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Amnesty International released a report today, “Human Slaughterhouse,” documenting the conditions in Sednaya prison, run by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which amount to extermination as a crime against humanity. In addition to the deliberately insanitary conditions, routinized torture and maltreatment, there has been—and continues to be—a systematic campaign of extra-judicial massacre in which perhaps 13,000 people have perished. These findings buttress previous findings, and come with some political implications as the new American administration seeks to chart its way forward in Syria.
Sednaya Military Prison, about twenty miles north of Damascus, is under the jurisdiction of Assad’s Ministry of Defence and is operated by the Military Police. It contains between 10,000 and 20,000 detainees and is split into two parts.
There is a “red building,” which housed mostly Islamist and jihadist prisoners until the regime released them all in early 2011 to try to stain the nascent, peaceful uprising with sectarianism and terrorism, and filled the cells with peaceful oppositionists—secular civil society activists, demonstrators, lawyers, journalists, doctors, aid workers, and students—who have been tortured into confessions of the worst crimes against the state, such as killing security officials. Sednaya was the place where Assad tried to “finish the revolutionaries,” as a former guard put it.
There is then a “white building” that mostly comprises military prisoners suspected of disloyalty, which can mean anything from being a spy or attempted-defector to the opposition to refusing orders to fire on civilians to speaking ill of the ruler.
Releases from Sednaya are very rare, and releases from the red building are even less common than releases from the white building, which occasionally occur under presidential amnesties, prisoner-swaps, or bribery.
It is the civilian oppositionists in the red building who have been subjected to a campaign of secret slaughter by the Assad regime that began in September 2011. Amnesty has evidence of this program continuing up to December 2015, and calculated that between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been murdered. There is no reason to think the killings have stopped.
It is important to note that the casualties reported yesterday by Amnesty are separate to the 11,000 people shown, in pictures smuggled out of Syria by CAESAR, a photographer for the Military Police, to have been murdered in Assad’s prisons between March 2011 and August 2013.
CONDITIONS AND FORCED CONFESSIONS
The prison conditions in Sednaya, which are designed to “humiliate, degrade, dehumanize and to destroy any sense of dignity or hope,” as Amnesty puts it, make life literally unliveable for a large number of people, and themselves amount to extermination as a crime against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute (“intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population”). The fatalities at Sednaya are not simply, or even mostly, attritional, however; they are quite deliberately inflicted. This is the same conclusion as the United Nations Commission of Inquiry for Syria.
Upon arrival at Sednaya, there is what the guards call a “welcome party,” a brutal beating. The infirm are singled out and beaten to death. Sadism is the order of the day, as a high-school student imprisoned at Sednaya described:
The guard would ask everyone to take off all their clothes and go to the bathroom one by one. As we walked to the bathroom, they would select one of the boys, someone petite or young or fair. They would ask him to stand with his face to the door and close his eyes. They would then ask a bigger prisoner to rape him.
The humiliation of this treatment leaves even those who survive unable to testify about it.
Those who survive this “welcome” are crammed into tiny cells beneath Sednaya and kept in solitary confinement in the dark for several days or weeks, and once transferred upstairs the real horrors begin.
The upstairs cells contain around thirty people and one is nominated as shawish (leader) by the prison authorities. Prisoners in Sednaya are not allowed to look at the guards and must maintain complete silence. The shawish must select five people who have broken their silence for the daily beatings; if he does not, he is tortured. Since each shawish takes a lot of beatings, he dies every week or two.
Deliberately squalid conditions are created at Sednaya by the denial of food, water (either to drink or wash), and medical care.
Cutting off the water is the most common punishment—not for any recognized offence, just because the prison wardens can. Unable to shower for weeks or months at a time—and even when prisoners can shower it is only very briefly and with no soap—lice and skin diseases, particularly scabies, are rife. The unhygienic conditions mean that germs are passed freely; diarrhoea is near-universal and when the water is cut off there is no ability to flush lavatories.
Without access to bathing facilities, prisoners, of course, smell, part of the degradation and humiliation. And even more importantly, in an environment of routine beatings and torture, plus prison guards forcing prisoners to sexually-attack one-another, there are a lot of open sores and cuts that get infected. The denial of medical care means this frequently leads to fatalities.
