DAMASCUS // An international human-rights inspector was given access to a Syrian prison yesterday, the first time foreign observers have ever been permitted inside one of the country's detention centres.
Anand Grover, a special rapporteur appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, carried out a one-and-a-half hour inspection in Damascus central prison yesterday morning, during which he was allowed to talk to a number of inmates.
Members of the UN team, which has been on a nine-day fact-finding mission in Syria, were clearly surprised their "persistent" requests to go inside a detention facility were finally granted. They were only informed at the last minute that the jail trip would take place.
"I don't know the reason why, but today we were able to visit central Damascus prison," Mr Grover told reporters at a press conference yesterday, in which he praised the Syrian authorities for their co-operation with his work. "It was the first visit by a non-Syrian."
He refused to make detailed public comments, saying his findings would be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2011, as part of a detailed report on the human-rights situation in Syria. But he revealed he had spoken to the prison governor, prison doctors and inmates who were receiving treatment at the centre's medical facility.
"I wish I had more time [in the prison]," he said. "I would urge the government that more visits be allowed."
As a special rapporteur, Mr Grover is an independent expert assigned by the UN to examine a particular human-rights issue. Mr Grover is a lawyer specialising in cases related to HIV/Aids. His trip to Syria was intended to probe healthcare provisions, in particular access to medical services for vulnerable groups, including prisoners and women.
It was not within his remit to carry out a thorough inspection of a prison, and he made it clear he had not done so.
Nonetheless, civil-society activists here said his gaining access was "totally unexpected" and indicated a new level of transparency from the Syrian authorities.
Abdel Karim Rehawee, the founder of the Syrian Human Rights League, said: "There is a new openness now, and this is a very good step, another good signal. We look forward to the government taking more steps, especially in regard to releasing political prisoners and prisoners of conscience."
According to activists, Damascus central prison provides a reasonable standard of living, including good food, adequately sized cells, a library and television. Mr Grover said it had an ambulance on 24-hour standby, and provided medical care that was "up to the mark".
"This prison is already at or close to international standards, there are no human-rights violations there," Mr Rehawee said.
Human-rights groups have, however, been highly critical of other Syrian detention centres. Earlier this month there was outrage after Muhannad al Hassani, a civil-rights lawyer jailed for three years under emergency laws, was assaulted in his jail cell in Adra prison, in Damascus, and then put into solitary confinement.
There is also a campaign for the government to investigate its handling of an uprising in Sednaya prison in July 2008, north of Damascus, which was eventually quashed by armed security officers. The fate of 42 inmates remains unknown and the advocacy group Human Rights Watch says at least nine are believed to have been killed.
As well as visiting the prison, Mr Grover examined general healthcare provisions. He was effusive in his praise for the country's free health service, which, under the constitution, promises medical treatment to the entire population.
However Mr Grover said that more than 100,000 Kurds, denied citizenship by the Syrian authorities, found access to health services "severely hindered", a fact he said "casts a shadow over the many remarkable accomplishments" of the Syrian government to provide health care to all.