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Red Cross visits Syrian jail, raids renew near Turkey

Sep 5, 2011, 10:40 a.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

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

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.

The announcement came as Syrian forces launched 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.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament Assad had lost all legitimacy, joining the United States, France and other European countries that have said he must leave for Syria to become a democracy after four decades of autocratic rule.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby will visit Syria on Wednesday, Egypt's news agency MENA reported on Monday. Elaraby had said the visit would be used to pass on Arab worries about the Syrian authorities' violent crackdown on protests against Assad's rule.

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.

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 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.

FLEEING TO TURKEY

In the northwestern province of Idlib, Adelsalam Hassoun, 24, a blacksmith, was killed by army snipers on Monday just after he had crossed into Turkey from the village of Ain al-Baida on the Syrian side, his cousin told Reuters by telephone from Syria.

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