February 24, 2009

III. Overview of the Supreme State Security Court

 

A. Legal Authority and Procedures

The Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) is an offspring of the state of emergency that the Syrian authorities declared on March 8, 1963 and remains in effect today.[7] As initially enacted, the emergency law authorized the referral of offenses against the security of the state and public order to military courts.[8] In 1968, Legislative Decree No. 47 replaced the exceptional military courts with the SSSC.[9]

The SSSC has jurisdiction over “all persons, civilian or military, whatever their rank or immunity.”[10]  Its subject matter jurisdiction is virtually unlimited, having inherited the exceptional military court jurisdiction as well as the authority to look at “all other cases referred to it by the martial law governor.”[11]

Legislative Decree No. 47 exempts the SSSC from the rules of procedure followed by regular Syrian courts:

The right of defense as prescribed in relevant laws notwithstanding, state security courts are not required to follow judicial procedures stipulated in these laws during any of the phases of investigation, interrogation and trial.[12]

The SSSC consists of a three-judge panel, which includes two civilian judges and a military judge.[13] The judges are usually members of the Ba`ath party appointed by decree upon the suggestion of the martial law governor.[14]

The decisions of the SSSC cannot be appealed to a higher tribunal, as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Syria acceded in 1969.[15]Rather, the SSSC is under the control of the executive branch, and the power of review and ratification of the verdicts of the security court rests with the head of state, who can nullify the verdict, order a retrial, or lessen the sentence. In practice, Syrian lawyers told us that verdicts are approved by the minister of interior, in his capacity as deputy martial law governor.[16]

Defendants are referred to the SSSC by one of Syria’s multiple security services. The referral is usually in the form of a martial order, pursuant to emergency-law powers, signed by the minister of interior. However, according to one experienced lawyer who has monitored the SSSC for years, this referral from the minister of interior is a pure formality, as in practice the security services simply send a copy of their investigations directly to the SSSC.[17]

Once a detainee has been referred to the SSSC by a martial order, he is questioned by the investigating judge (qadi al-tahqiq), who then refers the case to trial. The trial then proceeds with a series of four consecutive sessions—questioning, prosecution, defense, and sentencing—that typically are spaced months apart at minimum.

According to observers of the SSSC, court sessions are very short and informal. A Western diplomat who attended a number of sessions described the court sessions:

What strikes you is that it does not look or feel like a real court. It is in a room of a house with the judge sitting behind a desk. The judge usually makes a short summary of the case, asks a few questions to the defendant and then the session is over. The defense lawyers never speak, and I have never seen any physical evidence presented. The whole session does not last more than 30 minutes per group [of defendants].[18]

The court occupies a flat on the first floor of a building on 29 Ayyar Street in Damascus.[19] The prosecutor’s office is located on the second floor, and the third floor contains the president’s chamber. In recent years, Fayez al-Nuri, the president of the court, has held many court sessions in his own office rather than in the actual court.[20] The SSSC trial room was relocated in June 2008 to the building of the Ministry of Justice (wing of the Judges’ Institute) in Mazzeh, Damascus. According to diplomats who visited the new location, “the move is temporary as the old building is renovated” but no one knows exactly how long this will take. [21]

The court sessions are not open to the public and the families of detainees cannot attend. They wait outside the court in the hope of seeing their relatives as they are transferred inside the court building.[22] Such blanket exclusion of the public from the courtroom violates the ICCPR, which states that the public may be excluded from a trial only for reasons of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society,or when the interest of the private lives of the parties so requires.[23] The situation for the families got harder after the SSSC moved to its temporary new location. One Syrian lawyer told us, “in the old court, they could stand on the sidewalk outside the courtroom and see the defendants as they were brought in to the court. Today, they can’t get close because it is at the Ministry of Justice.”[24] The only exception in terms of access is for diplomats who gained access to the SSSC in 2004. A European diplomat explained to Human Rights Watch, “the Syrian authorities never formally permitted our presence. At some point they just started to tolerate it.”[25]

With the exception of a few cases, our investigation indicates that SSSC trials usually do not involve any testimony by witnesses either for the prosecution or the defense.[26] A seasoned lawyer who regularly appears before the SSSC told Human Rights Watch:

It is rare for the prosecution to call any witnesses. And when they do, the witnesses tend to be either security officials or informants. It is even rarer for the court to accept the testimony of defense witnesses. Even when witnesses appear, they rarely add anything. In the case of [name withheld], a number of witnesses were called to support the testimony of the defendant, but the court completely ignored their testimony.[27]

Even though the SSSC trials usually consist of four short sessions, half of the trials we investigated took three years to conclude because SSSC officials scheduled court sessions months apart. Human Rights Watch’s review of the time between the date of arrest and the date of sentencing by the SSSC in 217 cases since January 2007 shows that 50% of cases took three years or more.

