Syria warned over Britons held for weeks

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The Independent Online

Maryam Kallis, 36, was seized by plain-clothes security men on 15 March while walking with one of her four young children on a busy Damascus street. She has been kept incommunicado and at an unknown location ever since and Amnesty International said this week that it believed she could be in danger of torture or other ill-treatment. A British male, who has not been named, was seized in an apparently unconnected episode two days later, and the Syrian authorities have not so far disclosed the reasons for either detention.

Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office minister, raised the two cases in meetings here this week with both the Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem and the religious affairs minister Mohamad Abdul Sattar Al Sayeed, who promised to secure information about the cases to relay to British officials. No response had so far been received yesterday.

Mr Rammell was on a visit to Syria to discuss a range of Middle East issues including steps towards intelligence co-operation on counter-terrorism between the two countries. He said: "We understand that [the Syrians] have their legal procedures but we do urgently need consular access and I am hopeful that message has been received."

Mr Rammell said that while he believed the developing relationship with Syria gave Britain more leverage in such cases he acknowledged it would be a "problem" for it if access was not granted. But he said he was hopeful "that we will shortly get movement on this issue."

The Foreign Office said this week that it had repeatedly sought consular access at high level since the detentions and rejected outright suggestions made by Mrs Kallis's worried husband Masood that it had been less energetic on her behalf because she is a Muslim. The right of diplomats to visit their citizens in detention is enshrined in the 1963 Vienna convention on consular relations.

Amnesty said that Mrs Kallis had been in Syria since 5 March, staying with her sister. She had come to Damascus with her family to study Arabic in 2002 but had come back to the UK in late 2008, returning in March 2009 so she could bring back three of her children to the UK. On 15 March, while with her eight-year-old son, she was arrested by a group of up to 10 men in civilian clothes in the Rukna al-Din area of Syria's capital. The men had taken Mrs Kallis and her son back to her sister's apartment, where they confiscated her passport and those of her children, before handcuffing Mrs Kallis and taking her away.

Amnesty said it was "very concerned" about Mrs Kallis's situation because of Syrian security services' "long and very troubling record" of detaining people in secret for lengthy periods and "subjecting them to torture". It added that consular staff, a lawyer and her family should all be given access and "she should be either charged with a recognisable criminal offence or released immediately".