Syria must investigate assault on jailed rights lawyer

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 was severely beaten by his cellmate at ‘Adra prison in Damascus on 28 October. The lawyer and his attacker were kept in the same cell for five days after the assault after which the authorities moved Muhannad al-Hassani 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.Two weeks before the assault, Muhannad al-Hassani, a prisoner of conscience, was awarded in absentia the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders.  “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,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme.”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.”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, the human rights activist suffered a cut to his forehead requiring ten stitches, swelling to his eye and cheek and bruising to his body.After the assault, Muhannad al-Hassani made a statement to police in the presence of his attacker who threatened him throughout and accused him of being unpatriotic. Muhannad al-Hassani’s request that the police make a note of the threats was reportedly ignored.  Muhannad 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 Muhannad al-Hassani’s lawyers were not told and were therefore unable to be present at the hearing.The Martin Ennals award winner is serving a three-year sentence. He was convicted in June of charges relating to his work publicizing the unfair trials of political prisoners and torture in custody and meeting foreign embassy officials to discuss human rights.A lawyer and co-founder of the Syrian Human Rights Organisation (Sawasiyah), Muhannad al-Hassani has been harassed and penalized by the authorities on account of his human rights work for years.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 organize a human rights organization.”He was arrested in July 2009 and later sentenced to three years’ imprisonment following a grossly unfair trial before the Damascus Criminal Court on charges including of “weakening national sentiments” and “spreading false news”. “Muhannad al-Hassani’s human rights work is internationally recognized but he has been imprisoned by the Syrian authorities because of it,” said Malcolm Smart”He 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.”