Human Rights Developments
The dual legacy of decades of one-party rule and state repression continued to cripple independent political life in Syria. With emergency law in effect since 1963, peaceful political expression and association criminalized, and all independent institutions of civil society long ago dismantled, citizens were unable to exercise basic civil and political rights guaranteed under international human rights law. The government-controlled print and broadcast media and the quadrennially elected parliament provided no opportunities for independent or opposition voices to be heard. Hundreds of members of unauthorized political opposition groups, imprisoned in the 1980s for nonviolent activities, languished in prison. Many of these long-term detainees, university students at the time of their arrest, were only sentenced in the mid-1990s by the Supreme State Security Court in proceedings that did not meet international fair-trial standards. Barring amnesties, some of these political prisoners, serving terms as long as fifteen years, will not be eligible for release until 2002.
The absence of freedom of expression and association made systematic and timely monitoring of information about human rights developments virtually impossible.The families of victims of human rights abuse often dared not provide detailed information to human rights organizations, consent to publicize cases internationally, or even grant permission to raise individual cases with Syrian authorities. This remained the norm not only for past abuses, but for violations that occurred in 1997.
One family in Aleppo, for example, suffered a "disappearance" in silence for almost twenty years. Their son, whose name Human Rights Watch was asked not to disclose, was detained in late 1979, when he was a university student in his twenties. He was held for the first six months in a prison in Aleppo, then transferred to Damascus. From that time, the family had no further information concerning his whereabouts and did not know if he was dead or alive. Despite the time that had passed, the family in 1997 remained afraid to publicize the case for fear of retribution by state agents against family members in Aleppo. In a recent case, news of the arrest in June and subsequent incommunicado detention of three peaceful political activists reached a family member in the United States, who provided details to Human Rights Watch. Because of fear of worsening the situation for the detainees and putting the family at risk, the details of this case cannot be published. The absence of an independent human rights community inside Syria, coupled with the lack of regular and unrestricted access to the country by international human rights monitors and journalists, served to isolate victims of abuse and their families and deny them sources of support and advocacy at the local and international levels.
There were no reports in 1997 of government initiatives to address patterns of discrimination against Syrian Kurds, who comprise from 8.5 to 10 percent of the population and form the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in Syria. By the government's own count, the Kurdish minority included over 142,000 stateless Syrian-born Kurds, including children. A 1996 Human Rights Watch report documented such discriminatory practices as the prohibition of Kurdish private schools; the denial of Syrian citizenship to Syrian-born Kurds and their children; lack of legal recognition of the marriages of certain Syrian-born Kurds; and the refusal of the state to register and grant Syrian nationality to the children born of marriages between stateless Syrian-born Kurdish men and women who were Syrian citizens, and of stateless Syrian-born Kurdish couples.
In written replies to questions from the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which the committee received on December 11, 1996, the Syrian government did not acknowledge discriminatory state policies and practices against the Kurdish minority. The government maintained, for example, that "in Syria there is no child who does not have a specific name and nationality." Ignoring the stateless status of tens of thousands of Syrian-born Kurdish children due to its own policies, the government merely noted: "A refugee to Syria may be accorded Syrian nationality through naturalization, whereupon nationality is also acquired as a consequence by his minor children." In another reply to the committee, the government dodged the issue of the state's refusal to recognize the marriages of stateless Kurds: "The legislative enactments in force in Syria recognize the marriage deeds of all minorities when they are duly issued both legally and systematically, whether in Syria or elsewhere," the government wrote.
The strong presence of Syrian military and security forces inside Lebanon did not diminish in 1997, and Syria continued to play a dominant role, particularly in areas related to political and security affairs, and foreign policy. The bilateral May 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination provided for joint initiatives in a variety of fields, ranging from commerce and industry to agriculture and transportation, as well as special efforts in the fields of defense and security affairs. A separate Defense and Security Agreement, concluded in September 1991, created a bilateral defense affairs committee, composed of the interior and defense ministers of both countries. Clause 2(a) of the agreement required that Syrian and Lebanese military and security authorities "[b]an all military, security, political and media activity that might harm the other country." Clause 2(b) specified that the authorities of both states must "[r]efuse to give refuge to, facilitate the passage of, or provide protection to persons and organizations that work against the other state's security. If such persons or organizations take refuge in either of the two states, that state must arrest them and hand them over to the other side at the latter's request."