1. Restricted Role of Lawyers

Lawyers play a very limited role in the proceedings, even though Legislative Decree 47 preserves the defendant’s right of defense in trials before the SSSC. According to defendants and lawyers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Syrian security forces usually do not allow lawyers to visit clients who have been referred to the SSSC until the day of the trial. This has meant that lawyers are not usually present when the defendant appears before the state security prosecutor or the investigative judge, even though article 69 of the Syrian Code of Criminal Procedure provides that a defendant has a right to have his lawyer present during interrogation before the investigative judge.[28] An experienced lawyer explained the problem:

To represent a detainee, you need to be appointed by the defendant. To get this appointment, you need to see the defendant. Since most defendants before the SSSC are detained in the military-run Sednaya prison—where lawyers are denied entry—you end up waiting for the defendant to appear on the day of his trial to get appointed as his lawyer.[29]

A defendant noted however that the problem also lies with the investigative judge. “I told Habib Najmeh [the investigative judge] that I wanted a lawyer present and that I will not speak without one. He said, ‘there are no lawyers here. Things move fast here.’”[30]  Other defendants interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that they did not have a lawyer when they appeared before the investigative judge and that the first time they saw a lawyer was on the day of their trial.[31] A defendant even described how he signed the papers to appoint his lawyer from the defendant’s cage in the court.[32]

Even after a trial starts, defendants have very brief access to their lawyer immediately before or after trial sessions. The problem again is that lawyers are not allowed to visit their clients in Sednaya prison.[33] So the only occasion for a lawyer to see his client is usually on the day of a court session when the detainee is in the holding cell of the SSSC and within earshot of the security guards.[34] A defense lawyer described the difficulties he faced talking to his client at the SSSC:

The security guard often interferes in the conversation and asks the lawyer not to advise the detainee on some legal aspects of his case, or ask the detainee to deny certain issues. In some cases, even court staff intervene to restrict communication with the detainee…The harassment has gotten so bad that I have refused lately even to try to talk to my clients through the door of the holding cell. [35]

These restrictions mean that many defendants never get to discuss their defense strategy and the evidence against them with their lawyers. A defendant told Human Rights Watch how he learned of his lawyer’s written defense at the beginning of his defense session and immediately sought to dismiss him because he disagreed with the approach adopted.[36]

Defense lawyers complained to Human Rights Watch that the court denies them the opportunity to engage in oral defense and requires them to content themselves with submitting written defense statements to the court.[37]  According to these lawyers, in preparing their written defense, the SSSC only allows them to examine the prosecutor’s indictment (Karar ittiham al-niyaba al-`ama) and not the all-important preliminary investigation in the security branches, even though Legislative Decree 47 preserves the defendant’s right of defense in trials before the SSSC and article 275 of the Syrian Code of Criminal Procedure provides that “a defense lawyer has the right to copy at his expense all documents that he deems valuable for his defense.”[38]

These restrictions severely limit the role and effectiveness of the lawyer. According to one defense lawyer, “many defense lawyers prepare the defense statement on the day of the court session. They simply write a four paragraph statement and enter the court.[39]

Defendants who spoke to Human Rights Watch were dismissive of the role of the lawyer. One defendant sentenced by the SSSC in 2005 described the lawyer’s role “as a formality. He does not change anything. The best he can do is obtain the date of the next session.”[40] A second defendant said “the lawyer’s limited role is a known issue, and it is mostly procedural. Even my lawyer’s interventions were on very basic issues and not at the heart of the accusations against me.”[41] For a third defendant, the lawyer simply served as a messenger between him and his family: “during one of trial sessions, I managed to ask the lawyers for some money and I asked them to tell my parents to visit me on a specific date.”[42]

For defendants who cannot afford a lawyer, the SSSC will appoint one. However, according to two lawyers who regularly appear before the SSSC, these appointed lawyers tend to be trainees who are intimidated by the SSSC and do not dare challenge it.[43]  “Their [the appointed lawyers] defense statement tends to be limited to asking for the mercy of the court,” said one of the experienced lawyers.[44] The other complained to Human Rights Watch that the appointed lawyers often failed to appear on the date of the hearing causing further delays.[45]

Western diplomats attending the SSSC had similar comments about the limited role of lawyers in the proceedings: “I have never seen them interfere. The most I have seen is the lawyer asking the judge to repeat himself. The lawyer has no access to his client.”[46]  His views were echoed by another diplomat: “The detainees and their advocates often stay silent, and only the judge and mukhabarat [security services] representatives speak. I have noticed there is no western-style defense.”[47]

The restrictions imposed on access to lawyers violate the rights of a defendant as guaranteed by the ICCPR, to which Syria acceded in 1969. Article 14(3) of the ICCPR guarantees a defendant the right to “have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing,” to have such communication be confidential, and to examine, or have examined, the witnesses against him. Paragraph 1 of the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers also emphasizes that “everyone has the right to request the assistance of a lawyer of their choice…to defend them in all stages of criminal proceedings,” including during interrogations. [48]

2. Temporary Suspension of SSSC Trials following Riot in Sednaya Prison

According to diplomats, defense lawyers and human rights activists, the SSSC suspended its operations starting in July 2008 following a riot that broke out at Sednaya prison on July 5, 2008, which the authorities quelled violently.[49] The government detains the vast majority of detainees on trial before the SSSC at Sednaya prison.

The riot had begun when a contingent of Military Police officers conducted an aggressive search of the inmates’ cells. The prisoners, a majority of whom are Islamists, protested by fighting with members of the military police. According to an inmate who spoke to Human Rights Watch from a cell phone inside the prison, the military police responded by opening fire on them. Following the shooting, detainees overpowered the security guards and took several hostages, including the prison director. Tense negotiations reportedly ensued for four days, with information leaking to the outside world by inmates using cell phones seized from the hostages. The last known communication from the prisoners was a July 8 phone call from an inmate to his family, saying that security officials were threatening to violently storm the prison if the prisoners did not surrender.[50]

The SSSC did not issue any explanation for the suspension of hearings. According to a diplomat who usually attends the SSSC, “we would just send someone to the court, and they would be told that there are no sessions.”[51] The last known session of the SSSC was on June 29, 2008.

