Thirty kilometers north of the Syrian capital of Damascus, on a towering hill somewhat removed from the urban centers, sits Saydnaya prison. A previous inmate, Omar al-Shogre, describes it as a place where you are brought to die. According to Amnesty International, no less than three hundred imprisoned opposition members lost their lives there each month due to torture.
Despite the media blackout and the ban which prevents human rights organizations from going to Syria’s prisons, the stories from surviving prisoners occasionally leak. They speak about what they saw, and the circumstances of the prisoners who are still missing.
In this report, we present the testimony of a young man named Omran Al-Khatib, from the Damascus countryside. He was arrested in 2012 on the charge of demonstrating against the Assad regime and was transported between several branches of the Syrian intelligence services. He then ended up spending eight months in Saydnaya prison and was released after his family paid a large amount of money, at which time he went to Turkey.
Omran describes Saydnaya as “a place where there are no human rights, or even rights fitting of the lowest class of life forms.” It is a place where the prisoner hopes for death so that the humiliation and the torture will end. Death is a daily occurrence there, and people are nothing more than numbers which the jailers calculate, numbers which the jailers lower at will, without answering to anyone.
According to his testimony, Omran arrived to Saydnaya on October 4, 2012, along with another group of prisoners. The jailers greeted them with a torture session, striking them with clubs and rubber bars for nearly an hour. That was accompanied by endless obscenities and insults.
Omran tries to communicate a sense of the torture there, saying: “There were older people and children who weren’t even 18 years old. They shoved us all into a corner, where more than ten jailers gathered and took turns striking us with sticks and metal wires. We tried to protect ourselves by placing our heads on the back of whoever was in front of us, as the smell of blood filled the place.”
According to Omran, he faced trial in Saydnaya prison one month after arriving. The trial lasted a minute and a half; “It included questions about my name and the crime that I confessed to under torture, after which the secretary asked me to sign my statement. A minute and a half was enough to sentence me to life in prison. This was the lighter sentence, because the judge only pronounces one of two rulings; life in prison or execution.”
As for the details of a typical day and the system by which the prison was run, Omran says: “There were 20-25 prisoners in each cell. They were only allowed to speak in whispers and they had to get into specific positions when the guard came into their cells. We weren’t allowed to look into the jailer’s eyes and among those who made that mistake, some were executed on the spot. As for the bathroom, it was shared with all of the other dormitories. The jailers would line up the prisoners in a single line, and the prisoners would crawl to the bathroom, at the end of the corridor, while being struck and kicked. Every three months, there was one cold shower which only lasted 10 seconds.”
He adds: “Diseases were widespread but no one dared to seek treatment, because prisoners who went to the military hospital never returned. We received one meal daily, and it was the same every day; grits and yogurt. As for how it was distributed, that depended on the jailer’s mood. Sometimes, he put it on the ground, sometimes commanded, “eat your food,” and sometimes threw it in our face so that we would have to pick it up from all over the room.”
Omran tells about more distressing details about what takes place in this obscure prison, including various types of human rights violations, like rape, random killings, and systematic torture. He said that executions, “were conducted at a consistent pace Mondays and Thursdays, concerning all those whom the military court had sentenced to death.”
Omran adds a few stories to his testimony, things which he witnessed during his time there: “Some of the jailers who enjoyed torturing us or ridiculing us would come in from time to time. One of them once asked a strongly-built prisoner to rape a thin youth in front of us. Then, in a state of drunkenness, he demanded that they lie on the ground, and he beat them until they died.
According to Omran, the dormitory filled up each day with new prisoners. When the numbers increased, the pace of the torture also increased in order to get rid of some of them, as, “The jailers came by daily and would ask, ‘do you have any carcasses’ (meaning any dead). Some died from disease or because of the extent of the torture, or even from lack of food or drink. It wasn’t possible for anyone in the families to learn what had happened to them, and if they were still alive or had joined the ranks of the dead.”
Omran, who is twenty-eight years old, was released after spending ten months in Saydnaya prison, following his family’s communications with an officer in Assad’s regime. They paid him a bribe of $10,000. At the time of his release, he weighed only thirty-two kilograms (seventy pounds), and no one in his family recognized him. After that, he underwent medical and psychological treatment, which continued long after he took refuge in Turkey.
As he finishes speaking, Omran confirms that what’s happening in Saydnaya prison shows that “There is not a regime ruling Syria. They are actually gangs who contravene all human law,” and at that moment, he asks, “If everyone is talking about how bad this is, then why does the world stay silent about this regime’s crimes? Isn’t that sharing in the crime?”
Another testimony is presented on the “Arab 48” website from former prisoner Diab Serriya. During the presentation of his testimony about incarceration, the young man spoke about one time when the prison management cut the water supply to the prisoners in solitary confinement for a length of four days. In chilling terms, he spoke about their conditions, as they suffered from hallucinations in which they imagined water. The jailers manipulated them by pumping a little water through the pipes, to create a splattering sound, which made the prisoners flock to the water like dogs, according to the prisoner’s account. In his testimony, the young man says that he and the other prisoners seriously thought about drinking the toilet water, even though it was filled with muck, because their thirst was severe and one of the prisoners had died of thirst.
It is noteworthy that Amnesty International issued a report on February 7, 2017, in which it accused the Syrian regime of carrying out secret mass executions; this includes the execution of thirteen thousand prisoners by hanging at Saydnaya prison, near Damascus. These executions have occurred in the five years since the beginning of the Syrian conflict and most of the victims were from the civilian opposition to the regime.
The human rights organization entitled its report, “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria.” It says that, “Between 2011 and 2015, every week and often twice a week, groups of up to fifty people were taken out of their prison cells and hanged to death,” indicating that, “In five years, as many as thirteen thousand people, most of them civilians believed to be opposed to the government, were hanged in secret at Saydnaya.”
In closing, it should be noted that the use of methods of torture in Syria is not restricted to this prison, but is a systematic policy which began when Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970 and has continued since his son, Bashar, inherited rule of Syria.
Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist.