An Amnesty International report published Feb. 7 exposes the “cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners” in a Syrian detention center where an estimated 13,000 have been hanged in the past five years. The mass hangings took place at Saydnaya military prison near Damascus between 2011 and 2015—and there are clear indications that the kiling remains ongoing. Most of those hanged were civilians believed to have opposed the government, with the killings taking place in great secrecy in the middle of the night. The executions take place after summary “trials,” with no legal counsel and based on “confessions” extracted through torture.
The 48-page report, “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison,” shows that on top of these extrajudicial executions, the Syrian authorities are deliberately inflicting brutally inhuman conditions on detainees, with systematic torture, deprivation of food, water, medicine and medical care. The very few detainees who eventually leave Saydnaya often do so weighing half their body weight compared to the time of their arrival. Amnesty considers these practices to be part of a policy of deliberate “extermination.” Amnesty charges that these practices, which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, are authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government.
Following a year of research involving first-hand interviews with 84 witnesses (including former detainees, guards and officials), Amnesty has been able to establish that the Sadnaya hangings follow a set procedure. They are carried out in the middle of night. Those whose names are called out are told they’re to be transferred to civilian prisons in Syria. Instead, they’re moved to a cell in the basement of the prison and severely beaten over the course of two to three hours. The prisoners are then transported to another prison building (the “White Building”) on the grounds of Saydnaya, where they are hanged in the basement. Throughout the process, they remain blindfolded. They are informed they have been sentenced to death only minutes before they’re executed, and they do not know how they are about to die until a noose is placed around their necks.
A former judge who witnessed the hangings said: “They kept them [hanging] there for ten to 15 minutes. Some didn’t die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks.”
After execution, the prisoners’ bodies are taken away by the truckload to be secretly buried in mass graves. Their families are given no information about their fate.
Last August, another Amnesty report on Sadnaya estimated that more than 17,000 people have died in prisons across Syria as a result of inhuman conditions and torture since 2011. However, that figure does not include the estimated 13,000 additional deaths as a result of the extrajudicial executions exposed in this report.
Not one of the detainees condemned to hang at Saydnaya Prison is given anything that resembles an actual trial. Before they are hanged, victims are put through a perfunctory, one- or two-minute procedure at a so-called “Military Field Court.” These proceedings are so summary and arbitrary that they don’t even constitute a judicial process. The convictions issued by this so-called court are based on false confessions extracted from detainees under torture. Detainees are not allowed access to a lawyer or given an opportunity to defend themselves—most have been subjected to enforced disappearance, held in secret and cut off from the outside world.
One former judge from told Amnesty that the “court” operates outside the rules of the Syrian legal system: “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.” (AI, Feb. 7)