Syria Justice and Accountability Centre: Recent Prisoner Release Fails to Build Trust Among Syrians

April 6, 2015


Photo Credit: Middle East Monitor


In late March, Russia facilitated the release of nearly 700 prisoners held by the Assad regime. While Russia’s Foreign Ministry lauded the decision as a confidence building measure designed to demonstrate Assad’s willingness to begin negotiating a political solution, the arbitrary nature of the prisoner release illustrated the serious rule of law concerns that plague detention conditions in Syria.

Principally, the prisoner releases lacked transparency, information on the detainees’ original charges, and details on the legal justification for their amnesty. Instead, the prisoners were used as political ploys by Assad to garner international support while ignoring the many problems plaguing Syrians — particularly the more than 60,900political prisoners who remain in government custody under inhumane conditions.

According to Syrian law, the government can order the release of prisoners through either parliamentary action or presidential decree. In both situations, information about the decision must be disclosed. However, no such procedure was followed in this case, and as a result, Syrians on both sides of the conflict regard the regime’s decision with suspicion. For regime supporters, the prisoner release was baseless because the government failed to provide grounds for why the prisoners were no longer a threat to society.

For regime opponents, there seemed to be little justification for why these prisoners were released while many prominent human rights activists remain in detention, leading to speculation that the released prisoners were nothing more than petty criminals.

Syrian Human Rights Lawyer Michaal Shammas’ comments on the matter:

michaal shammas copy

The prisoner release came as a surprise and without prior notification — it appears that most of those freed are regular civilians and not [political] activists. Maybe — and I repeat, maybe — the prisoner release is related to the upcoming Moscow II conference. All of those freed were released from security branches…none were released by the Terrorism Court, nor from civilian or military prisons. Until now, we have been unable to obtain the names of those freed; in the event we do acquire that information, we will post their names on my personal facebook page.

The military’s actions shortly after the release also cast a shadow over the government’s sincerity. Before retreating from a rebel advance on Idlib, military intelligence officials arbitrarily executed at least 15 prisoners who had been held at the Idlib detention facility. The executions were a gross violation of international criminal and human rights law and signals that the regime does not intend to sincerely pursue reconciliation.

In principle the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre welcomes the release of prisoners as an important component of the transitional justice process, but cautions that such decisions must be transparent and not arbitrary. In Northern Ireland, where prisoner releases were central to the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement providedspecific guidelines on the individuals eligible as well as the justification and conditions of the releases. The provisions explained to society what they could expect, an essential component of citizen buy-in to the reconciliation process. Unless similar protocols are followed for future prisoner releases in Syria, such actions will continue to be viewed with derision by the vast majority of Syrians and fail to fulfill Syria’s need for principled and open justice processes.

A corresponding duty of the Syrian regime is to address ongoing human rights concerns vis-a-vis detentions, including the situation of the tens of thousands not released. The regime is obligated to prosecute detainees still awaiting trial in a fair and timely manner, and release all prisoners held without charge as well as those who have completed their sentences.

Basic human rights principles also require that the regime make information regarding the number of detainees and their status publically available, and allow families, lawyers, and international monitoring groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit detainees and monitor prison conditions.

Finally, confidence building is a fantasy as long as the Assad regime refuses to respond officially to allegations of torture, such as those explicitly documented in the Caesar report, and detail methods of holding officials accused of committing torture accountable.

Johns Hopkins Sued For $1B Over STD Experiment In Guatemala

By Lyndsey Kelly
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON D.C., United States of America – A lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court seeks $1 billion in damages from defendant Johns Hopkins University for its alleged role in the deliberate infection of hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), during a government medical experiment program in the 1940s and 1950s.

Marta Orellana was experiments on when she was just a child (Photo Courtesy of The Guardian).

The lawsuit, which also names the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, alleges that both institutions helped design, support, and finance the experiments by employing scientists and physicians. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, researchers initially infected Guatemalan sex workers in order to research the spread of STDs and then ascertain if penicillin could prevent the diseases. Later the experiment extended to orphans, prisoners and mental health patients.

The experiments were kept secret until they were discovered in 2010 by a college professor, Susan Reverby. The then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton apologized for the program after a presidential bioethics commissions found the experiments “involved unconscionable basic violations of ethics.” Ultimately, the program published no findings and did not inform the Guatemalans of the consequences of the infection, and they were also not provided with the necessary follow up medical care to inform them of ways to prevent the infections from spreading.

A federal lawsuit for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act failed in 2012 after a judge determined that the United States Government could not be held liable for actions outside the United States. Lawyers for the victims believe that the new lawsuit stands a a greater chance for success as it is against private entities.


For more information, please see the following:

AL JAZEERA – Johns Hopkins Sued Over STD Study in Guatemala – 1 April 2015.

FOX NEWS – Johns Hopkins Sued For $1B Over Guatemala Venereal Disease Study – 3 April 2015.

THE GUARDIAN – Guatemalans Deliberately Infected With STDs Sue Johns Hopkins University for $1bn – 2 April 2015.

WASHINGTON POST – Johns Hopkins Faces $1 Billion Lawsuit For Role In STD Study in Guatemala – 1 April 2015.

Assad: “When it Bleeds it Leads;” Syrian Dictator Accuses Media of Engaging in Propaganda

By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch, Managing editor

DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrian’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has been engaged in a brutal civil war in Syria since 2011, sat down with CBS News journalist Charlie Rose for a 60 Minutes interview last week. During the interview Assad dismissed charges that his regime has used chlorine gas against his own people and has systematic used indiscriminate barrel bombs against civilian targets as media propaganda. Assad argued that claims that his regime has committed war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians, is part of the malicious propaganda against Syria.”

Charlie Rose of CBS’ 60 Minutes, interviews Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Damascus, Syria. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Times)

Assad accused the media of participating in “malicious Propaganda” against his regime. He argued that calls for chemical weapons inspectors and accusing that his regime used chemical weapons against the Syrian people were “part of the propaganda because, as you know, in the media when it bleeds it leads. And they always look for something that bleeds, which is the chlorine gas and the barrel bombs.” He also argued “chlorine gas is not military gas” because “you can buy it anywhere” he also argued that Chlorine gas is ineffective and said that if it were more effective as a weapon “the terrorists” would have used it on a larger scale.

While Charlie Rose addressed several alleged atrocities committed by the Assad regime during the interview some journalists criticized 60 Minutes for allowing the interview to move forward, arguing that it simply gives a mouthpiece and a degree of legitimacy to an alleged war criminal. The interview was given under the condition that it be filled by Iranian television cameramen leaving the regime with a great deal of control of the interview.

Despite Assad’s continued denial that chemical weapons have been used by his regime the international community has little uncertainty about the source of the attacks. Last month, The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning, in the highest terms, the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in Syria. The Council also signaled it would take Chapter IV action if such weapons were used again in Syria. Resolution 2209 (2015) was adopted with a vote of 14 in favor, zero against, and only one abstention (Venezuela). The Council adopted the resolution expressing deep concern that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon in Syria, as concluded with a “high degree of confidence” by the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission in Syria.  Syria’s Civil war has killed more than 200,000 people and has created more than 4 million refugees.

For more information please see:

The Washington Times – Assad Interview Just Latest Case of Malfeasance for ‘60 Minutes’ – 1 April 2015

CBS News – Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on 60 Minutes – 29 March 2015

CBS News – Assad: Chlorine Gas, Barrel Bomb Claims “Propaganda” – 27 March 2015

United Nations Press Release – Adopting Resolution 2209 (2015), Security Council Condemns Use of Chlorine Gas as Weapon in Syria – 6 March 2015