Syria says 24 executed for starting wildfires

Justice ministry says those executed were ‘criminals’ responsible for the deaths and damage to infrastructure and public property.

Army soldiers help firefighters to contain wildfires in Latakia province, October 9, 2020 [File: SANA handout via Reuters]

Syria has executed 24 people after charging them with igniting wildfires last year that left three people dead and burned thousands of hectares (acres) of forests, the justice ministry said.

Although executions are common in war-torn Syria, the number of those put to death on Wednesday was larger than usual.

Those executed were charged with “committing terrorist acts that led to death and damage to state infrastructure and public and private property through the use of flammable material”, the justice ministry said in a statement carried by state media on Thursday.

Eleven others were sentenced to hard labour for life, four to temporary penal labour and five minors were handed jail sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years for similar charges, it added.

Their identities were not disclosed, and no details were provided on where and how the executions took place.

The suspects, the ministry said, were identified late last year in an interior ministry probe into wildfires in the provinces of Latakia, Tartus and Homs.

“They confessed that they had started fires at several locations in the three provinces and they also confessed to convening meetings to plan the fires” that occurred intermittently in September and October 2020, according to the justice ministry.

It said it documented 187 fires affecting 280 towns and villages last year.

They devastated 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of agricultural land and 11,000 hectares of forest land, while also damaging more than 370 homes, the justice ministry said.

President Bashar al-Assad’s hometown of Qardaha in Latakia province was hard hit by the fires, which heavily damaged a building used as storage for the state-owned tobacco company, part of which collapsed.

Al-Assad made a rare visit to the region shortly after the fire was brought under control.

 

Syria Researcher at Human Rights Watch Sara Kayyali told Al Jazeera that the news of the 24 executions was “shocking”.

“What we know from the counterterrorism courts from the cases that we’ve seen in the past is that there is no due process afforded for anyone who is accused of an act of terrorism – no right to a defence and no lawyer” Kayyali said.

“This action by the Syrian government really signals how far we have to go to reform the system before any Syrian is safe.”

Syrian law still provides for the death penalty for offences including terrorism, arson and army desertion, according to rights group Amnesty International.

In its latest death penalty report published this year, Amnesty said it was able to corroborate information indicating that executions took place in Syria in 2020 but said it did not have sufficient information to give a reliable minimum figure.

The death penalty is usually carried out by hanging in Syria.

Syria Researcher at Amnesty International Diana Semaan told Al Jazeera that confessions are “routinely extracted under torture or other ill-treatment and duress”.

Syria’s decade-old conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced half the country’s population, including five million refugees outside the country.

Kareem Chehayeb contributed to this report from Beirut.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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