STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep with news of some grim allegations out of Syria. Amnesty International alleges in a new report that the mass murder of civilians has been taking place for several years in Syria's Sednaya prison. Amnesty calls this a calculated campaign of extrajudicial executions, and we're going to talk with the report's author Nicolette Waldman who joins us by Skype from London. Welcome to the program.
NICOLETTE WALDMAN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: What happened in this prison that was even worse than everything else happening in Syria?
WALDMAN: What we found was that every week and sometimes twice a week, groups of up to 50 people were taken out of their cells, taken over to another building on the grounds of the prison and hanged to death. And what we found was that as many as 13,000 people had been hanged at this prison since 2011.
And on top of this, the conditions at the prison, we have determined, are actually calculated and deliberately subjecting detainees to inhuman repeated torture and the deprivation of food, water medicine and medical care, so that they are dying in massive numbers even on top of these deliberate hangings.
INSKEEP: So we're not talking about the indiscriminate killing of civilians, say, on a battlefield. We're talking about prisoners who are being deliberately taken out and killed dozens at a time.
WALDMAN: Exactly. And we have evidence of this happening up until December 2015. But there's no reason to believe that this has stopped. It could be going on today. It could be going on this very week.
INSKEEP: And we should be clear this is a prison operated by the government of Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad.
WALDMAN: This is a prison that's operated by the Syrian military police. And usually detainees end up at this prison after they have gone through a horrible process of interrogation and torture in the intelligence agency branches. They're also subjected to this incredibly dehumanizing set of rules.
One of these rules is that they can never speak even when they're being tortured. They're not allowed to look at the guards. If they do, they will be killed immediately. And actually one person in the cell is usually put in charge of the cell and has to pick out people to be tortured each day.
INSKEEP: What evidence shows the kind of appalling behavior you're describing?
WALDMAN: We basically interviewed former prison officials, former guards, military judges and also lawyers. And we were also able to interview detainees who witnessed different steps of the execution process.
INSKEEP: When you interviewed these witnesses, did you hear the same stories again and again from people you talked with independently?
WALDMAN: Yes, we did. And I think some of the most chilling aspects of the research for me was hearing the same exact procedures. And this is how we were able to corroborate these testimonies because basically people saw and heard different aspects of exactly the same thing happening again and again.
INSKEEP: You were able to get evidence, not just from former detainees, but from guards who effectively confessed to participating in this system?
WALDMAN: We were able to get - to speak with former guards and officials from Sednaya. We felt it was necessary to not just get witness testimony, but actually to complete the picture and determine exactly who was behind the killings and how they were carried out. So we're actually even able to find out what the room looks like - the execution room, what the trucks look like that take the bodies away and even where the mass grave sites are in Syria.
INSKEEP: This is a government supported by Iran, we should mention, and also supported by Russia which has been very influential. Has Russia made any efforts so far as you know to address this kind of violation?
WALDMAN: We can't be sure about what type of efforts Russia has made. However, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council tasked with upholding peace and security through the world, it's very difficult to believe that they could be supporting this kind of massive crimes against humanity and war crimes. So that's why we're calling them to use all of their influence to push the Syrian government to immediately stop these atrocities and just well - to push for access into Syrian prisons.
INSKEEP: But effectively Russia is supporting all this. They're supporting the government there. They're the most important ally for Syria.
WALDMAN: That's exactly what one of the things that is so troubling about this research.
INSKEEP: Nicolette Waldman of Amnesty International, thanks very much.
WALDMAN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Her report is called "Human Slaughterhouse." There are more details. It's grim reading at npr.org.
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