The Current

Inside the prison Amnesty International calls Syria's human slaughterhouse

The Current goes inside one of Syria's most notorious prisons — a place where few people leave alive. What are the prospects of holding those responsible for what's happened there — guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity?
Syrian authorities have killed at least 13,000 people since the start of the 2011 uprising in mass hangings at a prison north of Damascus called Saydnaya Prison. Detainees refer to the prison as 'the slaughterhouse.' (Amnesty International/Google)

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Bombings, shellings, terrorist attacks and civil war aren't the only things killing the besieged citizens of Syria.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad is locking up perceived political opponents, who are then "disappeared" or executed - according to a new report from human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

The report titled, Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination in Saydnaya prison, chronicles systematic killings and abuse of prisoners in one of Syria's most notorious prisons, located 30 kilometres outside Damascus.

"For many prisoners, [Saydnaya] will be the the last place they will ever be sent because they will die at the prison," report author Nicolette Waldman tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

Waldman and her Amnesty International colleagues interviewed 84 witnesses, including former prison guards, military judges and 31 former Saydnaya prisoners. She says most of the victims were civilians: doctors, demonstrators, journalists, activists.

"These [prisoners] are the fabric of Syrian society, and oftentimes the only thing they have in common is that they are perceived by the Syrian authorities to oppose them in some way."

Waldman says their treatment at Saydnaya is "almost difficult to comprehend."

Amnesty International chronicled mass hangings at the prison. Detainees were subjected to "sadistic and dehumanizing" treatment, including torture, rape and sexual violence.

"They are told not to make any sound, even when they are being tortured," Waldman explains to Lynch.

"When a guard comes in the room, they have to run to the back of the cell, cover their eyes with their hands and assume the position. And if they even glance at the guards, they might be killed."

At the end of their imprisonment, prisoners are told they are being transferred to a civilian prison. Instead, Waldman said, they are led into the basement and beaten again for hours. They are then blindfolded and taken to a different part of the prison.

"They don't know how they will be executed or when they will be executed until the nooses are actually placed around their necks."
Former detainee of Saydnaya prison Omar Alshogre in 2015 - a month after his release. While in detention, Alshogre said he heard men escorted to be hanged and was himself called for 'execution' but was spared after a brief trial. (Omar Alshogre/Associated Press)

Researchers believe these mass hangings involve up to 50 inmates at a time, and happen once or twice a week, says Waldman, who adds they are likely continuing to this day.

Roughly 13,000 people have died in mass hangings at Saydnaya.

Waldman says another 17,700 people have died at the prison from malnutrition and starvation.

Steps are being taken to hold senior officials in the Syrian government responsible for the killings.

On Feb. 1, the first court case was filed against members of Bashar al-Assad's regime.

An advocacy group called Guernica 37 filed a complaint in a Spanish court against nine Syrian officials for the detention and death of a Syrian man named Abdul.

While none of the accused is in Spanish custody, the case was registered as a complaint on behalf of Abdul's sister who is now a Spanish citizen.

"It's quite significant, most especially from a symbolic point of view," says Bill Wiley of the Abdul case in Spain.

Wiley is the executive director and founder of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), which helped collect evidence being used in the Spanish case.

He tells Lynch, the case and the Amnesty report both play a crucial role in finding justice for victims of state-sponsored abuse in Syria.

"They are very important to bringing attention to the public and policy makers and political actors to the past and ongoing crimes of the Syria regime," Wiley explains.

The CIJA specializes in gathering evidence to prosecute war crimes. Wiley has been collecting documentation and evidence in Syria since the conflict began in 2011. He is confident charges will eventually be brought against President al-Assad.

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry.