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Amnesty Report: Syrian Government Secretly Executing Thousands Of Prisoners

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – The Syrian government executed up to 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings and carried out systematic torture at a military jail near Damascus, rights watchdog Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

The Syrian Justice Ministry denied the Amnesty report, calling it completely “devoid of truth,” Syrian state news agency SANA reported late on Tuesday.

Amnesty said the executions took place between 2011 and 2015, but were probably still being carried out and amounted to war crimes. It called for a further investigation by the United Nations, which produced a report last year with similar accusations also based on extensive witness testimonies.

Syria’s government and President Bashar al-Assad have rejected similar reports in the past of torture and extrajudicial killings in a war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

The Amnesty report said an average of 20-50 people were hanged each week at the Sednaya military prison north of Damascus. Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Sednaya in the four years after a popular uprising descended into war, it said.

“The victims are overwhelmingly civilians who are thought to oppose the government,” the report said.

“Many other detainees at Sednaya Military Prison have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and systematically deprived of food, water, medicine and medical care.”

The prisoners, who included former military personnel suspected of disloyalty and people involved in unrest, underwent sham trials before military courts and were sometimes forced to make confessions under torture, Amnesty said.

SANA quoted the justice ministry as saying Amnesty’s accusations were not based on real evidence but rather on “personal emotions aimed at achieving known political goals”.

The ministry also accused rebel groups fighting to unseat Assad of executing and kidnapping civilians, SANA said.

The justice ministry described the report as an attempt at “harming Syria’s reputation on the international stage especially after the victories of the Syrian army”.

The army and allied forces drove rebel groups out of Aleppo city in December, in Assad’s most important gain of the nearly six-year-old war.

SECRECY

The executions were carried out secretly and those killed were buried in mass graves outside the capital, with families not informed of their fate, Amnesty said.

The report was based on interviews with 84 witnesses including former guards and officials, detainees, judges, and lawyers, as well as experts.

It followed a report issued a year ago by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, whose war crimes investigators said they had documented a high number of deaths in Sednaya military prison.

“Amnesty’s findings are almost completely in-line with our ‘Death in Detention’ paper,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. panel, told Reuters.

“We mentioned the executions in Sednaya and have extensive details on the systematic details of the regular ceremonies they have to conduct hangings in front of an audience of public officials. It is one of the clearest instances of a systematic practice that we had and based some of the key findings upon.”

The foreign ministers of Britain and France decried Amnesty’s findings. Britain’s Boris Johnson tweeted: “Sickened by reports from Amnesty International on executions in Syria. Assad responsible for so many deaths and has no future as leader.”

“@Amnesty has documented the horror in the prisons of the Syrian regime. This barbarity cannot be the future of Syria,” said France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has visited selected government-run detention facilities since 2011, but its confidential findings are only shared with Syrian authorities.

“We only visit central prisons, which are under the Ministry of Interior,” ICRC spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said.

The ICRC has systematically requested “access to all detainees arrested by all parties to the conflict”, she added.

(Reporting by John Davison in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; editing by Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis)

IMAGE: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with NBC News in this handout picture provided by SANA on July 14, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

New Amnesty Report: Increase In Executions Worldwide, Decrease In Countries With Death Penalty

Amnesty International released its 2015 report on the global state of the death penalty and executions on Wednesday morning in London. The year was marked by an unprecedented increase in executions, but also by an smaller number of countries pursuing the death penalty.

Despite the 54 percent spike in executions versus 2014, the majority of executions took place in three countries, excluding China: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Those countries not only lead the world in executions, but also experienced large respective increases in executions: Iran by 31 percent, resulting in 977 executions during 2015; Saudi Arabia by 76 percent, with 158 executions last year; and Pakistan, whose government had imposed a moratorium on the death penalty since 2008, but reinstated it following the December 2014 Peshawar school attack that left 132 children dead. Since lifting the ban, the country has executed 326 people.

The report noted that the death penalty was often used to get rid of political opponents, rather than as a tool of justice.

In almost all regions of the world, the death penalty continued to be used as a tool by governments to respond to real or perceived threats to state security and public safety posed by “terrorism”, crime or political instability, despite the lack of evidence that the death penalty is any more of a deterrent to violent crime than a term of imprisonment.

The report also singled out United States for being the only country in the Americas to continue to use the death penalty over the past seven years. Amnesty also expressed concern over the execution of people with mental or intellectual disabilities. In many cases, the report said, the U.S. continued to “use the death penalty in ways that contravene international law and standards.” Nevertheless, only 28 executions were carried out last year, compared to 35 in 2014.

The report noticeably excluded China. Since 2009, the organization hasn’t printed China’s execution statistics, due to a lack of transparency from the Chinese government. While it’s estimated that more than 1,000 people were executed in China in 2015, the numbers could not be verified because statistics on executions are a state secret.

