Appalling accounts of death and abuse in Syria's prisons

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By Catherine Hardy  with Amnesty International
Appalling accounts of death and abuse in Syria's prisons

Prison conditions in Syria have been laid bare in a new report by a leading human rights group.

They treated us like animals, they wanted people to be as inhuman as possible

Samar Lawyer from Hama

Amnesty International estimates that 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria since the country’s crisis began in March 2011.

That is an average of 300 deaths per month.

How was the research carried out?

65 former inmates have given details of their experiences in Syria’s jails to Amnesty researchers.

They have described abuse and inhuman conditions in security facilities operated by the Syrian intelligence agencies.

Conditions in Saydnaya Military Prison on the outskirts of Damascus also come under the spotlight.

Some say they witnessed prisoners dying in custody. Others say they were held in cells alongside dead bodies.

You can read the report here

“Abused at every stage”

The majority of survivors told Amnesty that the abuse would begin instantly upon their arrest and during transfers.

Salam is a lawyer from Aleppo. “We heard guards shouting as we arrived, he says. They were very happy to welcome us. As soon as they opened the door of the truck, each guard grabbed a detainee and started beating him.”

“They treated us like animals, they wanted people to be as inhuman as possible,” said Samer, a lawyer from Hama. “I saw the blood, it was like a river.”

Ziad (not his real name) says the ventilation stopped working one day and seven people died of suffocation.

“They began to kick us to see who was alive and who wasn’t. They told me and the other survivor to stand up, that is when I realised that seven people were dead, I had slept next to seven bodies.”

Detainees also reported that access to food, water and sanitation facilities was often severely restricted. Most said they were prevented from washing properly.

There was little or no access to doctors or lawyers.

Sadnaya Military Prison

Conditions here are described in the Amnesty report as “particularly dire”.

“In the intelligence branch, the torture and beating were to make us ‘confess’. In Sadnaya, it felt like the purpose was death, some form of natural selection, to get rid of the weak as soon as they arrive,” said former detainee Omar S.

What does Amnesty say?

“The catalogue of horror stories featured in this report depicts in gruesome detail the dreadful abuse detainees routinely suffer from the moment of their arrest,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“For decades, Syrian government forces have used torture as a means to crush their opponents. Today, it is being carried out as part of a systematic and widespread attack directed against anyone suspected of opposing the government in the civilian population and amounts to crimes against humanity. Those responsible for these heinous crimes must be brought to justice.”

“The international community, in particular Russia and the USA, which are co-chairing peace talks on Syria, must bring these abuses to the top of the agenda in their discussions with both the authorities and armed groups and press them to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment.”

What does Amnesty want?

The group is calling for:

  • All prisoners of conscience to be freed
  • All others to be released or tried promptly and in line with international standards
  • International monitors to be given immediate and unfettered access to all places of detention

  • Deaths in custody

    The report carries new statistics from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

    The organisation uses scientific approaches to analyse human rights violations.

    The data shows that between March 2011 and December 2015:

  • 17,723 died in custody in Syria
  • This equates to 300 deaths per month
  • Amnesty says 45 died each year in the decade up to 2011
  • That is a pre-conflict average of three to four a month

  • Both Amnesty and HRDAG say these are conservative estimates and with tens of thousands of disappearances in detention facilities across Syria, the real figure could be much higher.