A new report by Amnesty International alleges a widespread and systematic attack by the government of Syria against its civilian population, including murder, torture, enforced disappearances and extermination carried out at a military prison called Saydnaya.
The executive summary of the Amnesty International report opens with this grim description:
“Saydnaya Military Prison is where the Syrian state quietly slaughters its own people. The victims are overwhelmingly ordinary civilians who are thought to oppose the government. Since 2011, thousands of people have been extrajudicially executed in mass hangings, carried out at night and in the utmost secrecy. Many other detainees at Saydnaya Military Prison have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and systematically deprived of food, water, medicine and medical care. The bodies of those who are killed at Saydnaya are buried in mass graves. It is inconceivable that these large-scale and systematic practices have not been authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government.”
Reports of torture and disappearances in Syria are not new. But the Amnesty International report says the magnitude and severity of abuse has “increased drastically” since 2011. Citing the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, the report says “at least 17,723 people were killed in government custody between March 2011 and December 2015, an average of 300 deaths each month.” The victims — political dissidents, journalists, doctors and aid workers — were perceived opponents of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On the basis of its own investigation, Amnesty International estimates that between September 2011 and December 2015, between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed without legitimate trials at Saydnaya. The report says the organization has no evidence of executions after December 2015, but based on information that the facility is still being used to imprison dissidents, “there is no reason to believe the executions have stopped.”
The 48-page report includes graphic details of systematic beatings, rapes and psychological degradation, not to mention the denial of food, water and medical care. Omar, a former detainee, described it this way:
” ‘[A]t night, we could hear them beating them again with the tank belt [an improvised tool made out of tyre tread, which is attached to a wooden handle], and the green pipe. We knew the sounds that each made. First we were thinking the people were being released or taken to the civilian prisons. But at midnight, we heard the sound of torture again, and we thought they were dying, because the sound of the torture was so strong. They were beating them in a monstrous way.’ ”
The report is based on a yearlong investigation, beginning in December 2015, of the violations reported at Saydnaya. The organization interviewed 84 people in total, many with firsthand experience at Saydnaya including 31 former detainees, four prison officials or guards and 22 family members of former or current detainees, as well as Syrian judges, lawyers and doctors familiar with the facility. All but two interviews with witnesses were conducted separately, says the report. Most interviews were conducted in southern Turkey, with others in Lebanon, Jordan, Europe and the United States.
The Amnesty International report says that the organization attempted to contact the Syrian government in January 2017 about the allegations raised in its report. But the organization has received no response.