Amnesty accuses Syria of ‘extermination’ of thousands of prisoners

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A satellite image of Syria’s Saydnaya military prison, annotated by Amnesty International, via Google Earth and DigitalGlobe.
This is a satellite image of Syria’s Saydnaya military prison, annotated by Amnesty International, via Google Earth and DigitalGlobe.

Amnesty International

The prisoners are taken from their cells in the middle of the night, blindfolded and driven a short distance to a white building in the southwest corner of the prison complex.

They are led down some stairs into a basement room with a desk in the corner, where they are ordered to form a line. They are told to say their last wishes and sign a statement documenting their death.

Some of them collapse. Others remain silent.

In groups of 10 at a time, they are led to a 3-foot-high platform where 10 beige nooses hang. When all the nooses are filled, the prisoners are pushed to their death.

This was the fate of an estimated thousands of prisoners at Syria’s infamous Saydnaya jail, on the outskirts of Damascus, according to a shocking new report from Amnesty International.

The rights group alleges that Syrian authorities systematically executed anywhere from 5,500 to 13,500 detainees at the prison between 2011 and 2015. The group says the killings are probably still happening.

Most of the victims were civilians who were detained for their alleged opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

“The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director of research at Amnesty International’s regional office in Beirut.

“The cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners, along with the carefully crafted and systematic programs of psychological and physical torture that are in place inside Saydnaya prison cannot be allowed to continue.”

Syria’s justice ministry on Wednesday rejected Amnesty’s findings as “totally untrue” and said prisoner executions follow due process, according to a statement published by the state news agency.

The few prisoners or personnel who have managed to escape prisons like Saydnaya, 18 miles north of the capital, bring stories of horror and death.

The new report provides further evidence of mass killings in Syrian government prisons, and what it calls the government’s “extermination policies.”

It builds on previous research by Amnesty and other rights monitors. In December 2015, Human Rights Watch reported on thousands of photographs smuggled out of jails by a regime defector, documenting the death of 6,786 prisoners in detention or after being transferred to a military hospital. And in February 2016, the United Nations also called out what it saw as Syria’s state policy of “extermination” in prisons.

Related: You can now take a virtual tour of Assad’s notorious torture prison in Syria

The Amnesty report took over a year to produce and involved dozens of interviews with former detainees, guards and officials. It details a daily regimen of humiliation, torture, violence and degradation.

“Our brains started developing in a very strange way in Saydnaya. We didn’t think about what we were doing — we just reached the state of barbarity, and entered it, not even thinking,” said Wael, a detainee in Saydnaya from 2012 to 2014.

“Everything we did was part of the battle of survival. It’s a real war, and, in the end, if you refuse to fight it, you will die.”

The report describes how each detainee appears before a military field court, at which “proceedings are so summary and arbitrary that they don’t even constitute a judicial process.”

Many convictions were based on false confessions extracted from detainees under torture.

A former judge at the court, quoted in the report, described the process as such: “The judge will ask the name of the detainee and whether he committed the crime. Whether the answer is yes or no, he will be convicted. … This court has no relation with the rule of law. This is not a court.”

The report says the mass executions amount to “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” and those responsible must be brought to justice.

But on Tuesday, Assad brushed off any potential world court case against him, according to the Agence France-Presse. “We have to defend our country by every mean, and when we have to defend it by every mean, we don't care about this court, or any other international institution,” he said.

Maalouf, Amnesty’s deputy director, called for an investigation and for the mass killing allegations to be on the agenda at future peace talks between rebels and the Syrian government.

“The upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva cannot ignore these findings. Ending these atrocities in Syrian government prisons must be put on the agenda. The UN must immediately carry out an independent investigation into the crimes being committed at Saydnaya and demand access for independent monitors to all places of detention,” she said.

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