Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Concern for Inmates Following Prison Violence

The families of detainees at the Saidnaya military prison in Damascus have expressed grave concern for the safety of inmates after a riot was put down by force.

Activists say they know of 20 to 25 prisoners killed since rioting broke out on July 5, but believe the real figure could be significantly higher.

The unrest began during a routine inspection at the prison, which houses many inmates convicted of Islamic extremist activity. According to the London-based Syrian Committee for Human Rights and families who received calls from imprisoned relatives, the trouble was sparked when prison guards stamped on a Koran.

A full-blown riot ensued, and inmates took hostage the prison guard dozens of guards and four military police officers, according to a human rights activist who received a call from a prisoner. Hundreds fled onto the roof of the jail.

Armed units were sent in and opened fire, resulting in many deaths.

Outside, families got as close as they could to the prison, which has been blocked off by security forces since the riot began.

One 70-year-old man from the southern city of Dara whose son, an Islamist, is in the prison spent several days waiting outside, and said he heard gunshots and saw smoke billowing out of the detention centre. Ambulances were seen going in and out of the prison.

The human rights activist said hostage-takers issued demands – not to be killed in a retaliatory clampdown, and better treatment for inmates. Some detainees who have been held without trial for years demanded a fair judicial hearing.

In a recent phone call out of the jail, an inmate called his father on the afternoon of July 8 to report that the situation remained tense. A man who got a call from his brother inside reported that the facility was ringed by armoured vehicles and the inmates feared for their lives.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that shots were heard from the prison on the morning of July 9.

The Syrian government has said little about the unrest. On July 6, the state-run SANA news agency reported that security forces had put down unrest after prisoners “convicted of terrorism and extremism… attacked their comrades during a prison inspection”.

The London-based Al-Quds news agency reported on July 9 that the authorities had sent Vice-President Faruq al-Shara in to negotiate with the prisoners. Shara is a Sunni from Dara, said to be home to 300 of the prisoners.

Family members and human rights activists have been angered by the lack of information, and are increasingly concerned about the fate of their relatives.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that members of security forces warned family members to stop protesting outside the prison. One man from Aleppo, whose brother is inside, said female demonstrators were told on July 10 that more of their male relatives could be imprisoned if they did not stop.

Another protest took place outside the Tishreen military hospital in Damascus, where some of the prisoners had been taken and which was in a state of lockdown. At other demonstrations in central Damascus, Lattakia and Homs, participants demanded information about their loved ones.

“A father called me and started to cry on the phone,” said one human rights lawyer. “He screamed, ‘Is my son dead or not? Just tell me!’ It’s very painful”.

A 68-year-old mother said, "My son has been in prison without trial for four years. Now I’m not sure whether he’s alive or dead, and that’s all I want to know. I don’t care any more whether he is released or not."

This woman said that police beat her on the legs when she took part in a protest in front of the prison.

This is the third reported case of prison unrest in just over three years. In January 2006, there was a riot at the Adra prison, used for common criminals. In April 2008, there were reports of a riot and fire at Saidnaya. No one was killed in either riot.

Human rights advocates say they are not surprised at the riot, and allege that detainees at the Saidnaya jail have been treated badly over the years.

While little is known about the prison, human rights groups estimate that it holds between 2,500 and 4,000 inmates including Kurdish dissidents, democratic activists and members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. However, they say the bulk of those detained in the last five years are Salafis, adherents of a fundamentalist trend in Sunni Islam whom the government regards as religious extremists.

At Saidnaya, some family members are allowed to visit, but lawyers and human rights activists are barred. The human rights activist said the poor conditions coupled with the lack of respect shown for prisoners’ Muslim faith “makes them more extremist”.

"We've always said that our prisons are a time bomb because [inmates] are ill-treated and live in crowded, inhumane conditions,” he said.

Another human rights activist, Muhammed al-Abdullah, whose brother is currently held in Saidnaya prison, said, “The lack of transparency on the part of the authorities has increased our suffering. If only they would publish the names of those who have been killed, or set up an office where families can ask about their sons.”

A writer from Damascus said most Syrians were unaware of the current unrest unless they happened to live near the prison or the Tishreen hospital. If they are aware, they tend to blame Islamic extremists for causing trouble.

“Many others don’t even know what Saidnaya prison is,” he added.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

More IWPR's Global Voices