Syria: Prison cell attack on award-winning human rights lawyer must be investigated

Amnesty International has called on the Syrian authorities to investigate an assault on an award-winning human rights activist and lawyer in prison by another inmate and whether prison officials were complicit in the attack.

Muhannad al-Hassani, who was recently awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders, was severely beaten by his cellmate at 'Adra prison in Damascus on 28 October.

Al-Hassani and his attacker were kept in the same cell for five days after the assault after which the authorities moved the lawyer to a tiny underground isolation cell. In protest at his solitary confinement both he and other political prisoners at 'Adra have begun a hunger strike.

Al-Hassani is serving a three-year sentence after he was convicted in June following a grossly unfair trial before the Damascus Criminal Court. The charges against him included "weakening national sentiments" and "spreading false news", and related to his work publicising the unfair trials of political prisoners and torture in custody in Syria, and meeting foreign embassy officials to discuss human rights.

Al-Hassani has been harassed and penalised by the authorities in Syria on account of his human rights work for years and the chairperson of the Martin Ennals awards panel described him as a man of "exceptional courage" who is being "arbitrarily detained in unacceptable conditions for defending the rule of law and the right to organise a human rights organisation."

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Malcolm Smart said:

"The Syrian authorities must conduct a prompt, transparent, and thorough investigation into the incident and ensure that anyone allegedly responsible is brought to justice in trial proceedings that meet international standards of fairness.

"In particular, they must examine whether officials at 'Adra prison were complicit in the attack by moving the prisoner responsible into Muhannad al-Hassani’s cell and why they continued to hold them both in the same cell for five days after the attack.

"Muhannad al-Hassani should not be in prison at all. That is a gross injustice. That he should then be subjected to beatings in prison and be denied protection is wholly unacceptable."

The prisoner who attacked Muhannad al-Hassani is said to have been moved into the same cell only recently and to have beaten him while wearing a heavy metal finger ring. Prisoners are not normally allowed to wear such jewellery.

During the attack Al-Hassani suffered a cut to his forehead requiring ten stitches, swelling to his eye and cheek and bruising to his body. Afterwards he made a statement to police in the presence of his attacker who threatened him throughout and accused him of being unpatriotic. Al-Hassani's request that the police make a note of the threats was reportedly ignored.

Al-Hassani was examined by a doctor at a clinic in Douma who issued a report on his injuries on Monday. The case was then referred to a court in Douma although his lawyers were not told and were therefore unable to be present at the hearing.

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