As many as 200,000 people languish in Bashar al Assad's prisons today. Prisoners are systematically tortured, raped, starved and murdered. The case against Assad is ironclad.

The launching of a limited punitive raid against the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad for the use of poison gas has brought some attention to the regime’s crimes. The regime’s visible crimes are numerous and devastating.

In addition to using weapons of mass destruction, fighter jets have levelled ancient cities, sieges have starved populations into submission, and improvised explosives like barrel bombs have maimed thousands. These tactics are part of what UN investigators have called a “systematic and widespread attack against [the Syrian] civilian population”.

The UN commission recently noted that what the Assad regime has done amounts to crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, rape, and torture.

What does not get enough attention is the part of Assad’s criminality that is most difficult to see: that which takes place in the prisons, a vast network of concentration camps where torture and murder is routine.

Assad’s prisons before the war

The horrific conditions and systemic torture are a longstanding fact about the Assad regime’s prisons, and this is hardly a surprise. Nazi fugitives like Walter Rauff and Alois Brunner, an assistant to Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects and the operational leader of the Holocaust, were not only sheltered in Syria but provided advice to its intelligence and security apparatus on interrogation and other matters. (Israel nearly killed Brunner, twice, while he was based in Syria.)

One of the best descriptions of Syria’s pre-war jails comes from Mustafa Khalifa, who spent twelve years inside one. In 2008, Khalifa wrote about his experience in novelised form in a book called The Shell. Khalifa describes being arrested without any explanation to him of the charges and without any explanation to his family of where he was.

On arrival at Assad’s prisons Khalifa describes a “welcoming party”—a beating—that some detainees do not survive. The cells are overcrowded and squalid. Access to water and basic hygiene needs is severely restricted. Food is minimal and sometimes withheld altogether. When food is served it is dumped on the floor and prisoners whipped as they try to retrieve it; if they stumble they might be beaten to death.

When prisoners are allowed into the yard, they are assaulted and forced to assault each other, sometimes sexually. All of this is accompanied by verbal degradation at all opportunities. The humiliation and dehumanisation is total, reinforcing to prisoners how cheaply the authorities view life and how close death is at all times.

Khalifa was imprisoned in Tadmor, the Desert Prison, around the time the first anti-Assad revolt was savagely repressed in 1982. It was that massacre in Hama to put down the rebellion, and the massacre of 1,000 prisoners in Tadmor in one day, two years earlier, that terrorised Syria into passivity until the revolution erupted in 2011.

Syrian prisons since 2011

The continuity of the Assad regime’s conduct is striking. The description of conditions from three decades ago given by Khalifa has been recounted over the last few years by thousands of survivors of Assad’s prison system. The main difference this time is that Tadmor is gone: dynamited in 2015. It is Sednaya in Damascus that has become a byword during this rebellion for the regime’s crimes.

In February 2017, Amnesty International released a report, simply titled, “Human Slaughterhouse,” which documents the near-indescribable, systematic cruelty visited on inmates at Sednaya, and the murder at this facility of at least 13,000 people between September 2011 and December 2015—meaning that the actual death toll is much higher.

It was revealed in May 2017 that the scale of the killing at Sednaya had necessitated the installation of a crematorium to dispose of the bodies.

Amnesty notes that one block of Sednaya had been reserved for Islamist prisoners, but by May 2011 this section had been emptied. Assad had turned loose the Islamists at the same time his security forces were attacking civilian demonstrators in ways calculated to cause sectarian strife; the intention was to militarise the uprising and discredit it, to Syrians and foreigners, by staining it with terrorism. Among those released were numerous future leaders of the Islamist wing of the insurgency.

Assad then filled the empty cells with secular civil society activists, lawyers, journalists, doctors, aid workers, and students. The conditions at Sednaya are designed to “destroy any sense of dignity or hope,” Amnesty notes. The “welcome party” kills a number of people before they ever reach the prison, and the regime specifically targets the ill and infirm for murder during this phase. Prisoners are then made to shower; the guards whip them and force inmates to sexually attack one-another throughout this process.

Detainees are first imprisoned in the dark, in solitary confinement, beneath Sednaya, and then brought up to the ground level where they are crammed into cells with two-dozen or more others. One prisoner is nominated as cell leader and every day he has to nominate five who have broken the silence demanded of inmates. Those five will be beaten. If the leader does not select people, he will be tortured. The leader, who is regularly beaten for other matters, dies every week or two.

