DAMASCUS // Bashar Assad, the Syria president, was in Paris for a headline-grabbing summit when he last met Nicolas Sarkozy, his French counterpart. That was in July and amounted to a diplomatic coup for Damascus. All the American attempts to isolate and weaken Syria had failed, and Europe was finally re-engaging. Syria had, for the time being at least, triumphed.
While the president was away dealing with matters of international importance, a few kilometres north of Damascus a deadly prison riot was entering its second week. Months later, with Mr Sarkozy in Syria on a reciprocal visit, little is publicly known about what happened in Saydnaya prison. But a few details that can be pieced together give an insight into the various internal tensions pulling at Syria.
According to human rights groups, at least 25 inmates were shot and killed by government troops after staging a rebellion in which they took control of the detention centre. In the only official comment on the matter, the Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana) noted that, "a number of prisoners convicted of extremism and terrorism crimes raised chaos, disturbing the public order during the prison administration's inspection tour".
When the riot started, on July 5, inmates were able to use mobile phones - routinely smuggled into the jail - and revealed some of what was happening. One political detainee reported that Muslim inmates had started a rebellion and taken 400 prison guards hostage, who they were using as bargaining chips in negotiations with the Syrian authorities. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, close to the banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition, said there had been shooting at the prison and helicopters flying over the area as Syrian forces moved in to retake it.
Those early attempts to restore authority apparently failed, because a fortnight after the riots began it was still under way, according to Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organisation for Human Rights, an independent Syrian advocacy group. Interviewed at the time in the Syrian capital, he said the inmates were protesting against being held without trial. "We don't have any real information as to what's happening," he said. "There is a sit in, there are guards being held hostage. The mobile phone coverage has now been cut off.
"It's not the first problem in Saydnaya. The prisoners started fires, they burned part of the prison a while back. That shows the reasons behind this are the lack of services. There are many prisoners who have been in there for a year or two years without any trial - they have no rights." Saydnaya is one of Syria's largest internment facilities. It was built in 1987 to replace the squalor of various crumbling old prisons. It was designed to hold up to 5,000 people, mainly those convicted of crimes while serving in the military. However, it sometimes holds more, human rights groups said, and while a majority of inmates are thought to be soldiers, there are also political prisoners, detained as part of a campaign against dissidents.
Some of those dissidents are advocates of peaceful reform, but not all. The Syrian authorities said militants, including al Qa'eda fighters, are being held there. While opposition figures do not believe all prisoners convicted of terrorism in Syria are really guilty - the justice system is widely criticised - independent sources here said Saydnaya did house some militants who returned to Syria after fighting the Americans in Iraq.
"There are political prisoners, but there are also hundreds - perhaps 200 or 300 - Salafists [Sunni extremists] and al Qa'eda fighters," Mr Qurabi said. He said six prison guards and 15 inmates were killed in the riot, with many more injured receiving treatment at a military hospital. No numbers have been released and the names of those who died or were wounded have not been revealed. Abdul Aziz al Kheir, a former political prisoner, spent more than a decade in Syrian jails, including time in Saydnaya. He said there was discontent about the lack of trials, caused in part because of a big backlog of cases in national courts. But he said he did not believe the conditions inside the prison provoked the riot. "In the past, Syrian prisons were very bad, and prisoners would get beaten," he said.
"But that stopped years ago. Now, once you're in prison, it's not as difficult. The punishment is the loss of liberty. The cells are really rooms, and you can choose which one you live in. There are books - the political prisoners have collected perhaps the best library in all of Syria there." Inside the prison, inmates are left largely to decide how to run their daily affairs - some even have computers and internet access to carry on businesses, while others bribe their way into having conjugal visits with their spouses. They can move around freely inside the prison. It was these freedoms that Mr Kheir said had probably allowed the rioters to plan and carry out their revolt.
Someone who was in direct contact with prison guards provided The National with a detailed account of the riot, on condition of anonymity. According to this information - which is unconfirmed - the prison authorities were tipped off that a riot was planned by a group of militants. Hundreds of police were brought in to carry out a surprise inspection and foil the plot, but they were new recruits and, when the search began, the militants - some hardened in combat against the US military - simply brought their plan into effect.
Using sharpened metal bed posts as improvised weapons, they killed some of the young police officers, who were armed with wooden sticks, not firearms, and captured 400. As the riot spread to the roof, sentries opened fire, killing some of the prisoners. But they were unable to hold them back and had to flee. At least one guard, according to this account, died after falling from the roof while trying to escape.
Before the prison was overrun, the guards managed to snatch Samir al Bahar, a wheelchair-bound senior Islamist imprisoned on terrorist charges. They would later use him as a mediator to try to negotiate a settlement, apparently without success. Three weeks after the riot began, there was still a stand-off between the authorities and the inmates, according to the source. The Syrian security services had managed to retake the first floor, but the third floor remained under the control of the inmates, with between 600 and 1,200 inside.
"They have been trying to negotiate, but I don't know what they are thinking," the source said in July. "The Syrians want to get the hostages out safely if they can, but what are the inmates thinking? You can't kill prison guards and then expect to talk your way out of that kind of situation. I don't know what they want; there was a suggestion they asked to be taken to Iraq and left there, to fight the Americans."