Amnesty documents ‘human slaughterhouse’ in Assad’s Syria

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Amnesty International has just issued a report documenting what it says is clear evidence that the Assad regime in Syria has been illegally imprisoning, torturing and murdering political opponents.

William Brangham has more.

And a warning: Some of the details here are disturbing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Amnesty’s report says that somewhere between 5,000 and 13,000 people were tortured and executed at one military prison outside Damascus between 2011 and 2015.

Amnesty alleges that officials at the highest level of the Syrian government approved the killings, as did the grand mufti of Syria, the highest ranking religious figure in the country.

I’m joined now by Sunjeev Bery. He’s Amnesty’s director of advocacy for the Middle East and North Africa.

SUNJEEV BERY, Amnesty International: Thank you for having me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Very, very troubling reading in this report and the stories of the people who were tortured and executed at this prison.

Can you tell me, who were these people?

SUNJEEV BERY: There were thousands of civilians, as well as some ex-military officers, who are held at Saydnaya prison in Saydnaya, Syria.

We estimate that between 10,000 and 20,000 people are held there now. And for years, on a weekly basis, as many as 50 people have been hanged in mass executions by the Syrian government at this prison.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And are these people who are picked up — what are the crimes that they’re accused of?

SUNJEEV BERY: Many of them are perceived to be opposition to the government, although when you’re doing this kind of mass arrest, mass torture and miss execution, who knows what the individual people’s backgrounds are?

And, of course, peaceful, nonviolent opposition to a government is certainly not a crime. But with that background, many of them are subjected to forced confessions through extraordinarily brutal torture, and once that confession is put via ink to paper, then the execution process begins.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I understand a lot of the documentation for this report came from people who witnessed what’s going on in there.

I understand that there is some kind of a trial process, so-called trial. Can you explain a little bit about what goes on?

SUNJEEV BERY: Sure.

And just to put it in perspective, the so-called trial is a total of one to three minutes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One to three minutes’ long?

SUNJEEV BERY: One to three minutes per person, who is then later executed.

So you have thousands of people in these prisons subjected to extraordinary brutal torture in complete silence, living under rules of complete silence, routine deaths.

A certain percentage of the population in this prison are then taken to trials via a military field court, a so-called court, in a suburb of Damascus, where, during a one-to-three-minute trial, with, of course, no lawyer present, no due process at all, in 60 to 180 seconds, they are sentenced to death.

That death sentence is then rubber-stamped by higher authorities up to the highest levels of government, and then later they are tortured and hung to death.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The thing that was so striking to me, among many, in this report was the bureaucracy, the documentation of it, the fingerprinting, the getting witnesses to sign that they had never been mistreated, getting doctors to certify that all these deaths occurred because of natural causes.

Why do you think that the regime goes to these lengths to basically catalogue their own war crimes?

SUNJEEV BERY: It is difficult to know why the regime is so bureaucratically efficient in its documentation of its crimes against humanity.

One possibility may be that the senior levels of the government, perhaps even including President Bashar al-Assad, want to know that the crimes against humanity that they are likely to be ordering are, in fact, being carried out by the military and the intelligence bureaucracy.

And so with each of these executions, the executions are signed, either by the grand mufti, the highest appointed supposedly Muslim authority in Syria, although, if you’re signing off on all these mass executions, it’s highly questionable what your personal morality is, or the army chief of staff, or one other senior level defense official, the minister of defense.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What do you hope the international community does with this evidence?

SUNJEEV BERY: Well, the first thing to do is stare the evidence in the face and acknowledge what’s happening.

It’s time for Russia and China to drop their veto at the U.N. Security Council and allow the United Nations to take action on this. It’s time for the U.S. government under President Trump to stop pretending that anything other than gross crimes against humanity are happening.

And it’s also time to acknowledge what Syrian refugees are fleeing. You have perhaps 5,000 to 13,000 people killed at this prison, another 17,000 people killed at other prisons across Syria, and all of that against a backdrop of some 400,000 people who have died since the Syrian war began.

People are fleeing for their lives. And it is shameful that our own U.S. government here has said no to Syrian refugees at a time of such extraordinary suffering.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This report comes out amidst — it’s just the latest piece of evidence on a mountain of evidence that already exists about Assad’s regime.

But, as you well know, Assad still sits happily on his perch in Syria. Do you think that this is going to move the needle in any way?

SUNJEEV BERY: The needle definitely has to move.

And one key factor is going to be putting pressure on the U.N. Security Council to take action. That means putting pressure on the Russian government, putting pressure on the Chinese government, and ensuring that the U.S. government, under the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, actually stands up on this issue and pushes on it, as opposed to referring to President Bashar al-Assad as some kind of ally in the so-called war against terrorism.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Sunjeev Bery of Amnesty International, thank you very much.

SUNJEEV BERY: Thank you.

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