Showers are rare after this so everyone smells; scabies and other skin diseases are rife. The heating is turned on in the summer and the windows are opened during the winter. Malnutrition is universal. “On the floor, we have the scabs and puss of the scabies, hair from our bodies, blood from the lice,” explains one survivor. “All of this is on the floor. But the floor is where they put the food.” The attrition rate from disease and hunger is severe.

A prior Amnesty report documented the use of torture to get detainees to confess to crimes. Writing about the findings of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), which has compiled 600,000 documents smuggled out of Syria related to the prison system, Ben Taub at The New Yorker, reported how such confessions were used: “Coerced confessions served no apparent intelligence-gathering purposes, but they did lend a legalistic veneer to the detention process. After confessing to violent crimes, anti-government activists could face serious charges, and, if convicted, be kept in detention for years. The confessions also perpetuated the illusion of a vast conspiracy against Syria, as detainees admitted to engaging in sedition or treason.”

It is notable that these “confessions” have already been extracted by the time people arrive at Sednaya and are used at the prison for sentencing in what Amnesty calls “flagrantly unfair and shambolic ‘trials’.”

In other words, the torture at Sednaya does not even pretend to be in service of gaining information; the cruelty is seen by the prison’s custodians as part of the punishment.

Sednaya operates under the authority of Assad’s Defence Ministry. The Military Field Courts do not always pass death sentences, though hardly anyone is released from Sednaya. Prisoner swaps forced on the regime and bribery grant a select few freedom from Sednaya. The Military Prosecutor’s sentences are sent to Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, who once threatened to send suicide bombers to Europe, and then either to the Minister of Defence or the Chief of Staff of the Army, who sign on Assad’s behalf and set the date of execution.

Once the death sentence has been approved by Hassoun and the military, their judgement is “sent back to the Military Field Court in al-Qaboun, where it is kept on file. One or two days before the execution is scheduled to take place, a copy of the judgement is sent to the administrative office at Sednaya”.

The executions are carried out in batches of fifty, twice-per-week. (At the outset of the uprising it was smaller groups once-per-week.) Prisoners scheduled for execution are taken from their cells at about 15:00 and told they are going to be transferred to less harsh civilian prisons. This is to prevent mutiny. The prisoners are then led to the basement and, beginning at 22:00, are tortured for two to three hours.

At 1:00, the prisoners are handcuffed, blindfolded, and transferred into white minibuses known as “meat fridges” to the regime’s operatives. A six-man “execution panel” of senior regime officials arrives two hours later. The prisoners are then taken into a basement beneath the “white building”—the ostensible military prison (there is also a “red building” for civilian detainees). Staff from the Military Medical Services at Tishreen Hospital are brought in at this stage.

The prisoners are then hanged. The regime does not do this in the traditional manner that would swiftly break the neck of a prisoner; instead they are left to be slowly strangled for fifteen minutes. Those still alive at the end of this period “are pulled downward by the officers’ assistants, which causes the victims’ necks to break.” The bodies are transferred to Tishreen Hospital.

A defector from the regime known as CAESAR brought 55,000 photographs of people tortured to death in Assad’s prisons to the outside world. Those pictures show 11,000 victims, a few from Sednaya but mostly from other military-run facilities in Syria.

CAESAR reports that in these cases the regime meticulously produces death certificates that claim “heart attack” or “breathing problems” as the cause of death. “Unlike the victims of torture, however, the victims of execution are not [routinely] recorded in death certificates,” Amnesty notes, and families rarely get access to the certificate and never get access to the bodies.

Up to 200,000 people remain in Assad’s prisons to this hour.

Can Assad be prosecuted?

Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and Sierra Leone, has said that between the CAESAR evidence and CIJA’s documents, if a tribunal is ever created for Syria, “we’ll have much better evidence than we’ve had anywhere since Nuremberg,” where the Nazis were tried after the Second World War.

The captured documents show clearly that this bureaucratic machinery of death is overseen by Assad himself and his senior lieutenants. The impediments to Assad’s prosecution are political, not evidentiary.

The administration of Barack Obama blocked efforts to push for an international war crimes tribunal for Syria; their reasoning was that prosecuting Assad would mean he had no incentive to negotiate. In the course of events, this was one policy among many confirmed to Assad that the US was not serious about his removal and would never harm him, emboldening the dictator to press for military victory. Had Obama had not blocked a war crimes investigation, the Russians would have vetoed any effort by the UN to send the question to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It is, therefore, most unlikely Assad will ever face international legal justice.

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