BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government has executed 24 people and sentenced 11 others to life in prison with hard labor for lighting wildfires that burned across the country’s northwest last year, the Syrian justice ministry announced in a statement on Facebook on Thursday.
The people convicted were accused not of arson but of terrorism, the government said, because their actions caused death, as well as extensive damage to infrastructure, private and public property, farmland and forests.
The harshness of the sentences, which were imposed on Wednesday, shocked even human rights campaigners who have tracked the brutality of the country’s 10-year civil war. During that time, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has bombed Syria’s own cities, imposed suffocating sieges on rebellious communities and disappeared an unknown number of people into its prisons.
“The idea that 24 people were executed in relation to wildfires just smacks of the farce that Bashar al-Assad has made of the justice system over the last decade,” said Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher with Human Rights Watch.
She noted that the fires were centered in parts of the country’s northwest that are generally loyal to Mr. al-Assad, and where residents have some leeway to criticize the state. As the blazes raged through their communities last fall, destroying homes, crops and forests, many took to social media to blast the government for failing to rein in the fires and for offering only minimal compensation to their victims.
The executions might have been intended to show loyalists in these areas that Mr. al-Assad was taking the issue seriously, Ms. Kayyali said. “This strikes me as a move designed to shore up Assad’s popularity and the government’s popularity in these areas,” she said.
The executions were not, however, likely to help Mr. al-Assad’s efforts to diminish his status as an international pariah.
In recent months, he has been re-establishing ties with his neighbors, many of whom are resigned to the failure of an uprising that sought to oust the Syrian leader, but instead led to civil war.
Mr. al-Assad recently spoke by phone with King Abdullah II of Jordan, one of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East, for the first time in 10 years. And on Thursday, he spoke with another close American partner, Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, about how to increase cooperation between their “brotherly countries,” according to the Emirati state news agency.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, did not report on the executions, but published an article about the fires. Its headline: “One year after the crime that broke the hearts of Syrians.”
It said the fires had burned parts of four provinces, destroyed 32,000 acres of crops, including olive and citrus orchards, and caused nearly $24 million in losses to farmers. It also damaged more than 370 homes.
The Justice Ministry statement did not name the people convicted or provide any information about how or where they were executed. But it said they had held planning meetings and continued to light fires with flammable substances over a few months.
In addition to those executed or given life sentences, nine others, including five adolescents, were given prison sentences, the statement said. The adolescents received between 10 and 12 years.
According to Amnesty International, China had the highest number of reported executions in 2020, while the next four countries on the list were all in the Middle East: Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Syria does not appear in such rankings because of the opacity of its penal system. Executions are rarely announced, and many happen in prisons after little or no legal process, rights groups say. Often, even relatives of those who are executed are not informed.
Ms. Kayyali said the use of the terrorism law in the wildfire cases was deeply problematic. Such cases, she said, are heard in a special counterterrorism court, whereconfessions are often coerced, the accused are not allowed proper legal representation and many suspects are punished for opposing the government.
“We have seen the counterterrorism law and this court be used to stifle dissent, to send hundreds of people to their deaths,” Ms. Kayyali said. “So the idea that this was referenced in relation to these executions is an immediate red flag.”