(New York) - Syria's prison authorities should immediately transfer women detained in the predominantly male `Adra prison to a facility for women, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities are holding at least 12 women among an estimated 7,000 men.
Syrian rights activists in touch with families of some of the detained women told Human Rights Watch that the women are held in a section of the prison under the control of Political Security, one of Syria's multiple security agencies. They are only allowed out of their cell twice a week and family visits are subject to the approval of Political Security. Two female guards reportedly supervise the women directly, but male guards for the other prisoners have verbally harassed the women, the activists said. Male prisoners are allowed out of their cells for at least two hours twice a day and can receive weekly visits without Political Security review, male former prisoners told Human Rights Watch.
"We don't know why Syria is keeping these women in `Adra prison, but we do know that their situation is precarious and they are being treated worse than their male counterparts," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The United Nations-issued Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners say that, "Men and women shall so far as possible be detained in separate institutions," and, "No male member of the staff shall enter the part of the institution set aside for women unless accompanied by a woman officer." Syria has prisons for women, including a main facility in Douma, located in the suburbs of Damascus. Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine why some women are in `Adra prison.
Among the women in `Adra is Tuhama Ma`ruf, 46, a dentist detained there since February 10, 2010, to serve the remaining part of a sentence issued by the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) in 1995 for membership in the unlicensed Party for Communist Action (PCA). Syria's security services detained Ma`ruf in 1992 as part of a crackdown against the PCA, which no longer exists. Authorities released her on bail in 1993, but the SSSC sentenced her in 1995 to six years for "membership in an illegal organization." At the time, Human Rights Watch criticized the trials against PCA members for due process violations and for criminalizing peaceful political activity.
Ma`ruf did not turn herself in after the sentence was issued in 1995 and lived clandestinely for the next 15 years. Security forces arrested her on February 6 and placed her in `Adra to serve the remaining five years of the sentence. Ma`ruf's lawyers petitioned for her freedom, arguing that her sentence should be commuted because of the passage of time, but the SSSC prosecutor's office rejected her request.
"Ma`ruf was sentenced to prison solely for her peaceful political activism, which is protected under international human rights treaties that Syria has ratified," Whitson said. "The authorities should release her."
The Syrian activists said that other female detainees in `Adra whose identities they know include Yusra al-Hassan, detained since January without any formal accusation or judicial referral. Her husband is being held by the United States in Guantanamo. Other female detainees in `Adra reportedly include members of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) as well as women convicted on drug or prostitution-related charges.