Monday, 10 July 2017

Prison in Hama (Syria): Detainees take control

 'Since May 2016, Sijin Hama al-Markazi Central Prison in Hama, Syria, has been completely under the control of the prisoners. Starting from the protest against the transfer of four detainees to a detention center run by the Syrian secret services, political and ordinary prisoners united and took control of the building. The doors of the cells were broken, the outer doors barricaded. The remaining supervisors were locked up and no one can enter or leave the prison without the permission of the detainees. Since the authorities have not yet regained full control of the building and hundreds of prisoners have been released as a result of negotiations.

 En Route! Was able to contact by telephone with two mutineers, Hamid and Urwa, political prisoners still currently detained. Here we reproduce the fruit of several telephone interviews with them. They tell us how they took control of the prison, how they organize themselves inside, the negotiations with the authorities ... At their request and for obvious reasons of security we only give here part of what they told us.

 The unique and little-known situation of the Hama mutiny is the very example of the kind of tension that could spread in a Syria where armed rebellion is unable to hold but where new forms of struggle can emerge in "pacified" areas. It is likely that this experience, far from the front lines, foreshadows the challenges facing Bashar al-Assad's regime: resistance from the areas under its control.

 Following the interview with Hamid and Urwa, you will find a brief description of the Syrian prison system and its operation since the uprising.

 Can you tell us how the mutiny started? It all started in May 2016 when four prisoners from Hama's central prison were to be transferred to Sednaya prison. We know that they would be transferred there for execution. They had been sentenced to death by a military court without any possibility of defending themselves. Then their families had paid a corrupt judge so that the penalties were not applied. The judge pocketed the money but it did not change anything. The secret services then tried to transfer them and we opposed it. We tried to negotiate and in the face of their refusal to discuss, we closed the doors of the prison, barricaded all the issues.

 After a walk, we took control of all parts of the prison, the courtyard, the canteen, the officers' offices, and so on. Inside we destroyed all the doors that separate the cells, to make it impossible to regain control of the prison, even if they managed to return to the prison.

 For eight days we received neither water nor food. The situation was very difficult. By closing the gates of the prison we had locked up with us several employees of the administration of the prison. They were not armed and we did not do anything to them, they were just in jail when we took control of the building. We are in conflict with the secret services and the judges.

 After eight days, the regime agreed to start negotiating. Gradually we released the employees of the administration of the prison in exchange for the release of some prisoners. It started with the release of a policeman against the release of 46 inmates. Then, in tranches, 380 prisoners were released. Finally, we reached an agreement that was only partially respected. The mutiny was terminated, and we all had to be released within four months. In reality it did not happen. Admittedly, the administration took over part of the operation of the prison, notably administrative management and the canteen. But inside we are the ones who take care of the rest as we want. The cell doors are still not closed despite their demands and threats.

 How did it happen between the prisoners? We know that you do not all have the same status, did it make it difficult to organize? The mutiny was initiated by a group of political prisoners, but it was successfully extended to prisoners of war. common right. It was not easy to make a junction with ordinary prisoners. They are judged and they know the date of their release, which is not our case. We have nothing to lose when they do not have an interest to join us in this fight. But fortunately all the prisoners were united.

 Of course we must be careful, the regime has certainly infiltrated us. But we almost all come from the city of Hama which has facilitated the building of bonds of trust between us.

 What has made this trust possible is that we do not have a leader and we are not affiliated with political movements. In general, for decisions taken urgently, we improvise with the principle of always remaining together. For the other decisions we discuss it among ourselves in each cell, we decide on something and the coordinators of each cell come together to decide together. If we do not agree we vote but generally we try to all agree.
Subsequently, committees are appointed to negotiate with the administration of the prison and with the State.

 What did the mutiny actually change in your daily life? Before we could rarely get out of our cells, we were crammed into closed cells with a ban on going out for a walk. Now everything is open and we go out for a walk whenever we want. We choose in which cell and with whom we sleep. And above all, there is no danger of being transferred to a prison of the secret services. The policemen and the masters who enter come in only when they are given permission and without their weapons. They are harmless. The mutiny, even since the partial return of the administration of the prison, allows us to protect ourselves from the secret services. On the other hand, we have very little food and no access to care.

 And where are you today? Despite the promises, there have been no new releases so the fight continues. There have been several visits by representatives of the regime, including the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Justice. Also of the so-called "opposition of the interior", deputies presented as opponents in Syria but who in reality are affiliated to the regime. Each time they come to give us guarantees, we make promises. They are afraid that the movement will grow, make noise and spread to the city or other prisons. So they try to save time like that.

 What we are asking for is not only the cancellation of the transfer of our four comrades, but the release of all prisoners from our prison.

 Currently we have control of the prison but the security forces are all around. We can not go out and they can not enter. It's been a hard year. Sometimes members of the prison administration and police officers enter the prison, but without their weapons. On the other hand, they can not question anyone or summon anyone. There are distributions of food, but in insufficient quantity. We are obliged to buy most of our food from the administration of the prison, which makes good use of it. There is a shortage of medicines and there are several serious illnesses. The situation in the prison is very difficult, but it is better than before the mutiny because we are free of our movements and we are all together.

