Syria executions: Did Assad's government carry out a 'policy of extermination'?

An Amnesty International report details mass killings at a prison near Damascus, as part of a campaign to crush dissent.

Omar Alshogre/AP
At left, Omar Alshogre, a Syrian former detainee, now living in Stockholm, Sweden shows, poses in Stockholm January 2017. At right, Alshogre in July 2015 in Antakya, Turkey, a month after he got out of Syria's Saydnaya prison, near Damascus.

A new report from Amnesty International accuses senior officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad of authorizing mass atrocities at a government detention center just north of Damascus, as part of a campaign to "exterminate" dissent.

As many as 13,000 prisoners were tortured and killed in mass hangings from 2011 to 2015 at Saydnaya Prison, known to detainees as the “slaughterhouse,” the group wrote in its report released on Tuesday.

The overwhelming majority of the victims, it said, were civilians thought to oppose the government, including former military personnel suspected of disloyalty and people involved in unrest. And the atrocities may be ongoing.

“The murder, torture, enforced disappearances and extermination carried out at Saydnaya since 2011 have been perpetrated by the Syrian authorities as part of a systematic attack against the civilian population,” reads the report released on Tuesday, calling these attacks “crimes against humanity.”

“The Syrian government must let in independent monitors to investigate Syria’s brutal detention [centers], now.”

The group's report, released on Tuesday, is the latest effort by international war-crimes investigators to document atrocities committed by Mr. Al-Assad's government since the 2011 beginning of the Syrian civil war. Its findings, based on interviews with some 84 witnesses, reflect those of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry report from last year on deaths in the Saydnaya prison.

"Amnesty's findings are almost completely in-line with our 'Death in Detention' paper," Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN panel, told Reuters. "We mentioned the executions in Sednaya and have extensive details on the systematic details of the regular ceremonies they have to conduct hangings in front of an audience of public officials. It is one of the clearest instances of a systematic practice that we had and based some of the key findings upon."

Amnesty's report includes harrowing details of beatings and psychological torture that preceded the killings, as well as forced confessions and sham trials before military courts.

"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," Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty’s regional office in Beirut, told the Associated Press.

The Syrian government didn’t respond to a letter from Amnesty International seeking a comment. Syrian government officials rarely comment on allegations of torture and mass killings, according to Amnesty. In the past, officials have denied reports of massacres documented by international human rights groups, denouncing them as propaganda.

Amnesty estimates between 5,000 and 13,000 people were killed in mass hangings from March 2011 to December 2015, with 20-50 people hanged each week at the prison, sometimes twice a week. To come up with this estimate, the group interviewed 31 former detainees and over 50 other officials and experts, including former guards and judges.

More chilling than the number of deaths is the report’s detailed account of how the prisoners were tortured and killed. "The victims are overwhelmingly civilians who are thought to oppose the government," reads the report. They include former military personnel suspected of disloyalty and people involved in unrest.

These prisoners were put through sham trials before military courts, and were sometimes forced to make confessions under torture.  

“In reality, this is a one or two minute procedure in an office, in front of a military officer, where effectively the detainee’s name is logged into a death registry,” reads the report.  

In a report last year, Amnesty also found more than 17,000 people have died of torture and ill-treatment in custody across Syria since 2011, an average rate of more than 300 deaths a month.

That rate is comparable to the number of deaths on the battlefield in Aleppo, one of the deadliest war zones in Syria. Since 2011, 21,000 people were killed in the province.

The report, Amnesty says, justifies compelling the Syrian government to let in independent monitors to investigate its detention centers. Since 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited selected government-run detention facilities. But its findings are only shared with Syrian authorities.

The report also comes months after France, Britain, and the United States called for investigation of Russia for war crimes as a result of its bombing of civilian areas – including hospitals – in Aleppo, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.

In response to Tuesday’s report, the foreign ministers of both France and Britain condemned the killings but did not comment on Amnesty’s call for independent investigators to be let into this and other prisons. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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