Media blackout obscures Sednaya prison uprising

Despite a media blackout in Syria, human rights sources confirmed to MENASSAT on Monday that there have been possibly dozens of deaths and injuries in confrontations between political detainees and prison officials at Sednaya military prison near Damascus.
Mohamad Abdullah (right) and his father are among the political prisoners being held in Sednaya prison. R.R.

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS, July 7, 2008 (MENASSAT) - Human rights sources confirmed on Monday that dozens of detainees in the Sednaya military prison in Damascus were injured or killed during a demonstration on July 5 organized by Islamist prisoners against their ill-treatment.

"The demonstration started after prisoners demanded an improvement in their living and health conditions, also demanding prison officials provide greater access to information about their trials and convictions,” human rights groups working on the issue told MENASSAT.

Reports from these sources say the rioting has ended but that a tense standoff is still taking place between the prison authorities and the prisoners after the latter managed to take a number of hostages, including the prison director.

Absent in the whole affair has been the Syrian media establishment, which has all but ignored the events that occurred over the weekend. Observers in Syria suggested that there has been a media cover-up.

Sources told MENASSAT that several private media companies either censored the news from Sednaya because of their close ties with the government, or had simply omitted the news for fear of the government banning or closing them down.

Syrian security agencies have traditionally monopolized the information flow when security incidents occur in Syria.

Outside media

Syrians instead followed the news from Sednaya on the Arab satellite TV channels or international media like Al-Arabiya, Al Jazeera and BBC.

"We have lost faith in the local media," a local viewer told MENASSAT.

Indeed, much of the information about uprising has come from prisoners inside Sednaya who managed to contact human rights and media organizations, among them the BBC, by telephone.

By contrast, any official information has been very scarce.

On Sunday, the official SANA news agency said security forces took action to put down a violent protest by prisoners .

"A number of prisoners convicted of extremism and terrorism crimes on Saturday morning raised chaos disturbing the public order in Sednaya prison, about 15 miles to the north of Damascus, and assaulted their colleagues during the prison administration's inspection tour.

"This necessitated the forces of maintaining order to immediately intervene to control the situation and restore calm to the prison and organized cases of assault on others and damaging the public properties for taking the legal action against offenders," SANA said.

There was no official statement about casualties, leaving human rights organizations to scramble for information.

Imad Qorbi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said, "There are no specific numbers yet on the injuries and casualties, due to the absence of communication with the prisoners and the confiscation of their cell phones. The prison authorities also sequestered those detainees who had nothing to do with the protests, and imposed a tough security ring around the prison facility."

Abdul Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian Association for the Defense of Human Rights (SADHR) told MENASSAT, "The prisoners organized a demonstration on Saturday but the violence escalated with the prison officials cracking down hard on the protesters, eventually calling in the military police who opened fire on the prisoners without any restraint."

Rihawi added, "A great number of prisoners fled to the roof of the prison fearing for their lives. Some families went to the prison expressing their concern, but the prison authorities will not allow them inside or let them know what is going on."

Waiting for Assad

Concerning the casualties, Rihawi told the media, "We don’t rule out casualties, especially given that the military police used live ammunition. We saw many ambulances transporting patients to the hospital. We couldn't get in contact with the prisoners or the injured, and we were not allowed inside the military hospital of Tishrine where the injured were taken."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) quoted one prisoner as saying that the military police officers invaded the prison cells after the demonstration started, desecrating the Holy Quran in the process. The SOHR said it was these actions that provoked the prisoners into taking prison officials hostage.

So far, the SOHR estimates that 25 prisoners have been killed. The agency has urged the Syrian president for "immediate interference to stop this massacre and bring to court those security agents who used live ammunition against the prisoners."

Many Syrian activist associations and organizations joined in issuing a statement asking the Syrian authorities to show restraint in dealing with this incident.

SADHR head Rihawi said he hoped the Syrian authorities would issue an official statement to explain what happened.

Sednaya prison was built in 1987 in the rural village of Sidnaya north of Damascus. It comprises three wings with three floors each. The prison is equipped to house between 5,000 to 1,0000 prisoners.

Sednaya is well-known for housing prisoners with extreme religious views and strong political views against the current regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It is also where many of the Lebanese political prisoners are held who were kidnapped during Syria's occupation of Lebanon.