Eyewitnesses recount horror of Syria's executions

Eyewitnesses recount horror of Syria's executions
The New Arab has spoken to survivors of the Syrian regime's notorious Saydnaya prison who lived to recount the atrocities and tragedies they witnessed.
5 min read
09 Feb, 2017
The New Arab spoke to survivors of the notorious Syrian government prison of Saydnaya [AFP]

A recent report by Amnesty International revealed that as many as 13,000 people were hanged in five years at the Syrian government's notorious Saydnaya prison near Damascus, shedding light on the atrocities committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Titled "Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hanging and extermination at Saydnaya prison," Amnesty's damning report is based on interviews with 84 witnesses, including guards, detainees, and judges.

It found that at least once a week between 2011 and 2015, groups of up to 50 people were taken out of their prison cells for arbitrary trials, beaten, then hanged "in the middle of the night and in total secrecy".

Most of the victims were civilians believed to be opposed to Assad's government.

Amnesty said the practices amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but were likely still taking place.

The New Arab has spoken to several survivors who lived to tell of the atrocities and tragedies they witnessed.

Abu Bushra

One survivor, who chose to be referred to as Abu Bushra to conceal his identity, was imprisoned in Saydnaya for nearly two years, in the period between 2009 and 2011.

He was handed over by Jordanian authorities for allegedly working with opposition groups, before being sentenced by a military court, without the presence of a lawyer, as sentences were usually pre-determined.

"[Executions] were not carried out in front of us, but we would know when they happened from the movement in the prison," he said.

"By nightfall, people dressed as civilians would arrive in big cars. I could see them from the windows. They would stay all night until the early hours of morning to oversee the executions."

The worst thing, Abu Bushra said, was the psychological torture, as well as the poor conditions, such as the lack of sun exposure or fresh air.

On physical torture, he said the prisoners were regularly beaten by canes so large and heavy that the guards could hardly carry them.

By nightfall, people dressed as civilians would arrive in big cars. I could see them from the windows. They would stay all night until the early hours of morning to oversee the executions.
- Abu Bushra

"The worst thing I experienced was when one of my friends had a stroke and died in front of us, and no doctor showed up. Similar things happened on a regular basis in this prison," he added.

Commenting on the report, Abu Bushra said it did not add anything new.

"I am not optimistic that [the report] will bring any change," he said.

"These systematic executions conducted by the regime were already known and nothing has been done to stop them so far."

Abu Bushra believes that what happens inside the prison is a smaller version of what Syria is witnessing today.

"All those who were made to be extremists inside the prison were released by the regime at the beginning of the revolution to create their own groups, and the regime did not target them because it could predict their actions."

Abdul Rahman

Another survivor, 26-year-old Abdul Rahman, left Saydnaya in 2013, after a year in detention.

He was one of the prisoners of the revolution, and was tried in a military court - despite not serving in the army - and charged with plotting against the regime.

"My trial lasted nearly three minutes, and there were two others with me," he said.

"Three military men asked if we would confess to the charges, then they made us sign the papers and took us away, without having a lawyer and without even informing us of the verdict."

Usually it would happen on a Wednesday, which was a day of horror for everyone.
- Abdul Rahman

Abdul Rahman added that many prisoners never returned after being taken away.

"We knew they would be executed," he said.

"Usually it would happen on a Wednesday, which was a day of horror for everyone."

He added that the prisoners would listen to the names being called out and memorise them.

"A few days before my release, I was shocked to hear my brother's name being called out, as I did not know he was detained there," he said.

"I thought maybe it was just a similar name, but after my release, my family said he was still in prison, and I said no, he isn't anymore."

Operation Cesar

In an older testimony revealing atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, a photographer who worked for the military police before defecting leaked and published 45,000 photos of the regime's torture victims.

In 2015, a Paris-based publishing house published Operation Cesar; a book about the dissident photographer known by the codename "Cesar".

At the time, The New Arab published translated excerpts from four chapters of the book, where Cesar talked about the nature of his profession as a photographer of corpses, and how that transformed after the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in the spring of 2011.

"I had not seen anything like this before. Before the revolution the regime would torture detainees to extract information, but they were now doing so to kill," he said in chapter II.

"I saw wax marks and I once saw a round mark from a small stove used to make tea that had burned the face and hair of one of the bodies. Some of them had deep wounds, gouged eyes, broken teeth and marks from being hit by electric cables used to start car batteries."

After the book was published, a French court decided to use Cesar's testimony as evidence in the criminal trial of Assad's regime on charges of committing war crimes.