BEIRUT // The Assad regime in Syria hanged up to 13,000 people at a “slaughterhouse” prison over five years in a policy of extermination, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
The damning report, Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hanging and Extermination at Saidnaya Prison, goes into excruciating detail about mass hangings between 2011 and 2015.
At least once a week, up to 50 prisoners were taken out of their cells for arbitrary trials, beaten, then hanged “in the middle of the night and in total secrecy”, the report said.
“Throughout this process they remain blindfolded. They do not know when or how they will die until the noose is placed around their necks.”
Most victims at the jail, near Damascus, were civilians believed to be opposed to the government of president Bashar Al Assad.
“They kept them hanging there for 10 to 15 minutes,” said a former judge who witnessed the executions. “For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks.”
Amnesty said the executions were war crimes and crimes against humanity, but were probably still taking place.
Hamid, a former army officer who was jailed in 2012, told Amnesty he was horrified but relieved when he saw prisoners taken to be hanged: “I felt happy that their suffering would end.”
• Smuggled in a hearse, Syrian lives to tell of torture by Assad's forces
Sami Al Sari will never forget the sheer terror of lying next to so many corpses in the back of the hearse. The 25-year-old Syrian was smuggled out of a notorious prison in a hearse full of dead inmates, and dumped in a desolate area outside Damascus in November 2012.
Mr Al Assad yesterday said defending his country in a time of war was more important than a case against his government at the UN court in The Hague.
“We have to defend our country by every means, and when we have to defend it by every means, we don’t care about this court, or any other international institution,” he said.
The report comes two weeks before a new round of talks is due to take place in Switzerland aimed at ending the six-year war.
“The coming Syria peace talks in Geneva cannot ignore these findings,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty’s Beirut office. “Ending these atrocities in Syrian government prisons must be put on the agenda.”
The High Negotiations Committee, which is set to represent Syria’s opposition at the talks, said the investigation “leaves no doubts that the regime has carried out war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
The National Coalition, a leading opposition group based in Istanbul, demanded that international observers be allowed “unobstructed access” to regime-run jails.
The military-run Saidnaya prison, about 30 kilometres north of Damascus, in two satellite pictures released by Amnesty International on February 7. One taken on March 3, 2010, top, and the other on September 18, 2016
Thousands of prisoners are held at the military-run Saidnaya prison, 30 kilometres north of Damascus, one of Syria’s largest detention centres.
Amnesty accused Syria’s government of repeatedly torturing detainees and withholding food, water and medical care.
“All you see is blood: your own blood, the blood of others,” Salam, a lawyer from Aleppo who was held in Saidnaya from 2012 to 2014, told Amnesty.
Prisoners were raped and guards would feed detainees by tossing food on to cell floors, which were often covered in dirt and blood, Amnesty said.
The watchdog has said that more than 17,700 people were estimated to have died in government custody in Syria since the conflict erupted in March 2011. That did not up to 13,000 people executed in Saidnaya.
“The cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenceless prisoners, along with the carefully crafted and systematic programmes of psychological and physical torture that are in place inside Saidnaya prison cannot be allowed to continue,” said Ms Maalouf.
Amnesty said it gave the names of 87 prison officials and guards responsible for the atrocities to “bodies capable of conducting credible investigations” into the killings.
A UN investigation last year accused Mr Al Assad’s government of carrying out extermination in its jails.
Meanwhile, bombing raids yesterday against Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate killed 26 people, mostly civilians, a monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nearly a dozen strikes hit Jabhat Fatah Al Sham’s headquarters in Idlib city, and that 16 civilians were among the dead.
The Britain-based monitor said the raids were either carried out by a US-led coalition or by regime ally Russia, but Moscow immediately denied it was involved.
* Agence France-Presse