(New York) - Syrian authorities should immediately make public the fate of all detainees at Sednaya prison, at least nine of whom are believed to have been killed when military police used lethal force during unrest in the prison last July, Human Rights Watch said today. Syria should also free those who have finished serving their sentences, Human Rights Watch said.
The government has not provided the families of detainees or the public with any information regarding the events at Sednaya or the names of those injured or killed, and it has prevented any contact between the prisoners in Sednaya and their families since that incident. Human Rights Watch urged foreign diplomats visiting Damascus to ask President Bashar al-Asad about the inmates' fate.
"A whole year has passed, and yet no one knows what has happened to these people," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Syrian government should end the anguish of the prisoners' families, disclose the names of those injured or killed, and immediately grant them access to their loved ones."
Prison authorities and military police used firearms to quell a riot that began on July 5, 2008 at Sednaya prison, about 30 kilometers north of Damascus. Human Rights Watch obtained the names of nine inmates who are believed to have been killed in a standoff between the prisoners and authorities that reportedly lasted for many days. Syrian human rights organizations have reported that the number of inmates who were killed may be as high as 25. One member of the military police was also confirmed dead.
The government has not released any information about the action its forces took against the prisoners or any investigation it may have begun about the violence at the prison. However, the government has imposed a communication ban on the prisoners, who have not been able to contact their family members since the violent episode a year ago.
Since that time, the Syrian authorities also have refused to release prisoners from Sednaya who have finished serving their sentences. Human Rights Watch has obtained the names of at least 25 prisoners who have completed their sentences since the deadly attack but who apparently remain imprisoned. They include Nizar Rastanawi, a prominent human rights activist whom the State Security Court had sentenced to a four-year term on charges of "spreading false news" and "insulting the President of the Republic" after a member of the security services testified that he overheard a conversation Rastanawi was having. Rastanawi completed his sentence on April 18, 2009, but the government has not released him. His family has been unable to obtain any information about him and is extremely concerned for his safety.
Families of detainees in Sednaya have issued at least two appeals to President Bashar al-Asad for information, but received no answer. On October 10, 2008, 17 mothers of Sednaya detainees from the town of Qatana publicly appealed to the president to provide information about their sons and to allow them to visit, 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.
In May 2009, the families of seven young inmates whom the state security court sentenced to prison terms in 2007 for developing an online youth discussion group and publishing articles critical of the Syrian authorities also sent a letter to the Syrian president but received no answer.
"Ignoring these pleas for basic information is cruel and inhumane," said Whitson. "Not only does President al-Asad fail to show respect for the rights of Syrian citizens, he fails to show mercy to Syrian mothers and fathers trapped in a nightmare of mystery about the fate of their children."
A brother of a detainee held in Sednaya since January 2007, who asked that his name be withheld for fear that it would cause harm to his brother, expressed his pain and frustration to Human Rights Watch: "There is no information whatsoever. My brother was on trial at the State Security Court, but we have not heard anything since the events in Sednaya. We want to know what happened to him. Is he still alive or dead? My father keeps asking me to go inquire about my brother. But who do I turn to?"
Sednaya prison is under the control of Syrian military forces. The government holds pretrial detainees there, sometimes for years, under the jurisdiction of three separate branches of Syria's security apparatus - Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, and State Security. The prison is also used for people 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.
Since the riot in July 2008, there have been other reports of violence at the prison. In December 2008, Human Rights Watch received reports that prison guards had used deadly force there again. A resident of the town of Sednaya told Human Rights Watch that on December 6, he heard gunshots from the prison for 30 minutes and later saw considerable smoke coming from the middle of the prison. Two weeks later, 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. Another activist 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 confirm these reports independently.
International human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by Syria, prohibits arbitrary detention, which includes holding persons beyond the expiration of their sentences and requires all persons who have been arbitrarily detained to be compensated. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners require that prisoners be able to communicate with the outside world at "regular intervals." These UN rules also require the use of force only when absolutely necessary and that relatives must be informed immediately on the death of any prisoner.