The Story Behind the Hama Prison Revolt

Al-Modon reveals the events leading up to the riots and the dealings between the regime and prisoners after inmates seized a number of guards on Monday

On Thursday morning, regime forces released 14 prisoners from Hama Central Prison within the context of the current negotiations between Syrian authorities and prisoners on the fourth day of a revolt which began on Monday, May 2. The most recent information from inside the prison indicates that the inmates are moving towards demanding an “international guarantee” in order to end their demonstration, leaving the choice to end the revolt up to the regime, which is working on an escalation by force.

The number of police special forces surrounding the prison walls was doubled on Thursday afternoon, while inmates refused to deliver a batch of 15 new prisoners the regime agreed to let go due to an absence of official paperwork needed to guarantee their release. At the time of writing, the regime forces responded over loudspeaker that the prisoners had one hour to hand over the 15 or they will storm the prison.

An inmate in the prison told Al-Modon: “We’re now demanding an international guarantee from a group like the Red Cross, or a decree to release 491 prisoners the regime promised to let go.” The source confirmed the regime will release 15 new prisoners on Thursday and that a delegation of religious figures and sheikhs from Hama had arrived at the prison to negotiate with the inmates. The prisoners responded that they do not want to waste time with the delegation in light of the increasing military mobilization of regime forces in the prison area. All prisoners released so far are among 491 the regime promised to let go.

The revolt started after an attempt by the police to transfer four prisoners from the Hama prison to Saidnaya prison. The prisoners in the “terrorism” wing refused to hand over their four inmates, seizing nine police officers who had come to take them, and began their revolt. The rest of the prison wings soon joined in. The prisoners removed the doors of the quarters and opened them for each other, taking control of the prison utilities department, which includes the bakery and kitchen. The prisoners reinforced the main gate by putting steel doors and beds behind it, placing the whole facility under the prisoners’ control, except for the roof and the officers’ administration building.

The regime meanwhile brought in special forces and security forces supported by machine gun-mounted cars into the prison area and around the main gate, while the police special forces took up positions on the prison roof. The first attempt to storm the prison began on Monday afternoon, with the police firing teargas into the prison wings, and shooting live bullets in the air. There were some cases of asphyxiation among the prisoners, but the offensive ended without any serious injuries.

After the attempt to storm the prison failed, the negotiating track was initiated, in a push and pull fashion, by the regime, sometimes with threats and intimidation, and other times gently. The electricity and water were cut off from the prison multiple times, and the security and special forces tried to storm it again on Wednesday, May 4. The attempts to storm the prison came after negotiations between the two sides floundered.

Regime forces released 32 prisoners on Tuesday as a first batch, under the mediation of the Syrian Red Crescent, and eight of them headed to Qalaat al-Madiq in the liberated areas, while the remaining prisoners returned to their homes in areas under regime control in Hama.

The regime blocked the Red Crescent’s involvement in the second release process on Thursday morning, asking aid members to leave the prison area. The second batch of prisoners was received by the head of Hama police, who took over the process of sending them to Qalaat al-Madiq.

There are about 850 prisoners in the “terrorism” wing, 441 of them still awaiting trial before the unconstitutional “terrorism court.” The “terrorism wing” is specifically for political prisoners and opponents of the Syrian regime, which invented the terrorism courts for reprisals against offenders with unjust rulings and illegal trials. In the remaining wings there are about 350 prisoners under charges of theft, drug dealing, and murder, bringing the total number of prisoners to about 1,200.

Since the beginning of the revolt the prisoners have assigned each other roles: there are those who bake bread and cook, and those who manage cleaning, and a council responsible for negotiating with the regime.

The regime’s offer it presented on Wednesday included delivering the rebellious prisoners to the ground floor of the prison for prison administration, in exchange for releasing 491 prisoners guaranteed by the Red Crescent and traders from Hama.

The regime gave the prisoners a deadline until midnight on Wednesday/Thursday to resolve the issue or regime forces would storm the prison. Afterward, a delegation of prisoners left the building where the revolt was taking place to negotiate, then one of the negotiators returned after extending the deadline by an hour, to consult with the other prisoners. The regime presented a new offer, which included: The “terrorism” wing prisoners remain in their wing, until the formation of a joint administration with the prison administration, and then regularizing the status of 491 prisoners over a month, and pursuing measures to regularize the rest.

After that, the negotiating delegation returned with the final offer, which included a deadline until Thursday morning to make a decision between two choices: First, the prisoners continue the revolt and bear the consequences, or the prisoners open the gates and return things to the way they were before, in exchange for the release of 491 prisoners over the course of Ramadan, and no questions asked about any of the prisoners regarding their role in the revolt.

Al-Modon’s source said the guarantees are the basic problem in the negotiations with the regime. In the beginning there were guarantees from the Red Crescent and some Hama businessmen, and then the Red Crescent was neutralized, making the guarantees “the word of honor of the deputy interior minister.” From the beginning, the prisoners have demanded the mediation of the International Red Cross, but the response was that the Red Cross needed 10 days to reach the prison, as a pretext for the regime to refuse its participation because it is an international agency.

The prisoners tried to communicate with the team of the international envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, because he had appointed a deputy responsible for the prisoner issues. The response came that de Mistura was following the events from behind the scenes.

Most of the prisoners support a continuation of the revolt, but are facing dwindling supplies in the warehouses which are only enough for four days, even with austerity. Al-Modon’s source said: “We know that the regime will put pressure on us with a siege, so that there’s no room for us to resolve the issue, and the deadline will end on Thursday.”

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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