Syrian opposition warns of ‘catastrophe’ if coronavirus infects detainees after death of prison guards

WHO must move fast to combat outbreak in north-west, says opposition

People walk past a damaged building depicting drawings alluding to the coronavirus and encouraging people to stay at home, in the rebel-held Idlib city, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Syria April 18, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Syria’s opposition has warned of a “catastrophe” if coronavirus spreads in regime-controlled prisons after two guards died in Damascus this week because of the virus.

The pandemic has put the spotlight back on the dire situation inside government prisons that hold hundreds of political prisoners and detainees.

"They are overcrowded, there is no hygiene or medical services inside, if the disease spreads then it would be a huge issue," Hadi Al Bahra, the co-chair of the Syrian opposition's constitutional committee, told The National.

Two of Adra’s prison guards, Hassan Ismael and Yasser Al Akkad died this week, Mr Al Bahra said.

“If the disease has reached the guards who are free to move and live in better conditions [than those detained] then you can imagine for sure that the virus is in the prison and among the detainees,” Mr Al Bahra said.

Poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and severe overcrowding in prisons means the virus could spread quickly.

Mr Al Bahra said the opposition received reports of confirmed coronavirus cases in Hama prison, but could not verify the exact number.

Prison guards have a lot of interaction with prisoners in Syrian government facilities, Sara Kayaali, Syria specialist with Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The National.

“They often torture them, sexually violate them, they are in contact often enough for me to say there is a high risk of infection, especially if this is being kept under wraps and proper procedures are not being taken,” she said.

Ms Kayaali said HRW could not confirm the death of the two prison guards.

The UN envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, last month, pointed to the risk of Covid-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, racing through the country’s prisons and urged quick action to free prisoners.

UN investigators and Western human rights activists say the Syrian regime have arrested and tortured tens of thousands of people since the conflict began in 2011.

We don't have enough hospital beds, intensive care unit beds, ventilators and physicians, so the highest risk area is the north-west

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it has started to support a variety of preventive measures against Covid-19 in some areas of detention in Syria.

This includes the donation "hygiene kits for detainees, as well as preventive equipment and materials like disinfectant, gloves, goggles and gowns to central prisons under the Ministry of Interior," ICRC spokesperson to Syria Ingy Sedky told The National.

“The plan is to cover 10 central prisons in order to limit as much as possible the risks of Covid-19 on detainees,” Ms Sedky said.

The opposition fears that with a ravaged health system and low number of physicians the country will not be able to contain the virus if it spreads.

More than 80 per cent of the population live in poverty, millions have been displaced and hundreds of thousands are crammed into overcrowded camps.


Mr Al Bahra, former president of the Syrian National Coalition, said the situation in North West Syria, which hosts 4.5 million people, has deteriorated sharply in recent months.

Syrian and Russian air strikes have forced almost millions civilians to flee towards the Turkish border since December.

A fragile ceasefire is currently in place.

“During the last three months there were more than 580 attacks that targeted medical facilities and personnel,” he said.

The majority of these medical facilities are out of order.

“We don’t have enough hospital beds, intensive care unit beds, ventilators and physicians, so the highest risk area is the north-west,” Mr Al Bahra said.

The World Health Organisation says it is dealing with a global shortage and is working to raise resources for Syria, which it calls a priority area.

Mr Al Bahra said WHO only delivered “test kits for 5,300 people for an area of 4.5 million.”

So far, Syria’s official count is 42 infections and two deaths, all in or around Damascus.


WHO created a $30 million plan to establish isolation units and prepare facilities for coronavirus patients. But the agency has yet to bring the supplies

“Everyone should push the WHO to move fast because we are under staffed, under equipped, so by luck we didn’t report any cases,” Mr Al Bahra said.

Instead, the opposition says that WHO is giving precedence to regime-controlled zones.

“We are against it because in regime control areas the medical facilities are intact, no one has assaulted them, they have a high concentration of physicians, nurses, so the area is more equipped to combat the virus,” he said.

If a case is recorded in the area it would be a "real dangerous issue that will put at risk around 4.5 million people," he said.

"The epidemic would be all over the area."