The Syrian government hanged as many as 13,000 people in the first five years of the Syrian conflict at a torture prison north of Damascus, Amnesty International says in a new report released on Tuesday.
It said that most of the victims of the alleged mass hangings were civilian activists opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The report, entitled “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hanging and extermination at Saydnaya prison,” bases its findings on dozens of interviews with witnesses, such as judges, doctors, guards and prisoners, many conducted in southern Turkey due to a lack of access to Syrian territory.
It reveals that at least once a week from the 2011 uprising to 2015, prison authorities took dozens of prisoners out of their cells, beat them, and then hanged them “in the middle of the night and in total secrecy,” according to witnesses. They then put the bodies in mass graves on the outskirts of the Syrian capital in the dead of night, Amnesty said.
It said: “Throughout this process, they remain blindfolded. They do not know when or how they will die until the noose was placed around their necks.” It called the killings a “calculated campaign of extrajudicial execution.”
A former judge who witnessed the killings told Amnesty: “They kept them [hanging] there for 10- to -15 minutes. For the young ones, their weight wouldn't kill them. The officers' assistants would pull them down and break their necks.”
The judge said that authorities would questions suspects about alleged crimes but convict them regardless of the facts. “Whether the answer is 'yes' or 'no', he will be convicted... This court has no relation with the rule of law,” he said.
Many more may have died since 2015, but those that Amnesty interviewed no longer had access to information from the prison.
The Syrian government does not often comment on allegations of torture and killings but has previously denied the findings of rights groups as propaganda. The conflict has placed untold horrors on the country’s population, displacing more than half of all Syrians and leaving more than 320,000 people dead.
The regime and a coalition of Syrian opposition factions met in the Kazakh capital, Astana, last month for peace talks brokered by Russia and Turkey. The report’s finding are released two weeks before a new round of U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva.
“The upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva cannot ignore these findings. Ending these atrocities in Syrian government prisons must be put on the agenda,” Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty's Beirut office, told the Associated Press.