LONDON - They don't know they are to be hanged, not until the noose is placed around their necks. As they are moved in groups of up to 50 people, they are told they are being transferred to another prison. Some in the “execution room” may still harbor hopes they are to be released and freed from weeks of vicious beatings, sexual violence, starvation and humiliation.
According to Amnesty International, week in, week out, a grotesque execution routine has been under way in the jail 30 kilometers from the capital Damascus, and has been since the earliest days of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The rights organization published a report Tuesday containing harrowing details on extrajudicial killings at Syria's Saydnaya prison.
Amnesty calculates that from September 2011 to December 2015, between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Saydnaya. The number may well be higher, warn the researchers of the report, “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison.” The rights organization says it has no reason to believe the executions have ceased.
The 48-page report, which took a year to complete and is based on first-hand interviews with 84 witnesses, including former Saydnaya guards and officials, detainees, judges and lawyers, as well as national and international experts on detention in Syria, is the second study Amnesty has published about the prison.
In August 2016, Amnesty, in collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London, pieced together an interactive digital model of the prison, part of a wider study on the extrajudicial killings by the Syrian government.
“Saydnaya is the end of life, the end of humanity," a guard told Amnesty's researchers.
No response from Syria
The rights organization asked the Syrian government to respond to allegations contained in the report, but received no response. VOA also emailed the Syrian Foreign Ministry, but to no avail.
The report reveals a routine of mass extrajudicial executions by hanging. Detainees included doctors, lawyers, activists, engineers and humanitarian workers, says Amnesty.
Besides the hangings, Amnesty says, “Large numbers of detainees have also been killed as a result of the authorities' extermination policies, which include repeated torture and the systematic deprivation of food, water, medicine and medical care.”
One of the judges interviewed by Amnesty recalled the actual killing process inside the “execution room” in the prison's “white building,” one of Saydnaya's two main blocks.
"They kept them there [hanging] for 10 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,” he said.
Before detainees are hanged, they are condemned to death at the Military Field Court. The trials last between one and three minutes. On the day the prison authorities carry out the hangings, which they refer to as “the party,” they collect the victims from their cells in the prison's “red building.” The detainees are told that they will be transferred to a civilian prison.
“Instead, they are brought to a cell in the basement of the red building, where they are severely beaten over the course of two or three hours,” Amnesty claims.
In the middle of the night, they are blindfolded and transferred in delivery trucks or minibuses to the “white building.” This takes place once or twice a week, and on each occasion between 20 and 50 people are hanged to death,” Amnesty alleges.
Silence is enforced
The rights organization said prison inmates are regularly tortured, through severe beatings and sexual violence.
“They are denied adequate food, water, medicine, medical care and sanitation, which has led to the rampant spread of infection and disease. Silence is enforced, even during torture sessions. Many detainees develop serious mental illnesses such as psychosis,” the researchers say.
Omar, a high-school student when he was arrested, shared an experience with Amnesty, "The guard would ask everyone to take off all their clothes and go to the bathroom one by one... they would select one of the boys ...They would ask him to stand with his face to the door and close his eyes. They would then ask a bigger prisoner to rape him...No one will admit this happened to them, but it happened so often...Sometimes psychological pain is worse than physical pain, and the people who were forced to do this were never the same again."
'A monstrous campaign'
“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,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty International's regional office in Beirut.
She added, “The upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva cannot ignore these findings. Ending these atrocities in Syrian government prisons must be put on the agenda. The U.N. must immediately carry out an independent investigation into the crimes being committed at Saydnaya and demand access for independent monitors to all places of detention.”