Amnesty International has reported that as many as 13,000 opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been secretly hanged in just one of Syria’s most infamous prisons since the civil war began five years ago. The human rights group said this is part of an extermination policy ordered by the highest levels of the Syrian government.
According to Amnesty’s report, titled “Human Slaughterhouse”, many thousands more people held in Saydnaya prison died through torture and starvation and the bodies were dumped in two mass graves on the outskirts of Damascus between midnight and dawn on Tuesday mornings for at least five years.
As reported by The Guardian, the report entails allegations of state-sanctioned abuse that are unprecedented in Syria’s civil war, a conflict that has consistently broken new ground in depravity, leaving at least 400,000 people dead and nearly half the country’s population displaced.
Amnesty interviewed 84 people, including four former guards at two key buildings, a “red building” in which civilian detainees were held and a “white building” that held former military members and where hangings were carried out in the basement. More than 12 months of research focused on 31 men who were held in both buildings. A military judge was also interviewed.
Witnesses claimed that 20 to 50 people at a time were hanged weekly after sham trials before a military court. Their bodies were taken to the nearby Tishreen military hospital where a cause of death was typically registered as a respiratory disorder or heart failure. They were buried on military land in Nahja, south of Damascus, and Qatana, a small town to the west.
Nicolette Waldman, the report’s author, said the estimate of the number of people hanged ranged from a minimum of 5,000 to a maximum of 13,000.
“There is no reason at all to expect that the hangings have stopped. We believe it is very likely that the executions are going on to this day and that many thousands more people have been killed,” she said.
“They came for them on a Monday. Before they were hanged, victims were condemned to death in a two- to three-minute hearing. The death sentence was signed by the minister of defence, who was deputised to sign by President Assad. It is inconceivable that all of the top officials did not know about it. This was a policy of extermination.”
Waldman said the hanging victims were separate to claims of the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees in Syria from March 2011 until August 2013, which were documented by a photographer codenamed Caesar who worked for the Syrian military police.
Last year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 60,000 people had died as a result of torture or dire conditions in Syrian prisons.
Amnesty also reported that non-state armed groups had carried out serious human rights abuses against detainees. It singled out the al-Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. But it said the “vast majority of detention-related violations since 2011 have been carried out by Syrian authorities”.
According to the group’s report, the killings in Saydnaya were methodical. Those to be hung were collected from their cell block in the red building in the afternoon and told they were to be transferred to another prison. They were instead taken to the basement of the white building, several hundred metres away, and repeatedly beaten. They were taken before a military judge and condemned, before being hanged between midnight and 3am.
“Some of them initially did not know what the sounds were,” said Waldman. “It is such a dehumanising and horrible experience in prison already.”
According to Amnesty, witnesses detailed each step of the process, with some giving graphic accounts of having heard the hangings being carried out in the room beneath them.
“What we have uncovered is beyond anything else we have seen,” said Waldman. “This demands a new kind of response. These practices have to stop. It is one more step of diabolical intent by the Syrian authorities.”
In a separate report, the Reuters news agency quoted Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the United Nation’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, as saying: “Amnesty’s findings are almost completely in-line with our ‘Death in Detention’ paper. We mentioned the executions in Sednaya and have extensive details on the systematic details of the regular ceremonies they have to conduct hangings in front of an audience of public officials. It is one of the clearest instances of a systematic practice that we had and based some of the key findings upon.”
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Britain and France decried Amnesty’s findings. Boris Johnson tweeted: “Sickened by reports from Amnesty International on executions in Syria. Assad responsible for so many deaths and has no future as leader”.
France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault tweeted: “@Amnesty has documented the horror in the prisons of the Syrian regime. This barbarity cannot be the future of Syria”.