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Red Cross visits Syrian jail, raids near Turkey

Sep 5, 2011, 5:22 p.m.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (L) meets Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in Damascus September 5, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/Sana/Handout

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Stephanie Nebehay

AMMAN/GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria has opened its main prison in Damascus to the Red Cross, the organization said, a move that could help reveal the fate of some of the thousands detained since the start of a five-month uprising.

The announcement came on Monday as forces and militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed at least 10 civilians across Syria on Monday in assaults to end pro-democracy protests and to stop refugees fleeing the bloodshed from crossing to Turkey, activists and residents said.

The ICRC visits people in places of detention worldwide from Gaza to Guantanamo to assess their conditions of detention and treatment.

But its confidential findings are shared only with the authorities concerned, which human rights activists warn could diminish the impact of the visits. Many people who have been rounded up or disappeared are being held in schools and factories which may be off-limits to the ICRC, they add.

"We know that there are more than 15,000 detainees who are not in the formal prisons, among them five of my relatives," Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based Syrian exile and activist, told Reuters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said its officials visited detainees in the central prison in the Damascus suburb of Adra in an "important step forward" to fulfill its humanitarian activities in Syria.

"The Syrian authorities have granted the ICRC access to a place of detention for the first time. Initially, we will have access to persons detained by the Ministry of the Interior and we are hopeful that we will soon be able to visit all detainees," ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement issued at the end of a two-day visit to Damascus.

Human rights campaigners say Syrian forces have arrested tens of thousands of people since the uprising demanding political freedom and an end to 41 years of Assad family rule erupted in March, with many being housed in security police buildings off limits to the ICRC, whose reports are not public.

They say a reported defection of the attorney general of the city of Hama, which was attacked by the military last month, could reveal details of human rights abuses, including shootings and torture of prisoners, which have intensified in the last month as protests spread.

UNOFFICIAL JAILS

A Syrian lawyer, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, said the Red Cross needed to have access to unofficial jails and detention centers to see torture chambers and the extent of human rights violations in the country.

"The Damascus central prison is mostly for criminal, not political cases. The bulk of the ugliest torture takes place in the cellars of secret police branches spearheading the repression, such as Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence," he said.

Syrian authorities do not reveal the number of detainees in the country but they have previously denied torture allegations and said that any arrests were made in compliance with the constitution.

Syrian forces launched on Monday their biggest sweep against popular unrest in Syria's northwest near Turkey since June, killing a civilian in raids that have galvanized the West against President Bashar al-Assad.

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