A letter to Putin: 'Release Syrian detainees before Covid-19 strikes'

A letter to Putin: 'Release Syrian detainees before Covid-19 strikes'
A Syrian doctor and former detainee has made a last-ditch effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Syria's packed jails by writing to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
8 min read
17 June, 2020
Dr Mohammad was imprisoned at the start of the Syrian revolution. [The New Arab]
Nine years after tens of thousands of people were forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime during a crackdown on peaceful protesters, family members are still waiting for answers about their loved ones.

An estimated 144,889 people have been imprisoned since the start of the revolution in 2011, mostly peaceful protesters or civil society activists calling for reforms, but also those completely uninvolved in political activity.

Few families know the whereabouts of their loved ones, let alone their fates, while others have received notorious "death notices" informing of the demise of their sons, daughters, or fathers in jail.

What is beyond debate, given the testimonies of prisoners and defected prison workers, are the harrowing conditions these detainees are subject to.

Letter to Putin

One former detainee to bear witness to these crimes is Dr Mohammad Abdo Hilal, a physician who was detained by Syrian intelligence for treating injured anti-government protesters in 2011.

On his arrival at prison, Dr Mohammad said he was subject to various forms of torture, starting with the sadistic act of being forced to stand upright for 24-hours with threats of violence if he moved a muscle.

He wore the same shirt for 40 days straight and could not shower during his nearly two-month incarceration. The cells Dr Mohammad was crammed into held between 40 and 50 other prisoners with only one toilet between them. They took it in turns to stand so other detainees had space to lie down and sleep.

After 55 days inside the black hole of intelligence detention centres, Dr Mohammad was then sent to a standard prison for two weeks.

After being temporarily released, he made it over the border to Jordan, where he treated refugees, and has since campaigned for the release of Syrian detainees from his new home in Turkey.

"This cause is very important to me because when you get out of the regime's prisons it's like you have been granted a new life," Dr Mohammad told The New Arab.

"You feel like you have to work for those who stayed behind because after two months of being inside you think of suicide, so you can only imagine what is like for those who are stayed on for years."

Outside we have the two-metre distance rule and people still can get infected, so you can imagine how bad it will be in these prisons

The new threat of Covid-19 inside the regime jails has added urgency to his cause and with all options exhausted Dr Mohammad decided to voice his fears of an outbreak directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a letter, one of Bashar al-Assad's key foreign allies, demanding action.

He urged the Russian president to use his influence on the regime to press for the release of political prisoners and urgently improve conditions for those inside to prevent a devastating outbreak of Covid-19 inside. 

In the letter, he described the prisons as "the worst place one can live right now", a statement in no way hyperbole given the photos released by former intelligence photographer "Caesar", showing thousands of dead detainees, whose lives were cut short at the hands of prison guards.

Dr Mohammad explained in the letter that as a witness to these unsanitary conditions and daily cruelties, an outbreak of Covid-19 would be a "death sentence" for detainees, whose immune systems will be broken from years of repeated acts of torture, little food, and nearly a decade surviving in packed, filthy, and unventilated cells.

"If coronavirus comes there is no way for them to escape it. The Syrian regime are not transparent about their cases so there is a high risk for them," he told The New Arab.

Medical warning

The letter is also written from Dr Mohammad's perspective as a physician who is concerned about the welfare of the general population in Syria.

He warned Putin of the catastrophic consequences that a coronavirus outbreak inside detention centres could mean for those outside, with prison guards and staff are also vulnerable to the disease and at risk of spreading it among the public.

"This is a peaceful way of bringing up this issue and holding the Russian president to account because he has intervened in the Syria, he is providing support to the Syrian regime, and so he should know that maybe another disaster will happen with Covid-19," Dr Mohammad added.

"I'm representing nobody but myself, as a doctor and former detainee… I am just sending a humanitarian message, from a medical background and my experiences as a detainee."