The denial of water leads to prisoners trying to drink water used to mop the floors, the condensation from the walls, and even their own urine. Some prisoners die of dehydration during these periods of cut-off.
Denial of adequate food is a constant, which means prisoners will eat what they can:
On the floor, we have the scabs and puss of the scabies, hair from our bodies, blood from the lice. All of this is on the floor. But the floor is where they put the food. … On the first day, we don’t eat it. We eat only the bread. Then the second day, the third day. We need to survive. … In the end, of course, we eat it. We take the wiper from the shower, and we scrape it all into a pile, and we eat it.
Many prisoners lose around half their bodyweight, everyone is malnourished, and it opens the way to other diseases like tuberculosis.
Death comes from many directions. In the summer, the water is turned off and no coolant is provided. In the winter, all the windows and doors are opened, prisoners are stripped to their underwear, and water is thrown on them. Overheating and the cold take many lives. Some prisoners give up and stop eating; some lose their minds and do the same. Exhaustion claims its share.
At 9 AM or 10 AM a guard will ask if there is a “carcass” in the cells; if someone dies after that, they are collected the next day.
Notably, the torture at Sednaya is not intended to gather intelligence or even a forced confession; it is designed to punish, to degrade, to break the will of captives, and ultimately to murder them and their cause. A previous Amnesty report detailed the near-indescribable cruelties that take place as a matter of course in Assad’s prisons, which do extract “confessions”. There is not even an internal pretence of legitimacy for these confessions. Prisoners are so dazed from sleep deprivation and beatings that they have to be coached through what they are supposed to have done—fired weapons at the police, for example—and who their accomplices were. But the “confessions” “lend a legalistic veneer to the detention process,” writes Ben Taub, who investigated the workings of Assad’s prisons for The New Yorker. And those confessions have already been extracted by the time prisoners arrive at Sednaya.
Amnesty’s new report documents how these “confessions” are used to get Syrians to the gallows.
THE PASSING OF DEATH SENTENCES
Prisoners in the red building are handcuffed, blindfolded, and transferred to a show trial lasting between one and three minutes at one of the two “Military Field Courts” in the Military Police headquarters in al-Qaboun, Damascus, where their “confessions” are presented. One prisoner testifies to forty-five prisoners being convicted in under an hour.
Once convicted at the Military Field Courts, the sentence is usually death—those the regime perceives as lesser-threats are sent to the Anti-Terrorism Court, where lengthy custodial sentences are given out. Prisoners before the Military Field Courts have no access to a lawyer and are not even informed of the verdict.
The Military Prosecutor who hands down the sentences at the Military Field Courts then sends the decision by military post to the Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun and to either the Minister of Defence or the Chief of Staff of the Army, who are deputized to sign on Assad’s behalf, and decide the date of execution.
Hassoun gave a sermon during the second battle of Fallujah in 2004 praising the Islamic State’s predecessor and calling on them to kill Americans. In October 2011, Hassoun threatened that the Assad regime would hit Europe and America with suicide bombers if anything was done to halt Assad’s killing-machine. This did not stop Hassoun being invited to the Republic of Ireland, where he was even allowed into the Oireachtas (the lower house of the Irish Parliament), in December 2016.
Once the death sentence has been approved by Hassoun and the military, their judgement is “sent back to the Military Field Court in al-Qaboun, where it is kept on file. One or two days before the execution is scheduled to take place, a copy of the judgement is sent to the administrative office at Sednaya,” and all of those processed in that batch are murdered in one session by the prison authorities. The process—from death sentence to execution—takes at least two months.
Around fifty prisoners are rounded up twice-a-week and executed in mass-hangings, events called “the party” by those who carry it out.
On the day a prisoner is to be executed, he is collected from his cell beginning around 3 PM, along with all the other prisoners scheduled to die that day. This can take between one and two hours. Prisoners are told they are going to be transferred to civilian prisons, such as Adra or Aleppo Central Prison, where conditions are less harsh than at Sednaya or those prisons run by the intelligence services. The prisoners are then put into “train” formation, holding the clothing of the detainee in front, and are led to the B-wing of the red building—in the basement.
