REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Human Rights Watch has accused Syrian authorities of hiding hundreds of detainees from Arab League observers who are assessing whether the country is fulfilling a promise to end its violent crackdown against a nine-month-old uprising.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, the New York-based rights group said the detainees had been moved to off-limits military sites. It urged the 22-member regional bloc to insist on access to all places of detention.
The statement supports accusations made by opposition activists, who say the government is trying to mislead the league’s observers. Syrian officials have said monitors will have freedom of movement except to sensitive military sights.
A security officer in the strife-torn city of Homs, where the observers began their mission Tuesday, told Human Rights Watch that he had received orders from his prison director to help transfer between 400 and 600 detainees to other locations after Syria agreed early last week to admit the monitors.
The officer said the detainees were taken to a missile factory in Zaidal, just outside of Homs, in civilian jeeps and cargo trucks, according to the group's statement. Other witnesses corroborated the officer's account, Human Rights Watch said.
“Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Arab League needs to cut through Syrian government deception by pushing for full access to anywhere Syria is holding detainees.”
The same Syrian officer was quoted as saying that the government was issuing police identification cards to military officials. Human Rights Watch said it was in possession of a document that appears to be from the Syrian Defense Ministry ordering the transfer of personnel to the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, and deploying them to areas where the military currently is serving.
“Dressing soldiers in police uniforms does not meet the Arab League call to withdraw the army,” Whitson said in the statement.
The observers were deployed to monitor compliance with a league-negotiated peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and other residential areas, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
Opposition activists charge that the government has stepped up its crackdown against dissent since endorsing the league’s plan early last month. Syrian officials say they are committed to the plan and blame persistent bloodshed on what they describe as armed terrorist gangs incited and supported from abroad.
State television said 755 detainees who had been involved in recent unrest and “did not have Syrian blood on their hands” were released Wednesday. The government has announced similar releases before. Opposition activists charge that many of those freed under previous amnesties have been ordinary criminals rather than political prisoners.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Syrian soldiers who defected to join the uprising are shown last week positioning their rifles behind a wall of a damaged house in Homs province. Credit: Associated Press