The Syrian government should order an independent investigation into the deadly shooting of inmates by military police at Sednaya prison two weeks ago and make the findings public, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on the authorities to immediately make public the names of those killed or injured in the incident.
On the morning of July 5, prison authorities attempted to quell a riot in Sednaya prison, about 30 kilometers north of Damascus. The riot had begun when a contingent of Military Police officers conducted an aggressive search at the prison. According to an inmate who spoke to Human Rights Watch from a cell phone inside the prison, the officers insulted inmates and stepped on copies of the Qur’an they had thrown on the floor.
The prisoners, a majority of whom are Islamists, protested by fighting with members of the military police. The military police reportedly responded by opening fire on them. Human Rights Watch obtained the names of nine inmates who were believed killed. Syrian human rights organizations reported that as many as 25 may have been killed. One member of military police was also confirmed dead following his burial in the village of Mare`, next to Aleppo.
"President Bashar al-Asad should immediately order an independent investigation into the police’s use of lethal force at Sednaya prison," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Police should use such force only when they have no other option to save lives."
Following the shooting, detainees overpowered the security guards and took several hostages, including the prison director. Tense negotiations ensued for four days, with information leaking to the outside world by inmates using cell phones seized from the hostages.
"After we took the hostages, other security guards fired tear gas canisters, forcing us to escape to the prison roof," one of the prisoners told Human Rights Watch. "The authorities sent army troops and tanks as reinforcements. We sent an inmate to negotiate with the authorities, but he was taken [by the authorities] when he communicated our refusal to surrender without public guarantees for our safety."
The last known communication from the prisoners was a July 8 phone call from an inmate to his family, saying that security officials were threatening to violently storm the prison if the prisoners did not surrender. He also gave the name of two additional inmates who had been killed.
"We still don’t know how the prison standoff ended, or the number and names of those killed and wounded," said Whitson.
The Syrian authorities have not released any official statement on the events. SANA, the official Syrian news agency, issued a short press release on July 6, stating that "a number of prisoners…incited chaos and breached public order in the prison and attacked other fellow prisoners…during an inspection by the prison administration." The agency reported that the situation required "the intervention of the unit of guards to bring order to the prison."
Families of inmates have thus far not been able to obtain any information about their relatives. As soon as news of the confrontation leaked, relatives of some prisoners went to the Tishrin Military Hospital, where the wounded and killed were reported to have been transferred, but security forces prevented them from entering. One mother told a Syrian rights activist that anti-riot police outside the hospital beat her and other parents with batons.
Starting July 14, several relatives asked the Ministry of Justice about the fate of their loved ones and were told that they would receive an answer after three days. One of the families reported that the authorities refused to share the information, saying that an insufficient number of relatives had requested information.
"Families of inmates have a right to know what happened to their relatives," said Whitson. "The authorities should immediately put an end to the anguish of the inmates’ relatives."
Sednaya prison is under the control of the military. It is used for pre-trial detention of those held by Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and State Security – which may last for years – as well as for people who have been sentenced by the State Security Court, an exceptional 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, with one inmate who finished serving his sentence in 2007 estimating it to be around 1,500. Syrian human rights groups believe that the number has increased since then.
"The bloodshed at Sednaya highlights the need to improve the treatment of prisoners there," said Whitson. "Torture should immediately be halted and all detainees properly charged should get a fair trial."
Security forces, including prison guards, should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The principles call upon law enforcement officials to "minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life" and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
(Human Rights Watch, 22-7-2008)