Report Summary: “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria”

On February 6, 2017, Amnesty International published a report titled “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria,” which examines the violations committed by prison authorities against Syrian citizens. The report assesses that the Syrian government has likely sanctioned violations against detainees of Saydnaya Prison as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the Syrian civil population, and in accordance with state policy.

 In fact, the majority of detention-related violations since 2011 have been perpetrated by Syrian authorities, not by violent nonstate actors. As per international law, the crimes committed by the Syrian government may be constituted as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Saydnaya Prison is located approximately 30 kilometers north of Damascus, and holds between 10,000 and 20,000 prisoners. The majority of detainees are non-violent actors but the Syrian government considers them opponents of the state: human rights defenders, doctors, humanitarian and aid workers, activists, political dissidents, students, engineers, and demonstrators. Saydnaya is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense, and is operated by the Military Police. Syrian intelligence officials representing Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Political Security, and General Intelligence conduct most arrests and oversee daily activities at the prison. Amnesty estimates that from September 2011 to December 2015, approximately 5,000- 13,000 individuals were killed at Saydnaya. However, since Amnesty has been barred from Syria since 2011, the report largely relies on witness accounts and research gathered by monitoring organizations with access to Syria.

Prisoners are subjected to constant physical and psychological torture that fosters an “atmosphere of debilitating fear.” Detainees arrive at Saydnaya in trucks known colloquially as “meat fridges,” which typically transport between 50-60 prisoners each. Upon arrival, prisoners are given a “welcome party” in which they are severely beaten. They are then taken in groups of 15 to the “solitaires,” which are small shower areas. Detainees are held in the solitaires for an indeterminate amount of time—sometimes hours, sometimes days—before being moved to “group rooms,” which house 30-50 individuals.

The prison’s infrastructure is divided into two buildings: the “red building” houses civilian detainees, and the “white building” houses military detainees, and each building has solitaires and group rooms. Those in a “group room,” or cell, are forced to elect a leader, called the “shawish,” who determines which prisoner will be physically tortured by a guard on any given day. It should be noted that all inmates, whether selected by the shawish or not, are subjected to frequent torture, but the role of the shawish creates an additional level of demoralization and distrust among prisoners. At Saydnaya, torture is punishment and interrogation, and Saydnaya judges can use confessions given under torture. The most common form of physical torture is beating, although sexual violence, including rape, is regular. Inmates report that physical torture is exacerbated by psychological distress and pain.

Prison authorities implement a variety of other forms of torture, including: deprivation of food and water, inadequate access to shelter and sanitation, and denial of medical care and medicine. Prisoners report that a common punishment at Saydnaya is the denial of water for days at a time. Amnesty adds that starvation, weakened immune systems, unsanitary conditions, and lack of warmth in winter leads to increased risk of disease and death from exposure. In fact, guards often wear protective clothing and masks to avoid the hazardous environment, but prisoners that ask for medical attention are beaten by guards and doctors.

As a form of sentencing, detainees are permitted to participate in a trial that, according to a former judge at Saydnaya, bears no resemblance to Syrian rule of law. The rules at Saydnaya regarding legal processes are largely arbitrary, yet sentencing is subject to approval by the Syrian head of state and the Minister of Defense; high-level officials authorize all sentencing, including death sentences and continued incarceration. The trials granted to prisoners typically take place within 2-3 minutes without adequate legal defense or any form of legal protection for detainees. During these trials, judges rely on forced confessions obtained from prisoners under torture.

Saydnaya’s white building is infamous for housing the “execution room,” where up to twenty individuals may be hanged at once. The execution room was expanded in 2012 to fit the rapid influx of prisoners that began entering Saydnaya in 2011. Executions are generally overseen by a variety of high-level government officials, which in the past has included the Director of Saydnaya, the Military Prosecutor of the Military Field Court, a representative from the intelligence community (usually from Military Intelligence) the Brigade Commander of the Southern Front, an officer from Military Medical Services at Tishreen Hospital, and the head doctor of Saydnaya. Prison guards and bodyguards are excluded from prisoner executions in an effort to maintain secrecy. Prisoners themselves are unaware of their fate up until the moment of execution: detainees are blindfolded and deceived as to their destination when they are transported to the white building. Prisoners are usually physically tortured before being moved to the execution chamber.

Based on testimonies from Saydnaya authorities, following execution, prison authorities transport the deceased to Tishreen Military Hospital, where they are registered by hospital officials. The registration process varies, according to reports from prison authorities and hospital staff. At any given time, authorities may prohibit hospital staff from checking bodies individually, and authorities may bar hospital staff from confirming or registering the cause of death at all. If the cause of death is written, it is often as “heart failure” or “respiratory failure,” in an effort to cover up the abuse inflicted upon prisoners. Family members of the deceased are not informed of the deaths or whereabouts of their loved ones, as Syrian authorities keep all the documentation. Following the medical examination at Tishreen, prison officials transport the bodies to a mass gravesite located on military land outside of Damascus.

The violations occurring at Saydnaya may be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity, as defined by Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The violations against Saydnaya inmates directly conflict with international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law. Although Syria remains party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the Covenant on the Rights of the Child, these covenants have neither been practiced nor enforced with regards to civilians. As per these covenants, the Syrian state is obligated to respect the right to health, the right to life, the prohibition of enforced disappearance, and the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. Similarly, the Syrian state has ignored precedents set by international humanitarian law with regards to proper and human treatment of noncombatants, civilians, and prisoners of war.

Rachel Kreisman is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center.

Image: Photo: Former detainee describing the arrival to Saydnaya prison. Still taken from Amnesty International Saydnaya website