Amnesty International accuses Syria of hanging thousands of prisoners, dumping bodies in mass graves

On Monday or Wednesday afternoons, guards would call out the names of prisoners for transfer from Syria’s notorious Saydnaya military prison.

Some inmates saw it as a heartening sign that their detention at Saydnaya was over. Hours later, blindfolded, severely beaten and with nooses around their necks, they would realize their true fate.

An estimated 5,000 to 13,000 prisoners were killed at the prison from March 2011 to December 2015, according to a report called “Human Slaughterhouse” issued Tuesday by the Amnesty International human rights organization.

The Syrian government would “quietly slaughter” up to 50 prisoners at a time in mass hangings, once or twice a week, before dumping the bodies in mass graves in secret locations outside Damascus, the capital, the 48-page report says.

Nicolette Waldman, who wrote the report after a one-year investigation, said the number of people killed at Saydnaya may be much higher. The country’s civil war, which began in 2011, has left more than 400,000 people dead and millions displaced.

“The last testimony for this report was in December 2015, but there is no reason to think the executions have stopped. There are thousands more who have been killed,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s not a perfect science, and what we really want is for an investigation into the prison to get more precise figures.”

The Amnesty report is based on the testimonies of 84 people, including 31 former detainees and 14 prison officials, doctors, lawyers and judges who had previously worked in Saydnaya or had first-hand knowledge of the executions, Waldman said. 

The Syrian government did not immediately comment on the report. The rights organization said officials did not respond to its request for comment.

Witnesses interviewed for the report said victims are taken to a military court in a Damascus suburb, where they undergo a trial lasting one to three minutes. They are convicted, but are not informed of their sentences. Months later, they are collected from their cells, taken to a separate cell and beaten. 

Omar Shogre, a former inmate quoted in the report said in a separate interview that life in Saydnaya is “an existence that relied on sounds.” He said that on the days of the so-called transfers, he could hear the screams of inmates starting late at night and stretching into the first hour of the morning. 

But later, “there would be this strange silence,” broken only by the sounds of truck engines, Shogre said. 

The detainees are moved to a wing of Saydnaya called the “white building.” Inside, prisoners form a small queue in front of a desk, and are told to express their last wish and place a fingerprint on a statement documenting their death. For many, it’s the first moment they realize they will be put to death, according to the Amnesty report. 

Still blindfolded, they are lined up on platforms, the report says.  

“Then they would put the nooses on and push them or drop them immediately, so they didn’t know what was happening until the very last moment,” said one former prisoner official quoted in the report.

Victims would hang for 10 to 15 minutes. Some, so malnourished that their weight was too light to kill them, were pulled down by two officers’ assistants so as to break their necks, said the report.

“If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling. This would last around 10 minutes,” said one former military officer who was arrested and detained at Saydnaya and was quoted in the report. “We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then.” 

With dawn approaching, bodies would then be loaded into trucks and dispatched to mass graves near Damascus.

Shogre, now a refugee in Sweden, did not witness any part of the executions. However, he and other inmates had tried to make contact with some of those who had been called out for transfers. They were unable to reach them, hearing from others they had been executed.

Although the process is largely secret, the report asserts that “it is inconceivable that these large-scale and systematic practices have not been authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government.”

“Death sentences are approved by the Grand Mufti of Syria and by either the Minister of Defense or the Chief of Staff of the Army, who are deputized to act on behalf of President Bashar Assad,” said the report.

Rights groups accuse the Syrian government of detaining tens of thousands of people. Once “disappeared” (family members don’t know their location or if they are still alive), detainees are often subjected to torture and “subhuman conditions”  while being denied food, water, medical care and sanitation — many die before they are formally marked for execution, the Amnesty report says.  

Saydnaya, less than 20 miles from Damascus, has long been one of the country’s feared penal institutions, known for meting out relentless torture against government adversaries. 

Syrian government officials have repeatedly denied allegations of misconduct in their handling of prisoners, saying detainees go through due process. 

Elia Samman, a consultant to the Syrian Ministry for National Reconciliation, said that “in a country suffering from such a brutal war, it is normal to have sentences and death penalties.”

“These numbers are astronomical, and in principle, the sources from which Amnesty is getting its information are only from one side, and they are from people from the opposition trying to demonize the Syrian government,” he said in a phone interview from Damascus on Tuesday.

“If we want to discuss the numbers and the method by which these things happening, there is much exaggeration.”

There was a mechanism for families to find out the whereabouts of detainees and if they had been executed, Samman said, and that most of them were found to be alive.

“If the accusations were true, you would see thousands of families looking for members,” he said. “There are people searching for detainees, but not in these numbers."

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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