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The New Arab

Syrian regime urged to release doctors after coronavirus crisis breaks out

More than 900 healthcare workers have been killed since 2011, according to PHR [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 April, 2020

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Repeated attacks on medical workers and healthcare centres have left Syria ill-equipped to tackle a coronavirus outbreak.
The Syrian regime is facing renewed calls to release detained healthcare workers amid a coronavirus pandemic, which threatens to kill thousands.

Campaigners and families of detainees and forcibly disappeared medical workers on Wednesday urged the release of doctors and nurses in a statement prepared by The Syria Campaign, a UK-based rights organisation.

Among the thousands of people detained by the Syrian regime since the uprising began in 2011 are 3327 healthcare workers, the Syria Campaign said.

Damascus and its ally Moscow have also been accused of routinely and deliberately targeting healthcare facilities in rebel areas throughout the nine-year war.

Healthcare workers who treated anti-government protests from 2011 or who operated in opposition-held areas retaken by the regime have also been jailed.

Such attacks have left in Syria's last opposition-held territory particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 illness, with just 600 doctors left in the northwestern Idlib province to treat more than 3 million civilians living in poor sanitary conditions.

"Over nine long years of conflict, Assad has deliberately attacked medical facilities and personnel to break the will of the people and to destroy evidence of his war crimes. Their expertise is desperately needed in the fight against Covid-19 in a country with a shattered health system," the rights organisation said on Wednesday.

Doctors working in regime-held areas have also faced threats of detention for reporting coronavirus cases, The Syria Campaign said.

"Rather than consigning yet more innocent people to the horrors of its detention centres, it should be releasing all detainees and at the very least allowing access to international medical and humanitarian organisations to prisons," said Laila Kiki, the group's executive director.

An Idlib hospital damaged in November last year during airstrikes by pro-regime forces [AFP]

Fears of catastrophic virus outbreak in prisons

The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded fears over overcrowded and unsanitary prisons worldwide but nowhere more so than Syria.

"Syria's detainees are stuck in tight cells, sharing the torture, hunger, pain and diseases," said Mariam Alhallak, chair of the Caesar Families Association.

Alhallak's son was detained for his work as a doctor in 2012 and died under torture.

"Today, we can't even imagine what will happen if Covid-19 spreads in the Syrian regime's detention centres," she said.

Detained medical workers "alongside approximately 100,000 other civilians and peaceful activists illegally detained by the regime, are held in cramped crowded cells without proper food, drinking water, hygiene or medical care", said Dr. Hala Al-Ghawi of Families for Freedom, an organisation representing relatives of detainees.

"If coronavirus spreads containment will be impossible," Ghawi stated.

The head of the Syrian Opposition and the Revolutionary Forces (SMDK) expressed concern last month that the Damascus may leave prisoners to die if they contract coronavirus.

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.

"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]," 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.

Other countries in the region have faced calls for prisoner release programmes in the face of the pandemic.

Iran and Turkey have agreed to release tens of thousands of detainees but both have been criticised for failing to include political prisoners such as activists and journalists in the temporary release programmes.

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