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.

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.

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.

On Sunday, one day after the riot began, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency released a terse statement laying responsibility for the fighting at the feet of the inmates themselves, calling them extremists and terrorists.

But according to Al Jazeera, the jail is home to intellectuals and democracy activists as well as Islamists, making it a mix of the Syrian regime's undesirables.

The rioting and the extreme secrecy with which the government has handled it come at a time when more American and European politicians and observers are calling for greater engagement with Syria.

In June, US Sens. Chuck Hagel and John Kerry penned an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal urging talks with Syria and arguing that the policy of isolating Damascus had only made it harder for the US to pursue its own interests vis-à-vis the Assad regime. They added that the US should play a large role in nascent Syrian-Israeli peace talks, currently being conducted with Turkey as a moderator.

On June 12, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent two senior envoys to Damascus to revive relations that had been frozen during Lebanon's political crisis and prepare for the summit this week on the formation of a Mediterranean Union.

In response, Mr. Assad, in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, has requested that France – and not the US – play a role in its negotiations with Israel, reports Agence France-Presse.

As Damascus comes in from the diplomatic cold, New York-based Human Rights Watch has urged Western governments to keep its treatment of political detainees, such as those at Sednaya, at the center of the political agenda.

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