 Do you know how it happens in other prisons? Are there similar movements? I believe that there were attempts at an uprising in Tartous Prison. But no mutiny situation like here in Hama. In some prisons, police officers find it difficult to enter and take one of the prisoners to transfer or interrogate. They must come in groups to intervene in the cells. But at home it is not at all possible. In other civilian prisons, such as Adra prison in Damascus, a mutiny like home is more difficult because the prisoners come from all over Syria and do not necessarily know each other. So it's more complicated to create bonds of trust, everyone suspects to collaborate with the regime. In addition to Adra the political prisoners and common law are mixed. So the political networks, from which the mutinies, the trusted groups, are separated and divided. Common prisoners are often responsible for monitoring political prisoners, so there is internal control by the prisoners themselves. It is well known that the regime did not hesitate to starve or bomb whole districts to resume them To the rebels. How do you explain the fact that they have not already done so for Hama prison? 

 Did they not have the means to forcibly restore it? The regime repeatedly tried to force it back into prison by sending tear gas and firing live ammunition. But it must be understood that there are technical reasons but also political reasons for his inability to return to prison. Technical, Because we completely barricaded the whole prison and they can not enter. The only solution would be to bomb the prison and exterminate us. The regime would certainly have no problem doing that in another prison, especially in a military prison or a prison run by the secret service. Except that, and this is the more political reason, our prison is a civil prison and all the prisoners come from Hama. Hama is a Sunni city, traditionally hostile to the Assad regime (an insurrection was violently crushed in 1982). Since 2011, the regime has invested heavily so that the insurrection does not take in this city. Indeed, the rebels never managed to take it and the front line is about 30 km to the north. So we're really in the back of the front line with the rebels, it's an area that the regime can not afford to see wavering. I think that here, more than anywhere else, the regime must keep the population safe. They cannot afford to risk an insurrection some kilometers from the Idlib front. This is partly why he is trying to avoid the passage in force here. Then, the regime has no special interest in losing that card there. They certainly think they can appear to be making concessions by releasing prisoners. If we are in this prison and we are not in a prison managed by the secret services, it is because they do not consider us to be really dangerous. If we were rebel fighters or mere supporters of the armed rebellion we would have been tortured to death. So we say that the regime wants to keep us as a bargaining chip, to be able to make a move when the time comes. It must be realized that such a mutiny in another prison would probably not have been possible.

 In Syria, there are several types of prisons corresponding to several detention regimes.
First of all, there are civilian prisons for ordinary prisoners. Prisoners pass before a judge, are tried and know the length of their detention. Since the beginning of the revolt, due to lack of space, political prisoners are also detained in civilian prisons. This is the case of the Hama central prison. Civilian prisons are administered by the prison administration and the police, and are under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. Political prisoners are generally arrested and tortured by the secret services in various centers, which depend on their authority, and therefore have no connection with the police and the judiciary. Then these prisoners with special status are sometimes transferred to civilian prisons, Where conditions of life are better (access, no interrogation under torture, the possibility of purchasing food, and an easily corruptible prison administration).
 Finally, there are detention centers depending on the regimes of exceptions: that is, centers run by the army or the secret services directly. It is the case of the Palestine Branch, the prison of Palmyra (before its destruction by the Islamic State) and Sednaya , as well as numerous clandestine detention centers scattered in the buildings of the various secret services, military bases and hospitals. Mass executions and systematic torture have been reported by Amnesty International, including the Sednaya prison.

 The organized and bureaucratic nature of these massacres was revealed following the defection of "Caesar" [ 1 ].
 The vast majority of political prisoners, especially when accused of supporting the rebels (having taken up arms, But also nourished, cared for, welcomed ...) are locked there.Torture is systematic and the living conditions are terrible. It is rare to get out alive. These prisons existed before the outbreak of the insurrection. After the 1980s, the Syrian regime massively locked up Islamist militants, far-left or pro-Palestinian. [ 2 ]

 Since the beginning of the insurgency, new detention centers have emerged to deal with the massive influx of prisoners. In hospitals, military bases, cellars, clandestine torture and detention centers are set up. Each secret service, Syrian or foreign militia has its own detention centers.
 The issue at the outset of the Hama mutiny was precisely to prevent the transfer of prisoners from a civilian prison to one of those detention centers which are not alive and which depend on the exception regime of the secret services.

 While attempts at a political settlement of the Syrian conflict have been proliferating for many years without any results, the issue of the release or exchange of prisoners is regularly highlighted in the negotiations as the only way there may be some progress.
At the international conferences in Astana (since January 2017) and Geneva (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017), the issue of the release of prisoners is systematically raised. At the same time, the actors of the conflict regularly sign local agreements which can allow the release or exchange of prisoners (for more details consult the article Diplomacy against the Syrian rebels which revisits the agreements of Astana,

[ 1 ] Caesar is the code name given by international lawyers and Syrian activists who interviewed this official military police photographer, who defected in January 2014. Caesar was responsible for photographing the bodies of dead detainees in order to archive. He left Syria with tens of thousands of images, many of them showing the bodies of deceased detainees in Syria's detention centers.

[ 2 ] The book The Shell , by Mustapha Khalifa, is one of the best stories about Syrian prisons before the insurrection.'

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