This cause is very important to me because when you get out of the regime's prisons it's like you have been granted a new life

So far, there has been no response from Putin's staff but he has received a receipt from the presidential website confirming that the letter was delivered, making Russia accountable if the Covid-19 outbreak occurs in Syrian regime prisons.

Although Dr Mohammad said he was planning on writing this letter before recent attacks on the Syrian regime began in Russian media, it presents Moscow with an opportunity to press Assad on this key human rights issue and call for the release of detainees.

"I don't know why this this criticism has started or if it is genuine, but the letter could have some synergy… NGOs have also highlighted the issue of Covid-19 among detainees so I hope these collaborative efforts have some effect," Dr Mohammad added.

Dr Mohammad stresses that the political prisoners have committed no crimes to warrant their continued detention and their release should be an unconditional and not part of any political bargaining by Russia with the West on issues such as reconstruction.

Bashar al-Assad likely understands the risks posed by a Covid-19 outbreak in prisons. In March, the regime followed the lead of other countries, such as Iran, by ordering the release of some prisoners but this did not include political detainees. Human rights groups said that even this amnesty has still not been carried out.

"Outside we have the two-metre distance rule and people still can get infected, so you can imagine how bad it will be in these prisons. If only one person gets sick, then this will be disastrous in the collective cells," he said.

The UN has also repeatedly failed its obligations in protecting detainees, Dr Mohammad said, despite its verbal protests about conditions inside jails.

After nine-years since the mass arrest of activists, tens of thousands of prisoners have been hanged and there is evidence that a crematorium has been constructed at one detention centre to dispose of bodies with no consequences for Assad.

The UN's calls for prisoner exchanges as a solution to this crisis makes a dangerous conflation between innocent peaceful protesters - mostly disappeared before war in Syria broke out - and armed opponents of the Assad regime, Dr Mohammad said.

"This is harming the cause. The political detainees should not be a negotiating card and all of them should have access to medical treatment and better conditions," he said.

"They should have monitors (protecting them) by international and human rights organizations. The sick, elderly, women and vulnerable should be immediately released, this is what we want to emphasise."

Face of the revolution

Another obstacle for activists highlighting the issue of detainees has been the tendency of Western mainstream media, government officials, aid workers to overlook the issue of detainees and focus more on the threat posed by extremist groups such as the Islamic State group, Dr Mohammed added.

This means the potential slaughter of more than 100,000 political prisoners is often treated as a side issue by European and US media and governments, Dr Mohammad said, while indirectly helping the regime escape the widespread vilification for its gross human rights abuses.

This is a peaceful way of bringing up this issue and holding the Russian president to account because he has intervened in the Syria

It has also extinguished the true and progressive face of the Syrian revolution, with thousands of young men and women jailed, tortured and murdered for the simple demands of political reforms and human rights, he said.

"The first question from many western journalists [etc] has always been about extremist groups. When you ask about these things you make them a priority and we have always suffered from that," Dr Mohammad said.

"I am one of millions of people in Syria who have fought for freedom... but there is little mention in the media about the people who started peaceful protests in 2011. They are still there but nobody knows about them."

In the letter, Dr Mohammad also highlights an uncomfortable truth that Bashar al-Assad - the man responsible for the jailing and killing of doctors - is also a medical man, who worked as an ophthalmologist in London before being marked as his father's heir.

The mass torture, rape, denial of medical treatment, and murder of detainees in Syria is in sharp contrast to the image Assad has tried to cultivate - particularly in the West - as "Dr. Bashar".

"I'm not expecting Assad to suddenly realise he is a doctor and that he has done something wrong. I have no hope that he will correct what he has done wrong," he said.

"He is killing detainees, he is burning their bodies, he is burying them in mass graves to eliminate any trace of them. So we may only find out a year later that a Covid outbreak happened and thousands of prisoners died. We have no information about where these people are."

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab and author of Syria Insight, previously known as Syria Weekly. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin