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A new report accuses the Syrian regime of secretly hanging up to 13,000 prisoners

A new report accuses the Syrian regime of secretly hanging up to 13,000 prisoners

A new report claims that up to 13,000 people were executed at one military prison in Syria during the five years of civil war. The killings were allegedly carried out with full consent from the highest levels of government.

The report from Amnesty International outlines the horrific scale of the executions at Saydnaya Military Prison, located 30 kilometres north of Damascus, revealing that prisoners were secretly hanged in the middle of the night, before their bodies were dumped in mass graves on the outskirts of Syrian capital.

Amnesty estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were hanged between September 2011 and December 2015, adding that thousands more have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and “systematically deprived of food, water, medicine and medical care.” The charity says this policy amounts to an extermination, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

One detainee held at Saydnaya described the torture he was subjected to: “The beating was so intense. It was as if you had a nail, and you were trying again and again to beat it into a rock. It was impossible, but they just kept going. I was wishing they would just cut off my legs instead of beating them any more.”

According to eyewitnesses, the prisoners at Saydnaya are held in two main complexes: the red building where civilians opposed to the government are held; and the white building, where arrested members of the Syrian military are kept.

These witnesses told Amnesty that before they are executed, prisoners are condemned by sham trials before a military court – hearings which only last between one and three minutes. Prisoners are then collected from their cells in the red building, transferred to the basement where they are beaten for several hours, before finally being moved to the white building where the executions take place – typically between midnight and 3 a.m.

“The Party”

Dubbed “the party” by prison authorities, the mass executions supposedly take place once or twice a week and see between 20 and 50 prisoners hanged at once, with victims blindfolded throughout and only told their of fate minutes before the noose is slipped around their neck.

The bodies were then taken to Tishreen Military Hospital where the deaths were registered and death certificates issued – certificates which often recorded the cause of death as heart or respiratory failure.

While Amnesty says it doesn’t have firm evidence of executions carried out since December 2015, it adds that because detainees are still transferred to Saydnaya and the “trials” at the Military Field Court continue, “There is no reason to believe that executions have stopped.”

Amnesty conducted its research over the course of 12 months to December 2016, speaking to a range of sources who had direct knowledge of what happened at Saydnaya including 31 detainees, four prison officials or guards, three former Syrian judges and 22 family members of people who were or still are detained there.

The secret killings were sanctioned by the highest levels of the Syrian government, according to Amnesty. The report says death sentences are approved by the Grand Mufti — Syria’s most senior cleric — and then by either the minister of defense or the chief of staff of the army, who are deputized to act on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

These revelations are just the latest in a long line of accusations of abuse leveled against the Syrian government:

  • Allegations of torture go back decades, with Amnesty documenting the government’s systematic use of 35 torture techniques in its prisons in 1987, when the country was ruled by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
  • Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Assad’s government has been implicated in multiple incidents of human rights violations. The UN reported that between 2012 and July 2013, at least 9 intentional mass killings were conducted, with the Syrian government identified as the perpetrator in eight cases.
  • A report in November 2013 found that 6,000 women alleged they had been raped, most of them during government-backed raids on rebel territories, with many of the victims reporting that security forces had participated in the attacks.
  • In 2015, a report was published based on images taken by a photographer known only as “Caesar”, who captured pictures of thousand of detainees allegedly killed while in government custody. The images detail the “systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region during the Syrian Civil War over a two and half year period from March 2011 to August 2013.”
  • In August 2016, Amnesty reported that approximately 17,723 people died in custody as a result of torture, starvation and a lack of medical care in the period since the civil war began.

Most recently Assad has been accused of carrying out war crimes during the bombardment of rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo. In October, then Secretary of State John Kerry called for an investigation into the actions of the Syrian government and its close ally Russia. “Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, medical facilities, children, women,” Kerry said. “These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes..”

Amnesty has said that it asked the Syrian government to respond to these latest allegations in January, but has yet to receive any reply.

Cover: Amnesty

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