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Syria - HRW World Report 2001 in Arabic



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One chapter of Syrian history came to a close with the death on June 10 of President Hafez al-Asad, in power since 1970. The Ba'th Party then quickly orchestrated the political and military elevation of his thirty-four-year-old son, Bashar, allowing citizens only the choice of voting yes or no in a one-candidate presidential referendum held on July 10. The Syrian constitution also was expeditiously amended to lower the minimum required age of the president, and Bashar al-Asad was elected with 97.27 percent of the vote. The British-trained opthamologist had already been designated commander-in-chief of the armed forces and elected leader of the Ba'th Party. Amidst grumbling about the possible onset of dynastic rule in Syria by the Alawite minority, many nevertheless hoped that the new president would eventually breathe life into the country's civil society, stagnant from decades of one-party rule. Prior to his father's death, Bashar al-Asad's action-oriented enthusiasm about computer-based information technology (he headed the Syrian Computer Society) and his campaigns against endemic official corruption were well publicized in Syria, raising expectations that as president he might tackle political as well as economic reform.

In neighboring Lebanon, opponents of Syria's long-term domination of the country had their own hopes, calling repeatedly for reassessment of the lopsided bilateral relationship and return of full sovereignty. It was not only Asad's death but Israel's earlier military withdrawal from occupied south Lebanon in May that prompted and emboldened Lebanese critics and activists, particularly university students, to press directly and publicly for the withdrawal from their country of all Syrian troops and security forces.

With Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations again stalled, the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981, remained under occupation and Israeli settlement activity there continued.

Despite the presidential succession, Syrians continued to be denied civil and political rights. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly were strictly limited in law and practice; the local media and access to the Internet remained state-controlled; and the pervasive powers of the security forces under the country's long-standing emergency law, in force since 1963, were intact. There were no effective safeguards against arbitrary arrest and torture; civilian and military prisons, including the infamous Tadmor in the Palmyran desert, remained off-limits to independent observers; and the Kurdish minority continued to be denied basic rights, including the right to a nationality for tens of thousands. No one inside the country dared to advocate justice and accountability for current and former government officials responsible for gross human rights abuses, including the massacre of possibly as many as 1,100 unarmed prisoners at Tadmor in 1980, and the military assault on the city of Hama in 1982 in which thousands were killed.

Numerous Syrians lived in political exile abroad. The children of some of those blacklisted from returning were deprived of Syrian nationality and in some cases were technically stateless because they lacked passports. Human Rights Watch continued to receive information about Syrian exiles who were arrested, detained, and subsequently forced to leave countries where they resided and worked because they carried,of necessity, forged passports. As of this writing, there were no reported public initiatives by the government to address this major political and humanitarian issue, which affected entire families, including women and children.

Hundreds of Syrian, Palestinian, and other political prisoners continued to be held, but the government provided no official figures. In a June 27 letter to President-elect Bashar al-Asad, Amnesty International estimated the number of political prisoners at 1,500 - of whom approximately 800, mostly members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood but also supporters of the pro-Iraqi Ba'th Party and communists, were believed to be in Tadmor prison. Another 560 prisoners were held in Sednaya prison, and two hundred in other detention centers and in Duma women's prison, Amnesty International said.

In a welcome development, releases of political prisoners, including human rights activists, took place before and after the death of Hafez al-Asad. Two members of the Communist Action Party, Fateh Jamus and Abd al-Karim Aslan, who had served sixteen and eighteen-year terms, respectively, were reported released prior to Hafez al-Asad's death. There were reports that sixteen Jordanian political detainees were freed in March, and another seventeen during the next several months, and three members of the Muslim Brotherhood were released in May. Syrian political exiles confirmed that "dozens" of political detainees were released in June and July, including thirty members of the Muslim Brotherhood; three Jordanians, including Khalid Awad who had served twelve years on political charges; journalist Faisal Allush from the Communist Action Party, who was released after fifteen years in prison; and two members of the Tawhid movement, military commander Samir al-Hassan and Lebanese Sunni activist Hashim Minkara, freed after serving fifteen years.

