BEIRUT — Syria opened its main prison in Damascus Monday to a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross for the first time since the uprising started in mid-March, amid hopes the move could begin to reveal the fate of thousands of political detainees.
Human rights activists say Syrian authorities have arrested tens of thousands of people in the past five months of protests against President Bashar Assad. The detainees include women and minors, activists say, and they contend that the majority of political prisoners are held in secret detention centers, off limits to Red Cross officials.
Campaigners say prisoners are subject to all manner of torture, and many videos posted online in the past several weeks have shown detainees being assaulted and beaten severely by Syrian armed troops. Red Cross delegates visited the prison in Adra, a suburb of Damascus, on Monday, and although most of the inmates there are criminals and not political prisoners, the organization called the visit “an important step forward.”
“Initially, we will have access to persons detained by the Ministry of the Interior,” the group’s president, Jakob Kellenberger, said in a statement issued at the end of a two-day visit to Damascus. The statement added, “we are hopeful that we will soon be able to visit all detainees.” Kellenberger met with Assad and the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, during his visit. The group’s findings were not made public, and Syrian authorities have not revealed the number of detainees, contending that all arrests were legal and that torture did not take place.
Meanwhile, the Local Committees said that at least five people were killed in government raids Monday: three in Homs, during sweeps to arrest protesters; one in Tal Khalakh, a town in eastern Syria, along the Lebanese-Syria border; and another in the northern province of Idlib during raids on towns there.
Activists also said that troops raided homes and combed areas in northern Syria near the Turkish border and in central Syria looking for the former attorney general of Hama province, Adnan Bakkour, who has reportedly left the country and whose resignation over the crackdown greatly embarrassed the government. Human rights campaigners believe that Bakkour, who has said hundreds of demonstrators have been killed from torture in jails and police stations, has enough evidence to take action against Assad and his government in the International Criminal Court.