Syria Riot Jail Causes Concern

A year after riots, questions remain around Sednaya jail and the fate of prisoners.

Syria Riot Jail Causes Concern

A year after riots, questions remain around Sednaya jail and the fate of prisoners.

Friday, 10 July, 2009
Although his jail term was supposed to end in April, Nizar Rastanawi is still incarcerated in the notorious Sednaya prison close to Damascus.



Rastanawi, a prominent member of a Syrian human rights organisation serving four years in jail for the offences of spreading false news and insulting the president, is believed to be in poor health, according to one human rights advocate.



Some activists even say that he might have been killed during the violent mutiny at the jail that took place a year ago, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the extreme sensitivity of the topic.



Officials have given no explanation of why Rastanawi is still in custody.



Rastanawi is one of many inmates of the Sednaya prison whose fates remain unknown a year after the riots, observers say.



On July 5, 2008, a group of prisoners began a protest inside the jail to complain about harsh conditions, human rights groups said. The military police used excessive force and opened fire on the inmates to quell the riots, they added.



As a result, an unknown number of people were killed and injured. The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee at the time published a list of nine people believed to have been killed during the incident. Other local groups claimed that as many as 100 inmates might have died in the unrest.



Since the incident, the families of the prisoners say that they have been unable to contact their relatives in custody or even inquire about their situation.



“We want to know whether they are dead or alive,” said the mother of one of seven young inmates who were sentenced to prison terms of five to seven years for creating an online discussion group and publishing articles.



The friend of another young inmate, Tareq al-Bissani, who was sentenced for three years for publishing comments criticising security services on local blogs, said he was worried about his friend’s fate.



“The court’s ruling was unjust. We are worried about Tareq,” said the friend who asked that his name be withheld. “Is he dead or alive? We just want the truth whatever it is.”



The Syrian authorities have imposed a total information blackout on the riots. No local or international human rights groups have been given access to the prison since the incidents.



The only official announcement came a day after the unrest when a report carried by the state-run news agency, SANA, said that units had intervened to halt riots organised by criminal prisoners convicted of “terrorism”.



For the past year, officials have isolated the jail completely and refrained from giving any details about the riots or the identity of those injured or killed, said a journalist who had been following the mutiny.



Mobile phone connections were cut around the area of the jail to prevent prisoners with phones from contacting the outside, said the journalist, who works for an international news agency and who preferred to remain anonymous.



In December, reports circulated that riots had broken out again and the authorities had used firearms to deal with them, he said.



A soldier who was serving at the Sednaya prison when the unrest broke out told IWPR that security forces had opened fire on the detainees, causing many casualties.



“We rushed a large number of detainees to military hospitals and some died on the way,” he said.



A military doctor who was on duty at Tishreen military hospital at the time of the incident said that they were ordered not to reveal any information about the dead and the injured under threat of punishment.



In a recent statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian authorities to immediately make public the fate of all detainees at the prison.



“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,” she added.



Appeals made by the families of the detainees to the Syrian authorities regarding the unrest - including two open letters sent to President Bashar al-Assad - have so far been ignored.



Relatives of Riad al-Dardar, a civil rights activist held in Sednaya, said they went many times to the prison to try to see him but were dismissed by prison guards.



The family of another inmate, Syrian poet Firas Saed, have also heard nothing about him since the riots.



Saed was serving a four-year jail sentence for an article he wrote in 2006 that criticised the Syrian army for failing to intervene during the latest Israeli attack on Lebanon.



The prison at Sednaya, in mountains about 30 kilometres from the capital, is one of the toughest jails in Syria. It was built in 1981 and has been used to incarcerate political prisoners since 1987, said a Damascus-based human rights activist.



He said the jail holds between 2,000 and 3,000 prisoners.



According to a number of former prisoners and human rights advocates, the jail holds many Islamists in addition to prisoners of conscience and Kurdish activists.



They said that the prison has interrogation rooms equipped with “modern torture tools”.



Most detainees have been sentenced by the State Security Court, a special body that does not meet international fair trial standards, according to Human Rights Watch.



Karim Antoine Arabji, 20, was arrested by military intelligence in June 2007 and moved to the Sednaya prison a few months later.



He was scheduled to appear in front of the State Security Court for the second time last July after being accused of the offences of publishing false news and weakening national sentiment in online articles critical of Syrian authorities.



But according to one of his relatives, the trial never took place and the authorities never gave a reason for the postponement.



“His fate remains unknown,” the relative said.
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