SYRIA

Syrian prisoners of conscience attempt hunger strike

Dozens of inmates in the main prison in Homs, Syria, launched a protest last week to demand their freedom. Most are imprisoned due to their opinions; the majority was arrested during the very first demonstrations against the Syrian regime in March 2011. Some have already served their sentence but continue to waste away in prison.

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Photo of a sit-in held in Homs prison (posted on Facebook.)

Dozens of inmates in the main prison in Homs, Syria, launched a protest last week to demand their freedom. Most are imprisoned due to their opinions; the majority was arrested during the very first demonstrations against the Syrian regime in March 2011. Some have already served their sentence but continue to waste away in prison.

The inmates’ protest and hunger strike lasted five days. They decided to suspend their protest on January 1 after meeting with the prison director, who reassured them that their grievances had been brought to the highest authorities in the state. However, the inmates said they would continue their strike if they saw no evidence of progress in the next few days.

The inmates used their mobile phones to film the protest and share images and information about it online.

Inmates gather in the main hall of the prison while chanting "We want out, we want out!"

The inmates went on hunger strike for five days to protest against their detention.

"When a prisoner complains, the authorities respond by saying that his file has been lost"

Heba H. is an activist and member of the Syrian opposition. She shared images of the inmates’ strike on her Facebook page and also managed to speak to several inmates on the phone.

The more than 1,000 people who participated in this protest movement are still ready to fight. They want to be freed. While their individual cases vary, they all say they are the victims of arbitrary decisions made by the administration.

Some of the inmates received 30 years in prison for simply protesting. Others still haven’t been freed even though they have served their sentences. But when they complain to the prison authorities, they are told that their files were lost. Similarly, dozens of them have been detained for months without a trial, while others were sentenced without ever being summoned to testify to defend themselves.

The Minister of Justice recently announced that a position would be set up for a lawyer to represent the poorest inmates. According this inmate, however, a lawyer has yet to contact him.

Since 2011, President Bashar al-Assad has signed four different amnesty laws. However, dozens of prisoners who should have benefitted from these new laws remain stuck in prison. [Editor’s note: The last general amnesty order, Decree No. 22, was adopted on June 9, 2014. It was directed at peaceful demonstrators who had been accused of such crimes as the "weakening of national sentiment". In June, authorities freed 87 people in Homs under this law. However, 2,000 prisoners of conscience remain in this prison].

Medicine is in short supply in the prison and several inmates are stuffed into each tiny cell. But the prisoners here are more worried about their fates than the conditions in which they live. Because of the chaos that reigns in the country, most prisoners feel that the authorities have simply abandoned them. They felt that media interest in their strike was their only chance to make their voices heard, especially by the Minister of Justice.

An estimated 265,000 prisoners of conscience are held in prisons in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. A lawyer who works with political prisoners and who has observed the implementation of the June 9, 2014 amnesty told Human Rights Watch that the number of liberations that resulted from this law has not surpassed 1,300 individuals, even though the Syrian authorities claim to have liberated 2,445 people.

Before being transferred to prison, Syrian activists are usually placed in detention centres managed by Syrian intelligence units, who don’t hesitate to use torture to obtain information and confessions. Human Rights Watch has identified four different intelligence centres in Homs where activists are tortured — the 318 branch of general intelligence, the centre for aerial intelligence, the antenna of the head of political intelligence and the centre for military intelligence.