A human rights group said Tuesday it believed that at least 88 people, ten of them children, have died in detention in Syria during five months of anti-government protests _ a dramatic increase that coincides with the government's bloody crackdown.
Some of the victims were as young as 13, Amnesty International said. It said that in recent years the annual number of deaths behind Syrian bars has been about five.
"These deaths behind bars are reaching massive proportions, and appear to be an extension of the same brutal disdain for life that we are seeing daily on the streets of Syria," said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International's researcher on Syria.
Sammonds also said the group had heard accounts of horrific torture. "We believe the Syrian government to be systematically persecuting its own people on a vast scale," he said.
The victims, all men or boys, were arrested after mass protests began in March. All the victims are believed to have been detained because they were suspected of being involved in the protests, Amnesty said in a report.
In at least 52 of the cases there was evidence that torture or ill-treatment caused or contributed to the deaths, the report said.
The group said it had seen video clips relating to 45 of the cases, and had asked independent forensic pathologists to review a number of them. It said injuries on many of the bodies indicate the victims may have suffered beatings, burns, whippings, slashings and stabbings.
The report cited the case of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old who disappeared April 29 during protests against the siege of Dera'a, and was later found dead with apparent blunt force injuries and a severed penis. Most of the cases in the report occurred in the Homs and Dera'a governorates, which have seen major protests.
Deaths in detention have also been reported in five other governorates _ Damascus and Rif Damashq, Idlib, Hama and Aleppo, Amnesty said.
It also cited the case of a doctor from Aleppo, whose body _ discovered by the side of a road a few days after his arrest _ had broken ribs, arms and fingers, as well as gouged eyes and mutilated genitals.
Amnesty International has called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, to impose an arms embargo on Syria and to freeze the assets of President Bashar Assad and his senior officials.
"Taken in the context of the widespread and systematic violations taking place in Syria, we believe that these deaths in custody may include crimes against humanity," Sammonds said.
Amnesty International says it has compiled the names of more than 1,800 people reported to have died since pro-reform protests began. Thousands of others have been arrested, with many held incommunicado at unknown locations, according to the group.
Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin