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Terrorism & Security

Syrian prison riot shrouded in silence

The unrest in the facility, which holds more than 10,000 Islamists, democracy activists, and intellectuals, in addition to regular criminals, comes as the West moves to reengage with Damascus.

By Liam StackCorrespondent / July 10, 2008

A riot by political prisoners at Syria's Sedneya prison was violently put down this week under the cover of a media blackout, leaving human rights organizations scrambling to discover the extent of the casualties.

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The fighting and its media coverup began just days before President Bashar al-Assad is due to attend a Paris summit on the creation of a Mediterranean Union, a major step toward Western reengagement with Damascus.

The riot began on Saturday as a protest by prisoners against poor treatment in the jail, which holds more than 10,000 political prisoners, mostly Islamists, democracy activists, and Lebanese detained during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which ended in 2005. Days later, little is still known about what happened at Sednaya and the true extent of the casualties.

By Tuesday. the violence had ended, but prisoners and guards remained in a standoff, with more than 300 soldiers held hostage, reported Beirut-based media watchdog Menassat.

Syrian authorities will not reveal the number of fatalities and injuries nor the timeline of events that led to the fighting. Most estimates of casualties have been provided by human rights activists working in the region, who claim that the Syrian authorities responded to the riot with live ammunition, helicopters, tanks, and tear gas.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group with ties to the opposition, estimates that 25 inmates have been killed and 100 injured, and that 400 soldiers have been taken hostage, according to Agence France-Presse.

Some observers speculate that the Assad government is using the riot as a pretext for killing troublesome dissidents, according to the Financial Times.

A week after the fighting began, reliable information is still hard to find. Syrian media have given the incident scant attention. Some have not reported that there was ever a disturbance at the prison, and none have covered the resultant damages and casualties.


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