A Syrian bodybuilder in prison: Rife with contagious disease, starvation, ‘I buried prisoners with my own hands’
A recent SNHR report estimates the number of arrests by all parties over the course of the Syrian war at 215,000 people, the vast majority detained by Assad regime agents.
One of these detainees was Ibrahim Shahabi, a well-known bodybuilding champion from Aleppo. He was arrested at his gym on charges of selling pharmaceuticals without a license in late January 2011, charges Shahabi calls “preposterous and totally untrue.”
And so began 30 months of a prison sentence that left those who did not die so hungry that they ate pieces of the wall. Shahabi’s description of prison life resembles the Middle Ages in every way, down to the guards fearing contagious diseases from the increasingly ragged prisoners: “They would throw us our measly rations from the bottom of the cell door, and if someone died, they would throw us the key from the cell window so we could bury the victim in the yard,” he tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.
Shahabi, who had family and friends active in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was one of seven detainees released during an FSA-regime prisoner exchange in July 2013.
After leaving prison 176 pounds lighter along with several unhealed broken bones and other injuries, Shahabi is now back to training. Today he lives in Turkey, and is competing again in international bodybuilding competitions—under the revolutionary banner.
Q: When was your arrest? What were the charges against you, and why was your release delayed if these charges were fabricated?
I was born in 1977 in the city of al-Baab a-Shamali in Aleppo province to a well-off family. I opened a gym after finishing my compulsory service in Syria and I too was doing well.
I was arrested on January 28, 2011 and sent to the central prison in Aleppo after being accused of illegally selling pharmaceuticals without a license. These accusations are preposterous and totally untrue. I was a member of the Syrian Sports Federation and a certified international referee. I had won more than 15 awards in Syrian and Arab bodybuilding competitions.
Before my arrest, I was traveling and studying in Europe. I was learning how to design women’s shoes and training young people in gyms. In 1996, I came back to Syria to see my parents after a long time away, but the authorities stopped me at the airport and immediately dragged me off to perform my compulsory military service, believing me to be a deserter.
I spent five years in the military and subsequently in prison as a punishment for fleeing my service. After I finished my prison term, I decided to open a gym in Aleppo and settled down in my hometown. That is, until 2011 and the arrest.
At the time of my arrest, I was at my gym, which I opened in the Hanaano district [a neighborhood in northeast Aleppo city]. I was arrested on drug smuggling charges. Obviously, I had absolutely no connection to this. I was an international athlete and won international medals across Europe and in Syria.
With regard to my delayed release, the prison officials cheated everyone out of their money. Every single dollar that was spent to secure our release was in vain; the regime did not release a single person. On the contrary, we were exposed to the worst types of abuse and torture in prison, and I was one of those victims. Just compare the pictures and videos of me from before and after my arrest and you will see the violence and starvation that I faced in prison.
While in prison for nearly two-and-a-half years, Shahabi went from 273 pounds to just 97. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Shahabi.
Q: Tell us about what you experienced in prison.
One time I tried to escape along with 13 other prisoners, but once we reached the prison wall, the sniper locked in on me. The guards arrested me along with 10 prisoners, though three were able to escape. They later appeared on Al Jazeera together where they talked about their suffering in the prison. Meanwhile, we returned to our cells where the guards tortured us and broke our bones. Despite these incomprehensible struggles, I did not surrender; rather, what I saw and what I experienced in the prison strengthened my resolve and my determination not to become a victim of these heinous crimes.
Since the beginning of the revolution and our arrest, we were isolated from the rest of the prisoners in an attempt to portray us as terrorists. There were approximately 630 prisoners, with five people to a cell, rooms no bigger than 1 x 1.5 meters. After our failed escape attempt, each person was individually isolated.
During this time, people died, whom I buried with my own hands. In the end, only one other person besides me survived. It was only because of my athletic physique that I was able to bear the physical pressures, psychological torture, and the slow death in comparison to those prisoners who were less fortunate.
The guards forced us to bury our dead in the prison yard out of their fear of getting infected by our diseases.
I don’t know where to begin in describing the regime’s brutality towards its political prisoners; it’s unspeakable. The methods of torture were unimaginable, something that no human mind can comprehend. Even as we filed out after being tortured, one by one we would be struck without reason with metal rods—blows raining down on our heads and bodies with reckless abandon.
I came out of prison with three fractures to my head, one to my shoulder, and a deformed back all due to these beatings. Since leaving prison, I have undergone 11 plastic surgery operations for my back, and still I suffer from the fractures that I sustained while in prison. The operations, which are still ongoing, have cost $30,000.
