October 17, 2007

III. Background: The Emergence of a Human Rights Community in Syria

Syrian authorities consider human rights monitoring a political activity and, as such, view it with suspicion and maintain tight control over it. Since 1963, when the Ba`ath party came to power, there have been three distinct periods of human rights activity.

In 1976 members of the Syrian Lawyers' Union-the equivalent of a national bar association-formed a human rights committee to publish accounts of rights abuses in the country. Between 1978 and 1980 the union and its human rights committee called repeatedly for lifting of the state of emergency (in place since 1963) and urged the government to abolish special courts and safeguard the independence of the judiciary. When the lawyers' union called for a one-day strike in March 1980 to press their demands, the government retaliated harshly by dismissing the entire elected executive committee of the union, dissolving the human rights committee, and arresting some of its members.[3]

A second phase in Syria's human rights movement began on December 10, 1989, when a number of activists formed a new human rights group, the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human rights in Syria (CDF). Independent of any political party affiliation, CDF operated actively in France and Germany but maintained a clandestine presence in Syria itself. In April 1990 CDF started publishing a regular Arabic-language bulletin, Sawt al-Democratiyya (Voice of Democracy), dealing with human rights and other reform issues. On December 10, 1991, CDF issued a statement commemorating the 43rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and criticizing a referendum held on December 2, 1991, approving Hafez al-Asad's reelection to the presidency with 99.98 percent of the vote.[4]

The government arrested activists from CDF in late 1991 and early 1992. Ten of them were sentenced in March 1992 to prison terms ranging from five to ten years. This effectively caused the collapse of the nascent human rights movement inside Syria.[5] However, Syrians living overseas continued to report on the situation of human rights, one of the most active groups being the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee.

The third phase of activity inside Syria began after Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father as president in July 2000. A human rights lawyer summed up his initial feelings on the succession, reflecting the mood and aspirations of many others in the country: "Bashar's inaugural speech provided a space for hope following the totalitarian years of President [Hafez] Asad. It was as if a nightmare was removed."[6]

The hope that Bashar al-Asad would prove more tolerant than his father was partly based on his image as a representative of a younger, more open generation of Syrian leaders and on his frequent emphasis on the need for change in the speeches he gave while being groomed for succession.[7]

A number of informal groups began meeting in private homes to discuss human rights, reform efforts, and other topics, leading to a period of relative openness often referred to as the "Damascus Spring." The "Damascus Spring" was characterized by the emergence of numerous muntadat (referred to in English as "forums") where groups of likeminded people met in private houses to discuss political matters (advance notice of meetings being spread by word of mouth). The most famous of these forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi National Dialogue Forum.

Soon thereafter, intellectuals and activists mobilized around a number of political demands, expressed in the "Manifesto of the 99": the cancellation of the state of emergency and abolition of martial law and special courts; the release of all political prisoners; the return without fear of prosecution of political exiles; and the right to form political parties and civil organizations.[8]

Human rights activists seized the new-found openness to resume their activities. CDF revived its work in September 2000, and its activities became more public. According to one of its founders, "most of us were released by then, and we held a meeting in September 2000. We decided that our work will become more public, and we published the names of our members."[9] New human rights groups were also formed, such as the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS, Jam`iyyat Huquq al-Insan fi Suria), founded in May 7, 2001, with the goal of defending human rights.[10]

Many of the human rights activists at the time were former political activists who had previously spent time in jail. For example, Haytham al-Maleh, the-then president of HRAS, had spent seven years in jail for his activities in the Freedom and Human Rights Committee of the Syrian Lawyers Union; Salim Kheirbek, another activist in HRAS, had spent 13 years in jail because of his involvement with the workers' movement; Dr. Ahmad Fayez al-Fawaz, representative of HRAS, had spent 15 years in jail for his activities with the communist party; and Aktham Nu`aissa, had been sentenced in 1991 to nine years in jail for his activities in CDF (he was one of its founders) but released after six years because of bad health.

Bashar al-Asad's brief period of tolerance came to an abrupt end beginning in August 2001. Syrian authorities arrested 10 opposition leaders, including two members of parliament, and cracked down on civil society advocacy groups.[11] All 10 leaders were arrested following their participation in a seminar in the house of Riad Seif during which they called for political reform and democratic elections and discussed amending the constitution and issuing a call for a civil disobedience campaign. The two members of parliament, Ma'mun al-Homsi and Riad Seif, were accused of "attempting to change the constitution by illegal means" and "inciting racial and sectarian strife" and were sentenced by the Damascus Criminal Court to five years in jail. The other eight activists, Riad al-Turk, `Aref Dalilah, Walid al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani, Habib Salih, Hasan Sa`dun, Habib `Isa, and Fawwaz Tello, were referred to the Supreme State Security Court which issued prison sentences between two to 10 years.