The suspension is likely linked to the total blackout on information concerning detainees in Sednaya prison that the Syrian authorities imposed following the riot. If detainees with information on the riot had hearings before the court, news might filter out about what happened there. Seven months after the incident, there is still no public information about how the prison standoff ended, or the exact number and names of those killed and wounded. The government has not allowed visits to any detainee in Sednaya. The government has not said when the SSSC sessions will resume.

B. History of the SSSC

Little is known about the SSSC’s activity for the first two decades following its formation in 1968. A report issued by the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, a Syrian independent organization, refers to a trial by the SSSC in July 1979 of activists belonging to the Arab Communist Organization (al-Munathama al-Shuyu`iyyat al-`Arabiyya). According to the report, the trial took three days, following which the SSSC issued a death sentence against five members of the organization; the sentence was carried out three days later.[52]

In the late 1970s, the local Syrian bar associations began a fierce campaign against the SSSC and other exceptional courts created under the emergency law. The Damascus Bar, in a famous resolution of June 22, 1978, stated that all “illegal judgments issued by the special courts should be considered as contrary to the law and to the principles of justice.” The Damascus lawyers demanded that “all lawyers not plead before the special courts and consider that if they do, they are guilty [of a breach of discipline]” because lawyers “must avoid having the prestige of the legal profession give credibility to these disastrous courts.”[53]

Public opposition to these exceptional courts was widespread. In an effort to win public opinion, the National Progressive Front, a coalition of political parties established by then-President Hafez al-Asad to provide some limited participation in government by political parties other than the ruling Ba`ath Party, felt compelled to criticize them. In a major public statement of September 27, 1979, it called on the regime to “restrict the jurisdiction of the state security courts to crimes against the security of the state.”[54] Speaking in early 1980 at the Ba`ath Congress, President Hafez al-Asad himself called for “the establishment of ordinary courts’ dominance over the special courts as soon as possible” and declared that instructions had been issued to the SSSC to avoid looking into any case that did not deal with security.[55]

Such pronouncements proved worthless. Instead of promoting ordinary courts, the Syrian authorities in the 1980s—a decade known for violent confrontations between the authorities and the opposition, notably the Muslim Brotherhood—proceeded to further ignore court procedures in favor of holding detainees without trials.[56] A review of publicly available information on the SSSC does not reveal whether the court was active in the 1980s or whether the authorities had completely suspended its operations.

The SSSC resumed its activities in 1992, when the Syrian authorities began trying before the court hundreds of political activists, including communists, pan-Arab Nasserites, Iraqi Ba`athists, independent political activists, and Muslim Brotherhood members who had been arrested as long ago as 1980 but who had not been brought to any court following their arrest.[57]

The reason for the change in the government’s strategy in dealing with political prisoners is unknown. It may have been part of a larger shift in official Syria policy to provide some sort of legal cover to the continuing detention of thousands of political detainees. In parallel to referring hundreds of defendants to the SSSC, president Hafez al-Asad issued an amnesty for some 3,500 long term detainees in late 1991.[58]

One of the very first cases tried by the SSSC in 1992 involved the prosecution of human rights activists from the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). Security services had arrested them in late 1991 and early 1992, and the SSSC sentenced ten of them in March 1992 to prison terms ranging from five to ten years for membership in an illegal organization, distribution without permission of leaflets critical of the Syrian government, and conspiracy to undermine the government.[59]

Five months later, on August 27, 1992, in proceedings unmatched in scale since 1971, the SSSC tried an estimated 600 political detainees, including at least 150 suspected members of banned Communist factions, for violations of the emergency laws.[60] The use of the SSSC to crackdown on political activism continued throughout the 1990s. For example, in 1993, the SSSC sentenced eight Syrian Kurds for “opposing the goals of the revolution” and “spreading false information” because they publicly distributed a leaflet on the issue of stateless Kurds.[61] A year later, in 1994, the SSSC sentenced 21 alleged members of the unauthorized Party for Communist Action and the Community Party-Political Bureau for “membership in a secret organization created to change the economic or social structure of the state” to prison terms ranging from eight to fifteen years.[62]

Following President Bashar al-Asad’s assumption of power in July 2000, political and human rights activists hoped that state repression and referrals to exceptional courts would ease up.[63] However, their hope was short-lived. In August 2001, Syrian security services arrested ten opposition leaders, including two members of parliament, Ma’moun Homsi and Riad Seif. With the exception of the two parliamentarians who were referred to the Damascus criminal court, the other eight opposition leaders, Riad al-Turk, `Aref Dalilah, Walid al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani, Habib Salih, Hasan Sa`dun, Habib `Isa, and Fawwaz Tello, were tried before the SSSC and sentenced to prison terms ranging between two to 10 years.  Charges included attempting to change the constitution by illegal means, inciting armed rebellion and spreading false information.[64]

In subsequent years, the SSSC has remained one of the pillars of repression in Syria under President Bashar al-Asad. However, as the government’s perceived enemies have changed, so has the profile of the defendants.

