Letter to His Excellency President Bashar al-Asad
April 11, 2006

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the recent arrests and detentions by Syrian security forces of several political and human rights activists in Syria. Over the last three months, Human Rights Watch has documented the arrest of 26 activists, including human rights defenders, in Syria. These arrests appear to be tied solely to the exercise by these activists of their guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and association.

April 10, 2006

His Excellency Bashar al-Asad
President of the Syrian Arab Republic
C/O Ambassador Dr. Imad Moustapha
Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United States
2215 Wyoming Avenue, NW
Washington D.C. 20008

Your Excellency:

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the recent arrests and detentions by Syrian security forces of several political and human rights activists in Syria. Over the last three months, Human Rights Watch has documented the arrest of 26 activists, including human rights defenders, in Syria (the information regarding the particular circumstances of these arrests is included as an appendix to this letter). These arrests appear to be tied solely to the exercise by these activists of their guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and association. As such, these arrests violate both Syrian domestic law and international human rights law. We urge your government to release these men and to drop any pending charges against them.

Last month, Syrian security services detained a human rights defender and a political activist following their return to Syria after attending conferences abroad promoting democracy and human rights. Security agents detained Dr. Ammar Qurabi, former spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights – Syria on March 12, 2006 for four days upon his return from Washington D.C. and Paris. Security forces arrested another activist, Samir Nashar, head of the Alliance of Free Nationalists and a member of the Provisional Committee for the Damascus Declaration, in Aleppo on March 25, 2006 and transferred him to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus. There, they interrogated him about his participation in a conference held in Washington D.C. on January 29-30, 2006. While both have been released, Mr. Qurabi has been referred to the Supreme State Security Court in Damascus and faces potential charges.

In addition to arresting activists for participating in conferences held outside of Syria, Syrian security forces have continued arresting and trying prominent Syrian civil society members perceived to be in opposition to the Syrian government. For instance, on March 23, 2006, Syrian security forces arrested the writer Ali al-Abdullah and his son Muhammad a day after they intervened outside the Supreme State Security Court to protest the harassment by security officers of relatives of defendants due to appear before the court. We are extremely concerned that your government has not disclosed any information about the location or basis of their detention.

As recently as Sunday April 2, 2006, the Syrian state security court sentenced Riad Drar, an active member of the unauthorized Committees for Revival of Civil Society, to five years in prison on the charge of “publishing false news, awakening sectarian conflict and belonging to a secret organization.” Mr. Drar was arrested on June 4, 2005 by members of the Political Security agency after he made a speech at the funeral of the prominent Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Ma’shuq al-Khaznawi.

Human Rights Watch has also collected information indicating that the Syrian Air Force Intelligence has arrested in the last three months eight young men – mostly university students – for what appears to be their participation in a peaceful pro-democracy discussion forum. These individuals are: Husam Melhem, Ali Nazir al-Ali, Tariq al-Ghourani, Ayham Saqr, ‘Ulam Fakhour, Maher Ibrahim Asbar, Omar al-Abdullah and Diab Siriya. According to sources following their cases, all eight young men remain in detention at the Air Force Intelligence detention facility, as they reportedly await their transfer to trial. However, neither the Air Force Intelligence agency nor your government has provided any information about the court to which they may be transferred or the charges they may face.

Your Excellency, we strongly urge you to reverse this unlawful trend of arrests, and to act now to uphold respect for basic freedoms and human rights in Syria. To punish activists in Syria for the peaceful expression of their views or for peacefully associating with others is a clear violation of Syria’s own Constitution and its obligations under international law.

Article 38 of Syria’s Constitution states, in part, that “Every citizen has the right to freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression. He also has the right to participate in supervision and constructive criticism in a manner that safeguards the soundness of the domestic and nationalist structure and strengthens the socialist system.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Syria is a state party, guarantees that “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” and that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.” It further holds that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.”

Syria’s Emergency Law, in effect since March 8, 1963 – and notably Article 4(a) of Legislative Decree Number 51, which authorizes broad arrest and detention powers – cannot justify the arrests of these activists for freely expressing their views or their detention without due process. Article 4 of the ICCPR limits the application of emergency law to a time of “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed.” It further stipulates that state parties to the ICCPR may derogate from their obligations under the treaty only “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law.”

Such derogations from the treaty are not justified in Syria as the state has failed to demonstrate that the restrictions are “strictly required by the exigencies” of its situation. In its 2005 consideration of the periodic report submitted by Syria, the United Nations Human Rights Committee – the body authorized to interpret and monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – “Note[d] with concern that the state of emergency declared some forty years ago is still in force and provides for many derogations in law or practice from the rights guaranteed under articles 9, 14, 19 and 22, among others, of the Covenant, without any convincing explanations being given as to the relevance of these derogations to the conflict with Israel and as to the necessity of these derogations to meet the exigencies of the situation claimed to have been created by the conflict.”

Your Excellency, you took the important decision in November 2005 to release 190 political prisoners. With the world’s attention focused on Syria, we call on you to continue the initiative you began last year by unconditionally releasing all the remaining activists who remain detained solely for the peaceful expression of their opinion and urge you to intervene and make sure that any politically motivated charges brought against these activists are dropped.

Moreover, we call on you to use your authority to direct responsible authorities – and in particular the Air Force Intelligence agency - to stop their arbitrary arrests of activists in violation of Syria’s international obligations under the ICCPR.

We thank you for your attention to these matters.

Sincerely,

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division

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