President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has executed up to 13,000 Syrians through mass hangings at a military jail north of Damascus over a four-year span as part of the government’s crusade to squash dissent, human rights watchdog Amnesty International reported Tuesday.
The report said that between 5,000 and 13,000 Syrians have been executed extrajudicially in this manner starting in September 2011 and continuing through December 2015.
Other detainees at the Sednaya military facility are killed through systematic torture such as severe beatings and sexual violence. Prisoners additionally have been subjected to the deprivation of food, water, and medical supplies with the intention of dehumanizing the prisoners, according to Amnesty International.
The bodies of those killed are later dumped in mass graves located on military land near Damascus. Amnesty International characterized the killings as an "extermination" of political dissidents that has been authorized by the highest levels of the Syrian government.
The human rights group released a report in August finding that Syrian prisons had claimed the lives of more than 17,000 people dating back to the uprising against President Assad beginning in March 2011. The group believes this is a conservative estimate.
The victims were overwhelmingly civilians accused of opposing the Assad regime, according to the report. While some prisoners held in Sednaya were suspected rebels or soldiers who defected from government forces, the majority were "doctors, engineers, protesters" who were "somehow understood to be linked to the revolution," a former prison official said.
Thousands of people detained in the prison were condemned to death through "trials" lasting one to three minutes where victims "confessed" to their crimes while enduring torture.
The report described the process of weekly mass hangings, where prisoners would be rounded up in their cells in groups of up to 50 people in the middle of the night. Prison officials blindfolded the detainees, crammed them into white trucks known as "meat fridges," and told them they were being transferred to a civilian prison.
Instead, detainees endured severe beatings for hours before being taken into a separate room to be executed.
A former military officer who was held in Saydnaya from 2012 to 2013 described standing on his toilet at night to see the execution process.
"The first time I saw them, I was horrified. They were being brought to the slaughterhouse," he said. "But then I also felt happiness—they were coming to be killed, and I felt happy that their suffering would come to an end … It was a gift to be killed."
Amnesty International said the conditions and executions at Saydnaya are likely still occurring today and constitute crimes against humanity. The group called on the United Nations to investigate the slaughters.
The U.N. is expected to reconvene for Syrian peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 20. The report’s findings will likely be included in discussions.
Amnesty International did not respond to a request for comment.