By Lauren Mellinger
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
DAMASCUS, Syria – On January 27, Human Rights Watch released a statement reporting that the status of inmates at Sidnaya military prison is still unknown. The prison has been at the center of controversy since July 2008, after prison guards were accused of using lethal force in order to put down a prison riot.
At least 1,500 inmates are imprisoned in Sidnaya, located northwest of Damascus. Syrian authorities maintain that prison guards “quickly restored” order after the riot began, and publicly blame Sidnaya inmates convicted on charges of terrorism and religious extremism for instigating the riot. According to Syrian human rights organizations reports, at least 25 inmates have died as a result of the prison guards use of lethal force in quelling the riots, although HRW reports indicate that ten people died in the riot, including one police officer.
In October 2008, after several attempts to obtain an update on the status of the prisoners from the Ministry of Justice failed to produce any information, 17 mothers of prisoners detained in Sidnaya publicly appealed to the Syrian government, in particular to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. They urged the government to provide them with information on family members detained at the prison. According to the statement released by the mothers, they were aware of “the burial of bodies in [the town of] Qatana at night,” on the order of the Syrian security services and they were concerned their relatives may have been among the dead.
Since July, the fate of the inmates has been unknown, as government authorities have prohibited any outside contact with the prisoners, “imposing a complete information blackout,” including banning the use of cell phones around the perimeter of the prison.
On December 18, residents of the town of Sidnaya reported seeking smoke emerge from the prison and the sound of gunshots. One resident reported to HRW that after smoke was seen emerging from the prison, Syrian authorities closed the road leading from the town to the prison in order to accommodate military trucks en route to the prison but that the road was reopened the following day.
According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director at HRW, “Syria’s long blackout on the fate of at least 1,500 detainees is nothing less than scandalous…The lack of information about Sidnaya has caused enormous anguish to the families and fueled fears and rumors…The Syrian authorities need to come clean and allow families and lawyers access to Sidnaya.”
HRW urged the Syrian government to reveal the status of the inmates, and to begin an allow lawyers to begin an independent investigation into the fate of prisoners who were injured or killed as a result of lethal force used by prison guards in the July riot.
For more information, please see:
Human Rights Watch – Syria: Reveal Inmates’ Conditions – 27 January 2009
Reuters – Reports of More Trouble at Syria Jail-Rights Group – 27 January 2009
Taiwan News – HRW: Syria Must Speak Out on Prison Riot Victims – 27 January 2009