Syria executes 24 for igniting deadly bushfires

Twenty other people, including juveniles, were given prison sentences

Syria has executed 24 people after convicting them on terrorism charges for igniting last year’s devastating bushfires, leaving three people dead and burning thousands of hectares of forests, the Justice Ministry said on Thursday.

The publicised execution of a large group of people is rare in war-torn Syria, where a decade-long conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced half the country’s population, including five million refugees outside the country.

Bushfires broke out in several Middle Eastern countries in October 2020 amid a heatwave that was unusual for that time of the year, leaving Syria particularly hard hit.

Three people were killed in the blazes, which also burnt wide areas of forests, mostly in the government-controlled regions of Latakia and the central province of Homs.

President Bashar Al Assad’s home town of Qardaha in Latakia province was hard hit by the fires, which heavily damaged a building used as storage for the state-owned tobacco company, part of which collapsed.

Mr Al Assad made a rare visit to the region shortly after the fire was brought under control.

A statement issued by the Justice Ministry on Thursday said those executed a day earlier were “criminals who carried out terrorist attacks that led to deaths and damage to state infrastructure and public and private property through the use of flammable material".

The ministry said 11 others were sentenced to life in prison in the same case.

Nine others, including five juveniles, received prison sentences. The prison sentences for the juveniles ranged between 10 to 12 years, the Justice Ministry said.

The statement did not provide further details on the circumstances of the executions or how they took place.

For civilians, the death penalty in Syria is usually carried out by hanging. Syrian laws allow for the death penalty for offences including terrorism, espionage, treason, arson and army desertion.

“Yesterday’s executions of 24 people demonstrates the Syrian government’s disregard for international law, especially right to life,” said Diana Semaan, researcher on Syria for Amnesty International.

She added that death sentences are often passed through secret trials or during court proceedings which lack basic safeguards, such as the right to a lawyer, and with confessions routinely extracted under torture or other ill treatment and duress.

In 2017, a report by Amnesty International said as many as 13,000 people were executed in secret mass hangings at the Saidnaya prison in Syria between September 2011 and December 2015 at the height of the Syrian civil war. It said the reported executions were authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government.

The report said that between 20 and 50 people were hanged each week, sometimes twice a week, at the Saidnaya prison in what the organisation called a “calculated campaign of extrajudicial execution".

UN human rights experts have also reported the mass killing of detainees held by the government in official and makeshift detention centres that often take place out of sight.

Those executed on Wednesday were among dozens of people detained in late 2020 who confessed that they began planning to ignite fires starting in August last year, the ministry's statement said.

They started fires in September that affected 280 towns and villages and damaged 370 homes, the ministry added.

It said a total of 24,000 hectares of forests and plantation were burnt in the fires.

Updated: October 21st 2021, 11:08 PM