Thousands killed in mass hangings in Syrian prison since 2011: Amnesty International

Syrian authorities have killed at least 13,000 people since 2011, in mass hangings at a prison north of Damascus that is known to detainees as "the slaughterhouse," Amnesty International says in a report.

WARNING: This story contains graphic details that may be disturbing

Syrian authorities have killed at least 13,000 people since the start of the 2011 uprising, according to an Amnesty International report. The mass hangings occurred at Saydnaya Prison north of Damascus. (Amnesty International/Google)

Syrian authorities have killed at least 13,000 people since 2011 in mass hangings at a prison north of Damascus that is known to detainees as "the slaughterhouse," Amnesty International said in a report Tuesday.

The report covers 2011, the start of the uprising, to 2015. During that period, Amnesty said, 20 to 50 people were hanged each week at Saydnaya Prison. The killings were authorized by senior Syrian officials, including deputies of President Bashar al-Assad, and carried out by military police, it says.

The report referred to the killings as a "calculated campaign of extrajudicial execution."

The Syrian Justice Ministry denied the report on state TV Tuesday, calling it "devoid of truth."

Amnesty has recorded at least 35 different methods of torture in Syria since the late 1980s, practices that only increased since 2011, said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty's regional office in Beirut.

Other rights groups have found evidence of massive torture leading to death in Syrian detention facilities. In a report last year, Amnesty found that more than 17,000 people have died of torture and ill-treatment in custody across Syria since 2011, an average rate of more than 300 deaths a month.

Comparable to battlefield deaths

Those figures are comparable to battlefield deaths in Aleppo, one of the fiercest war zones in Syria, where 21,000 were killed in the province since 2011.

"The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population," Maalouf said.

These executions take place after a sham trial that lasts over a minute or two minutes, but they are authorized by the highest levels of authority.- Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International

While the most recent data is from 2015, Maalouf said there is no reason to believe the practice has stopped since then, with thousands more probably killed.

"These executions take place after a sham trial that lasts over a minute or two minutes, but they are authorized by the highest levels of authority," including the Grand Mufti, a top religious authority in Syria, and the defence minister, she said.

Syrian government officials rarely comment on allegations of torture and mass killings. In the past, they have denied reports of massacres documented by international human rights groups, describing them as propaganda.

On Tuesday, state TV quoted the Justice Ministry as saying Amnesty's accusations were not based on real evidence but rather on  "personal emotions aimed at achieving known political goals."

The ministry also accused rebel groups fighting to unseat Assad of executing and kidnapping civilians, SANA said.

The Justice Ministry described the report as an attempt at "harming Syria's reputation on the international stage  especially after the victories of the Syrian army."

The chilling accounts in Tuesday's report came from interviews with 31 former detainees and over 50 other officials and experts, including former guards and judges.

According to the findings, detainees were told they would be transferred to civilian detention centres but were taken instead to another building in the facility and hanged.

Scenes of death

"They walked in the 'train,' so they had their heads down and were trying to catch the shirt of the person in front of them. The first time I saw them, I was horrified. They were being taken to the slaughterhouse," Hamid, a former detainee, told Amnesty.

Held above the "execution room," Hamid got used to hearing other prisoners die.

Amnesty International included this illustration in a report that says executions at Syria's Saydnaya Prison are crimes against humanity and must be investigated. (Amnesty International )

"If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling. This would last around 10 minutes… We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then," he said.

The hangings took place once or twice a week, the report states. Prisoners remain blindfolded and don't know how or when they will die until there is a noose around their necks.

"They kept them [hanging] there for 10 to 15 minutes," a former judge who witnessed the hangings said. "Some didn't die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn't kill them. The officers' assistants would pull them down and break their necks." 

Another former detainee, Omar Alshogre, told The Associated Press the guards would come to his cell, sometimes three times a week, and call out detainees by name.

Alshogre said a torture session would begin before midnight in nearby chambers that he could hear.

Omar Alshogre lives in Stockholm after spending time in Syria's Saydnaya Prison. (Omar Alshogre/Associated Press)

"Then the sound would stop, and we would hear a big vehicle come and take them away," said Alshogre, who spent nine months in Saydnaya. Now 21, he lives in Sweden.

Speaking in an interview from Stockholm via Skype, Alshogre described how he was forced to keep his eyes closed and his back to the guards while they abused or suffocated a cellmate.

The body often would be left behind, or there would be a pool of blood in the cell for other prisoners to clean up.

"We can tell from the sound of the prisoner as he dies behind us. He dies a metre away. I don't see anything, but I see with my ears," said Alshogre, who at age 17 moved among nearly 10 detention facilities in Syria for two years before landing in Saydnaya.

Alshogre survived nine months in the prison, paying his way out in 2015 — a common practice. He suffered from tuberculosis and his weight had fallen to 77 pounds.

At one point, Alshogre was called out by his guards "for execution," he said. He was brought before a military trial and told not to raise his gaze at the judge, who asked him how many soldiers he had killed.

When he said none, the judge spared him.  

With files from CBC News and Reuters