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Syria Grants Red Cross Access to Prison

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (L) meets Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC], in Damascus, Syria, September 5, 2011.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says its delegates, for the first time, have been allowed to visit people detained by the Syrian authorities. Access to the prisoners was granted during a visit by the ICRC president to Syria.

The organization says delegates visited detainees in the Damascus Central Prison, in the suburb of Adra. Spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini tells VOA this first-ever visit to detainees in Syria is a significant step forward. But, she adds, it is just the first step.

“The idea is to be able to visit regularly, to be able to assess the conditions of treatment and detention of detainees, to be able to speak to them in private and to be able to visit other places of detention," says Mardini. "So, this is one amongst many places of detention and the ICRC’s ambition is to be able to access all of them.”

Mardini says she cannot disclose how many prisoners were visited. She says information about the total number of prisoners and the number of places of detention in Syria also is confidential.

She says after ICRC delegates assess the condition and treatment of the detainees, they share their findings with the Syrian authorities. And, if there are any problems, she says the organization suggests ways of improving the situation of the inmates.

“Another thing is to be able to speak in private with detainees and those that are held in isolation, those who are held in groups, to be able to discuss with them in private their situation and to understand their needs and any potential problems," she says. "So we can then discuss the issue with the detaining authorities in view of seeing an improvement in the shortest delay. And, then we repeat visits to make sure improvements have taken place.”

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (file photo)
Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (file photo)
The ICRC president, Jakob Kellenberger, last visited Syria in June. Before leaving Damascus this time, he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mardini says that Kellenberger told the Syrian president it is crucial for people who are wounded and sick to obtain medical care without delay.

She says Kellenberger also mentioned his concerns about the humanitarian situation in Syria and discussed the rules governing the use of force. She says ICRC chief reminded President Assad that under international law, security forces have an obligation to respect the physical and psychological well-being of people.

The Syrian leader is facing international pressure to halt a violent crackdown on political dissent.

The rights group Amnesty International reported recently that at least 88 people have died in Syrian detention since the anti-government uprising began in March.

The United Nations says more than 2,200 people have been killed in the government's crackdown.

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