The Syrian authorities must cooperate fully with UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s prisons, detention centres and military hospitals, Amnesty International has warned.
Prisoners and detainees, including tens of thousands of people arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared, are at risk of contracting the disease as they are held in unhygienic conditions in locations across the country operated by the country’s security forces.
“In Syrian prisons and detention centres, COVID-19 could spread quickly due to poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and severe overcrowding”, said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.
“This government has a long record of denying prisoners and detainees the medical care and medicines that they urgently need. Anyone detained must have access to prevention and treatment services as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens lives.
“All prisoners of conscience – political activists, human rights defenders, and others imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights – must be immediately and unconditionally released. The early or conditional release of prisoners at high risk, such as older prisoners or those with serious medical conditions, should also be considered.”
As of 30 March, the Syrian Ministry of Health had acknowledged a total of 10 cases of COVID-19 in the country, and one death.
Since the start of the crisis in Syria in 2011, anyone perceived to oppose the Syrian government is at risk of being arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared and subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, in many cases leading to death in custody. According to the UN in 2019, an estimated 100,000 people are currently detained, abducted or missing in Syria.
Amnesty International has documented the arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance of scores of people targeted for their peaceful activism. Others were detained by security forces because they are relatives of wanted people who fled the country, or after being reported by informers on false accusations.
Amnesty International has extensively documented inhumane conditions in military prisons in Syria, including Saydnaya, and other detention centres. These conditions include severe overcrowding in cells; lack of access to medicine and medical treatment; and lack or inadequate access to sanitation, food and water. Former detainees have also told Amnesty International that they were held in cells with bodies of deceased detainees for several days. Others said that they were subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
Amnesty International found that the Syrian government’s systematic use of torture and the mass deaths of detainees in custody across detention facilities in Syria amounted to crimes against humanity.