Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Syria's Slaughterhouse

"[Death was always present], like the air."
"Death is the simplest thing. It was the most hoped-for because it would have spared us a lot: hunger, thirst, fear, pain, cold, thinking. Thinking was so hard. It could also kill."
Omar Alshogre, 21, former Syrian prisoner at Saydnaya prison, Syria

"The horrors depicted in this report [from Amnesty International] 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."
Lynn Maalouf, deputy director, research, Amnesty International, Beirut regional office

"[We] would hear a huge sound. From ten p.m.until twelve a.m. or from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. We would hear screaming and yelling, coming from below us ... these people were screaming like they had lost their minds."
"It wasn't a normal sound -- it was not ordinary. It sounded like they were skinning them alive."
Nader, former Saydnaya prison detainee, Syria

"The bodies of those who are killed at Saydnaya are taken away by the truckload and buried in mass graves."
"[There were beatings] on the journey after arrest. In transit between detention centres. As part of a 'welcome party' of abuse on arrival at a prison. And in some cases every day for every conceivable minor 'breaking' of rules, including talking or not cleaning their cells."
"Many of the people we spoke to said they had been beaten with plastic hose pipes, silicone bars and wooden sticks. Some had been scalded with hot water and burnt with cigarettes Others were forced to stand in water and given electric shocks."
Amnesty International report on Syrian prison detainees at Saydnaya

"The soldiers will practise their 'hospitality' with each new group of detainees during the 'welcome party' ... You are thrown to the ground and they use different instruments for the beatings; electric cables with exposed copper wire ends -- they have little hooks so they take a part of  your skin -- normal electric cables, plastic water pipes of different sizes and metal bars."
"I was blindfolded the whole time, but I would try to see somehow. All you see is blood: your own blood, the blood of others. After one hit, you lose your sense of what is happening. You're in shock. But then the pain comes."
Salam, Aleppo lawyer, detained in Saydnaya from 2012 to 2014
Inmates are seen behind bars in Aleppo's main prison on May 22, 2014. Amnesty International says tens of thousands of people in Syrian prisons have been tortured and nearly 18,000 have died since March 2011.
Inmates are seen behind bars in Aleppo's main prison on May 22, 2014. Amnesty International says tens of thousands of people in Syrian prisons have been tortured and nearly 18,000 have died since March 2011. (George Ourfalian/Reuters)

That testimony, however starkly brutal, is from survivors. Among the narrative reports from interviews undertaken with 31 former prison detainees and augmented by further interviews with prison officials willing to speak, including former guards and judges. No one speaks for the thousands of dead, other than the former guard who said: "We already know they will die anyway, so we do whatever we want with them."

And so, they did. Using various forms of inventive torture. One of which was named the "flying carpet", where prisoners were bound facing upward, on a foldable board. Another where prisoners were forced into a vehicle wheel tire, with foreheads pressed to knees or ankles, and then beaten.  Omar Alshogre, 17 at the time of his arrest, spent nine months in the prison. Guards, he said, would enter his cell three times weekly calling detainees out by name.

Now 21, released because his family was able to pay his ransom out of prison, he recalls hearing those called out in the process of being tortured. "Then the sound would stop", a sound that doubtless visits his waking and his sleeping hours without respite. He would keep his eyes closed, his back to the guards while a cellmate would be abused or suffocated, the body left behind, or a pool of blood left in the cell that the prisoners were meant to clean up.

He was spared, he said, when upon being brought before a judge, though he was informed he was summoned "for execution", he responded to the judge's question of how many soldiers he had been responsible for killing: "none". While in prison he developed tuberculosis. His body took on a skeletal appearance, when his weight fell away leaving him at 77 pounds.

The prison is located some 30 kilometres north of Damascus. A military prison, where an estimated 13,000 prisoners were killed through torture and mass hangings. If they didn't die first from thirst, hunger or disease. Some 20 to 50 prisoners were hanged weekly; on occasion twice weekly mass hangings took place in a "calculated campaign of extrajudicial execution", as Amnesty put it. That was then, from March 2011 to December 2015.
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.'
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

But Amnesty warns that the prison still practises the same techniques and prisoners continue to be starved, exposed to disease, tortured and hanged, There are two sections to the prison; one the "white" building and this is where military officers and soldiers identified as being disloyal to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad are housed. And the "red" building is where political dissidents, human rights defenders, journalists, doctors, humanitarian aid workers and students opposed to the regime are placed.

Not to think that there was no due process. Prisoners were  routinely collected from the cells on the day they were meant to be executed. They were told they were being taken to a civilian jail. Brought before a tribunal, a one- or two-minute "trial" took place. Whereupon they were transferred to a room, beaten for hours on end. Then brought to a basement cell and there nooses lined the walls for the mass executions to take place.

MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA — Burning Tires — August 1, 2016
A new report from Amnesty International states that the most serious abuses in Syria date to the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.   Reuters

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