BEIRUT – For years, Yasser Khoulani sought news of his brothers Abdelsattar and Majd after they were hustled away by Syria's secret police at demonstrations against President Bashar Assad in 2011.
He knew they were being held at the notorious Saydnaya prison, where inmates are routinely beaten, raped and starved, according to testimony from former guards and inmates collected by rights groups. His mother spent close to $2,000 on a bribe to see one of the brothers behind a glass pane for just three minutes in 2012. The family held out hope that the two of them were alive.
But last week, Khoulani learned from their updated civil registries that Abdelsattar and Majd perished in prison in 2013 without a chance for the family to say goodbye. After years of silence on the issue, the Syrian government has started updating civil registries to reflect deaths among its incarcerated population, activists say.
"You sense all of a sudden that you can no longer dream again," said Khoulani, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from Gaziantep, Turkey, where he is a refugee. "I'd been living on the hope that maybe, one day, (my brothers) would leave prison."
Activists say they have learned of the passing of hundreds of detainees, including leading voices in the popular uprising against Assad, since the government began updating registries earlier this year, and they fear news of hundreds, if not thousands, of more deaths may soon follow.
For many families, it has been the first time they have received news of their loved ones in years.
Four civil registry extracts seen by The Associated Press do not list any cause of death, but human rights groups say the sheer number of reports are further proof of a regime of abuse and mass killings in government prisons — a case investigators are ready to bring to war crimes tribunals if officials are apprehended.
"This could add evidence to what we have already," said Mohammad al-Abdallah, director of the Washington-based Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, which has been compiling testimonies from survivors of the conditions inside Syrian prisons.
The Syrian government has not commented on the recent revelations, and it has previously denied taking political prisoners. And with Assad's forces in a stronger position now than they ever been after seven years of civil war, officials are unlikely to worry about facing trial.
But the question of detainees has been a contentious issue in U.N.-sponsored peace talks that the government hopes will restore its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Many Syrians speculate the government, unable to shake off pressure by U.N. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura to negotiate on detainees, is trying to wash its hands of the matter by issuing death certificates.
"The government wants to say there are no missing persons. They died - let's move on," said al-Abdallah. "It's a Syrian government version of a solution."
Rights groups say Syria's security agencies used arrests and torture to terrorize the population as Arab Spring-styled protests against President Assad and his family's 40-year reign swept through the country in 2011. Anyone participating in the demonstrations, or suspected of sympathizing with the popular movement, was liable to be picked up in the sweeping arrests.
Photos smuggled out of Syrian military hospitals by a defecting officer known only by his alias, Caesar, and disclosed to the public in 2014, showed how more than 11,000 detainees met their fate in various detention centers around the capital, Damascus. The corpses were emaciated and their genitals mutilated. There were burn marks, gashes, and bruising visible across the bodies. Some had their eyes gauged out.
Human Rights Watch said it was evidence of crimes against humanity.
Amnesty International, in interviews with former detainees, doctors and prison guards who defected from Syria, estimated between 5,000 and 13,000 inmates were killed in Saydnaya prison alone between 2011 and 2015.
Activists say hundreds of families have learned of the deaths of their loved ones since word started to spread that the country's security agencies were passing lists of the deceased to municipal registries around the country.
Relatives have been instructed to take registry documents certifying their loved ones' deaths — documentation that is vital for matters of inheritance, title deeds, and social benefits.
The Khoulani family's hometown, Daraya, was informed of the deaths of close to 1,000 of its residents, according to its exiled opposition council, which has been smuggling information out of the country through locals. The council said it expected more names to come.
Daraya, just minutes away from the capital Damascus, was one of the hubs of the 2011 uprising. Government forces, unable to suppress the demonstrations through arrests, surrounded the town, cut off food and water, and bombed it by air. The last holdouts surrendered in 2016 and the government depopulated the town, once home to 300,000 people, thereafter.
The nearby town of Moadamiya was informed of some 400 deaths, according to Dani Qappani, an exiled activist from there.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, some 82,000 Syrians have "disappeared" in government custody, meaning their families have no reliable information about where they are or whether they are still alive.
Families and human rights groups say releasing death certificates is not enough. They say the government needs to release bodies, so that families can know how their loved ones died.
Majd Khoulani, born in 1990, was one of the organizers of the demonstrations that shook Daraya, according to the exiled local council member Shadi Matar. He was arrested in August 2011. His older brother, Abdelsattar, born in 1980, had been arrested three weeks earlier.
Their civil registries state both died on Jan. 15, 2013, the same day as five other activists from Daraya, a pattern that al-Abdallah said suggests a group execution, and not a coincidence.
Two other brothers, Mohammad, born 1977, and Bilal, born 1985, were arrested later that year. Bilal, who survived prison and was released as part of a prisoner swap with rebels, reported to his family that he saw his brother Mohammad tortured to death in front of him in jail. His body later appeared in the photos smuggled out of Syria by Caesar.