There have been a couple of reports on Syria’s torture practices, notably by Human Rights Watch, and by the United Nations Human Rights Council, but this one, which is based on extensive interviews with prisoners who survived detention, and with former prison guards, seems to underline the systematic nature of torture. “The findings of this report show that there is a systematic campaign of mass hanging,” says Lynn Malouff the deputy director for the Middle East for Amnesty.
“Every week, there have been between ten and 50 people who are hanged inside the walls of Saidnaya. It is a systematic practice of mass hangings as well as extermination of the people inside of Saidnaya.
The Saidnaya prison has been to topic of investigation by human rights organizations for some time now.
In August last year, the organization Forensic Architecture, in cooperation with Amnesty International, did a preliminary report on this specific prison, Saidnaya prison, and created an online- 3D version of it, purely based on the audio memory of the prisoners, as it was dark and they were often blindfolded.
“This is a place that is one of the most notorious torture prisons run by the Assad government,” says Forensic Architercture’s director Ayal Weizman.
“We started with written accounts of prisoners, but then a group of us travelled to Turkey to meet a group of Syrian refugees who were survivors from that prison.”
3D wizards at Forensic Architecture used “architectural model that we've built as a conduit into [the former prisoners’] memory.
“So imagine, you are placed virtually, almost like in a computer game, but you return back to the space and time of extreme violence, of torture, of horrific conditions if incarceration, and being there again, you can recall memories that were otherwise obscured by trauma or by pain,” he says, pointing out that in the human rights world, “victim testimony is the most complicated thing.”
This latest report, by Amnesty adds testimony by many more people interviewed over the course of last year. “The bodies are loaded on trucks in the middle of the night and these trucks go to mass graves located in military land outside of Damascus,” recounts Malouff.
The family is not informed and does not have any knowledge of what is happening to their loved ones who dissapeared in the jail.
“Saidnaya Prison represents a black hole. When [people] find out that they have a relative in Saidnaya, it is the worst news that they can get,” says Malouff. “When one woman was told that her husband was transferred from one prison to Saidnaya, she said: ‘this is where people vanish.’”
The aim of the reports trying to prove this systematic torture is the public shaming of the Assad government and raising awareness among people in other countries.
But as Iran and Russia now both strongly support Assad, and the US and even Turkey stepping up the fight against the Islamic State, so in fact siding with Assad, and not calling for his removal anymore, the latest criticism may not get the attention Amnesty hopes for.
As for the Syrian government, Damascus denies all wrongdoing.
“If you are torturing your people, attacking, killing, and so on,” asked Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in a recent interview, “and you have the enmity of Western governments, the strongest country in the world, and the richest countries like those in the Gulf, all our neighbors are against me as president or against the government, how you could withstand [them] for five years in such circumstances, if you don't have public support? And how can you have public support if you are torturing your people?”
This latest Amnesty report, about the torture and hangings in Saidnaya prison comes out just two weeks before another round of peace talks, planned for February 20, and to be held in Geneva.
But as a cease-fire and humanitarian aid are the priorities, it is unlikely that human rights abuses by Damascus will be high on the agenda.