Government forces failed to regain control of a Syrian prison where nearly 800 mostly political detainees have maintained a revolt for nearly a week.
Syrian opposition leaders warn of a possible massacre of detainees in Hama Central Prison, calling on the international community to take urgent action.
“We believe that the international community is able to prevent any possible massacre against the prison inmates,” said Taysir Alloush, a member of the political committee of the Syrian National Council, the Western-backed opposition group.
Conditions at the prison have deteriorated since government forces stormed the prison Friday night and managed to seize the facility’s food stocks, say political activists.
Videos posted by inmates on social media showed men gasping for breath after government troops fired tear gas canisters in cell blocks. Gunfire could also be heard.
The prison has been surrounded by government forces since Monday, after inmates rioted and seized guards.
Cause for riot
The immediate cause for the riot was the planned transfer of some detainees to the notorious Sednaya prison run by the country’s feared Syrian military intelligence branch north of the capital Damascus.
“Inmates are running out of food and water and even medicines are no longer being given to those in serious conditions,” said Syrian rights activist Mazen Darwish, a former detainee. The prisoners have called on the Syrian Red Crescent to help mediate an agreement.
Forty-six detainees were released by the regime last week before talks broke down.
International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, are also raising concern about the likely fate of the Hama inmates, if the government renews attempts to storm the jail.
“This standoff should not end in a bloodbath,” said Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. “The situation in Syria’s detention facilities and prisons is deeply unstable and prison conditions should be a priority for the international community.”
In Whatsapp communications with Human Rights Watch, detainees said they had managed on May 1 to seize control of large sections of the prison.
“We began to protest because a military field court sentenced five detainees to death, but these courts do not have the right to issue sentences,” Mohamed, one of the prisoners said. “We were able to take over all the security areas, prison wings, the prison restaurant, and the officer’s office during our walkabout time in the courtyard.
“During the riot, when the police stormed the prison to stop us from protesting, we were able to capture seven policemen, and the police are afraid to storm us again so we don’t capture more of them. Police then used teargas and shot live rounds in the air, but that didn’t work to calm us down. So they sent in the head of the prison to negotiate with us,” he said.
UN rules urged
Rights groups have called for the Assad regime to observe the U.N. Basic Principles of the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which says law enforcement officials must “minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life,” and use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
On Friday, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted, “Horrible reports of authorities attack on #Syria Hama prison. With regime's record of mistreating prisoners, escalation is alarming.”
In February, U.N. investigators released a damning report on the treatment of prisoners in President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, accusing the regime of a systematic, countrywide pattern of prisoner abuse, which they said amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The government's crimes against prisoners included "extermination, murder ... torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts," according to the report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
In February 2015, a team of internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts found "direct evidence" of "systematic torture and killing" by the Assad regime, issuing a report based on thousands of photographs taken by a Syrian military photographer of dead bodies of detainees killed while in Syrian government custody.
Geneva peace talks
The U.N. Security Council has repeatedly demanded the release of arbitrarily detained Syrian inmates.
Last month, U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said he would appoint a senior member of his team to focus on detainee issues in the now stalled Geneva peace talks.
“Detainees, and their fate, should be at the heart of Syria’s negotiations,” Houry said. “Their release should be on everyone’s priority list.”
Meanwhile, Ankara claimed Turkish forces killed 55 Islamic State militants when shelling three rocket installations of the jihadist group in northern Syria.
Local Turkish media reported that up to 20 Turkish commandos carried out a ground operation in Syria Saturday night to help guide the shelling of the IS rocket launch pads that have been used to target Turkey's southeastern Kilis border province.
The Turkish border town of Kilis has been regularly hit by IS rockets in recent weeks. Turkish officials say 20 people have been killed and almost 70 wounded in IS attacks.