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The Plight of Syrian Prisoners Poses Significant Obstacles for Transitional Justice

As the Syrian crisis enters its fifth year in March, hundreds of thousands arrested on a variety of fraudulent charges languish inside regime prisons, denied due process and deprived of basic human rights.  Extensive evidence, including thousands of photographs obtained and disseminated by a former military police photographer known as Caesar, documents the institutionalized campaign of abuse, torture, and executions waged by the regime against detainees.  Their detentions, as well as the kidnap-for-exchange methods employed by opposition groups, raise significant concerns about current prison conditions and how to incorporate accountability mechanisms for torture, kidnapping, and the denial of prisoner rights into future transitional justice initiatives.

The week-long hunger strike and peaceful demonstration recently staged by prisoners in Homs Central Prison, site of some of the worst and most destructive regime-sponsored violence of the conflict, is indicative of the larger issues plaguing Syrian prisoners, whether political or criminal,  held at detention facilities spread throughout the country.  While international observers agree that the Assad regime must uphold its obligations under international law to treat prisoners in a fair, just, and humane manner, opposition groups should also be held to comparable standards of detainee treatment.

(Prisoners Demonstrate at Homs Central Prison, 31 December 2014)

According to activists on the ground, a vast majority of those participating in the Homs hunger strike were, like thousands of detainees held elsewhere in Syria, imprisoned “arbitrarily” or merely for joining the first peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in early 2011. Demanding their right to justice in a public way, the demonstrators in Homs called upon the regime to cease its use of torture and other harsh interrogation techniques; improve food, sanitation, and medical services; resolve prisoners’ cases in a timely manner; and include the matter of prisoner exchanges at any future negotiations between the regime and opposition, starting with the upcoming Moscow I Talks.

The kidnap-for-exchange methods employed by various opposition groups, such as the al-Baraa Brigade, which took hostage and transferred 48 Iranians to the regime for over 2,000 Syrian civilian prisoners in 2013, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which negotiated the exchange of kidnapped Christian nuns for more than 150 female detainees through Lebanese back-channels in March 2014, are similarly detrimental to the transitional justice process yet receive even less public outcry than do widespread regime violations of prisoner rights.

Recently, other armed opposition groups have sought to replicate the success of past hostage negotiations by demanding to exchange captured pro-Assad prisoners, and even threatening to execute (warning: graphic content) them at a rate of one per day should their demands not be met, for regime-held detainees.  While these types of prisoner exchanges do free a very small number of prisoners from both sides, they only encourage more kidnappings-for-exchange at a macro level and fail to advance the interests of future transitional justice, which requires national solutions to the prisoner problem and institutional reform free from vengeance.

With hundreds of thousands of regime-ordered detentions since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, prisoner rights must be included in any local or national negotiations, as well as within the framework of a future transitional justice process. However, improving inhuman conditions and ending kidnapping-for-prisoner exchanges cannot wait until after a negotiated settlement and transitional justice occur. Harmful treatment of detainees by both sides must end immediately and the demands outlined by prisoners, like those presented by detainees in Homs, should be met prior to the conclusion of the conflict.

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