The human slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination in Syrian prison
Saydnaya Prison is where the Syrian government quietly slaughters its own people.
It is a place carefully designed to humiliate, degrade, sicken, starve and ultimately exterminate those trapped inside.
As many as 13,000 people have been executed in Saydnaya since 2011, in the utmost secrecy. Many others have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and systematically deprived of food, water and medicine.
The bodies of those who are killed are taken away by the truckload and buried in mass graves.
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'Saydnaya is the end of life – the end of humanity.'
A former guard at Saydnaya Prison
Every week, between 20 and 100 people are taken from their cells in the middle of the night and hanged. Most of them were civilians believed to have been opposed to Assad’s government.
Victims face what the Syrian authorities call a 'trial' at the Military Field Court. In reality, this is a one or two-minute procedure in an office.
When they enter the execution room at Saydnaya, victims are blindfolded - unaware that they are about to be killed.
They would not have seen the nooses lining the wall.
Still blindfolded, they are taken to concrete platforms, and hanged. The victim does not know how or when the execution will be carried out until the nooses are placed around their necks.
‘They kept them [hanging] there for ten 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.’
A former judge who witnessed the hangings
Former prisoners spoke to us of an endless cycle of beatings. Many said they had been beaten with plastic hose pipes, silicone bars and wooden sticks. Some had been scalded with boiling water and burnt with cigarettes. Others were forced to stand in water and given electric shocks.
‘It was like a part of my soul died… After that, I had no joy, no laughter.’
Student subjected to electrocution at Saydnaya
Some of the techniques used are so commonplace they have their own nicknames:
The ‘flying carpet’
A person is strapped face-up on a foldable board, and one end is brought up to the other.
A person is forced into a vehicle tyre, with their foreheads pressed onto their knees or ankles, and beaten.
Torture and beatings are used as a regular form of punishment and degradation, often leading to life-long damage, disability or even death.
Many of the prisoners we’ve spoken to told us they were raped or in some cases forced to rape other prisoners.
The cell floors are covered with blood and puss from prisoners’ wounds.
'When they brought me in, I didn’t see people – I saw worms, all wriggling and mixed together. I couldn’t stand on both feet, there was not enough space.'
Former detainee at Saydnaya Prison describing overcrowding
In some cases, there are more than 50 people in a cell as small as 3m by 3m.
Food and water are regularly cut off. When food is delivered, it is often scattered over the cell floors by the guards, where it mixes with blood and dirt.
The very few who leave Saydnaya often do so weighing half the body weight they had when they arrived.
Image: Former detainee Omar al-Shogre before his arrest and shortly after his release from Saydnaya.
Prisoners are not allowed to make any sounds, speak or even whisper.
They are forced to assume certain positions when the guards come into the cells and merely looking at the guards is punishable by death.
Crimes against humanity
The violations at Saydnaya are crimes against humanity and must be investigated.
In most cases, the Syrian government denies that these people have even been arrested. Or they refuse to give any information about their whereabouts, which means they’re outside the protection of the law – making them especially vulnerable to abuse.
Yet to this day, detainees are still being transferred to Saydnaya, and ‘trials’ at the Military Field Court continue.