As prisoners, we received monthly rations of one loaf of bread and two liters of water. That’s it. In spent 30 months in this environment with many prisoners. I came in weighing 124 kilograms (273 pounds). By the time I left, I weighed only 44 kilograms (97 pounds).
Worms were eating at my friends. Those who managed to cling to life were filthy beyond imagination. We had such little water and were not allowed to bathe, which led to the spread of tuberculosis and diarrhea, which I suffered from. Having bread and water, this was a dream for us. We were eating the wall out of sheer hunger. Throughout all of this, it was forbidden for any guard to speak with us.
Q: Can you describe the process of being tortured?
For the first six months, the torture was every hour. It came in so many ways, without mercy or compassion. However, after tuberculosis, diarrhea, and other infectious diseases came into the barracks, the guards refrained from entering out of fear that they too would be infected. They would throw us our measly rations from the bottom of the cell door, and if someone died, they would throw us the key from the cell window so that we could leave to bury the person in the yard.
Q: How did you learn of the deaths of your friends? How did you inform the prison guards of the news?
I would shout loudly and continuously until they responded. We were all isolated, trapped behind bars, and so everyone was accountable for the person in the next cell over. We would call to the next cell, and if the person responded, he was alive. If he didn’t respond, that meant he was dead, in which case we’d call the guards so that we could bury him.
One of my relatives was an assistant officer in the prison, and he was shocked when he saw me still clinging to life. I didn’t take advantage of his being there because the guards were prohibited from entering except for one Alawite officer [names officer.]
It’s also worth mentioning that my relative left with the Red Crescent and defected during the course of our release.
Q: When and how were you released?
I was released on July 10, 2013 following negotiations that the Red Crescent mediated between the opposition and the regime. Seven people were released from prison, myself included, in exchange for three officers, including a shabiha commander.
My name was the first one to be submitted for release given my close ties with the Free Syrian Army. Several of their leaders, particularly my brother in the a-Tawhid Brigade, were demanding my release.
Q: How did you rebuild your life following your release?
After my release from prison, I left Aleppo and went to Turkey on April 2, 2014. I got back into sports and physical training, and, thanks to God, began working as a trainer at a sports club in Istanbul.
I’ve coached five Syrian champions in Turkey, including Hassan a-Nasan, Mahmood Hassan, and Hassan al-Khalid, who have performed very well on the national level. I am now training to participate in the European Bodybuilding Championships under the Free Syria banner.
I have been very vocal in my dissent against the regime, and when I participate, I will raise a photo of Erdogan because he is the only one who has supported me in my recent competitions.
Q: Describe the challenges you faced as an athlete before the revolution. Contrast that with your participation in the Public Authority for Youth and Sports, an organization funded and supported by both the opposition in exile and the Turkish government.
Regarding the pressures that we faced before the revolution, the regime always played dirty and trampled on our rights. For example, every year in the city of Basil in Latakia province, there was a tournament called “Mr. Beach.” These Alawite guys would participate, and, of course, every year they would come in first place in the tournament even if the competitors had better bodies.
We also never received any of the prize money that the Sports Federation provided for the athletes. It was either stolen or distributed to the Alawite athletes.
Today, the situation is completely different. It’s possible for us to voice our opinions, work together, and do everything in our power to comfortably train our young men and women with the support and cooperation of the Public Authority. We are working to foster a new generation of professional athletes, far removed from the disgusting politics of the Baath Party, which robbed us of our rights.
I have promised that I will establish myself once again and come back to my fitness club stronger than ever. This last year I have been training a team called “Free Syria” for the bodybuilding championships, and for the second time in a row, we got first place in Turkey, and our people are getting ready for the European championships. This year, I will participate in the tournament in Spain.
Q: Can you describe what it is like dealing with countries in order to participate in the athletic championships? Who is funding you and the Syrian teams?
Funding and support comes from the Turkish Sports Federation. I will participate in the world championships through Turkey, joining the league and training participants, given that I do not own a club. In addition to being an athletic trainer, I work on the side as a designer of women’s shoes for Schuster’s Shoes. After I finish my day with the company, I go down to the gym and start training. When I was in Italy, I was working as a women’s shoes designer before I ever entered the field of professional sports.
Q: How do you see the Assad regime today?
Since the moment I was arrested at the airport in 1996 before I even got the chance to see my parents, I have viewed the regime as broken and a failure. In my opinion, since the start of the revolution, there is nothing that remains that can be called a regime.
The regime fell when it began destroying the country and killing its people. I am unable to describe the brutality, criminality, and sheer barbarism of its actions. Even though I have seen it first-hand with my own eyes in the prison, my mind is still unable to fully comprehend what I experienced.
Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.
Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.