How Amnesty Uncovered ‘a Universe of Degradation’ at Saydnaya Prison
Nicolette Boehland, lead researcher on Amnesty’s recent report on Saydnaya prison, discusses the human rights NGO’s yearlong investigation of the Syrian government’s alleged campaign of mass hangings and extermination.
BEIRUT – Public outrage and foreign pressure are two ways to put an end to the repeated chilling violations of detainees in Syria’s government-run prisons, according to Nicolette Boehland, a Syria researcher at Amnesty International.
Last week, Amnesty released a report detailing allegations of government-sanctioned abuses in the two buildings of Saydnaya military prison outside of Damascus, between 2011 and 2015. The findings show a systematic policy of mass executions, torture and deprivation of food, water, medicine and medical care, which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The centerpiece of the report detailed the prison’s policy of mass executions, sanctioned by the highest level of government officials. Between 20 to 50 people were hanged once or twice a week, after being sentenced to death in a “trial” at the Military Field Court, for a total of between 5,000 and 13,000 executions during the first five years of the conflict. “We have no reason to believe that these mass hangings have stopped,” Boehland said.
Amnesty spent a year investigating the allegations, which is longer than the human rights organization typically spends on reports, Boehland said. Between December 2015 and December 2016, Amnesty spoke with 84 people, including former detainees, former Syrian judges, doctors and former prison officials or guards.
Syria’s justice ministry dismissed the report, saying that it was “not based on correct evidence but on personal emotions that aim to achieve well-known political goals,” in a statement published by Syria’s state-run news agency.
Syria Deeply: The report said Amnesty gave the government a chance to respond to the allegations, but that no response was received at the time of publishing. Has that changed since the allegations went public?
Nicolette Boehland: Since 2011, we have never had a direct response from the Syrian authorities, despite the fact that we regularly send them letters. We send them urgent actions for certain cases. Before every report, we send them a request to meet, to share the findings of our reports before we release them, and we’ve never heard back. Even Assad has almost never even said anything about Amnesty since 2011.
Syria Deeply: Aside from the Syrian government’s statement, what did you hope the response would be to the report?
Boehland: We’ve had an incredible response to this report, and I think we managed to reach some people who hadn’t heard about the realities of detention in Syria. It seems crazy to someone who follows Syria closely that there are people who don’t know about the violations in detention, but it’s true.
I think when the top levels, like the U.N. Security Council and the various international responses that we would usually have for this level of mass atrocity, are so broken, it is very important that we engage the public so that they start to put pressure on their governments. The international systems are not responding in the way we think they should, and in the way that the crisis deserves, so we need to reach the public as well.
Right now, I think the world is trying to work out who Syrians are. It’s easy to dehumanize them and to not understand why they would want to flee. I hope that this report puts the focus back on why people are fleeing Syria, which is of course because of the conflict in general – and one of the specific causes is the arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance and extermination in the prisons, which has been systematically carried out by the Syrian authorities since 2011. This is a very big part of the picture that I think the public has somehow forgotten. It is so important to align the [public] conception with the reality.
Syria Deeply: Western public perception is shifting to a belief that the war is coming to an end, but we need to remind people that it cannot end with tens of thousands of people missing or in prison.
Boehland: Exactly. Even further, we have no reason to believe that these mass hangings have stopped, we have no reason to believe that people have stopped dying from repeated torture in combination with deprivation. They could be dying today. These deaths first have to stop, and then we will have years of accountability efforts and identification, and reuniting families, or at least trying to get information about people’s’ loved ones to them.
The world is behind in its understanding of Syria – it’s allowed itself amnesia about the drivers of the conflict. There are lots of reasons for this, but one is that journalists and monitoring organizations like Amnesty don’t have access to the country.
Syria Deeply: Amnesty first documented the Syrian state’s system of torture and arbitrary detention in 1987. After more than two decades, why has the international community overlooked it for so long?
While this is a decades’ long trend, the magnitude of the abuses have basically exploded since 2011. From 2001 to 2011, Amnesty International documented 45 deaths in custody. Between 2011 and 2015, we, in cooperation with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, estimated that at least 17,700 have died in government prisons as a result of torture and inhumane conditions. So this is not just more of the same, which I do hear a lot. It’s the same system, and it’s the same motivation, which is to crush dissent, but it doesn’t mean that we’re facing the same magnitude of crisis.
It’s important to remember that the whole crisis in Syria was partly sparked by the government’s detention practices – by the group of students who spray-painted some anti-government slogans on a school wall and were then detained and tortured. That incident led to several local protests that spread through the country. Detention has really been at the heart of the conflict since 2011.
What I hope this report shows is that this is not an accident. This hasn’t happened as a product or unintended consequence of war. This is an intentional campaign to subject a civilian population to torture, murder, disappearance and extermination on a scale that amounts to crimes against humanity.
The more violations on such a massive scale go on, the more the conflict is exacerbated. When the conflict is fueled, that creates conditions where extremism can thrive. As long as crimes of this scope and scale continue with impunity, the conflict will have a very unlikely possibility of ending, especially in a just and sustainable way.
There are many reasons that detention hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. One reason is that the government has been very successful in silencing the population. So when somebody in the family disappears or is arrested, the family will not speak publicly about it. They’re not going to go to the U.N. and raise the case, and they’re not going to go to the authorities and ask where they are because they could be arrested, disappeared, killed themselves, and we’ve documented many cases that follow exactly that trajectory.
Syria Deeply: What would it take to make the violations stop?
