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ICRC Expects to Visit More Detainees in Syrian Jails

Swiss Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, talks to the media about his visit to Syria, during a press conference at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, September 6, 2011.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says Syrian authorities have agreed to give Red Cross workers greater access to detainees amid a government crackdown on dissent. The deal was one of several struck by the ICRC leader during a two-day visit to Syria, where he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior officials.

Syrian authorities have arrested thousands of people protesting the rule of President Assad. The human rights group Amnesty International reports at least 88 people have died in detention since the anti-government uprising began in March.

The ICRC has been trying to gain access to the prisons for months to assess the condition and treatment of the detainees. ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger finally succeeded this week in persuading Syria’s president to allow a visit to go ahead.

An ICRC spokesman, Hicham Hassan, says this first visit is significant and the organization has received promises of more visits to come. “What has already been discussed with the Syrian authorities, be it during our president’s meeting with President Bashar al-Assad or prior to that through our delegation, is that the ICRC will have access to all places of detention under the Ministry of Interior," he said.

ICRC representatives visited the Damascus Central prison in Adra, a suburb, on Sunday. They hope to soon visit other jails including those under the control of different branches of the government, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defense. Hassan says the ICRC’s goal is to be able to visit all detainees in all prisons throughout the country.

While in Syria, Kellenberger broached a number of humanitarian issues with the Syrian president. He says a main concern is to make sure the wounded and sick are able to obtain medical care. He says he clearly told President Assad concrete measures must be taken to ensure that everybody in need of treatment receives it.

“And, related to this, another concern I had to bring up was really the protection of the medical mission," said Kellenberger. "I really had to underline that the medical mission has really to be respected. And, it is not just the people carrying out medical assistance who have to be respected and who have to be in a position that they can do their work without fear.”

Kellenberger says the Syrian authorities also have agreed to grant the ICRC greater and quicker access to places affected by violence so the organization can provide assistance and protection to people caught up in these deadly encounters.

He says he will be closely monitoring developments to made sure the Syrian authorities keep their promises.

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