Amnesty International Incorrectly Suggests Syria Executed 80,000 in 1980s
Could the Syrian regime have executed 78,000 political opponents in the 1980s?
Amnesty International's new report on Syria says as much. It quotes former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas to this effect.
Here is the exact quote from Amnesty:
In an interview published in August, former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas claimed that he had authorized the hanging of 150 political opponents a week throughout the 1980s and that he had signed execution orders for thousands of detainees whose families were not notified.The problem is this is a misquote. I went into a tizzy when I read this because I had just written an article giving Syria credit for killing, or causing the deaths, of fewer of its subjects than neighboring states since 1970, except Jordan.
If Amnesty International was quoting Tlas correctly, it would mean that he signed the execution orders for 7,821 a year or more than78,000 over the decade.
This turns out to be a misquote. The actual interview, written up by Susanne Koelbl, a leading correspondent for Der Spiegel, to whom I spoke on several occasions last year, says this:
Tlass no longer knows exactly how many death sentences he has signed personally, and he speaks quietly as he explains why these horrific acts were unavoidable, even the many who died by hanging. At times in the 1980s, he says, 150 death sentences a week were carried out by hanging in Damascus alone. "We used weapons to assume power, and we wanted to hold onto it. Anyone who wants power will have to take it from us with weapons," says the general, smiling.Koelbl, who gets the money quote here, catches Tlass revealing the brutal face of the regime. But this does not add up to 78,000 dead over the 1980s. It does add up to thousands, but how many exactly, we still don't know.
Riad al-Turk explained to me last year that some 15,000 or so prisoners from the 1980s are still not accounted for. I asked him if they had been killed. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "We don't know." He said that the number of deaths at Hama were likely 15 to 20 thousand, although the Muslim Brothers claimed they were 48,000.
The regime's nastiness in the 1980s was unprecedented in modern Syrian history - that is known. All the same, Amnesty International, which does a wonderful service for us all, should quote properly. When Koelbl writes, "At times in the 1980s, he says, 150 death sentences a week were carried out," she is not quoting Tlass verbatim and does not use quotation marks. Tlass may not have actually said "at times in the 1980s”; he may have said, "at one point" or "there were times..." The point is that this is all very vague, as Koelbl makes clear by beginning her paragraph with the proviso that "Tlass no longer knows exactly how many death sentences he has signed personally."
When Amnesty revises Koelbl's account of Tlass' words to be: "former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas claimed that he had authorized the hanging of 150 political opponents a week throughout the 1980s," this is not what Koelbl reported. The difference could be 60,000 dead.
The lesson from all this confusion is that Syria should come clean on the number of people it has executed and give some account to the victims' families.