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.
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.
“Abdelsalam was hit in the head. He was among a group of family members and other refugees who dashed across the plain to Turkey when six armored personnel carrier deployed outside Ain al-Baida and started firing their machineguns into the village at random this morning,” Mohammad Hassoun said
Thousands of families fled their homes in the northern border region in June when troops assaulted town and villages that had seen big protests against Assad.
Faced with a heavy security presence in central neighborhoods of Damascus and Aleppo, and military assaults against a swathe of cities from Latakia on the coast to Deir al-Zor in the East, street rallies calling for an end to the Assad family’s domination of Syria have intensified in towns and villages across the country of 20 million.
Demonstrators have been encouraged by the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and growing international pressure on Assad. The European Union has imposed an embargo on Syrian oil exports, jeopardizing a major source of revenue for Assad, who inherited power from his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.
“Economic pressure will be key in swaying the merchant class toward the side of the uprising, but Assad will keep adopting the military solution and deploying heavy weapons across Syria,” said Syrian dissident in exile Bassam al-Bitar.
“International intervention, something akin to a no-fly zone, will still be needed to protect protests and encourage more members of the army to defect,” Bitar, a former diplomat, told Reuters from Washington.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, who once backed Assad, said ordinary people in Syria had made it clear they would not back down despite daily killings.
“It’s clear now after the protests that have taken place in Syria...(that) the killing is almost daily. It’s clear that the people will not abandon their demands, the question is how to get out of this internal deadlock in Syria,” he said.
Tiny Qatar, which has significant regional clout, was the first Arab country to criticize Assad’s bloody crackdown, closing its embassy in Damascus two months ago after the building was attacked by pro-Assad militiamen.
Assad has repeatedly said he is fighting agents of what he calls a foreign plot to divide Syria.
Syrian authorities, who have expelled most foreign media, blame “armed terrorist groups” for the bloodshed and say that 500 army and police have been killed by such gangs.
Daily protests have increased in northwestern regions that include the cities of Homs, Hama, Idlib and the main port city of Latakia, prompting an escalation of military raids that killed hundreds of Syrians in the last month, rights organizations say.
Last week, Adnan Bakkour, attorney general of the province of Hama, announced his defection to the opposition side on YouTube. Security forces have been combing the region and adjacent Idlib to find him, activists and residents say.
State authorities said Bakkour had been kidnapped by gunmen, but he said he resigned because security forces had killed 72 jailed protesters and activists at Hama’s central prison on the eve of a military assault on the city on July 31.
Bakkour said at least another 420 people were killed in the operation and were buried in public parks.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habbous in Dubai; Editing by Myra MacDonald