(New York) – Syrian security forces are attempting to storm Hama Central Prison, trying to end a prison protest that began on May 1, 2016. The action raises major concerns about possible excessive use of force.
Inmates rioted in parts of the prison, in the town of Hama, north of Homs, after prison authorities attempted to transfer five inmates reportedly sentenced to death by Syria’s field military courts, inmates told Human Rights Watch via Whatsapp messaging from inside the prison. The prisoners took at least seven prison guards as hostages. At about 6:30 p.m. on May 6, an inmate sent voice messages and video to Human Rights Watch indicating that the security forces were attempting to storm their prison bloc, using teargas and rubber bullets. One video showed men coughing and fainting as a voice says they are suffocating from “poisonous gas,” probably referring to teargas. Another video shows men chanting, with gunshots in the background.
“This standoff should not end in a bloodbath,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The situation in Syria’s detention facilities and prisons is deeply unstable and prison conditions should be a priority for the international community.”
Human Rights Watch has been in contact with three inmates since prisoners in one wing took over parts of the Hama Central Prison on May 1. To confirm their identity, the prisoners sent images from inside the prison. They said that inmates in the wing, which held people accused of terrorism or acts against the state, rioted after prison authorities sought to transfer five detainees to Sednaya military prison. The inmates told Human Rights Watch that the five detainees refused to be transferred as they had been sentenced to death by Syria’s military field court, which has secret, closed-door proceedings that do not meet basic fair trial standards. Other prisoners rioted in solidarity and took the seven prison guards hostage, the inmates said.
“We began to protest because a military field court sentenced five detainees to death, but these courts do not have the right to issue sentences,” Mohamed, one of the prisoners who spoke to Human Rights Watch, said. He said that the riot began at 1:15 p.m.: “We were able to take over all the security areas, prison wings, the prison restaurant, and the officer’s office during our walkabout time in the courtyard.”
“During the riot, when the police stormed the prison to stop us from protesting, we were able to capture seven policemen, and the police are afraid to storm us again so we don’t capture more of them. Police then used teargas and shot live rounds in the air, but that didn’t work to calm us down. So they sent in the head of the prison to negotiate with us.”
After the authorities’ initial attempt to retake control of the prison failed, the inmates began negotiations with the authorities, leading to the release of one of the guards and of 46 inmates.
The situation remained tense in the following days, the inmates reported. The authorities cut off electricity, food, and water supplies for as much as 48 hours at a time. Fouad, another inmate, sent videos to Human Rights Watch showing squalid prison conditions. The videos also show armed police officers standing guard outside the prison.
In the morning of May 6, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said he was “alarmed” over the events at Hama Central Prison.
At 6:30 p.m., security forces again attempted to storm the prison, based on voice messages and videos sent by an inmate over Whatsapp as the events unfolded. Videos showed several men gasping for breath and coughing, with a voice-over saying their condition resulted from “poisonous gas,” probably referring to teargas. Another video showed men rioting in the corridors of what seemed to be a prison, with gunshots in the background.
Security forces, including prison guards, should abide by the UN Basic Principles of the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The principles say law enforcement officials must “minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life,” and use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The planning of any operation in which lives could be lost should minimize the risk to life.
The stand-off at the prison and the high risk of casualties shows the need for the international community to take effective measures to ensure the release of arbitrarily held detainees, make independent monitoring of detention facilities a priority, and ensure fair trials for all those detained. The UN Security Council has repeatedly demanded the release of all arbitrarily detained persons in Syria, but there has been no progress. On April 21, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced that he would appoint a senior member of his team to focus on detainees.
Human Rights Watch repeated its call to the Security Council to demand that Syria grant recognized international detention monitors access to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification and to set up an effective international mechanism to carry out the Security Council resolutions calling on the release of detainees. In the meantime, the Syrian authorities should immediately revoke any death sentences of detainees and grant independent monitors access to detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said.
“Detainees, and their fate, should be at the heart of Syria’s negotiations,” Houry said. “Their release should be on everyone’s priority list.”