C. Profile of Current Defendants before the SSSC

The largest group of defendants before the SSSC in the last three years can broadly be categorized as “Islamists” accused by the Syrian authorities of espousing radical ideas about establishing an Islamic state in Syria or wanting to fight in Iraq. A review of trial observation notes by diplomats attending the SSSC and statements issued by Syrian lawyers and human rights groups shows that of the 237 individuals sentenced by the SSSC between January 2007 and June 2008, the SSSC described in its proceedings at least 106 of them as beings “salafis,” “belonging to a salafi jihadist movement,” “adopting salafi takfiri thought,” or “belonging to Hezb al-Tahrir.”[65]

The increase in trials of Islamists corresponds to a broader crackdown on Islamists in Syria starting in 2004 following a series of attacks on Syrian soil.[66] The first attack occurred on April 27, 2004 when a bomb was planted near an abandoned UN building in the upmarket Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus leading to a shootout between Syrian security forces and suspected Islamic militants, leaving dead one bystander, one police officer, and two of the presumed attackers.[67] On June 2, 2006, the security forces clashed with gunmen whom Syrian officials accused of planning a "terrorist" attack on a building near the offices of Syrian state TV and radio.[68] Syrian officials reported that the militants were in possession of CDs containing sermons of Mahmud Aghasi, better known as Abu al-Qa`qa`.[69] In September 2006, a group of four attackers attacked the American embassy in Damascus, but the Syrian security forces responded and killed three of them while injuring the fourth.[70] Finally, on September 27, 2008, a car bomb exploded in Damascus, killing 17 people and wounding 14 others in one of the deadliest attacks in Syria in a dozen years.[71] On November 6, 2008, Syrian state television broadcast statements by men it said were part of the Islamist Fatah al-Islam, in which they admitted carrying out the bomb attack and stating that the aim of the attack was to "harm the regime in Syria."[72]

Western diplomats as well as defense lawyers note that within this large group identified as “Islamists,” the profile of defendants varies quite a bit. On one end of the spectrum, trial notes by diplomats describe a number of these defendants as men simply in possession of recordings and publications by “radical” imams who promote fundamental Islamic teachings and in some cases promote jihad in Iraq.[73] According to a Western diplomat who regularly attends the SSSC, “many of the so-called Islamists are only accused of being in possession of CD's, booklets etc. of apparently radical imams.”[74] On the other end of the spectrum are defendants accused of being members of al-Qaeda.

In addition to these loosely-identified Islamist groups, the SSSC continues to try suspected members in the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Since January 2007, the SSSC has sentenced at least 22 defendants for membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood.[75] The government arrested some of these defendants upon their return home from exile. For example, the SSSC sentenced Mahmud Ahmad Sammak on February 11, 2007 to 12 years in jail for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood following his return from Yemen, where he had lived since 1981.

In addition to Islamists, the SSSC continues to try and sentence other political activists and independent critics of the authorities. One worrying development is that the SSSC has begun trying writers and bloggers for posting information online that is critical of the authorities or otherwise displeases them. For example, on April 7, 2008, the SSSC sentenced the writer and poet Firas Sa`ad, 38, to four years in jail for writing articles on the website “Al-hiwar al-Mutamaddin” (www.ahewar.org), in which he defended the Beirut-Damascus Declaration (which called for improved relations between Lebanon and Syria).[76] (See section IV.B “Criminalization of Freedom of Expression” for further examples).

However, it appears that Syrian authorities recently have avoided trying prominent and internationally-known political and human activists before the SSSC, preferring to try them before the “regular” criminal courts. For example, in the last two years, it was the Damascus Criminal Court and not the SSSC that sentenced the following activists: the 12 political and human rights activists that participated in the 2007 meeting of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration;[77] the human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni;[78] the political and human rights activist Dr. Kamal Labwani;[79]  and the prominent writer Michel Kilo and political activist Mahmud `Issa.[80] However, the change in court venue has failed to guarantee a fair trial for these political activists. The Damascus Criminal Court also sentenced them on the basis of broadly-worded political charges, such as “weakening national sentiment” and “inciting sectarian strife,” criminalizing their exercise of free expression.[81]

In addition, recent years have seen an increase in SSSC trials of Kurdish activists. The arrest and trials of these activists reflects a broader Syrian policy suppressing demands for Kurdish cultural recognition and increased Kurdish autonomy. The crackdown on Kurdish activism accelerated after March 2004 following serious clashes between Kurdish demonstrators and security forces in the north-eastern town of Qamishli in 2004 that left more than 30 dead, most of them Kurds.  Following the events, Syrian security forces arrested hundreds of Kurds and referred some of them to the SSSC.[82]

The last few years also have seen an increase in SSSC trials of members in the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).[83]  This represents a reversal in Syria’s policy as one of the main backers of the PKK against Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was based in Damascus, and the Syrian authorities provided PKK fighters with arms and training.[84] In 1998, however, Syria, under heavy Turkish pressure, ended its support for the PKK, expelling Ocalan from his home in Damascus and closing PKK camps in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. Since the reversal in policy, Syrian security services have arrested a number of PKK members and Kurds expressing support for the PKK.[85]

