Syria's Secret Mass Executions

An investigation from Amnesty International details Assad's attempt to create a phony paper trail to cover up mass executions in Syria.

A Syrian prisoner holds the bars of a makeshift prison.
Muhammed Muheisen / AP

At a prison in Syria, thousands of people opposed to President Bashar al-Assad have been executed in secrecy. From the moment detainees arrive they are tortured with strips of tires used to flog their bodies, shocked with electricity, raped, and deprived of food and water.

“In the morning, the guard would come to the wing and ask for the ‘carcasses,’” one former prisoner who went by the pseudonym “Nader,” told Amnesty International in a report released Monday night. “There was one time that nobody died for three days [in our wing], and the guards came to us, room by room, and beat us on the head, chest and neck. Thirteen people from our wing died that day.”

Few people are ever released from this prison 20 miles north of Damascus, and those who do not die of torture or starvation, are sometimes led quietly after midnight to a 25-by-15 foot concrete room. Blindfolded, it is here that Syria’s top officials have overseen the clandestine hangings of between 5,000 and 13,000 people, the report found. Later, their causes of death will be ruled by doctors as respiratory failurean effort by the Assad regime to create a phony paper trail to legitimize these thousands of executions and hide them from the world.

Saydnaya prison is notorious for being a closely held secret, and until recently little was known about how it operates. Earlier this summer, Amnesty released a separate report on the prison that detailed its living conditions. But these new interviews outline a structured means to kill those opposed to Assad—everyone from factory owners to students and professors. The report shows how Assad’s regime has executed these men in ways deliberate, and highly conscious of how, if exposed, the global community would denounce such acts. Amnesty investigators interviewed 84 people, including former prisoners, guards, judges, and the doctors who signed off on the death certificates of those killed at Saydnaya. These interviews show a human rights crisis that the Syrian government has sanctioned since at least 2011, and which could pose a problem for the new Trump administration.

The Trump administration has repeatedly said the U.S. would work “with any country” in order to eradicate ISIS. Trump has specifically referenced his willingness to work with Russia, and he has already discussed this with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia, meanwhile, has backed the Syrian government in the country’s six-year civil war, saying it shares a common interest in defeating ISIS. Syria has used this same smokescreen as excuse to target civilians with bombs and to arrest dissenters. And, according the Amnesty, the executions inside the Saydnaya prison are authorized by the highest-level officials in the Syrian government, including the Grand Mufti, and either the minister of defense or the chief of staff of the Army, both of whom act on behalf of Assad.

Saydnaya is operated by Syria’s Military Police. It had once housed members of captured militant groups, but in July 2011 the government packed it full of those deemed dangerous to the Assad regime. Since the beginning of the civil war, Syrian soldiers and intelligence officers have raided neighborhoods seen as hostile to the government, rounding up people often on little more than rumor. Some in the prison have found themselves detained for years only because they marched in peaceful protests.

Once they arrive, the guards throw them a “welcome party,” a euphemism that one detainee, a former attorney, described like this:

“You are thrown to the ground and they use different instruments for the beatings: electric cables with exposed copper wire ends...  Also they have created what they call the ‘tank belt,’ which is made out of tire that has been cut into strips... They make a very specific sound; it sounds like a small explosion. I was blindfolded the whole time, but I would try to see somehow. All you see is blood: your own blood, the blood of others.”

Along with the beatings, guards were ordered to torture prisoners psychologically, often by forcing them to rape each other, or by withholding water from detainees so they could not wash away the excrement that had piled up in their cells. Guards also deprived the prisoners of medical care and food. One detainee, who used the pseudonym “Jamal,” told Amnesty: “I remember we were lying down and looking to the ceiling, for hours and hours. There was one piece of ceiling that fell, and one of our cell mates ran to it. He started eating it. He thought it was bread. He had been one of the most refined, educated men in Damascus.”

Most of the prison’s 10,000 to 20,000 detainees were held in a building referred to as the “red building” and also “the Mercedes wheel,” because its three long corridors that spread out from the center gave it the appearance of the Mercedes-Benz logo. The prison’s second structure was called the “white building,” and it was here that the Syrian government hung thousands of people.

Typically on Mondays and Wednesdays the guards forced a few dozen prisoners to line up, telling them they were about to be transferred to civilian prisons. Instead, in the afternoon the guards led the detainees to the basement and beat them until it grew dark outside. At night the men are blindfolded and driven across the prison grounds to the white building. In a room there the prisoners, still blindfolded, lined up before a desk and were told for the first time a court has sentenced them to death. They’re forced to sign a paper with their inked fingerprint, a form that a prison official told Amnesty bares the detainee’s name, mother’s name, prison ID number, and their last wishes. But this last part “was just nonsense,” the official said. “It didn’t really lead to anything or mean anything.”

Without the prisoners ever knowing, this will be one of the last documents bearing their names that are meant to absolve the Syrian government of their execution. In the months before the prisoner is hanged, according to Amnesty, the Syrian government is busy sending paperwork back and forth from military judges to high-ranking government officials. The prisoners already will have appeared before a court, where in a matter of a few minutes they were found guilty, often with the only evidence coming from coerced confessions made while being tortured. Amnesty’s found these convictions are then signed off by either the Syrian Grand Mufti, the minister of defense, or the chief of staff of the Army, who also specify the date of the executions. This has been done twice a week for five years, and it’s likely it’s still continuing, as Saydnaya prison is still in use.

The prisoners are then hung from ropes tied to a metal pipe. The guards pile their bodies into trucks and drive them to nearby hospitals, where doctors are forced to sign off on the deaths as if they were natural. “We are allowed to write only two causes of death,” a doctor who used the pseudonym “Yaman” said, “either ‘the heart stopped’ or ‘the breathing stopped.’”

By the end of the month, officials from Turkey, who will represent Syrian rebel groups, are scheduled to meet in Geneva for peace talks, hoping to bring an end to the Syrian civil war. There, Assad’s interest will be represented by Russia.