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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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