Though the Syrian regime has denied accusations that it set up a crematorium to dispose of the bodies of detainees who died at Saydnaya military prison, former inmates tell Diyaruna their experience suggests it is guilty as charged.
In mid-May, the US revealed satellite images taken in early 2015 that appear to show the Syrian regime had built a crematorium at Syria's largest prison.
The images showed melting snow on a rooftop and heavy-duty ventilation systems attached to the complex outside Damascus, apparently supporting claims by rights groups that Saydnaya is an execution centre, AFP reported.
"Since 2013, the Syrian regime has modified one of Saydnaya's military prison buildings to contain what is believed to be a crematorium," said US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Stuart Jones.
This might be an "attempt to cover up the mass killings taking place in Saydnaya", he said.
Amnesty International has accused the regime of carrying out a "policy of extermination" at the prison.
The watchdog's report, titled "Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hanging and extermination at Saydnaya prison", details ritual mass hangings between 2011 and 2015.
At least once a week, up to 50 prisoners were taken out of their cells for arbitrary trials, beaten, then hanged "in the middle of the night and in total secrecy", the report said.
According to the watchdog, Jones said, between 5,000 and 11,000 people were killed between 2011 and 2015 in Saydnaya prison alone.
'An entry into hell'
Amnesty's accusations are corroborated by the testimonies of former Lebanese detainees at Saydnaya, Tadmor (Palmyra) and al-Mazzeh prisons, who tell Diyaruna they are not surprised by the accusations levied against the regime.
"Detention in Syria is not a picnic, but rather an entry into hell in the world of the unknown," said Association of Lebanese Detainees in Syrian Prisons member Raymond Sweidan, who was detained for five years in al-Mazzeh prison (1993 to 1998) along with his brother, Michel, for "incitement" against the regime.
"The torture methods are inconceivable by any human being," he said. "The jailers dream up these torture methods in their sleep, including the chain hoist, flying carpet and electric chair."
"Could you picture us being woken up in the middle of the night, and called by our three-part name, and the name of our mothers, then blindfolded with a towel and all taken out together to the execution yard with our hands on our heads as if we were in a Roman coliseum?" he asked.
"I have certainly heard of a crematorium at Saydnaya prison, but what is more important is that politicians inside and outside [Syria] hear about that crematorium," Sweidan said.
'Heinous forms of violence'
The Syrian regime's treatment of prisoners is "extremely cruel and inhumane", said Association of Lebanese Detainees in Syrian Prisons head Ali Abu Dehn.
"Prisoners and detainees are subjected to the most heinous forms of violence," he told Diyaruna, which include "beatings, torture, insults, humiliation and sleep and food deprivation".
"Syrian jailers are merciless monsters who resort to all manners of beatings, killing, torture, blood spilling, starvation and water deprivation," he said.
"The torture starts with the 'tire'," Abu Dehn said. "The prisoner is given 300 lashes on his bare feet. He is then placed in the 'German chair'."
"The seat of the chair is placed on his back and a rod is inserted under his armpits and the chair is tightened [with rope to his back] and then placed in the normal chair position," he said. "This puts him at risk of having his spine broken or his lungs impaired."
In other cases, the prisoner "is made to climb an upright ladder, and the ladder is thrown to the ground, crushing either his knees or his elbows", he said.
Sometimes a detainee is shackled and a cat is placed inside his clothing, causing injury as it scrambles to escape, he added. And sometimes a detainee is hung upside down from a chain hoist, dislocating his wrists.
Detainees hung upside down could "suffer a blood vessel rupture", he said, adding that some prisoners were hung from the ceiling by their hands for long periods of time, causing paralysis in the hands.
Other acts of torture include being force-fed a dead mouse, dead birds or cockroaches, he said, or being forced to drink urine while blindfolded.
Some jailers force prisoners to listen to the voices of children or women crying in order to make them believe their family members are being interrogated and thereby extract a confession, Abu Dahan said.
Despite satellite images, credible reports, the scars borne and stories of torture and death in prison recounted by former inmates, however, the regime has denounced allegations about the crematorium as "completely unfounded".