This process of transferring the condemned into one place during the day and telling them of a transfer to better conditions is to prevent panic and possible mutiny. If prison doors were opened at night, especially the main entrance, it would create a lot more noise and fear, and therefore potential trouble. One former guard also told Amnesty that the regime has stopped allowing Sunnis to oversee the condemned population in the basement of the red building, only allowing Alawis to do it, because of a fear that Sunni officers would tell the prisoners what was coming and this would lead to a riot.
Once in the basement of the red building, the prisoners are savagely beaten and tortured over a period of two to three hours, beginning around 10 PM. Between midnight and 1 AM, prisoners are handcuffed, blindfolded, and led into vehicles outside the red building—originally ambulances but as the batches of prisoners got larger the regime often now uses white minibuses, known as “meat fridges”—which take the prisoners to the white building. “Even the guards who oversee the collection process and beatings at the red building are usually unaware of what happens to the detainees after they are transferred to the white building in the middle of the night.”
At around 3 AM a six-man “execution panel” arrives at the white building in Sednaya: the Director of Sednaya, the Military Prosecutor of the Military Field Court, a representative from the intelligence agencies (usually Military Intelligence), the Brigade Commander of the Southern Front, an officer from the Military Medical Services at Tishreen Hospital, and the head doctor at Sednaya, most of them accompanied by one or two other people (either assistants or bodyguards).
Once the busses with the prisoners arrive at the white building, they stop in front of a steel door that leads to an underground “execution room,” which is actually an open area—expanded in June 2012—that comprises five rooms, three cells and two smaller rooms, all of which are used to hang prisoners. The six members of the execution panel are present, though their bodyguards, who usually wear civilian clothes, have to wait outside, and the panel is joined by five staff members from the Military Medical Services at Tishreen Hospital, two officers’ assistants from Sednaya, and four or five guards from Sednaya.
Detainees are still unaware of what is happening even after they enter the “execution room”. Only once they are inside the execution room and are asked to form a queue up to a small table in the corner, where they are asked for last wishes and made to place a fingerprint on a statement documenting their death, do prisoners know they are about to be killed, and even then not how. “Some of them were silent after they put their fingerprint on the paper, and some of them just fainted right there,” said a former prison official, and of course last wishes were not carried out.
Amnesty explains how the final moments play out:
After this, the detainees are led on to the platforms [in each of the rooms], still blindfolded. This process of the hanging was described by the former prison official: “They would line them up and get them ready for the execution. They would wait until all of the spaces were full before they put the nooses on. Then they would put the nooses on and push them or drop them immediately, so they didn’t know what was happening until the very last moment.”
After the victims are dropped or pushed, they usually hang for around 15 minutes. At this point, the doctor in the room indicates which detainees have not yet died. These victims are pulled downward by the officers’ assistants, which causes the victims’ necks to break.
A former judge from the Military Court recalled this stage of the execution: “They kept them there for 10 to 15 minutes. 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. Two officers’ assistants were in charge of this.”
Prisoners in the rooms above in the white building were able to hear this. A former military officer, arrested in 2012, says:
There was a sound of something being pulled out … and then you would hear the sound of them being strangled. … If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling. This would last around ten minutes. … We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then.
Between about 3 AM and 6 AM, the dead prisoners—sometimes in coffins, sometimes in body-bags, and sometimes in just their clothes—are loaded into large Hyundai diesel trucks sent from Tishreen Hospital. The processing of the corpses by Tishreen Hospital is clear in outline: the bodies are not photographed and the death certificates are not given to the families.
According to two former prison officials from Sednaya, the bodies are then put in a mass-grave that was previously a cemetery in Najha, a village on the main road between Suwayda and Damascus, or occasionally in a mass-grave in Qatana in the western suburbs of Damascus, inside the military base for Division Ten.
Since many of the slain were “disappeared” (abducted without notification to relatives) by the Assad regime, the families were unaware their relatives were held in Sednaya and remain unaware to this hour that they are dead, let alone where they are buried.
At least 17,723 people have been killed in regime custody between March 2011 and December 2015, an average of 300-per-month, according to the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which acknowledges that this is an extremely conservative estimate. By late 2015, at least 65,000 people had been “disappeared” by the regime, and the prison population was estimated at 200,000. Nobody really knows, but those people are now in this system that has systematized murder on a scale with few precedents since the Holocaust.
