The head of the of the Syrian Opposition and the Revolutionary Forces (SMDK) expressed concern on Thursday that the Syrian regime may leave prisoners to die if they contracted coronavirus, calling for the inspection of regime-run prisons for possible COVID-19 cases.
Anas al-Abde urged the international Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to lead an examination for signs of the virus in regime-run jails, in a statement released on the SMDK’s website.
In his statement, addressed to ICRC President Peter Maurer, Abde expressed worry that thousands of prisoners locked up by the regime are at risk to catching and spreading the disease.
“This plague can spread to prisons. The regime may use this situation for its own interest and get rid of the prisoners (by letting them die),” al-Abde said.
There are at least 500,000 detainees inside regime-run prisons since the war in Syria began in 2011, according to opposition sources. There are also about 130,000 Syrians in detention centres.
The ICRC has expressed concern that there is a high risk the virus can spread into prisons. In a statement release on its website, the NGO highlighted that conditions in prisons, especially over- crowding, lack of air conditioning, bad infrastructure and poor hygiene all contribute to the spread of the virus.
Damascus has so far only reported one case of COVID-19 but fears are high that the virus could spread rapidly among the war-battered country’s most vulnerable communities.
Earlier this week, Human rights groups warned of a “catastrophe” if the novel coronavirus hits the Syrian regime’s overcrowded and squalid prisons, where inmates are routinely denied medical care.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long documented abuses in the prisons of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including executions, torture and starvation.
“If the novel coronavirus spreads in security branches or prisons… this will lead to a major humanitarian catastrophe,” said Diana Semaan, Syria researcher at Amnesty International.
“Over the past nine years, we have found that security forces and the heads of the security branches do not provide any kind of medical care for even illnesses considered simple to treat compared to the coronavirus.”
The tens of thousands of prisoners are routinely packed into small overcrowded cells in conditions especially ripe for the spread of disease and denied adequate food, medical care and ventilation, rights groups say.
While no outbreak in a Syrian prison has so far been reported, fears were compounded on Sunday after the regime in Damascus announced the country’s first coronavirus case.
Syria’s conflict has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since starting in 2011 with anti-government protests.
It has also ravaged the economy and laid waste to much of the country’s infrastructure, including the health sector.
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