Shedding light on one of the darkest corners of the Syrian conflict, a report released on Tuesday by Amnesty International offers new and comprehensive insight into the systematic human rights abuses in the Sednaya Military Prison.
At the notorious black site just outside the capital, Damascus, lies “the prison where the Syrian state quietly slaughters its own people.”
Amnesty’s sources included people who worked for the regime
Over the course of two years, researchers collected testimonies from 32 individuals formerly detained at Sednaya Prison. To check their claims, Amnesty also spoke with four guards who had worked in Sednaya Prison, as well as three military court judges, four lawyers, and three doctors whose testimonies corroborated their claims.
The resulting report paints a comprehensive picture of the killing apparatus at Sednaya Prison. It details every step in the process of imprisoning, torturing, killing and burying over 17,000 detainees at Sednaya Prison since 2011 – a process which the human rights research groups said “amounts to extermination.”
In August 2016, researchers from Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, utilised witness testimonies to recreate a model of the facilities at Sednaya Prison that could potentially be one day used as an exhibit at tribunals or prosecution for war crimes.
The executions were calculated, methodical and systematic
Each night at around midnight, prison officials would call out the names of 25 to 50 detainees who were to be taken.
They did it at night so that the prisoners wouldn’t riot – which has happened quite a few times before. Prisoners were made to think that they were being transferred out to a civilian prison so that they would be cooperative. They didn’t realise they were headed to their deaths until the very end.
Instead, they were led to a lower-security building on the same premises as the main prison facility. Routinely, around 3am, the “execution committee” would arrive – made up of several military officers, a doctor, and the head of the prison. One by one, the prisoners were taken out from individual holding cells and led to the execution chamber. Hanging was the preferred method of execution.
Prisoners who were sleeping on the floors above the execution chamber told Amnesty’s researcher that they could hear the fading sounds of asphyxiation below them.
The bodies were then buried in mass graves.
At every step in the process, the regime authorities were diligent with their paperwork. Each prisoner's’ final act was to fill out a form and stamp their fingerprint before the noose was tied around his neck. The form included the the prisoner’s name, mother’s name, where they are from, their ID number, and their last wishes.
“They would first take the last wishes, but this was just nonsense, it didn’t really lead to anything or mean anything,” a former prison official told Amnesty.
Doctors were implicated, too. Personnel working at the regime’s military hospitals routinely signed forms en masse that stated the patients had died of natural causes or unexplained, sudden cardiac arrest.
The prisoners never had a fair trial
Sednaya is a military prison. Unlike procedures in local criminal courts or the national Counter-Terrorism Court, detainees tried in military field courts in Syria are not afforded access to a lawyer or any information about their sentences, former judges and lawyers working in military field courts told Amnesty.
Trials last between one to three minutes.
“These trials cannot therefore be considered to be judicial proceedings,” the report said.
One prisoner, a businessman from Damascus, whose name was withheld, told Amnesty, “You have no rights."
“I spent one minute in front of the judge and a guard from the military police… I went in with 45 other detainees, and they had finished everyone’s cases in one hour. They don’t tell you your charges. You don’t have a right to a lawyer or to speak on the phone.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former judge who had worked in the military court said,
“The Military Field Court is not obligated to follow the Syrian legal system at all. It’s outside of the rules. The detainees spend a very short time there – one or two minutes – and then they are sent out. The judge will ask the name of the detainee and whether he committed the crime. Whether the answer is yes or no, he will be convicted. This court has no relation with the rule of law. This is not a court.”
The conditions of the prison drove prisoners to insanity
Amnesty’s report said testimonies were “chilling in their consistency” and illustrate “a world carefully designed to humiliate, degrade, sicken, starve and ultimately kill those trapped inside.” Some prisoners who were released later suffered severe long-term mental health effects, including psychosis, the report stated.
Detainees are held in “subhuman conditions” – denied basic needs, including regular access to food, water, medicine, medical care and sanitation facilities, prisoners “are packed into filthy, overcrowded cells without access to fresh air, sunlight or ventilation,” the report said.
Anas, a farmer from northern Syria, described the conditions that detainees at Sednaya lived in:
“A terrible smell came from the toilet. But still, it was better than the smell coming from people with scabies. My cellmate had been beaten on his toes, and had got some wounds from that, and they became infected in his toes and leg. The wounds were becoming black – he developed gangrene. The whole hallway could smell it. The guards stopped coming because of the smell. The doctor couldn’t even look at it. He said the legs would have to be amputated…
He died on 17 April 2014, in front of me.”
The Syrian regime targeted political prisoners – not militants
There is no shortage of armed militants in Syria. But the testimonies given to Amnesty by former officials working at Sednaya Prison suggest that the majority of detainees were instead those “somehow understood to be linked to the revolution.”
“The people in the [main] building are doctors, engineers, protesters – their best description is ‘revolutionaries’,” a former prison official testified to Amnesty.
Since the outbreak of protests in 2011, the intelligence agencies who effectively make the regime-controlled areas of Syria a police state have arrested tens of thousands of people who are perceived to oppose Bashar al Assad. A series of new laws passed by Assad in 2012 as part of a promise to reform, granted the authorities broad powers to do so.
“As was the case before the crisis, the people at greatest risk of arrest and detention have been those who are perceived to oppose the government, including peaceful opponents of the government such as demonstrators, human rights defenders and political dissidents,” the report said.
Of the irregular “field courts” used to rubber-stamp sentences of capital punishment, a former judge working in one of them told Amnesty, “This is the court where they send the people who they see as posing a real risk to the regime. The people there are charged with crimes against the state.”
The abuses go back decades
The Syrian government’s use of torture and enforced disappearance as a means to crush dissent dates back decades. Amnesty cited research it had conducted back in 1987, when Hafez Assad – father of current regime leader Bashar al Assad – was in power, which documented some of the same torture techniques which are reported to still be in use today.
Hafez Assad’s regime is thought to be responsible for the disappearance of about 15,000 political prisoners from 1980 until his death in 2000, usually referred to as spies, Communists and members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
But if the numbers Amnesty has reported are correct – calling its estimate of 17,723 disappeared since 2011 “conservative” – then Bashar Assad will have far surpassed his predecessor in suppressing his domestic opponents.
Prisoners were tortured into making false confessions
Yahya – not his real name – told Amnesty researchers that he was only 16-years-old when he was brought before a judge in the military field court. Officials told Yahya that the man in the photo was an accomplice to the crime with which he had been charged.
“I said I didn’t know who it was, and that I confessed under torture.
Then the judge told me, ‘You carried the weapon.’
I told him 'no, I could not – I was under age. I was 14 or 15 years old at that time. '
He told me, ‘Come and put your fingerprint.’ I didn’t know what the papers that I stamped said.”
“For everybody – without exception – the confession was given under torture,” a former Sednaya Prison official told Amnesty researchers. “Of course, they torture people so that they confess to a higher charge,” the former official said.
The Syrian government has yet to respond
Amnesty says they have been trying to access prisons to observe the conditions since 2011 – but Syrian authorities have never responded for comment.