'In the shaky mobile phone video, around a dozen men with grim faces stand in silence, their arms above their heads holding placards. The corridor’s yellow light reveals exposed wires and damp, peeling paint.
The protesters are detainees at Hama central prison: some were arrested during Syria’s peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2011 and have been held without trial since.
“We have been imprisoned for many long years in the darkness of detention cells, breathing in and breathing out agony,” one says, reading from a piece of paper explaining the decision for a hunger strike. “We are exhausted. We have the right to live and for our story to be taken seriously.” The powerful message is a rare glimpse into the invisible world of Syria’s hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. In Hama central prison around 200 men have now entered their third week of hunger strike in protest against their continued detention – and a decision to transfer 11 prisoners to Damascus’s infamous Sednaya prison.
If sent to Sednaya, the 11 are as good as “dead men walking,” said Mustafa, a local activist, who added that relatives have gathered outside Hama police station in solidarity protests. “Please, all human beings, all Syrians, I am not a terrorist. I never held a weapon, I just participated in a demonstration for freedom,” one hunger striking detainee said in a WhatsApp voice note. “We spent years in Sednaya and now they want to send us back to execute us. We did no wrong to the Syrian people, from any background or sects. Listen to our voices. Listen just for once.”
Hama central prison, a civilian facility supposed to be more humane than notorious intelligence detention centres and Sednaya, has been a hotbed of resistance since 2012, when a riot led to prisoners taking guards and members of the administration hostage. Negotiations for hearings and better conditions have failed time and again, leading to fresh riots and intermittent hunger strikes.
The new hunger strike is being held in protest at the decision of a military judge last month to send 11 men back to Sednaya and try another 68, including minors, in what detainees feared would lead to lengthy sentences and the death penalty. They are calling for a general amnesty.
Since the summer Damascus has issued a flurry of hundreds of belated death certificates for the disappeared. Many have taken the official acknowledgement as a sign that at this late stage of the war, Assad no longer fears repercussions – either at home or from the international community – in admitting that so many have died in state custody.
Damascus, along with neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, tired of shouldering the burden of large refugee populations, is now insisting that it is safe for Syrians to return home to “the nation’s embrace”.
Despite the strident promises of amnesty and reconciliation, however, new evidence is emerging that in areas recently retaken by the government from rebel forces, dozens of opposition figures and those who defected from the Syrian army are being disappeared. Their numbers add to the thousands who already languish in Assad’s prisons.
Inside Hama central prison, inmates are weakening from a diet of water, sometimes taken with salt or sugar. Posts in support have flooded Syrian social media. “The Syrian revolution is strong,” one supporter wrote. “May God protect you”.'