(New York) - Syrian authorities should make public the fate of prisoners at Sednaya against whom military police used lethal force during unrest in early July 2008, Human Rights Watch said today.
Prison authorities and military police used firearms to quell a riot on July 5 at Sednaya prison, about 30 kilometers north of Damascus. Human Rights Watch obtained the names of nine inmates believed killed in a stand-off that reportedly lasted for many days; Syrian human rights organizations have reported as many as 25 deaths of inmates. But the government has released no statement on the events, or provided families of inmates with any information.
"Syria's long blackout on the fate of at least 1,500 detainees is nothing less than scandalous," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The families of these detainees have an absolute right to know what happened to their loved ones."
Residents of the town of Sednaya reported that cell phone coverage around the prison has remained cut off since the July events. Syrian authorities have prohibited all contact with Sednaya inmates and imposed a complete information blackout about the prison. Residents of the town reported hearing gunshots and seeing smoke emerge from the prison again last month.
On October 10, 17 mothers of Sednaya detainees from the town of Qatana publicly appealed to President Bashar al-Asad to provide information about their sons and to allow the mothers to visit. They issued the appeal after several failed attempts to obtain information from the Ministry of Justice. In their appeal, they noted that they had "learned about the burial of bodies in Qatana at night," and that they were concerned that these may have been the bodies of their children.
One of the mothers told Human Rights Watch that she had received information that five bodies had been secretly buried in Qatana at the request of Syrian security services. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm Sednaya detainees were buried there or even that there had been a burial.
"The lack of information about Sednaya has caused enormous anguish to the families and fuelled fears and rumors," Whitson said. "The Syrian authorities need to come clean and allow families and lawyers access to Sednaya."
In December, Human Rights Watch received worrying reports that deadly force had been used again in Sednaya prison. A resident of the town of Sednaya told Human Rights Watch that on December 6, he had heard gunshots from the prison for 30 minutes, and later saw considerable smoke coming from the middle section of the prison. He said that authorities closed the road from the town to the prison and he saw military trucks driving toward the prison. He said that the situation seemed to have returned to normal the next day.
On December 18, a Syrian human rights activist told Human Rights Watch that he had received information about violence in the prison that day, and that ambulances were sent there, but he did not have further details. A resident from Sednaya confirmed seeing ambulances and fire trucks heading to the prison on December 18.
Another person in Damascus who asked not to be identified told Human Rights Watch that he received new reports of incidents at Sednaya on December 27 and 31, and that a fire on December 31 had destroyed part of a wall of an interior building. Human Rights Watch was unable to independently confirm these reports.
Syrian activists told Human Rights Watch that they received information that many Sednaya prisoners were transferred to Section 2 of the `Adra prison near Damascus (Section 2 is usually reserved for individuals detained by Political Security or sentenced by the State Security Court), and to the detention facilities of other security services, where they were being held separately from other detainees. According to these sources, 400 to 500 detainees from Sednaya were in `Adra while another 1,000 remained in Sednaya but in a separate detention facility.
A relative of one of the Sednaya detainees told Human Rights Watch that a detainee who was released from Sednaya on January 18, 2009 had called to say that their relative in prison was doing well, as were other detainees also arrested for their blogging activity. However, the relative of the detainee and local human rights activists expressed skepticism about the accuracy of this information.
"I am not sure about the information we received," the relative told Human Rights Watch. "The former detainee is probably under a lot of pressure from the security services to say that everyone is fine. I won't believe that my relative is doing well until we are allowed to see him."
Human Rights Watch urged the Syrian government to allow families and lawyers immediate access to the detainees and to open an independent investigation into the events that have taken place in Sednaya prison since the beginning of July.
Sednaya prison is under the control of the military. It is used for pretrial detention (which may last for years) of those held by three separate branches of Syria's security apparatus - Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, and State Security - as well as for people who have been sentenced by the State Security Court, a special court that does not meet international fair trial standards. Human Rights Watch has documented ill-treatment and torture of detainees upon arrival at Sednaya. Estimates of the number of inmates in Sednaya vary: one inmate who finished his sentence in 2007 estimated it to be around 1,500. Syrian human rights groups believe that the number has increased since then.