D. International and national Criticisms of the SSSC

The SSSC has come under heavy criticism by UN bodies and Syrian and international human rights groups. The UN Human Rights Commitee, the body charged with monitoring states’ compliance with the ICCPR, to which Syria is a state party, has repeatedly criticized the SSSC. On July 28, 2005, it concluded its observations regarding Syria’s submissions to the ICCPR by stating that it “reiterates its previous concern that the procedures of this court [the SSSC] are incompatible with article 14 of the Covenant,” and that:

[Syria] should take urgent measures to ensure that all rights and guarantees provided under article 14 of the Covenant are respected in the composition, functions and procedures of the Supreme State Security Court and in particular that accused persons are granted the right to appeal against decisions of the Court.[86]

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the body mandated to investigate cases of deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily, decided in at least 13 cases brought before it that the detention of individuals being tried by the SSSC was arbitrary.[87] In Opinion 21/2000, the Working Group commented on the SSSC’s procedures:

The Working Group is seriously concerned at what it views as the Court’s non-compliance with international standards on the right to a fair trial. For example, lawyers are not granted access to their clients prior to the trial, proceedings are initiated before legal representatives have an opportunity to study the case file, and lawyers are frequently denied their right to speak on behalf of their clients. Lawyers require written permission from the Court’s President before they can see their clients in prison, permission that is often withheld.[88]

Syrian and international human rights groups also have documented and voiced criticisms of the SSSC.  The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies issued a report in April 2007 criticizing the SSSC. Other Syrian human rights groups, such as the Syrian Human Rights Organization (al-Munathama al-Suriyya li Huquq al-Insan, Swasiah), the National Organization for Human Rights (NOHR), and the Committees For the Defense of Democracy Freedoms and Human Rights In Syria (CDF)  issue regular press releases criticizing SSSC trials. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also have issued reports condemning the SSSC for failing to meet the standards of an independent and impartial tribunal.[89] Yet, despite these criticisms, and as the next section will show, the SSSC continues to sentence and try activists and other defendants without any change in its procedures.

[7] The Ba`ath Party government instituted the state of emergency with Military Order No. 2 of March 8, 1963. Legislative Decree No. 51 of December 22, 1962, a law enacted by the previous government actually authorizes the government to declare a state of emergency. Legislative Decree 51, December 22, 1962.

[8] Legislative Decree No. 51, art. 6.

[9] However, exceptional military courts continued to operate despite Legislative Decree No. 47. Most recently, a military field court sentenced a group from the town of Daria on February 14, 2004. For more details, see reference in Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, Is There Justice in Exceptional Courts?, p. 4.

[10] Legislative Decree No. 47, art. 7.

[11] Legislative Decree No. 47, art. 5. Under Syrias emergency law, the prime minister is appointed as martial law governor after the declaration of a state of emergency. He can then exercise a wide range of powers including the right to restrict movement and assembly. Legislative Decree 51, December 22, 1962, arts. 3-9

[12]Legislative Decree No. 47, art. 7(a).

[13] The SSSC has in principle two chambers but only one chamber (the one headed by Fayez al-Nuri) is active today. The other two judges of the SSSC are the civilian judge Maymun Izz al-Din, and the military judge, Colonel Munjid Badran. Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer S.A., July 31, 2008.

[14]Ibid; Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian activist Mohamad al-Abdallah, Beirut, August 14, 2008. Legislative Decree No. 47, art. 2 states: The Supreme State Security Court is formed by decree based on the proposal of the martial law governor.

[15] Legislative Decree No. 47, art. 8. Article 14(5) of the ICCPR states: “Everyone convicted of a crime shall have the right to his conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law.” The Syrian government has argued in its periodic report to the Human Rights Committee: “In view of the sensitive nature of the cases referred to the Higher State Security Court, its judgments are final but are not enforceable until they have been ratified by the Head of State who, by law, has the right to annul the judgment, order a retrial or a stay of proceedings to reduce or commute the penalty. The President of the Republic may issue amnesty for those convicted by the court; in fact he has exercised this power several times.” UN Human Rights Committee, Consideration of Reports Submitted by State Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant, CCPR/C/SYR/2004/3, para. 66 (October 19, 2004).

[16]Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer S.A., July 31, 2008..

[17]Ibid.

[18]Human Rights Watch interview with Damascus-based Western diplomat N.R., Beirut, November 4, 2008.

[19] Human Rights Watch Interview with Mohamad al-Abdallah, Beirut, August 14, 2008.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Damascus-based Western diplomat C.D., Beirut, April 14, 2008.  Legislative Decree 47, art. 1 provides that the President of the Court has “the right to hold the trial session in any place and time he deems suitable.” 

[21] Human Rights Watch e-mail from Damascus-based Western diplomat N.R., August 28, 2008.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with Damascus-based Western diplomat C.D., Beirut, April 14, 2008; Human Rights Watch Interview with Mohamad al-Abdallah, Beirut, August 14, 2008.

[23] Article 14(1) of the ICCPR states: “The press and the public may be excluded from all or part of a trial for reasons of morals, public order (ordre public) or national security in a democratic society, or when the interest of the private lives of the parties so requires, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.

[24] Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer S.A., July 31, 2008.

[25] Human Rights Watch e-mail from Damascus-Based Western Diplomat B.B., August 14, 2008. See Section V. (“Monitoring of the SSSC by the Diplomatic Community”) below for a fuller discussion of the role of the diplomats at the SSSC.

