(New York) – Syrian authorities have transferred perhaps hundreds of detainees to off-limits military sites to hide them from Arab League monitors now in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The Arab League should insist on full access to all Syrian sites used for detention, consistent with its agreement with the Syrian government.
The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, was quoted in the Independent on December 21, 2011, saying that the international monitors would be free to move around the country “under the protection” of the government but would not be permitted to visit certain “sensitive” military sites.
“Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria’s subterfuge makes it essential for the Arab League to draw clear lines regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed.”
A Syrian security officer in Homs told Human Rights Watch that after the government signed the Arab League protocol on December 19 he received orders from his prison director to assist with an irregular detainee transfer. He estimated that on December 21 and 22 approximately 400 to 600 detainees were moved out of his detention facility to other places of detention.
“The transfers happened in installments,” the official said. “Some detainees were moved in civilian jeeps and some in cargo trucks. My role was inside the prison, gathering the detainees and putting them in the cars. My orders from the prison director were to move the important detainees out.”
He said that officials who accompanied the detainees out of the facility told him they were being taken to a military missile factory in Zaidal, just outside of Homs.
The security officer’s account was corroborated by other witnesses. Human Rights Watch spoke with a detainee who said that a transfer of other detainees took place from the Military Security detention facility in Homs on the night of December 19.
The detainee told Human Rights Watch, “There were about 150 [detainees]. They took them out around 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. These guys were in detention the longest. Not criminals, but people who worked with journalists, or were defectors, or involved in protests.”
A Homs resident told Human Rights Watch that he saw heavily guarded cargo trucks leaving the Central Prison and the Military Security detention facility in Homs on December 20. The level of security led him to believe that detainees were being transported out of the facilities, he said.
Another Homs resident told Human Rights Watch that heavily guarded buses were going into the military barracks for Division 18 and a section of Division 4 in the al-Wa’aer al-Qadeem neighborhood of Homs from December 20 through December 22. The high level of security surrounding the buses’ movement led him to believe that they were transporting detainees into the barracks, he said.
The terms of the protocol signed by the Syrian government and the Arab League make clear that the monitors should have full access to places detainees are being held. On the basis of the protocol, the Arab League monitors should have access to the military missile factory and all other sites where detainees might be held, Human Rights Watch said.
The Syrian security officer interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said that the government is issuing police identification cards to military officials. Human Rights Watch is in possession of a document that appears to be from the Syrian Defense Ministry ordering the transfer of personnel from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, and deploying them to areas where the military currently serves “to avoid disorder.”
Providing police IDs to military personnel violates the Arab League initiative, which calls on the Syrian government to withdraw armed forces from cities and residential areas, Human Rights Watch said.
“Dressing soldiers in police uniforms does not meet the Arab League call to withdraw the army,” Whitson said. “The Arab League needs to cut through Syrian government deception by pushing for full access to anywhere Syria is holding detainees.”