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UN probe accuses Damascus of 'extermination' of detainees

2 min 12Approximate reading time

UN investigators on Monday accused Damascus of "extermination" in its jails and detention centres, saying prisoners were executed, tortured to death or held in such horrific conditions that they perished.

Over the past four and a half years, thousands of detainees have been killed while being held by different sides in Syria's brutal conflict, the UN commission of inquiry on Syria said in its latest report.

The report painted a stark picture of prisons and detention centres run by the Syrian authorities.

"The mass scale of deaths of detainees suggests that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination as a crime against humanity," commission head Paulo Pinheiro told reporters.

The Syrian government was also guilty of committing a range of other war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, torture and forced disappearance, the commission said.

Pinheiro described how people held in governmental detention centres were "subjected to violations on a mass scale," pointing out that "prisoners are routinely tortured and beaten, forced to live in unsanitary and overcrowded cells, (and) with little food and no medical care many perish."

The report, which stretches back to the beginning of the conflict in March 2011 and through last November, is based on 621 interviews, including with more than 200 former detainees who witnessed one or more deaths in custody.

"Nearly every surviving detainee has emerged from custody having suffered unimaginable abuses," Pinheiro said.

The survivors had detailed how their cellmates were beaten to death during interrogation or in their cell, left to die of severe injuries sustained from torture or from unattended medical conditions, the report said.


Others died from the "inhuman living conditions", including severely overcrowded and unhygenic cells and lacking food and clean water, with many prisoners for instance forced to use their toilet as a source of drinking water.

While most of the detainees who are known to have died are men, women and children as young as seven have also perished while detained by the Syrian authorities, the report said.

Abuse, squalid conditions and a "high frequency" of deaths were consistent across places of detention and over time, and must have been condoned up the chain of command, it said.

"There are reasonable grounds to believe that high-ranking officers -- including the heads of branches and directorates -- commanding these detention facilities, those in charge of the military police, as well as their civilian superiors, knew of the vast number of deaths occurring in detention facilities," it said.

"Yet (they) did not take action to prevent abuse, investigate allegations or prosecute those responsible."

Damascus is meanwhile not the only one abusing and killing detainees.

The report detailed horrific abuses carried out in makeshift detention centres run by the Islamic State group, including massacres and executions of children.

The group, notorious for its brutal public executions by beheadings and throwing people off high buildings, has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, the report said.

The report also addressed the abuse and killing of detainees by other armed opposition groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which it accused of war crimes for torturing and summarily executing mainly captured government soldiers.

Decrying the atmosphere of "total impunity" reigning in Syria, commission member Carla del Ponte slammed the UN Security Council for "doing nothing".

The commission, which has repeatedly called on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, also called Monday for "targeted sanctions" against the people, agencies and groups suspected of being behind the violations.

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