[26]Three defendants before the SSSC told Human Rights Watch that there were no witnesses in their trial before the SSSC. Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee K.K., August 22, 2008; Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee Mas`ud Hamed, August 19, 2008; Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee C.A., February 15, 2008. An experienced Syrian lawyer as well as a diplomat who regularly attends SSSC trials confirmed to Human Rights Watch that witnesses rarely appear before the SSSC. Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer S.A., July 31, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview with Damascus-based Western diplomat N.R., Beirut, October 7, 2008.

[27]Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer C.O., October 8, 2008.

[28] Code of Criminal Procedure, Decree no. 112, March 13, 1950. See also Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, “Is There Justice in Exceptional Courts?,”p. 17 (noting “Usually, the interrogation before the state security prosecutor takes place without the presence of lawyers. There are very few cases where the state security prosecutor allows the lawyers to be present.”)

[29] Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer C.C., October 8, 2008

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with former detainee M.M., November 19, 2008.

[31] Ibid.; Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee K.K., August 22, 2008; Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee Mas`ud Hamed, August 19, 2008, Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee S.S., November 17, 2008

[32] Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee K.K., August 22, 2008.

[33] Sednaya prison, located about 30 kilometers north of Damascus, is under the control of the military, and is used for the pre-trial detention of detainees held by security services, as well as for those already sentenced by the SSSC. A small number of defendants before SSSC are detained in the political wing of `Adra prison, a civilian-run prison. In principle, lawyers are allowed to visit their clients in `Adra after a trial has started, but this remains subject to the whim of the security services. Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian lawyer C.C., October 29, 2008.

[34] The report by the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies quotes one of the lawyers saying “often, security agents interfere in the discussion with our clients. For example, we would be asking our client if he was tortured, the security officer would say that this question is not allowed and would ask us to move on. Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, “Is there justice in Exceptional Courts?,” p. 17. An activist recalled a case where the lawyer Khalil Ma`tuk was even prevented from shaking the hand of his client, Omar al-Abdullah during the defense session on April 15, 2007 after an officer in the military police intervened directly. Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Abdallah, Beirut, September 8, 2008.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian lawyer C.C., October 29, 2008.

[36] Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee S.S., November 17, 2008.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian lawyer C.C., October 29, 2008; Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer S.A., July 31, 2008.

[38] Code of Criminal Procedure, Decree no. 112, March 13, 1950. See also, analysis in Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, “Is there justice in Exceptional Courts?”, p. 18.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian lawyer C.C., October 29, 2008.

[40] Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee C.A., February 15, 2008.

[41] Human Rights Watch e-mail from former defendant A.Y., October 22, 2008.

[42] Human Rights Watch phone interview with former detainee Mas`ud Hamed, August 19, 2008.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with with Syrian lawyer C.C., October 29, 2008; Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer S.A., July 31, 2008.

[44] Ibid.

[45]Human Rights Watch e-mail from Syrian lawyer S.A., July 31, 2008. According to Amnesty International, in one case before the SSSC, the defense lawyers assigned by the court failed to appear for the hearings on three separate occasions. Amnesty International, “Memorandum on the SSSC,” p. 7.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Damascus-based Western diplomat C.D., Beirut, April 14, 2008.

[47] Human Rights Watch e-mail from Damascus-based Western Diplomat B.B., August 14, 2008.

[48] Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress onthe Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, 27 August to 7 September 1990, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 at 118 (1990).

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with Damascus-based Western diplomat N.R., October 7, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian lawyer C.C., October 29, 2008, Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian lawyer S.A., October 29, 2008.

[50] For more information on the riot, see “Syria: Investigate Sednaya Prison Deaths,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 21, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/07/21/syria-investigate-sednaya-prison-deaths.

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with Damascus-based Western diplomat N.R., October 7, 2008.

[52] The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, “Is There Justice in Exceptional Courts?,” p. 26.

[53] Quoted in Middle East Watch (now the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch/), Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 26.

[54] Ibid, p. 27.

[55] Ibid.

[56] For more information on detention without trial in the 1980’s, see Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Throwing Away the Key, October 1992, pp. 8-9;  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), Ch. 2.

[57] For more information on the SSSC’s activities in 1992, see Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Syria –The Price of Dissent, vol. 7, no. 4, July 1995.

[58] Human Rights Watch, Throwing Away The Key, p. 1.

[59] For more background on the trial of CDF activists, see Middle East Watch, Syria – Human rights Workers on Trial, vol. 4, No. 5.

[60] Some of the activists on trial in 1992 had been in detention without formal charges for up to 12 years. For more info, see Human Rights Watch, World Report 1993 – Syria chapter.

[61] Human Rights Watch, Syria-The Silenced Kurds, October 1996, Vol. 8, No. 4(E), p. ?? [only have online copy]

[62] Human Rights Watch, Syria’s Tadmor Prison, April 1996, Vol. 8, No. 2 (E). See Appendix A of Syria’s Tadmor Prison for SSSC Convictions of 21 political activists in 2004. See also, Appendix B of Human Rights Watch, Syria: the Price of Dissent, for SSSC verdicts issued in 1993 and 1994.

[63] 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; and Human Rights Watch, No Room to Breathe, October 2007, Vol. 19, No. 6(E), pp. 9-10.

[64]  The Damascus Criminal court sentenced the two parliamentarians to five years imprisonment. For more information on the trials of the ten activists, see “Syria: Long Prison Terms for Democracy Activists,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 2, 2002, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2002/08/02/syria4184.htm, Human Rights Watch, No Room to Breathe, p. 11.

