib's family appears to be using their son's death to demonstrate the brutality of Syrian security services to a worldwide audience. While it is unlikely that al-Khatib would have been out in the streets protesting if not for the ongoing chaos of the Arab Spring, the torture methods that appear to have been used on him have been a routine part of the Syrian security arsenal for decades. The message, amplified by social media, appears to be resonating with Syrians.
In the city of Amouda, a mass rally of children shouting "We Are All Hamza!" marched through the streets on Tuesday, May 31 while also chanting slogans against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
A second protest of women and children took place in the town of Kafr Nabel on Tuesday, May 31 as well that shouted slogans and waved signs mourning al-Khatib.
Notably, one English-language sign visible on video smuggled out from the protest reads "USA People, You Lived 11 September One Time (Sic), But We Live It Everyday."
Al-Khatib was captured by Syrian security forces on April 29 and disappeared off the face of the earth for more than a month afterwards. According to the New York Times, his corpse was returned to his family several days ago on the condition that they did not discuss the mutilation and signs of torture. He is believed by his family to have died on May 25.
Shortly after al-Khatib's corpse was returned, a video appeared on YouTube detailing the condition of the child and clearly showing signs of extensive torture. A narrator, apparently the child's father, pointed out the child's wounds in halting classical Arabic with the assistance of at least one other individual wearing plastic gloves to handle the corpse.
The child's father, Ali al-Khatib, disappeared into government custody shortly after the video appeared on YouTube. He has not been seen since.
According to Al Jazeera's Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand, the older al-Khatib was stifled in his attempts to press charges before he made the video:
Hamza's father, Ali al-Khateeb, wanted to press charges against the army and security forces, said Hamza's cousin. Instead, Ali and his wife were visited by the secret police and threatened. "They said: 'Enough of what has happened because of you already. You know what would happen if we heard you had spoken to the media,'" said Hamza's mother, clearly terrified as she spoke to the local activist, refusing to give further details on the circumstances of her son's arrest or death.
In a manner reminiscent of the footage of Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan's death that went viral worldwide in 2009, YouTube clips and Facebook postings on al-Khatib's sufferings are quickly winding their way across the Arab-language internet. YouTube took down the original al-Khatib video for a short period of time; during those hours, at least five alternate versions of the video—containing the same raw footage and images but with different audio and different editing—began to make their way onto social media sites.
At press time, a Facebook memorial page for al-Khatib already has over 66,000 fans.
Reports from Syria's prisons are now beginning to trickle out. Algerian journalist Khaled Sid Mohand spent most of last April in Syrian custody while on assignment—this is how he described the captured cybersmugglers he met to Le Monde:
That evening, a new prisoner captures everyone's attention because he has no cell of his own. He is forced to sit, his eyes blindfolded. For three long days, interrogators and torturers attempt to break him down, to no avail. Eventually I learn that he was arrested after he was found carrying CDs containing what the regime considers subversive information. He comes from northern Syria and he has probably come to Damascus to pass the information to one of the cyber-militant groups that act as a link between human rights associations and foreign media, on one side, and protesters in small villages and towns on the other
The original YouTube-disseminated video clip of al-Khatib's corpse is shown on the right. Please note that it is EXTREMELY GRAPHIC, not safe for work, not appropriate for viewing by children, and shows extensive physical torture in minute detail.
Syria's government has already began damage control for the al-Khatib video. The official Syrian Arab News Agency released a long English-language feature claiming that al-Khatib's father absolved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of all crimes, called him "gentle and kind" and then claimed the boy's injuries were the result of being shot by anti-government protesters. As for the rest of al-Khatib's extensive injuries that weren't bullet wounds? According to the official Syrian party line, the burn marks, severed penis, broken kneecaps, and snapped neck simply didn't exist.
Al-Khatib's injuries are consistent with a Human Rights Watch report on torture methods by Syrian security and intelligence services that was issued in April 2011.