Arbitrary Detention, Torture, Discrimination Highlight Government’s Record in 2010
January 27, 2011
Syria's bleak human rights record stood out in a region where bad performers are legion. Last year's sentencing of two prominent human rights defenders, one of them 80 years old, shows the extent to which the authorities will go to shut down their critics.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Syria's authorities detained political and human rights activists, restricted freedom of expression, repressed its Kurdish minority, and held people incommunicado for lengthy periods, often torturing them, during 2010, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2011.

The 649-page report, the organization's 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 countries worldwide, including 16 countries/territories in the Middle East.

"Syria's bleak human rights record stood out in a region where bad performers are legion," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Last year's sentencing of two prominent human rights defenders, one of them 80 years old, shows the extent to which the authorities will go to shut down their critics."

In June, a criminal court sentenced Muhannad al-Hasani, a human rights lawyer and president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Swasiah), on charges of "weakening national sentiment" and "spreading false or exaggerated information" in connection with his monitoring of the Supreme State Security Court, a special court the government uses to prosecute those it considers a threat to the state.

In July a military tribunal sentenced Haytham al-Maleh, 80, a human rights lawyer and former judge, on similar charges after an opposition television station aired a phone interview in which he criticized Syrian authorities.

"Al-Hasani and al-Maleh stand out as true Syrian heroes this year for their willingness to stand up for their rights and speak their minds at great personal cost to themselves and their families," Whitson said. "And the Syrian government stands out for its intolerance in putting these men in jail merely for expressing their opinions."

Security services detained and harassed a number of activists, including Isma`il Abdi, a member of Committees for the Defense of Democracy Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), who has lived in Germany since 1997 but was arrested while vacationing in Syria this summer. According to Kurdish activists, a military court will now try him in connection with private emails he had sent to people in Syria.

The Aleppo Bar Association began disciplinary proceedings in June against Radeef Mustapha, a human rights lawyer, for his writings and membership in the Kurdish Human Rights Committee, an unlicensed human rights group. To date, Syrian officials have denied all registration requests from human rights groups.

"Syria's efforts to attract foreign investors and tourists have given its tourist attractions a new shine, but its jails and security services still belong firmly to a gloomy, outdated past," Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch received numerous credible reports that security agencies arbitrarily detained dissidents and criminal suspects, held them incommunicado for lengthy periods of time, and subjected them to ill-treatment and torture. The UN committee against torture said in May that it was "deeply concerned about numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by law enforcement and investigative officials" in Syria.

At least five detainees died in custody in 2010, with no serious investigations into their deaths by the authorities. In June, security services returned the body of Muhammad Ali Rahman to his family. Syrian human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that his corpse showed signs of torture. Syrian law provides Syrian security services with extensive immunity for acts of torture.

The government maintained a tight lid on the media and online outlets, censoring popular websites such as Blogger (Google's blogging engine), Facebook, and YouTube, and detaining activists and journalists who criticized the government and its regional allies. In September a military investigative judge charged Ali al-`Abdullah, a member of the Damascus Declaration opposition group, with "spoil[ing] Syria's relations with another country" for his statement from his prison cell to a news agency criticizing human rights violations during Iran's 2009 presidential election. He remains in detention at `Adra prison while awaiting the beginning of his trial.

The Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), a special court with almost no procedural guarantees, sentenced Kurdish activists and Islamists to long prison terms, often on broadly worded "security" provisions in Syria's penal code. It is currently trying three prominent members of the Kurdish Yekiti party - Hassan Saleh, Muhammad Mustapha, and Ma`ruf Mulla Ahmad - on the charge of undertaking acts "to cut off part of Syrian land," because they advocated for more autonomy for Syria's kurds. Security services have also reportedly referred a 19-year-old blogger, Tal al-Mallohi, to trial by the SSSC on suspicion that she provided information to foreign governments. She was held incommunicado for nine months.

The government also subjected Kurds, Syria's largest non-Arab ethnic minority, to systematic discrimination, including arbitrary denial of citizenship to an estimated 300,000 Kurds who were born in Syria. Authorities suppress expressions of Kurdish identity, and prohibit the teaching of Kurdish in schools. In March security forces shot at Kurds celebrating the Kurdish New Year in the northern town of Raqqa to disperse them, killing at least one. In July a military court sentenced nine Kurds alleged to have participated in the celebrations in Raqqa to four months for "inciting sectarian strife."

"There can be no rule of law in Syria as long as its feared security services remain above the law," Whitson said. "If President Bashar al-Asad is serious about reform, he should start with the security services and shut down the state security court."