As Amnesty notes, and has previously reported, other actors in Syria have committed crimes, including ill-treatment and murder of prisoners. There are documented war crimes by some rebel groups and al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State has committed crimes against humanity and genocide. There is no comparison with what the Assad regime has done: the pro-Assad coalition is responsible for killing 95% of the civilians and, in the case of prisons, the “vast majority of detention-related violations since 2011 have been carried out by the Syrian authorities.”
The Amnesty report concludes that the Assad regime has violated the laws of war and should be brought up on a raft of war crimes charges: extrajudicial executions, torture and cruel treatment, murder, rape and other sexual violence. Since these have been “carried out by the Syrian government … as part of an attack against the civilian population, pursuant to a state policy that has been widespread as well as systematic, [these violations] therefore amount to crimes against humanity,” Amnesty notes, specifically murder, torture, enforced disappearance, and extermination.
THE PROBLEM WITH INTERNATIONAL LAW
Amnesty is surely correct about the international legal implications of Assad’s conduct, certainly correct that “[a]ny delay” in putting a stop to the Assad regime’s conduct at Sednaya “will have lethal consequences,” and very likely correct that Iran and Russia could have some effect in mitigating the atrocious conduct of the regime.
The last of these, however, explains why all attempts to bring the Assad regime to account through international law have and will fail: Russia possess a veto on the United Nations Security Council, which would have to approve the referral of Assad to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The ICC was established in 2002 when the Rome Statute of 1998 entered into force, the apotheosis of the project to legalize the relations between states. And it has ever since shown itself to be a mirage. Perhaps the final demonstration was in 2009, when the ICC broke ground by indicting a sitting head of state, Umar al-Bashir of Sudan. Nine years later, al-Bashir remains in power and far from isolated.
Syria has proven to be a graveyard for international legal norms.
The regime responded to the peaceful demonstrations with enforced disappearance, mass-killing in prisons, the systematic use of rape and assassination, and thereafter escalated from the use of artillery to helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and scud missiles against Syrian cities. There was no action from “the international community” to complicate, let alone prevent or punish, any of this.
One red line was laid down for Assad by the United States, the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction, and he crossed that with abandon in August 2013, gassing to death 1,400 civilians in a few hours. Moscow thought quickly and outmanoeuvred a United States reluctant to enforce her own edict, sparing Assad retribution and opening the way to re-legitimate Assad.
Others took note—including al-Bashir, who added to the crimes that got him indicted for genocide more than thirty uses of chemical weapons in 2016, right before the outgoing Obama administration lifted the trade embargo imposed on Khartoum in 1997 for its gross human rights violations and support for terrorism.
SO WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
While trying to indict Assad and his senior lieutenants, even if successful, is meaningless in practical terms, it might be useful politically. The effort would place the Assad regime’s supporters on the defensive, isolating states like Russia, China, and Iran—for once—in international forums like the United Nations.
The process of an indictment against Assad would also signal that President Donald Trump was reversing the drift of his predecessor toward an alignment with the Iranian axis in Syria. Moves are already afoot in Europe, after the pro-Assad coalition reconquered Aleppo City, to find some way of normalizing relations with Assad to halt the refugee flow that is destabilizing European politics, even if it means paying for parts of Assad’s counterinsurgency policy. Many in the Gulf are optimistic, because of Trump’s fierce rhetoric against the Iranian revolution and the Iran nuclear deal, and because Trump’s Cabinet picks have hawkish views about Tehran, that the U.S. under Trump will cease Obama’s pro-Iran tilt and return to supporting America’s traditional allies. An attempted indictment would put Assad clearly out of bounds for the international law-sensitive Europeans and would re-assure the Gulf states.
Beyond this, it is easier to say what should not be done. For example, though Trump administration has spoken forcefully against Iran since it entered office—putting the Islamic Republic “on notice“—and now levying sanctions on Tehran, Trump has spoken of wanting to partner with Russia—which is strategically co-joined to Iran in Syria—against the Islamic State and even mused on the possible uses of Assad in such a campaign. Indeed, the Trump administration is allegedly set on a course of driving a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria by courting Moscow and aggressively undermining Tehran. This is very unlikely to work.