Despite the increase in executions globally, Amnesty said 2015 had more countries abolish the death penalty than ever before. In its report, it noted:

When Amnesty International began campaigning for abolition in 1977, only 16 countries had fully abolished the death penalty. Today the majority of the world’s countries are fully abolitionist, and dozens more have not implemented death sentences for more than a decade, or have given clear indications that they are moving towards full abolition. The starkly opposing developments that mark 2015 underscore the extent to which the countries that use the death penalty are becoming the isolated minority.

Photo: The “death house” at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. Photo: Caroline Groussain via AFP

Rights Groups Chide Honduras Inquiry Into Activist Murder

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations on Tuesday criticized the official investigation into the murder of an environmental rights activist in Honduras, urging foreign experts to intervene.

Five days after Berta Caceres was shot and killed in her home, the police have not presented an official hypothesis and are still considering labeling the murder a common crime, to the consternation of family and friends who believe the death was tied to her fight against large-scale hydroelectric plants and mines.

“Amnesty International demands that this investigation be done with the help of independent forensic experts and with an international commission that will guarantee its impartiality,” Erika Guevara, Amnesty’s Americas director, said at a press conference with other local NGOs.

Caceres, who had received death threats, won the Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her struggle to prevent the construction of a $50 million dam that threatened to displace hundreds of indigenous people.

“We don’t have confidence in the government’s investigations and its security forces,” Olivia Zuniga, Caceres’s daughter, told Reuters. “They were the (same) officials that awarded the concession for the dam that my mother fought against.”

The police have released the only suspect arrested after the murder, Caceres’s former partner and colleague, a police source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

 

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Photo: Activists hold photos of slain environmental rights activist Berta Caceres after her body was released from the morgue in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

Cuba Diplomacy: Behind Right-Wing Outrage, An Intellectual Void

Listen carefully to the Republican leaders and presidential hopefuls roaring with outrage over President Obama’s courageous decision to normalize relations with Cuba; listen very carefully, because no matter how long or how closely you listen to them, there is one thing you will surely never hear.

You will never hear a new idea – or any plausible idea – about bringing liberty, democracy, and prosperity to the suffering Cuban people.

Instead, the furious denunciations of the president’s initiative from his adversaries reveal only an intellectual void on Capitol Hill, where the imperatives remain partisan and cynical. Everyone paying attention has known for decades that the frozen relationship between the United States and Cuba has accomplished nothing – except possibly the prolongation of the Castro regime, which has long considered the embargo a plausible excuse for its own economic failures – and viewed the United States as a politically convenient enemy.

Anyone who has visited the island knows that the Cubans wish nothing more than to see the embargo lifted, because they know it has done nothing to advance their liberty or prosperity – just the opposite.

As former president Bill Clinton likes to say, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. (He wanted to normalize relations as president, but the Cuban government clearly didn’t.) The U.S. government has been doing the same thing in Cuba for 54 years, yet the Republicans still don’t think that was long enough. They haven’t explained how or why – or when – their policy will achieve a different result.

Opponents of change have also failed to justify why treating Cuba so differently from other – and in various respects, worse – authoritarian regimes with which we maintain not only vigorous diplomatic relations but massive trading partnerships and even military cooperation. The conduct of those governments is arguably more repressive in important respects; there is, for instance, less religious freedom in China or Saudi Arabia than Pope Francis found in Cuba.

To browse human rights findings from the State Department’s annual reports or the online files maintained by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International is to find at least a dozen countries with atrocious human rights records, from Chad to Turkmenistan. But the United States maintains diplomatic and trade relations with all of them.

Indeed, Republican leaders and businessmen – notably including members of the Bush family – have profited handsomely from investment in countries like China and Saudi Arabia for many years, with scarcely a peep about human rights violations in those places. It is impossible to forget how the first President Bush toasted the Chinese regime, immediately following the massacre in Tiananmen Square – and how his opportunistic family members showed up in Beijing and Shanghai, looking for a deal.

With the liberation of more than 50 political prisoners – along with USAID worker Allen Gross and an unnamed American spy – the Cubans have suddenly improved their human rights performance, while the Chinese continue to inflict horrendous repression and even torture on Tibetans, Uighurs, and Han Chinese who dare to dissent. (Many of our leading Republicans don’t object to torture, of course, unless it is perpetrated in foreign countries. Sometimes.)

House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of making “another mindless concession to a dictatorship.” What seems entirely mindless, however, is his insistence that we dare not abandon an unworkable and destructive strategy. No boycott observed and enforced by one country alone – even a powerful country like the United States – is ever going to prevail.

That is among the reasons why international human rights organizations, always the most consistent and implacable critics of Castro’s abuses, have long advocated engagement rather than embargo. As Human Rights Watch notes on web pages devoted to detailing those abuses, U.S. policy has imposed “indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people” since 1961, “and has done nothing to improve the country’s human rights.”

Not long after the president concluded his historic speech – among the most lucid, logical, and inspiring he has delivered in his second term – a spokeswoman for Amnesty International called his new approach “the best opportunity in half [a] century for human rights change in Cuba.”

Designed to quarantine the Cuban government, the policy that failed for five decades has only succeeded in isolating the United States from the rest of the world. Its end is long overdue.