One manifestation of Syria's role in Lebanon was the continuing "disappearances" of Lebanese citizens and Palestinian refugees at the hands of Syrian security forces, and the officially unacknowledged transfer of these "disappeared" persons to prisons and detention centers in Syria. There were at least four confirmed "disappearances" in Lebanon in 1997, in addition to cases that remained unsolved from 1996 and previous years. One such case was that of Lebanese citizen Gabi `Akl Karam, who was taken from his mother's home in the Sinn al-Fil section of Beirut on January 6 by two men in plainclothes who said that they were members of Lebanese Military Intelligence. Karam was detained at the Lebanese Ministry of Defense headquarters, and the next day he was handed over to Syrian security forces and transferred to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus. Karam was held there incommunicado until March 27, when he was returned to Lebanon and held in Lebanese army custody until his release on April 3. There was no official acknowledgment of Karam's detention by Lebanese or Syrian authorities, and there was no written reply to the abduction and unlawful detention complaint filed by Karam's lawyer on March 12 with Lebanon's chief public prosecutor Adnan Addoum.
The Syrian government did not reply to a recommendation by Human Rights Watch, in letters sent to President Hafez al-Asad in November 1996 and March 1997, to halt the "disappearances" and disclose fully the names and other information about non-Syrians held in custody in Syrian prisons and detention centers. According to an Amnesty International report issued on October 9, at least 200 Lebanese citizens were imprisoned in Syria, following their detention in Lebanon by Syrian intelligence forces and subsequent transfer to Syria; most of them were held incommunicado, and without charge or trial.
The Right to Monitor
Syrian citizens were unable openly to monitor human rights developments and abuses, report such information openly inside Syria, and communicate it to the outside world. The last known organized initiative of this kind inside Syria, by activists associated with the nascent nongovernmental Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (known by the acronym CDF), was suppressed harshly by authorities. Beginning in December 1991, authorities rounded up and detained suspected CDF members and supporters, and in March 1992 seventeen of them were tried by the Supreme State Security Court in Damascus. The court sentenced ten of the activists to prison terms ranging from five to ten years. Five were released in 1997, after serving their full terms, and five remained in prison.
Those still behind bars, and their sentences, were: writer Nizar Nayouf (ten years); lawyer Aktham Nuaissa, Muhammed Ali Habib, and Afif Muzhir (nine years); and Bassam al-Shaykh (eight years). Nayouf remained in Mezze military prison in Damascus, while the others were held in Sednaya prison. Both Nayouf (aged thirty-five) and Nuaissa (aged forty-six) were reportedly in urgent need of specialized medical care. Syrian authorities ignored repeated appeals from international human rights organizations for the release of the CDF members and other Syrians imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association.
An Amnesty International delegation visited Syria in March, and met with government officials and the prosecutor and judges serving on the security court, among others. Following the mission, Amnesty issued a press release on March 25, calling for the immediate release of prisoners detained solely for their political beliefs. "We welcome the government's willingness to continue dialogue and cooperation with the organization for the protection of human rights in Syria, but we would like this translated into action," Amnesty wrote, noting that it had submitted the names of over 500 political prisoners to the authorities. Amnesty added that its delegation had "asked the authorities to review the cases of hundreds of political prisoners convicted and sentenced after unfair trials, to release everyone not charged with a recognizably criminal offense and to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the `disappeared.'"
