Once or twice a week, the guards at the Saydnaya military prison in Damascus Province, 35km northeast of Bashar al-Assad’s presidential palace, hold what they call “the party”.
This event, which is evidently the highlight of the day, involves bussing between 20 and 50 blindfolded, starved, and tortured prisoners to the in-house gallows to be hanged after a sham “trial” typically lasting between one and three minutes. In most cases, this marks the grisly end of the road for those put through the human meat grinder of Saydnaya, and their corpses are promptly tossed onto trucks (dubbed “meat fridges” by the prison authorities) to be taken for burial in mass graves on state-owned land on the capital’s outskirts. The exceptions are those inmates whose bodies have been so thoroughly wasted by beatings, malnutrition, and illness that their weight isn’t sufficient to kill them. After spending fifteen minutes suspended on the noose, still alive, these people are yanked downward so as to break their necks by men employed by the state for this purpose.
The above are only some of the findings of a new 48-page Amnesty International report, released Tuesday, based on a full year’s investigation during which the human rights organization interviewed four former Saydnaya employees, 31 former Saydnaya detainees, and scores of former Syrian judges, doctors, lawyers, and others with direct knowledge of what went on (and still does). Based on the evidence collected, Amnesty estimates between 5,000 and 13,000 were exterminated in this fashion between September 2011 and December 2015 – and “there is no reason to believe that executions have stopped” since. (These are separate from the thousands of other killings in regime custody previously documented by the military defector codenamed “Caesar”).
While accounts of these deaths are grim enough, the descriptions of life inside Saydnaya are hardly more pleasant, and indeed interviewees told Amnesty death was seen as a deliverance (“It was a gift to be killed […] we were wishing to die,” as one put it). A typical first day in the prison was marked by a “severe” beating known as the “welcome party,” which could in itself be lethal. “All you see is blood: your own blood, the blood of others,” recalled one survivor. Thereafter one continued to be subjected to an “unrelenting” program of torture for as long as one was inside, ranging from beatings to electrocutions to sexual assaults. The Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya marveled in his 1993 work Cruelty and Silence that the Saddam Hussein regime employed men expressly for the purpose of raping women (“violation of women’s honor” was the official job description). The Assad regime arguably goes one further by paying guards at Saydnaya to force prisoners to rape one another.
When they weren’t being savagely beaten, inmates were suffering from the no-less-destructive effects of food and water deprivation. “The thirst was indescribable […] we would lick the condensation from the wall […] by the ninth day, people started drinking their own urine,” one told Amnesty. The combination of this with the violence inevitably led to medical afflictions, from tuberculosis to scabies to gangrene. Needless to say, no medical care was offered; in fact, “When the doctors came, they would torture the detainees instead of helping them.”
And there can be no doubt, say Amnesty, that this was and is happening with Assad’s full knowledge.
For one thing, each victim is issued a formal death sentence by the Military Field Court, signed by the Grand Mufti (the same man recently given the honor of addressing the Irish parliament), as well as either the Minister of Defense or the Army Chief of Staff. Amnesty in fact wrote to the Syrian regime on 10 January, 2017, “requesting clarifications” regarding its findings, and unsurprisingly received no response. Accordingly, Amnesty concludes Damascus is implicated in multiple violations of international law, including crimes against humanity, and calls on UN Security Council members and those states supporting Assad –“in particular Russia, with its permanent seat on the Security Council, and Iran” – to “do what is in their power to bring [the crimes] to an end.”