x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian prisons 'crowded and plagued by corruption' says report

Authorities criticised by human rights groups for failing to meet minimum international standards, as report details allegations of torture.

DAMASCUS // Syrian prisons remain crowded and plagued by corruption, according to a study by independent human rights monitors in Damascus.

The latest Annual Prison Assessment, co-authored by the Syrian Association for Human Rights (SAHR) and the Arab Organisation for Penal Reform, criticises the authorities for failing to meet minimum international standards on detention facilities.

It also details allegations of torture by the security services, including the death of at least one inmate, Mohammad Jalal Qubaissi, and underlines ongoing concerns about the suppression of a violent uprising at Sednaya prison, north of Damascus, in 2008.

According to the report, as many as 42 detainees held in Sednaya at the time remain unaccounted for, with no official word from the government as to their fates. In addition, up to six security officers are believed to have been killed in the riot. The authorities have resisted repeated calls by domestic and international human rights organisations to publicly reveal details of their inquiry into the incident.

The 2010 Annual Prison Assessment was published in Damascus on Saturday. The previous two annual reports, in 2008 and 2009, were never released because of a crackdown on civil society campaigners inside Syria, researchers involved in compiling the 30-page document said. Despite "a difficult situation " again this year, they decided to publish.

Human rights groups in Syria are not officially granted operating licences and are not allowed access to jails to directly monitor conditions. Instead, the report relies on the testimonies of former inmates, particularly from Adra prison, in Damascus, where political prisoners are held alongside criminals, and Aleppo central prison, the two largest jails in the country. The report does not cover detention facilities run by Syria's various security agencies.

Abdul Karim Rehawe, the director of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, who has assisted in compiling the yearly prison assessment since 2005, said: "It is very difficult to get reliable information from prisons because people are reluctant to speak to us.

"The report is not as thorough as we would have liked but under the circumstances, it's acceptable and we only published things that we felt we had been able to properly confirm."

One of the report's key findings is that ordinary prisoners suffer from massive overcrowding. "Cells designed for 20 inmates are now being used for 80 people. Prisoners sleep on the floor and in corridors," the report says. "Adra prison was built to house 2,000 prisoners, it now has 9,000."

Corruption inside prisons is another problem, the report says. "There is not much of a budget for food, which pushes the prisoners to buy their own, and this is a source of a lot of corruption and blackmail. There is corruption among the guards and prisoners must pay for everything, all the time."

Bed space and family visits can require the payment of bribes, the report says. Mr Rehawe said former prisoners had complained that it can cost as much as US$20 (Dh73.4) to rent a mattress for the night, and those unable or unwilling to pay often have to sleep on the floor. Prisoners with money are able to have private, unmonitored meetings with visitors, while poor inmates say they can find it hard to arrange visits with family or friends.

The report makes a series of recommendations to the Syrian authorities, including that prisons better prepare inmates for civilian life once their sentences are over. "Jails should be for rehabilitation and reform of prisoners, but they are not," the report says.

Prison authorities are, however, given credit for some of the facilities offered to inmates. "Toilets and washing areas are acceptable, prisoners are allowed to exercise every day and there are telephones, televisions and computers available for education purposes," the report states. "Prisoners can continue their formal education while in detention, although in practice this is only followed by a few prisoners."

It also said that medical services were of a reasonable quality but again, that bribes were often required for access to care.

In November, Anand Grover, a UN special rapporteur for human rights, was unexpectedly given limited access to Adra prison, as part of an mission looking at national health services. It is believed to be the first time a non-Syrian observer has ever been allowed into a Syrian detention facility, a step that was welcomed by civil liberties campaigners.

In the same month, however, Human Rights Watch said 12 women, including at least one political prisoner, Tuhama Maruf, were being held in Adra, a predominantly male facility where they were subjected to harassment.

Muhannad al Hassani, a Syrian human rights lawyer, is currently serving a three-year sentence in Adra for his work in covering legal proceedings at the state security court. He was assaulted by another inmate there last year, two weeks after being awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals prize for human rights.

Another leading civil liberties campaigner, the former judge Haitham al Maleh, 80, is also currently being held in Adra, after being convicted last year under repressive emergency laws of "weakening national sentiment".

psands@thenational.ae