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BEIRUT (AFP) – Activist Alaa Morelli escaped the worst in Syrian prisons, but to secure her freedom she lied during a forced "confession" on state television, saying the uprising was the work of foreigners.
A student of Latakia university located on Syria's Mediterranean coastline, Morelli, 23, was arrested on June 12 last year, just after sitting one of her second-year exams.
A fellow student reported her for making and distributing pamphlets calling on Latakia residents to protest against Assad's regime.
"I came out of my exam and saw members of the security forces standing there with a student. He pointed me out to them and they detained me," she told AFP in interviews conducted in Istanbul and via the Internet.
Morelli spent over two months in detention, and was moved from one prison to another throughout.
"I saw horrible things," she says, her voice wavering, the smile vanishing from her face.
"The guards kept threatening me with solitary confinement and gave me very hard psychological treatment. But other girls suffered much worse," she says.
"I saw a cell packed with some 40 women, all naked, blindfolded and handcuffed. They weren't allowed to sit, they could only stand."
Some 30,000 to 40,000 people are believed to be in Syria's jails, and rights groups say detainees face systematic torture.
Morelli believes she was spared the worst because she admitted her "crimes" on television.
Syria's state television regularly airs "confessions" of detained citizens accused of working or fighting for the opposition.
The footage of Morelli's "confession" was broadcast for weeks, showing her looking serious and her head wrapped in an austere white veil.
Morelli told viewers she had agreed to report fabricated news of anti-regime demonstrations and crackdowns on dissidents for pan-Arab station Al-Jazeera, using a pseudonym.
The Syrian regime has refused to admit the existence of a popular movement against Assad's rule and uses the term "terrorists" as a blanket designation for the opposition.
The regime has also blamed foreign states for sparking violence.
"What I was saying (on Al-Jazeera) was not true. There was nothing happening in Latakia. People were going about their daily lives," Morelli said in her televised confession.
In the 15-minute interview, she gave details of opponents who she said were smuggling in satellite equipment for activists avoiding state surveillance.
Anti-regime activists' "goal is to divide the country and to turn international public opinion against Syria. They made Syria look like a pool of blood, when there was nothing happening here", she said, weeping on television.
She said she had "participated in spilling the blood of Syrians".
While she was in jail, dissidents launched a campaign calling for her release which was finally secured through a prisoner exchange.
"Eventually, it was thanks to a (rebel) Free Syrian Army brigade that another girl and I got out," she says brightly.
"They arranged a prisoner exchange for several soldiers in return for us."
The prisoner exchange introduced her to her husband, Said Tarbush, the rebel commander of the Ahrar Jable battalion that negotiated the deal.
Morelli married Tarbush and moved with him to neighbouring Turkey.
"Any girl in my shoes would have done the same. He saved my life, and showed me the real meaning of love," she chuckles.
In the safety of Istanbul, she has swapped the white veil she wore during her forced confession for a multi-coloured pink-hued scarf, embroidered with flowers.
Tarbush wears a thick beard and speaks in a deep voice, frequently using Islamic phrases.
He appears hardened by months spent fighting the army in the countryside of Latakia, most of which is in regime control.
Though she is visibly less conservative than him, he is "extremely proud of Alaa. Can't you see how strong she is?" he says with a smile.
Morelli dreams of finishing her studies in history and of "becoming a doctor in my field. I want to go back to Latakia some day, this time as a teacher".
For now, she and a group of friends raise funds in Turkey and make short trips into Syria via rebel-held border posts. They deliver food and basic goods to families forced to flee their homes.
"We raise about $1,000 at a time, and make short trips into Aleppo or Idlib" provinces in northern Syria, home to tens of thousands of displaced, Morelli says.
It's "not enough, but it's better than nothing. Only we young people can help Syria, because in the world's eyes, we're just numbers".