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Monitoring is Needed for All Detention Facilities in Syria

Inside Saydnaya: Syria’s Torture Prison, Video of Amnesty International

Prisons are by their very nature isolated and concealed spaces where abuses can go unnoticed, and in countries with ongoing conflict, prisons are often rife with human rights violations. Already, a former photographer with the Syrian military police showed the world evidence of widespread torture through what is now known as the Caesar files. And over the past several months, prisoners throughout Syria have rioted against the government’s practice of summary executions, whereby military field courts, authorized to try both civilians and military personnel, sentence detainees to execution without due process. In Hama and Aleppo, prisoners rioted when death sentences issued by a field court were scheduled to be carried out against fellow inmates. Most recently, on August 3, prisoners in the Sweida civil detention facility rioted due to  mistreatment and the transfer of four detainees to the security branch in Damascus for execution. Although no monitors have been allowed access to any of these detention facilities, Amnesty International created a an interactive 3D model of the Sednaya prison to give outsiders a better understanding of the conditions inside Syrian prisons.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit the inhuman treatment of persons not actively taking part in hostilities, including combatants held in detention. Specifically, the Conventions prohibit murder, cruel or humiliating treatment, torture, and “the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording . . . judicial guarantees.” Syria signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1953, and in 1976, Syria ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect.” Based on the many reports of abuse and summary executions, the Syrian government is in clear violation of these treaties. The Optional Protocol of the UN Convention against Torture mandates periodic visits of international monitors to detention facilities. Although Syria ratified the Convention (with a reservation on Article 20 that recommends visits to detention centers by the UN Body), it never signed or ratified the Optional Protocol so observers are not mandated by any UN treaty body. However, the UN could pressure the parties to the conflict to accept prison visits as a part of its role as mediator in the ongoing negotiations.

Resolving the detainee issue has been one of the priorities of the UN Special Envoy to Syria. An agreement on detainees would be a significant confidence building measure that could lead to greater trust between the government and the opposition on thornier issues related to the political transition. As SJAC and 21 other Syrian human rights organizations stated on March 21, the first step towards comprehensively addressing the detainee issue is visits by impartial international observers to prisons. Since the beginning of the conflict, no international observers have formally been allowed into detention facilities in Syria. Given that government-affiliated combatants are also held in closed-off rebel detention centers where reports of abuse are rampant, allowing external observers is beneficial to all sides. Most importantly, however, such a measure would have a tremendous impact on ordinary Syrians, many of whom fear for the well-being of their loved ones currently held in detention. International observers could also help break the cycle of abuse in prisons — arrests, torture, arbitrary trials, and executions — that has always been one of the most insidious components of Syria’s state practice, intensifying during the conflict and spreading to the practice of the rebels as well.

In other countries, international observers have had a positive impact on the conditions of detainees held during active conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a long history of visiting detention facilities in conflict zones. Since 1980, ICRC has been visiting Iraqi prisons, interviewing prisoners, speaking with guards, and observing prison conditions. According to ICRC officials, these visits have proven effective at improving conditions over time. ICRC visits also better enable communication between families and detainees, something that is desperately needed as families often have no contact with their loved ones in detention. Although it is often difficult to see immediate results from prison monitoring, sometimes the act of observation alone is enough to motivate governments or armed groups to improve conditions. Last year, a member of SJAC’s Documentation Team informally visited the detention facility of a rebel group and spoke privately with both detainees and guards. Months later, SJAC learned that the rebel group improved detention as a result of SJAC’s visit because the group did not want to be accused of violating prisoners’ rights publicly.

Facilitating an agreement on impartial international monitors among all parties to the conflict needs to be of the utmost priority for the UN if and when the negotiations in Geneva relaunch. Until real progress is made on breaking the cycle of detention and ending sieges against civilian populations, it will be very difficult to address loftier goals like a political transition and constitutional reform. Successfully addressing the detainee file would also have a significant impact on how Syrians perceive the negotiations in Geneva, helping to increase local buy-in for the process. But most importantly, international monitors will help send a message to all Syrians in the most direct and simplest of terms — no matter what crime a detainee is accused of, no one deserves the type of abuse, inhuman conditions, and fear of arbitrary executions that so many have already suffered in Syria.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].