The crackdown was officially justified on the basis that the civil society movement was destabilizing the country and serving the interests of "foreign powers," but its real impetus was the authorities' fear that the civil society movement was challenging their power. On January 29, 2001, Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran declared that civil society is an "American term" that had recently been given "additional meanings" by "groups that seek to become (political) parties."[12] A month later, Bashar al-Asad repeated the warnings to the civil society movement:

When the consequences of an action affect the stability of the homeland, there are two possibilities: either the perpetrator is a foreign agent acting on behalf of an outside power, or else he is a simple person acting unintentionally. But in both cases a service is being done to the country's enemies, and consequently both are dealt with in a similar fashion, irrespective of their intentions or motives.[13]

Despite the crackdown, the nascent human rights groups continued to operate despite lacking legal status, and were soon joined by others. A number of activists formed the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria (AOHR, al-Munathama al-`Arabiyya li Huquq al-Insan) in February 2004.[14] A few months later, in September 2004, former members of CDF split off to form the Syrian Human Rights Organization (al-Munathama al-Suriyya li Huquq al-Insan, Swasiah).[15]

2004 also saw the emergence of Kurdish human rights groups. According to one Kurdish activist, members of the Kurdish community came together to create many of these organizations following events of March 2004, when government security forces killed at least 30 people and injured more than 160 in days of protests that began on March 12 following clashes between Kurdish and Arab fans at a football match in al-Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria. Syrian security forces fired on the demonstrators and arrested hundreds of Kurds.[16] In the Kurdish activist's view, existing Syrian human rights organizations did not sufficiently cover the Qamishli events, and Kurdish groups emerged to fill this gap.[17]

Three separate Kurdish human rights organizations exist today: MAF ("Right" in Kurdish, known in Arabic as al-Lijna al-Kurdiyya lil Difa` `an Huquq al-Insan); DAD ("Justice" in Kurdish, in Arabic al-Munathama al-Kurdiyya lil-Difa` `an Huquq al-Insan wal-Hurriyat al-`Ama fi Suria); and the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights (al-Lijna al-Kurdiyya li-Huquq al-Insan).[18]

Kurdish groups operate even more secretly than their Arab counterparts. According to a founding member of DAD, "it took us a year and a half before having our founding meeting. During that initial period, only four names of members were known. We were terrified of being arrested."[19]

Despite an increase in the number of human rights groups in Syria, their situation remains very precarious. Activists continue to operate illegally without institutional structures. Personality clashes and suspicion that other activists are informants for the security services often lead organizations to break into multiple offshoots.

The newest human rights groups to emerge in Syria are the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (Markaz Dimashq li Dirasat Huquq al-Insan), a research center looking into human rights issues in Syria, and the National Organization for Human Rights (NOHR), which a number of former activists in AOHR founded in February-March 2006.[20]

[3] For more background on this period of human rights activity in Syria, see Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch/MENA), Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 85-88.

[4] For additional background on the statement issued by CDF, see Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch/MENA), Syria Human Rights Workers on Trial, vol 4, no. 5, March 1992, pp. 3-4.

[5] For more information on the Supreme State Security Court, see Section IV, below. For more background on CDF and the trial of the activists, see Middle East Watch, Syria Human rights Workers on Trial; and Human Rights Watch/Middle East,Syria The Price of Dissent, vol. 7, no. 4, July 1995.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian human rights activist (name withheld), Damascus, November 14, 2006.

[7] To read more about the mood in Syria at the time of Bashar al-Asad's accession to power, see Alan George, Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom (London: Zed Books, 2003), pp. 30-33.

[8] To read the "Manifesto of the 99" in English, go to http://www.meib.org/articles/0010_sdoc0927.htm.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with a CDF founder (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 1006.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with HRAS board member (name withheld), Damascus, November 14, 2006.

[11] For more information regarding the crackdown on the Damascus Spring movement, see Amnesty International, "Syria Smothering Freedom of Expression: the Detention of Peaceful Critics," AI Index: MDE 24/007/2002, June 6, 2002, http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE240072002 (accessed February 15, 2007); and George, Syria: neither Bread nor Freedom, pp. 47-63. The government permitted one forum, the Jamal al-Atassi National Dialogue Forum, to function until 2005 but shut it down after a member publicly read a statement from the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization that had rebelled against the government of Hafez al-Asad in the early 1980s.

[12] "The emergency law is present but frozen," Al-Dustour (Amman, Jordan), January 30, 2001, http://www.addustour.com/extra/archive.asp?ac=%5CArabicNews%5C2001%5C01%5Carab413.html (accessed May 29, 2007).

[13] "Interview with Bashar al-Asad," Asharq al-Awsat, February 8, 2001, http://www.al-bab.com/arab/countries/syria/bashar0102b.htm (accessed February 16, 2007).

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with an AOHR founding member (name withheld), Damascus, November 12, 2006. The website of the organization is http://www.aohrs.org.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with an SHRO founding member (name withheld), Damascus, November 15, 2006.

[16] For more background on the incident, see "Syria: Address Grievances Underlying Kurdish Unrest," Human Rights Watch news release, March 19, 2004, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/03/19/syria8132.htm.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with DAD board member (name withheld), Damascus, November 14, 2006.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with a DAD founding member (name withheld), Damascus, November 12, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with a DAD board member (name withheld)], Damascus, November 14, 2006.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with a DAD founding member (name withheld),, Damascus, November 12, 2006.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with an NOHR founder (name withheld), Damascus, November 12, 2006.