UN calls for Syria ceasefire to tackle virus threat

Agence France-Presse . Beirut | Published: 22:47, Mar 25,2020


Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the ‘White Helmets’, disinfect a tent in the Kafr Lusin camp for the displaced by the border with Turkey, in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, on Tuesday, as part of efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus. — AFP photo

The United Nations top envoy for Syria on Tuesday called for a nationwide ceasefire to allow for a better response to the threat of the novel coronavirus.

The government in 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.

‘Syrians are acutely vulnerable to COVID-19. Healthcare facilities have been destroyed or are degraded,’ Geir Pedersen said. ‘There is a shortage of key medical equipment and health professionals.’

The aid community has warned that Syria, where around a million people have been displaced by conflict in the northwest since December alone, is particularly vulnerable.

‘To confront this danger, the long-suffering Syrian people desperately need a sustained period of calm throughout the country respected by all parties,’ Pedersen said.

He called for the mass release of detainees, demanded full and sustained humanitarian access to all parts of the country and urged donors to heed dedicated funding appeals.

The International Rescue Committee this week warned that an outbreak of novel coronavirus in northern Syria could be one of the worst the world has seen.

Meanwhile, human rights groups warned Tuesday 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 government, 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 government in Damascus announced the country’s first coronavirus case.

‘One case of coronavirus in detention facilities can and will be catastrophic,’ HRW’s Sara Kayyali said.

‘That’s not just because the virus is highly infectious and fatal in some cases, but also because the Syrian government has tortured, mistreated and abused detainees,’ leaving them highly vulnerable, she said.

Rights groups have for years documented how prisoners have died not just from executions but also from illness and poor living conditions.

‘If coronavirus hits the prisons we are likely to see an exponential increase’ in such deaths, Kayyali said.

Syrian activist groups on Monday pressed the government for action, calling for the release of political prisoners and halting of all new arrests.

In a statement signed by 43 non-government groups, many of which are based outside of Syria, they also called on the government to open detention facilities to the World Health Organisation and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen on Tuesday made a similar call, urging a ‘large scale releases of detainees and abductees’.

He also appealed for ‘immediate access for relevant humanitarian organisations to all detention facilities, and urgent steps to ensure adequate medical care and protective measures in all places of detention’.

While this has yet to happen, Assad issued a decree on Sunday reducing prison sentences for several crimes.

The decree, shared on state media, did not specify how many people would benefit or if measures were related to the coronavirus outbreak.

But it said prisoners with incurable or terminal illnesses, as well as those over 70 years of age, were free to go.

Nizar Sadqani, a deputy to Syria’s justice minister, told Syrian TV that ‘reducing overcrowding in prisons is a main objective’ of the decision.

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