Human Rights Watch continued to wait for an affirmative response from the Syrian government to a long-standing request to visit the country again following its first officially approved fact-finding mission, undertaken from March to May 1995. The request for a follow-up mission was first made to Syrian authorities in July 1995, and was subsequently raised repeatedly with the government.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child considered the initial report of Syria at the committee's meeting in January in Geneva. The committee's concluding observations, published on January 24, included criticism of the government's discriminatory policies toward Syrian-born Kurdish children: "The situation of refugee and Syrian-born Kurdish children is a matter of concern to the Committee in the light of article 7 of the Convention [on the Rights of the Child]." (Article 7 requires, among other provisions, that children should be registered immediately after birth and have the right to acquire a nationality.) The committee continued: "In this regard, the Committee notes the absence of facilities for the registration of refugee children born in Syria, and that Syrian-born Kurdish children are considered either as foreigners or as maktoumeen (unregistered) by the Syrian authorities and face great administrative and practical difficulties in acquiring Syrian nationality, although they have no other nationality at birth." The committee stressed that "the right to be registered and to acquire a nationality should be guaranteed to all children under the Syrian Arab Republic's jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective, in particular, of the child's or his or her parents' or legal guardians' race, religion or ethnic origin."
On April 4, the U.N. Human Rights Committee met in New York to consider the second periodic report submitted by Lebanon under Article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee examined Lebanon's violations of civil and political rights, and heard presentations by local and international human rights organizations concerning the Syrian role in Lebanon and the continuing problem of "disappearances." During its meeting in New York on May 15, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights received information about "disappearances" in Lebanon by Syrian security forces.
Human Rights Watch is unaware of any European Union (E.U.) rights-related initiatives with respect to Syria in 1997. The E.U., like the U.S. ( see below), appeared preoccupied with diplomatic activity aimed at reactivating the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track. The Council of Ministers failed to forward to the European Parliament the report on human rights conditions in Syria that it received in November 1995 from the European Commission, a report it had committed itself to prepare as part of the December 1993 decision to extend Fourth Protocol assistance to Syria, which amounted to U.S. $178 million over five years. Human Rights Watch urged in May that the Council of Ministers instruct the Commission to prepare an update to this report, and submit it to the parliament prior to the August recess, and that the original report and the update be made public.
U.S. policy toward Syria again was almost entirely drive by efforts to revive the stalled Israel-Syria peace talks, suspended since February 1996, in order to accomplish one of the administration's long-sought objectives, a peace treaty between the two countries. Although Syria once again appeared on the State Department's 1997 list of state sponsors of terrorism, the Clinton administration exempted Syria from the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which prohibited, as of August 22, 1996, all financial transactions by U.S. persons with governments on the terrorism list.
In 1997, the Clinton administration opposed efforts by members of congress to have the 1996 law fully applied to trade with Syria. R. Richard Newcomb, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, explained to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs on May 15 that new Treasury Department regulations, based on State Department guidance, authorized "financial transactions with the Governments of Syria and Sudan except for (1) transfers from those governments in the form of donations and (2) transfers with respect to which the U.S. person knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the financial transaction poses a risk of furthering terrorist acts in the United States." Philip Wilcox, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, told the House of Representative Judiciary subcommittee on June 10 that the additional sanctions against Syria could put the Israel-Syria peace process at risk. He added that "there were other reasons why imposing more sanctions on Syriawould be counterproductive but could not discuss them at an open public hearing," according to a report of the hearing published by the U.S. Information Agency.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her first visit to Syria on September 12, met in Damascus with President Asad for four hours and then left the country without making any public comments. There were no indications that the secretary used the occasion of the meeting to raise privately any U.S. concerns about human rights conditions in Syria. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any public statements by Clinton administration officials in 1997 that highlighted or criticized specific aspects of Syria's human rights record, and there was no public evidence that U.S. diplomats engaged their Syrian counterparts in discussions aimed at improving the country's dismal human rights situation through specific and measurable reforms. Despite this public silence, the State Department's assessment of human rights conditions in Syria remained, as in past years, condemnatory in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996 .
Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Syria/Lebanon-An Alliance Beyond the Law: Enforced Disappearances in Lebanon, 5/97
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