This narrative of strategic divergence between Russia and Iran over Syria, which can be an opportunity for partnership to end the war, has been used to string along Western interlocuters for many years now, buying time as the pro-regime coalition consolidates gains and plans its next offensive operations. Put that aside. Leave aside, too, that Moscow has never seriously attacked the Islamic State because it needs it as a foil to legitimate supporting Assad and all of his atrocities as a lesser-evil. If this plan worked, and Tehran’s position in Syria was grievously wounded, it would render partnership with Moscow pointless. Russia has at its disposal indiscriminate airstrikes and a number of Special Forces and mercenaries in Syria; it relies on Iran and its terrorist assets like Hizballah and the Shi’a jihadists from Iraq to take advantage of the airstrikes and make lasting gains.
Perhaps the Trump administration will realize the contradiction in trying to partner with Russia and degrade Iran in Syria. Perhaps the futility of relying on Russia as a counterterrorism partner will become obvious. Perhaps the incapacity of the Assad regime, even to hold a politically significant town like Palmyra, and the regime’s record of consciously facilitating the rise of terrorists it now offers to fight if its crimes against humanity are ignored, will be brought to the President’s attention. Perhaps Trump can be brought to see that airstrikes in isolation cannot defeat al-Qaeda, which is embedding itself further into Syrian society every day, forming a dangerously durable base from which it can attack the West; that locally-accepted rebel forces will be needed to uproot al-Qaeda. Perhaps it will dawn on him that publicly partnering with the pro-Assad coalition, something repeatedly tried by his predecessor, will not only stain him and the United States morally but will vindicate and empower al-Qaeda, pushing rebels further into al-Qaeda’s camp in order to continue the anti-regime battle. Perhaps this Amnesty report will help him understand why those rebel forces regard Assad, not the jihadists who fought in the same trenches as the rebellion, as the main enemy, and will see that being a better partner to the rebels in their main struggle is the easiest way to pull them away from al-Qaeda. Or perhaps not. Doubtless time will tell.
 Amnesty interviewed a total of 84 people between December 2015 and December 2016. Thirty-one were men who had been detained at Sednaya: twenty of them at the red building (five part of the military when arrested; fifteen civilians) and eleven at the white building (nine part of the military when arrested; two civilians). Amnesty also interviewed: four prison officials or guards who previously worked at Sednaya; three former judges, one from the Military Court in Mezzeh; three doctors who worked at Tishreen Military Hospital; four Syrian lawyers; seventeen international and national experts on detention in Syria; and twenty-two family members of people who were or are detained at Sednaya. “In many cases, two or more interviews were conducted with key witnesses to evaluate the consistency and veracity of the information they provided,” Amnesty notes.
 The so-called CAESAR Report was released in January 2014, compiled from the 55,000 images, showing 11,000 individuals (ten of them believed to be Europeans) who had been starved, tortured, mutilated, and murdered—often in that order—in Assad’s prisons between March 2011 and August 2013. Nearly half of the corpses showed emaciation and the cause of death for a significant number appears to be strangulation. The death certificates referred to heart and respiratory failure. The CAESAR images were from just two military hospitals in Damascus.
On 23 April 2012, President Barack Obama formally established the Atrocities Prevention Board, since stopping mass-killing and genocide is as “core national security interest and core moral responsibility” of the United States. At that time, 10,000 Syrians had been murdered by the Assad government’s crackdown and the war it ignited. Some members of the Obama administration had been pushing to bring war crimes charges against Assad and his senior retainers, and the CAESAR photographs provided all the evidence needed. But, “When the issue was debated in the White House in 2012 and 2013, many administration officials argued that a concerted push for an international war-crimes prosecution would undermine any chance for pursuing a negotiated settlement to Syria’s civil war, … giv[ing] Mr. Assad and his backers little incentive to back down”.
The death toll in Syria now exceeds half-a-million, more than half the population has been displaced, the Islamic State controls a third of the country, al-Qaeda has a flourishing branch, and all efforts at a political settlement to end the war foundered because Assad and his backers felt too secure and therefore saw no reason to negotiate.
 In the early days of the killings, the regime would take prisoners in smaller batches of about twenty and the massacres would be about once-a-week. This has increased over time, though the remains variance.
 The man who worked in the communications room, letting in the senior officials as they arrived on execution day, “Abu Muhammad,” has since defected from the regime and spoke to Amnesty.