[65] Salafis strive to imitate and replicate the Islam of the Prophet’s generation (al-salaf al-salih), aiming to rid Islamic practice of the innovations accrued over centuries of human practice. They aspire to follow the literal meanings of Qur’anic injunctions  Issues of salafi beliefs frequently involve questions of ritual and everyday life, but more important are questions involving social norms and laws derived from the Prophet Muhammad’s reported words and deeds. According to Gilles Kepel, an academic expert on Islamist movements, “the term ‘takfir’ “derives from the word kufr (impiety) and it means that one who is, or claims to be a Muslim is declared to be impure: by takfir he is excommunicated in the eyes of the Community of the Faithful. For those who interpret Islamic law literally and rigorously, one who is impious to this extent can no longer benefit from the protection of law.” Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 31. Hezb al-Tahrir is an international pan-Islamist Sunni political party whose goal is to combine all Muslim countries in a unitary Islamic state or caliphate, ruled by Islamic law and with a caliph head of state. For more information about Islamic fundamentalism in Syria, see Razan Zeytouneh, “A look at Fundamentalist Islam in Syria,” May 2007, http://tharwacommunity.typepad.com/whereto_syria/2006/09/post_1.html.

[66] For a broader discussion of the emergence of recent Islamists movements in Syria, see Nicholas Blanford, “In secular Syria, an Islamic revival,” Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 2003, http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1003/p06s01-wome.html; Sami Moubayed, “The Islamic Revival in Syria, Mid East Monitor,” Vol. 1, No. 3, Sept-Oct 2006, http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0609/0609_4.htm; Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, "Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight; A Smuggler of Insurgents Reveals Syria's Influential, Changing Role," Washington Post, June 8, 2005 (noting that “Syria's role in sustaining and organizing the insurgency has shifted over time. In the first days of the war, fighters swarmed into Iraq aboard buses that Syrian border guards waved through open gates, witnesses recalled. But late in 2004, after intense pressure on Damascus from the Bush administration, Syrian domestic intelligence services swept up scores of insurgent facilitators”); Neil Macfarquhar, "Syria, Long Ruthlessly Secular, Sees Fervent Islamic Resurgence," The New York Times, October 24, 2003 (noting that “the government manipulates the religious resurgence as a safety valve, periodically loosening the restraints to see who is involved so they can be monitored.”)

[67] “Syrian police clash with bombers,” BBC News Online, April 28, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3664811.stm (accessed November 10, 2008); Anne Penketh, “Peace shattered in Syria as terrorists attack UN building,“ The Independent, April 28, 2004, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/peace-shattered-in-syria-as-terrorists-attack-un-building-561530.html (accessed November 10, 2008).

[68] According to media reports, one Syrian security personnel and four militants were killed in the battle, while the remaining militants were captured. “Five die as Syria thwarts attack,” BBC News Online, June 2, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5040558.stm (accessed November 10, 2008).

[69] Mahmud Aghasi was a charismatic Sunni cleric with thousands of radical Islamist followers in Syria.    He was assassinated on September 28, 2007 and it is unknown who killed him. He is a controversial figure and there are competing views about his real identity. For some, he was an essential actor in mobilizing youth to go fight in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003 and an ardent supporter for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria based on shari`a law. Others have claimed that he was an agent of the Syrian government, who was used to appease rising anti-American discontent amongst the country’s Muslims and to keep the authorities informed of the activities of his fellow jihadists. For more information, see Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “From here to eternity,” The Guardian, June 8, 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jun/08/iraq.alqaida (accessed November 10, 2008); “Radical syrian cleric ‘shot dead’,” BBC News Online, September 29 2007; Blanford, “In secular Syria, an Islamic revival.”

[70] One Syrian security official was also killed but no American personnel were injured. “Gunmen in Syria Hit US Embassy; 3 Attackers Die,” New York Times, September 13, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/13/world/middleeast/13syria.html (accessed November 15, 2008).

[71] “Syrian TV shows men 'confessing' to deadly bomb blast,” Agence France Presse,  November 6, 2008, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gq6arHHkxl-wuzRVxux2KtF6E5qg (accessed November 15, 2008).

[72] Fatah al-Islam is considered a Salafi group that is ideologically linked to al-Qaeda. They have a presence in northern Lebanon and Lebanon’s army fought a three-month battle last year to dislodge the group from the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared. Ferry Biedermann, “Lebanon and Syria tussle over militants,” Financial Times, November 10, 2008, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a742dec6-af55-11dd-a4bf-000077b07658.html (accessed November 15, 2008); “Syrian TV shows men 'confessing' to deadly bomb blast,” Agence France-Presse, November 6, 2008, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gq6arHHkxl-wuzRVxux2KtF6E5qg (accessed November 15, 2008).

[73] For details and examples, see Section IV.C, “Overbroad Accusations Against Suspected Islamists.”

[74] Human Rights Watch e-mail with Damascus-based diplomat N.R., August 28, 2008.

[75] Law 49 (1980) criminalizes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and states that affiliation with the group is punishable by death.

