Syria has made torture a state policy against civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Tuesday, calling it a crime against humanity that should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

The New York-based rights group said it had identified 27 detention centres in Syria, plus government agencies involved and methods used against people suspected of opposing the Damascus-based regime.

“The (Syrian) intelligence agencies are running an archipelago of torture centres scattered across the country,” said Ole Solvang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The group said four Syrian intelligence agencies have carried out the worst torture: the Department of Military Intelligence, the Political Security Directorate, the General Intelligence Directorate and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate.

It said the 81-page report was based on more than 200 interviews, which Human Rights Watch began after the start of demonstrations against Damascus in early 2011.

The report said most former detainees interviewed said they were tortured or had witnessed the torture of others. Torture methods included prolonged beatings with batons and cables, and detainees being held in painful stress positions for prolonged periods.

It said use of electricity, burning with acid, sexual assault and humiliation, pulling of fingernails and mock execution were also employed. It said torture victims included mostly men between 18 and 35, but also children, women and the elderly.

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