The U.S. State Department is accusing the Syrian government of secretly murdering thousands of prisoners and disposing of the bodies by burning them in a large crematorium.
As many of 50 prisoners are being hanged at Saydnaya military prison near Damascus every day, U.S. officials said Monday. They say the crematorium was constructed to “dispose of detainees’ remains with little evidence.”
“Although the regime’s many atrocities are well documented, we believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison,” said Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.
The U.S. government released satellite images of what it believes to be the crematorium.
“Credible sources have believed that many of the bodies have been disposed in mass graves,” Jones said as he showed reporters the satellite photos of the building that was built in 2013.
“We now believe that the Syrian regime has installed a crematorium in the Sednaya prison complex which could dispose of detainees’ remains with little evidence.”
The photos, taken in January 2015, show a building the U.S. believes was modified over a number of years to house the large crematorium. They show what U.S. officials believe are air intake vents, air conditioning units and a “discharge stack” used to evacuate smoke from thousands of bodies that have been burned.
Jones didn’t say why the U.S. has only now released the information, but he told reporters, “I would say that this information has been developing.” He said U.S. sources include intelligence agencies and “credible” humanitarian organizations.
One of the latest photos, taken on April 18, 2017, reveals the close proximity of the suspected crematorium to the prison, just a short walk for a victim. The prison is the Y-shaped structure on the left, and the suspected crematorium is the square structure to the right.
Jones said, “The regime holds as many as 70 prisoners in Saydnaya in cells that have a five-person capacity.”
In February, Amnesty International claimed as many as 13,000 people, mainly civilians opposed to Syria’s government, were secretly hanged at the prison.
“The horrors depicted in this report 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,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty International’s regional office in Beirut, according to the February report.
Amnesty International reported: “Large numbers of detainees have also been killed as a result of the authorities’ extermination policies, which include repeated torture and the systematic deprivation of food, water, medicine and medical care. In addition, detainees at Saydnaya Prison are forced to obey a set of sadistic and dehumanizing rules.”
Amnesty’s report cited interviews with 84 witnesses that included former prison guards and officials, detainees, judges, lawyers and experts on Syrian detention.
The detainees are not given actual trials before they’re hanged, according to the report. They simply appear for one or two minutes at a Military Field Court.
A former judge from the court told Amnesty it doesn’t operate within the rules of the Syrian legal system.
“The judge will ask the name of the detainee and whether he committed the crime,” the judge explained. “Whether the answer is yes or no, he will be convicted. … This court has no relation with the rule of law. This is not a court.”
The detainees are tortured so as to extract false confessions from them, Amnesty reported: “Detainees are not allowed access to a lawyer or given an opportunity to defend themselves – most have been subjected to enforced disappearance, held in secret and cut off from the outside world. Those who are condemned to death do not find out about their sentences until minutes before they are hanged.”
The bi-weekly hangings take place in the middle of the night, according to the organization. Prison officials read from a list of names, and the prisoners are told they will be transferred to civilian facilities in Syria. Rather than being moved to the new prisons, the blindfolded detainees are moved to a basement, beaten severely and hanged.
“They don’t know when or how they will die until the noose was placed around their necks,” Amnesty reported.
A former judge who witnessed the hangings told the group: “They kept them [hanging] 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.”
The sounds from the “execution room” could be heard from the floors above.
“If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling. This would last around 10 minutes … We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then,” said “Hamid,” a former military officer arrested in 2011.
Many of the prisoners reported being raped or being forced to rape others, according to the report. Some were killed or permanently disabled by torture and beatings. The prison floors are covered in pools of prisoners’ blood and puss from infected wounds. Prison guards collect bodies of dead detainees at about 9 a.m. every morning.
“Every day there would be two or three dead people in our wing,” “Nader,” a former detainee, reportedly said. “I remember the guard would ask how many we had. He would say, ‘Room number one – how many? Room number two – how many?’ and on and on. … There was one time that the guards came to us, room by room, and beat us on the head, chest and neck. Thirteen people from our wing died that day.”
Sometimes the prisoners are deprived of food and water. When the guards do bring food, it is dropped and strewn across the prison floors, where it mixes with filth and blood. If prisoners ever do leave Saydnaya, they often do so weighing half what they weighed when they arrived.
Detainees are also banned from speaking or even whispering.
“They are forced to assume certain positions when the guards come into the cells and merely looking at the guards is punishable by death,” Amnesty reported.
U.S. Assistant Secretary Jones said: “The United States is on record, has stated many times, that we are appalled by the atrocities that have been carried out by the Syrian regime. And these atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran.”
Jones said the Trump administration isn’t accusing Russia or Iran of complicity, but he said Russia is aware of Syria’s abuses and has supported them.
He warned the government of President Vladimir Putin: “Russia must now, with great urgency, exercise its influence over the Syrian regime to guarantee that horrific violations stop now.”
Jones said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has targeted civilians with air strikes, chemical attacks, extrajudicial killings, starvation and other methods.
“These atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” Jones said. “The [Assad] regime must stop all attacks on civilian and opposition forces. And Russia must bear responsibility to ensure regime compliance.”