Conflict & Justice

Syria allows Red Cross to tour Damascus prison

Syria has for the first time allowed Red Cross (ICRC) representatives to visit its main prison Tuesday and assess the condition and treatment of those detained by the Syrian authorities.

The organization told VOA that delegates visited detainees of the Damascus Central Prison the first time since the uprising started in mid-March. ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini said the access was a significant step forward, however:

"The idea is to be able to visit regularly, to be able to assess the conditions of treatment and detention of detainees, to be able to speak to them in private and to be able to visit other places of detention. So, this is one amongst many places of detention and the ICRC’s ambition is to be able to access all of them.

"Another thing is to be able to speak in private with detainees and those that are held in isolation, those who are held in groups, to be able to discuss with them in private their situation and to understand their needs and any potential problems. So we can then discuss the issue with the detaining authorities in view of seeing an improvement in the shortest delay. And, then we repeat visits to make sure improvements have taken place."  

According to human rights activists, Syria has arrested tens of thousands of people since protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began, a follow-on from uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

However, Mardini said information about the total number of prisoners and the number of places of detention in Syria was confidential. ICRC delegates were only allowed to share their findings from visits with the Syrian authorities, she added.

Detainees include women and minors, and activists have told the New York Times that "the majority of political prisoners are held in secret detention centers, off limits to Red Cross officials."

There are allegations of torture and killings of political detainees. 

Meanwhile, Syrian security forces have reportedly intensified attacks on dissenters, targeting the central cities of Hama and Homs on Monday — the same day as the visit by Red Cross president Jakob Kellenberger to the Damascus prison.

The LA Times quoted locals and activists as saying that towns on the Turkish border, including Jisr al Shoughour and Yaladagh, had also been targeted, with troops "chasing defectors all the way down to the border with Turkey, shooting them in the upper parts of their bodies so that they are not able to escape," according to a farmer named Moustafa in Idleb province.

"The situation along the border is deplorable. I wonder why security officials believe they can act with such impunity even if it may infringe on other neighboring countries," said Oday Assayed, a member and spokesperson of the Local Coordination Committees in the Syria-Turkey border cities, including Idleb.

The paper cited an activist in Homs, Majed, as saying: "A barbaric assault on the city has been going on for two days straight. They raid houses and take anyone who is even remotely related to the protests."

CNN, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reports that security forces killed six people in Homs on Monday.