BEIRUT: The Syrian War is now in its sixth deadly year, with a civilian death toll on the battlefield that has spiraled into the hundreds of thousands, caused over five million Syrians to flee the country for uncertain status as refugees and reduced the country's second-largest city Aleppo to rubble.
The country has broken into separate cantonments losing the Assad regime more than half its former sovereign territory.
But what of off the battlefield?
Amnesty International, the human rights group, has issued a report that is a frightening record on extrajudicial killings by the government at the Saydnaya prison which is situated on the outskirts of Damascus.
The report, whose methodology included many first-hand interviews with former prisoners, family members of prisoners, and former guards and some senior officials, makes that case that as many as 13,000 persons have been hanged to death at the prison.
These persons had all been arrested on grounds of being opponents of the regime, but were not combatants.
According to Amnesty's calculus, where at one point up to 50 persons were hanged each week, and from 5,000 to possibly 13,000 were killed between September 2011 and December 2015.
Witnesses said that several times a week 20-50 prisoners were taken from their cells and told they were being transferred elsewhere. Officials with knowledge of prison operations said that these inmates each then appeared before a military judge for two or three minutes, during which time they were condemned to death
The sentenced prisoners were then taken to another facility and summarily executed.
In the below Q & A with report author Nicollette Waldman, the findings and the methodology used are gone over studiously in order to rebut charges from Syrian President Bashar Assad that the information lacks basis in provable record.
What is the methodology used in the report on Saydnaya prison? Were the anonymous testimonies a key factor and the sole basis for the report, or did you obtain information from other sources?
The findings in this report are based on an intensive investigation, which was carried out over the course of 12 months, from December 2015 to December 2016. This investigation involved first-hand interviews with 84 witnesses and relied on evidence provided by guards and senior officials at Saydnaya Prison who have since left their positions. To corroborate this information, we interviewed 31 former detainees at Saydnaya, many of whom were eyewitnesses to different steps of the execution process. We also interviewed seven Syrian judges and lawyers and 17 national and international experts on detention in Syria.
Furthermore, former detainees from the red building at Saydnaya provided Amnesty International with the names of 59 individuals who they witnessed being taken from their cells in the afternoon, being told that they were being transferred to civilian prisons in Syria. Amnesty International was able to locate the family members of 17 of these 59 individuals. In all cases, the family members had not received any news on the fate or whereabouts of their loved one.
As we explain in the report, the reason that so many witnesses left anonymous in this report is because they requested that we not use their names out of concern for their own safety or the safety of their family members. As a matter of policy, we honored these requests, and we believe their concerns are well-founded – as we discuss in this and prior reports, the Syrian government has retaliated against those it perceives to oppose it by arresting, torturing, disappearing, and even extrajudicially executing them.
Our main call for this report is for an independent investigation to be launched by the UN into international crimes committed at Saydnaya. We are looking forward to the results of this investigation, which we believe will provide even more detailed analysis and evidence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been carried out since 2011 at Saydnaya.
How did verify the accuracy of the testimonies? Some researchers cast doubt on the credibility of the testimonies. How do you respond?
In all but two cases, interviews with witnesses were carried out separately. In many cases, two or more interviews were conducted with witnesses to evaluate the veracity and consistency of their testimonies. We rigorously crosschecked all of the testimony we received, and through a long and painstaking process of assessment and analysis, we were able to build a picture of what is happening at Saydnaya.
Numerous reports have emerged about executions in Syria, in particular in Saydnaya prison; however, the difference in numbers between your report and other reports is large. How do you explain that?
The execution process at Saydnaya is secret and only known to the guards and officials who are directly involved, as well as high-level Syrian officials. Even the guards who oversee the collection process and beatings at the red building are usually unaware of what happens to the detainees after they are transported to the white building in the middle of the night. Because of this, the outside world was not aware of the scope and scale of this campaign of mass hangings, which we uncovered in our report.
How did you calculate the numbers of people who were executed? Can you elaborate?
People who worked within the prison authorities at Saydnaya told Amnesty International that extrajudicial executions related to the crisis in Syria first began in September 2011. Since that time, the frequency with which they have been carried out has varied and increased. For the first four months, it was usual for between seven and 20 people to be executed every 10-15 days. For the following 11 months, between 20 and 50 people were executed once a week, usually on Monday nights. For the subsequent six months, groups of between 20 and 50 people were executed once or twice a week, usually on Monday and/or Wednesday nights. Witness testimony from detainees suggests that the executions were conducted at a similar – or even higher – rate at least until December 2015. Assuming that the death rate remained the same as the preceding period, Amnesty International estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were extrajudicially executed at Saydnaya between September 2011 and December 2015. Amnesty International does not have evidence of executions after December 2015. However, detainees are still being transferred to Saydnaya, "trials" at the Military Field Court have continued, and there is no reason to believe that such extrajudicial executions have stopped. Since December 2015, therefore, thousands more detainees are likely to have been hanged.
Do you have similar information about other Syrian prisons?
In August 2016, we released a report that detailed the torture and inhuman conditions to which detainees government-run prisons are subjected. This mistreatment has caused a massive number of deaths in government-run prisons across Syria. We found, in cooperation with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, that at least 17,723 people died in the custody of the Syrian authorities since 2011. This figure is in addition to our estimate of 5,000 to 13,000 people who were killed in mass hangings.
We have also received reports that extrajudicial executions are being carried out in other government-run prisons as well, but we have not yet been able to investigate and corroborate these reports.
Finally, it's important to note that the United Nations Commission of Inquiry for Syria first made the finding that the Syrian government is carrying out crimes against humanity in its prisons, and they also provide a great deal of documentation of the crimes of torture, disappearance, extermination, and executions in government-run prisons. They first made the finding that the government is carrying out the crime against humanity of extermination in a 2016 report
In your report, you mentioned the location of mass graves. Aren't you concerned that disclosing this information would prompt the Syrian government to change the location of mass graves or tamper with the evidence?
At Amnesty International, we continually face the risk that exposing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law will allow the perpetrators to tamper with or "clean up" evidence that aligns with the findings of our report. In this case, we felt it that the overall benefit of including in our report the location and satellite analysis of mass graves, shared with us by key witnesses, outweighed the possible costs of the government tampering with this evidence. Still, we are urging the UN to carry out an immediate investigation, and we recommend that it be carried out without delay not only because of the weight of the findings, but also because a timely investigation will lessen the likelihood that the government is allowed to tamper with this or other evidence of the commission of international crimes at Saydnaya.
Will the international community take humanitarian and legal measures based on the report's content?
As a first priority, we are calling for the UN to immediately carry out a thorough and independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed at Saydnaya. To effectively carry out this investigation and to assess prison conditions, international monitors must be given unhindered access to all prisons in Syria. The UN Security Council should insist that the Syrian government facilitates such access. The USA and Syria's ally, Russia, should use their influence to ensure that the Syrian government cooperates. Finally, the international community must do whatever is necessary to ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are held accountable. They must be prosecuted and brought to justice.
There are two practical steps the international community can take in this regard. First, in December 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution establishing a new Mechanism to collect evidence with a view to prosecute and hold perpetrators of international crimes to account. The international community should support this Mechanism and give it the resources and political backing it needs. Another avenue for justice is universal jurisdiction, which allows states to prosecute individuals and to hold them accountable for international crimes.
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