Human Rights Group Decries Execution of 24 People Convicted in Deadly Syrian Wildfires

Syria executed 24 people and sentenced 11 others to life in prison Wednesday after convicting them of terrorism charges for igniting wildfires that plagued the country in 2020, the Associated Press reported.

Diana Semaan, a researcher on Syria for Amnesty International, a non-governmental human rights organization, said the death sentences often lacked basic safeguards to save the lives of those convicted, such as a right to a lawyer, and often include secret trials.

"Yesterday's executions of 24 people demonstrates the Syrian government's disregard for international law, especially right to life," Semaan said.

A statement from the Justice Ministry said those executed were "criminals who carried out terrorist attacks that led to deaths and damage to state infrastructure and public and private property through the use of flammable material." The statement did not explain how the executions took place or provide any further details.

A report by Amnesty International in 2017 said that as many as 13,000 people were executed in secret hangings at the Sadnaya prison in Syria between September 2011 and December 2015 but were authorized during the height of the Syrian civil war by the highest levels of the government.

According to the report, between 20 and 50 people at the prison were hanged each week or sometimes twice a week in a "calculated campaign of extrajudicial execution."

The Syrian death penalty is carried out for offenses such as terrorism, treason, army desertion, espionage and arson, usually by hanging.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Syria executes 24 people for igniting wildfires
Syria executed 24 people and sentenced 11 others to life in prison Wednesday after convicting them of terrorism charges for igniting wildfires that plagued the country in 2020. In a photo released on October 13, 2020, on the official Facebook page of the Syrian presidency, Bashar Assad (center left) tours areas that suffered heavy damage from the deadly wildfires in the coastal province of Latakia. Syrian Presidency via Facebook/Associated Press

The publicized executions of a large group of people is rare in war-torn Syria, where a decade-old conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced half the country's population, including 5 million refugees outside the country.

President Bashar Assad's hometown of Qardaha in Latakia province was hard hit by the fires, which heavily damaged a building used as storage for the state-owned tobacco company, part of which collapsed. Assad made a rare visit to the region shortly after the fire was brought under control.

Nine others, including five juveniles, received prison sentences. The prison sentences for the juveniles ranged between 10 to 12 years, the Justice Ministry said.

U.N. human rights experts have also reported the mass killing of detainees held by the government in official and makeshift detention centers that often take place out of sight.

Those executed Wednesday were among dozens of people detained in late 2020 who confessed that they began planning to ignite fires starting in August last year, the Justice Ministry statement said. They started fires in September that affected 280 towns and villages and damaged 370 homes, the ministry added.

It said a total of 24,000 hectares (59,300 acres) of forests and plantations burned in the fires.