Boehland: At this point, the world needs to realize the extent of the problem and really understand it in its historic context. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, tortured, disappeared and exterminated, and they have tens of thousands of family members. The magnitude can’t be overstated. And for that we do need a U.N. investigation without delay, because that will be very important to corroborate our findings and establish a complete picture.
There has to be strong pressure on the Syrian government to show them that they can’t keep doing this, especially from the U.S. and from Syria’s ally Russia. If we were able to create and maintain the public outrage about this, it could end up being so costly for Russia that they end up using their influence and insisting that the Syrian authorities put an end to this.
For the U.S., this is a test case of what happens if a state is methodically and systematically targeting and exterminating a civilian population on a scale that amounts to crimes against humanity. Are they willing to stand up for civilians? Are they willing to use their influence over the situation in Syria to bring this to an end?
The problems for detainees and their families will take decades to solve, but I really think if the U.S. and Russia were willing to expend some political capital on this, the Syrian government’s violations would come to an end.
Syria Deeply: What was your first indication that these abuses were happening at Saydnaya?
A handout image by Amnesty International shows the military-run Saydnaya prison, one of Syria’s largest detention centres located 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of Damascus, in two distinct satellite pictures, one taken on March 3, 2010 (L) and the other of the same taken on September 18, 2016. AFP/AFP/Handout
A handout satellite image by Amnesty International shows the military-run Saydnaya prison, one of Syria’s largest detention centres located 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of Damascus. (AFP/AFP/Handout)
Boehland: I’ve been focused on detention in Syria for the past two years, and in August last year, we created a virtual model of Saydnaya prison, in collaboration with Forensic Architecture. In the course of the research for that project, I talked to one person who had been held in the red building, so that “Mercedes wheel” in the main building. He said, “On Mondays, they call people for transfer, but I don’t know where these people went, because if they were transferred to civilian prisons, they would have contact with the outside world.” In a civilian prison, you can usually have some kind of access to your family, and maybe even to your phone. I just put that in my head and thought okay, I’ll remember that. But then very soon after that, I talked to somebody from the white building. He said, “On Monday, they bring people to this building and they hang them. I had to jump up on the toilet, and I saw the trucks from the window, and I heard the sounds of the bodies being loaded into the trucks.”
You hear about a lot of things when you do this work, but this coincidence got my attention. They were in completely different towns in Turkey, and they didn’t know each other. But of course that was just the beginning.
Syria Deeply: Were the interviewees open to talking about Saydnaya at first, and how were you able to vet their stories?
Boehland: The survivors were very willing to talk. The people on the inside and other former officials were much more difficult to identify and to convince that it would be worth it to speak with us. We thought that it was so important to get insider information in addition to witness testimony because these are very serious violations, and we wanted to build as complete of a case as we could.
We often met people several times in order to evaluate the veracity of what they were saying: Does it fit in, does it make sense with what other people were saying? It was also important to evaluate the consistency of what key witnesses said. Over time, were they saying the same thing? If I asked them a month later, would they say the same thing? So that was different from the process that we usually carry out, much more of an investigation.
This report couldn’t have been done without a network of people who are huge supporters of Amnesty’s work. Some of them spent months of their lives trying to find people, talking to them, explaining to them about Amnesty, really helping them trust us so then we could carry forward our research and interview them. Those people, many of them won’t be ever be named, and they’ll never get the credit they deserve, but it wouldn’t have been possible without them.
Syria Deeply: Many family members of detainees still have no news about their loved one’s fate. Have any of these families reached out to you for help or information?
Boehland: Yes. The families are desperate for news on their loved ones. We document the cases of enforced disappearance and point them to the right international mechanisms, like the Working Group for Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and the ICRC. But we’re still in early days in terms of accountability. We have shared the names of those involved and of victims to credible bodies investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity in the conflict.
Syria Deeply: The Syrian government seems to go through quite some trouble to cover up any paper trail that could be used for documentation.
Boehland: The Syrian authorities have an interesting relationship with paperwork. Detainees from Saydnaya told us they were brought in front of a military court for one to two minutes, which generates these farcical “death sentences.” In the hospitals, death certificates are drawn up that state the cause of death as heart or respiratory failure. It’s an avalanche of paper and it’s telling that they take the time to do this. But if you have 10,000 death certificates that say the detainee died of heart failure, it won’t hold up in a court of law.
Syria Deeply: Even though your research focuses primarily on prisons, did you uncover anything during your investigation of Saydnaya that really shocked you?
Boehland: This isn’t a normal prison. In Saydnaya, the system is preprogrammed to take away people’s dignity. There is a deliberate policy to attack humanity. Detainees are not allowed to speak, to make any sound, even when they are tortured. One survivor told me that he couldn’t actually talk for one or two months after he was released – he could only whisper, as he did during his year in Saydnaya.
Many said, “The torture you get used to, but the worst part is the starvation.” One former detainee said when he got out he couldn’t stop eating. He ate something like five packs of bread.
One survivor, a physical therapist from Damascus, said the guards would throw the food all over the floor of the group cell, mixed with all the blood, pus and dirt on the floor. On the first day he said he wouldn’t eat it. But after a few days he grabbed a wiper from the bathroom and scraped it all into a pile. Then they divided that little pile into individual portions so that everyone in the cell could eat something.
The deaths that people are dying are horrific. People don’t die this way anymore. The most shocking thing is that it’s the system itself, not a few sadistic guards. This is a universe of degradation.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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