Two weeks after the testimony of a Syrian regime defector in Washington, alleging that the Assad government was responsible for the mass deaths of prisoners in its custody, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released what it calls “horrific accounts” by former detainees corroborating his allegations.
“Four former detainees released from the Sednaya military prison in 2014 described deaths in custody and harsh prison conditions that closely match the allegations of the defector, who photographed thousands of dead bodies in military hospitals in Damascus,” HRW says.
“The former detainees, who were held for between 21 and 30 months, most of the time at Sednaya, described abhorrent conditions, including overcrowding, lack of food, inadequate heating and ventilation, poor medical services, and extremely poor sanitary conditions that caused detainees to develop skin diseases and diarrhea,” the group says. “The detainees said that they had lost significant weight during their detention. One said that he lost more than half of his body weight, weighing only 50 kilograms when he was released.”
Nadim Houry, deputy director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa division and director of its Beirut office, says that the only solution lies in keeping international pressure on the Syrian regime to allow inspectors from organizations including the U.N. or International Committee of the Red Cross into government-run detention centers to assess the scope of the ill treatment – including torture – alleged by the Sednaya four.
Syria Deeply: How important are these testimonies in making a case against Assad at the International Criminal Court?
Nadim Houry: It’s very important to keep the focus on the issue of ill treatment in detention, because it’s ongoing. What’s important is that very few detainees have come out of there recently, and we found that very few are able to tell what’s going on in prisons run by the military.
Their testimony corroborates what was in the Caesar photos and the allegations – two of the witnesses even say they shared ambulances or other forms of transport with dead bodies that had been tortured – will hopefully put the issue back on the agenda of the international community. We know there was an attempt at the Security Council to put this forward to the ICC, but the Russians and the Chinese opposed taking such a step. What we’re trying to do by continuing to show this evidence is to make their denial unsustainable.
The evidence is cumulative. This batch is yet another piece of evidence that shows what’s going on inside the detention facilities. It shows a sense of urgency and a need for the Syrian government to let monitors into these prisons. Some people are dying from the torture, and some from ill treatment. Or something like a simple wound goes untreated and leads to death.
Syria Deeply: What is the solution?
Houry: What is needed is a political will. The evidence is there and has been for some time. More than a year and a half ago, we did a report on torture and went into great detail. We hope that by continuing to document the issue, we’ll keep it in the media and keep up the pressure. We also need to allow independent monitors into these prisons – it’s essential to have someone going in and checking in on the prisoners and to know who’s in which prison, because often people just vanish.
In some places the monitors would function under the International Committee of the Red Cross, or under U.N. auspices. There are different forms that the monitoring could take. What’s needed is for Syrian authorities to let them in. Right now, it’s unlikely to happen because there’s no international pressure on the Syrian authorities to do this. What’s clear, and this is what we saw with the government last year after the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, is that when there is concerted international pressure to allow monitors in, they comply. When there isn’t, they don’t. They allowed in chemical weapons inspectors, who were able to inspect highly secretive facilities. So if there’s enough pressure, they could allow monitors in to detention centers as well. So we have to keep the pressure on.