[76] State security forces had arrested Firas Sa`ad on July 30, 2006. Firas Sa`ad’s writings can be found at http://www.ahewar.org/m.asp?i=509

[77] The Damascus Declaration is a gathering of numerous opposition groups and activists calling for democratic reforms in Syria. For more information about the arrest and trial of the group, see “Syria: More Activists Arrested Following Opposition Meeting,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 17, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/12/17/syria17556.htm; “Syria: Opposition Activists Tell of Beatings in Interrogation,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 5, 2008, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/02/05/syria17973.htm; “Syria: Harsh Sentences for Democratic Opposition,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 30, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/10/30/syria-harsh-sentences-democratic-opposition.

[78] The Damascus Criminal Court sentenced Anwar al-Bunni on April 25, 2007 to five years in jail for “spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation,” based on his statement that inhumane conditions led to the death of a man held in a Syrian jail. “Syria: Harsh Sentence for Prominent Rights Lawyer,” Human Rights Watch new release, April 24, 2007, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2007/04/24/syria-harsh-sentence-prominent-rights-lawyer

[79] The Damascus Criminal Court sentenced Dr. Kamal al-Labwani on May 10, 2007 to 12 years in jail for “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” after he visited the United States and Europe in the fall of 2005 to meet with government officials, journalists and human rights organizations. For more information, see ‘Syria: Peaceful Activist Gets 12 Years with Hard Labor,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 11, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/11/syria15898.htm.

[80] The Damascus Criminal Court sentenced Michel Kilo and Mahmud `Issa on May 13, 2007 to three years in jail for “weakening national sentiment” and “inciting sectarian strife” after they signed a declaration calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations. “Syria: Four More Activists Sentenced to Prison;” Human Rights Watch news release, May 17, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/17/syria15941.htm.

[81] In addition, there is evidence that the security services also interfere in trials before the Criminal Courts. For example, during Dr. Labwani’s trial before the Damascus Criminal Court, the head of National Security sent a letter on November 17, 2005 to the Minister of Justice asking him to add the charge of “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” to the lesser charges that the General Prosecutor’s office had initially filed against Labwani. See ‘Syria: Peaceful Activist Gets 12 Years with Hard Labor,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 11, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/11/syria15898.htm.

[82] At least 30 people were killed and more than 160 were injured in days of clashes that began March 12, 2004 in Qamishli at a soccer match between Kurdish fans of the local team and Arab supporters of a visiting team from the city of Deir al-Zor. Kurdish sources alleged that security forces used live ammunition against unarmed Kurdish civilians almost immediately after clashes erupted. The unrest spread to other Kurdish towns. Kurdish attacks on state property prompted additional harsh responses from security forces. 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; Amnesty International, Kurds in the Syrian Arab Republic one year after the March 2004 events, March 10, 2005, AI Index: MDE 24/002/2005. 

[83] PKK is a militant organization founded in the 1970s and led by Abdullah Öcalan. The PKK's ideology is founded on revolutionary Marxism-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism. The PKK's goal has been to create an independent, socialist Kurdish state in Kurdistan; a geographical region that comprises parts of southeastern Turkey, northeastern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran, where the Kurdish population is the majority. This goal has now been moderated to claiming cultural and political rights for the ethnic Kurdish population in Turkey. It is listed as a terrorist organization internationally by a number of states and organizations, including the United States, NATO and the European Union.

[84] See James Brandon, The Jamestown Foundation, “The PKK and Syria's Kurds,” Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 5, Issue 3, February 15, 2007 http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2370250; Gary Gambill, “The Kurdish Reawakening in Syria,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 4, April 2004.

[85] James Brandon, “The PKK and Syria's Kurds” (the author of the article notes that following his visit to Mount Qandil, the PKK's headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that as many as 20 percent of the PKK's 4,000 troops in Mount Qandil, are of Syrian origin).

[86] UN Human Rights Committee, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant. Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee, Syrian Arab Republic, CCPR/CO/84/SYR, August 9, 2005, para. 10, http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/hrcs84.htm  (accessed September 8, 2008). In 2001, the UN Human Rights Committee also expressed concern about the SSSC and noted that the SSSC “rejects torture allegations even in flagrant cases and that its decisions are not subject to appeal.”  UN Human Rights Committee, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant, Second Periodic Report of States Parties Due in 1984, Syrian Arab Republic, August 25, 2000, CCPR/CO/71/SYR, para. 16 http://www.arabhumanrights.org/publications/countries/syria/ccpr/ccpr-co-71-syr-01e.pdf (accessed September 8, 2008).

[87] See WGAD Decisions No. 10/1993, 11/1993, 54/1993, 1/1994, 29/1996, 30/1996, 31/1996, 21/2000, 11/2002, 4/2005, 7/2005, 15/2006, 16/2006. For a more detailed analysis of the WGAD decisions, see Amnesty International, “Memorandum on the Supreme State Security Court: A Summary of Amnesty International’s Concerns,” AI Index: MDE 24/039/2007, August 2007, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/039/2007/en/769227e8-ce8e-11dc-a98a-359eaace9fe9/mde240392007eng.pdf (accessed September 8, 2008).

[88] UN Commission on Human Rights, Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Fateh Jamus and Issam Dimashqi v. Syrian Arab Republic, E/CN.4/2001/14/Add.1, November 9, 2000, http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/TestFrame/3d2f44620a5537f8c1256a500029da19?Opendocument (accessed September 8, 2008), at 104.

[89] See for example, Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, “Is there justice in exceptional courts?;” Human Rights Watch, Syria - The Price of Dissent; Amnesty International, “Memorandum on the Supreme State Security Court.”