An anti-corruption campaign launched by Hafez al-Asad and continued by his son resulted in arrests and convictions of senior officials and one alleged suicide. On May 10, former Prime Minister Mahmud Zu'bi was expelled from the Ba'th Party based on allegations of corruption. He had been removed from office on March 7 amid accusations of mismanagement and was banned from leaving the country. The interior ministry said on May 21 that Zubi killed himself when the Damascus police commander went to his house to deliver a summons. His funeral was not attended by the president or members of the cabinet.

A group of three dozen Syrian opposition figures in exile, calling itself the Committee of Coordination for Democracy in Syria, criticized the anti-corruption campaign in a June 10 statement published in al-Quds al-Arabi, the London-based pan-Arab daily. The exiles, including Sarkis Sarkis, Adib al-Hurani, and Yusif Abadlaki, charged that the real purpose of the campaign was to eliminate potential opponents of Bashar al-Asad. The group also called for the canceling of emergency law, an accounting for the "disappeared," freedom of expression, and political pluralism.

Another call for political reform and human rights came in a September statement signed by ninety-nine prominent intellectuals, artists, and others residing in Syria and abroad that appeared in the Lebanese daily al-Safir. The statement called on the authorities to cancel emergency law, issue a general amnesty for all political prisoners, allow political exiles to return, and recognize the rights to freedom of assembly, press, and opinion. The signatories included novelist Abdel Rahman Munif, poet Adonis, and philosophy professor Sadiq al-Azm. Earlier appeals included a June editorial in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat for intellectual and press freedoms, and a July request from Ibrahim Abu Daqqah, human rights advisor to Palestinian Authority leader Yaser Arafat, for the release of Palestinian detainees. From Beirut, a Lebanese member of parliament, Boutros Harb, called for an "opening of the files" on some two hundred Lebanese known or suspected of being imprisoned in Syria, some of whom had been detained without trial for over fifteen years. The Jordanian branch of the Arab Organization for Human Rights also called for the release of sixty-nine Jordanians, as well as Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.

In other welcome developments, some seventy-five foreign journalists were allowed greater freedom than previously to report from Damascus during Hafez al-Asad's funeral. Bashar al-Asad also decreed measures that provided greater Internet access through connections in offices, at least two private Internet cafes in Damascus, the Asad National Library, and Damascus International Airport. The Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), the country's only Internet service provider, still blocked access to Israeli materials and Syrian opposition Web sites-such as the London-based Syrian Rights Committee-and censored electronic mail. "In Syria we have 5,000 subscribers," Ghassan Lahham, vice-president of the Syrian Computer Society, told a press conference in Beirut on April 15. "These are mainly companies and government institutions. We are working to increase to 20,000 by the end of the year," he said, adding that STE would remain the country's only Internet provider. Beirut's Daily Star reported on April 17 that it cost SL2,400 (about U.S. $50) for Internet subscribers in Syria to receive fifteen hours of access monthly, and that a committee had been created "to consider allowing a private company to study applications from people seeking Internet access in Syria."

Against the backdrop of the impending Israeli withdrawal from the occupied south, Lebanese citizens used various tactics to protest Syrian domination of their country. On March 23, for example, journalist Gebran Tueni, managing director and chairman of the board of the independent daily an-Nahar (Beirut), wrote as an editorial an extraordinarily frank open letter addressed to then Col. Bashar al-Asad, who had been assigned responsibility for Syria-Lebanon relations by his father. He wrote that "many Lebanese are neither at ease with the Syrian policy in Lebanon, nor the Syria `presence' in Lebanon....[T]hey resent the way Syria deals with Lebanon, they detest it and reject it....We are not a Syrian province." Tueni also criticized "direct Syrian interference in Lebanese politics," and said that Lebanese "refuse the principle of pre-fabricated voting lists in Damascus" and "reject arresting Lebanese in Syrian prisons." He went on: "There are some Lebanese fears that are getting deeper. There are people who believe that Syria is an enemy. You have to face this reality to be able to solve the problem." Two days later, Lebanese president Emile Lahoud condemned such writing as a "broken record ... played with pro-Israeli motivations." He added: "We all know that such calls and their timing do not reflect interest in protecting Lebanon's sovereignty and independence."

The next month, Lebanese authorities got tough with anti-Syria protesters and referred eight of them to the military court. On April 14, Lebanese authorities arrested two students and a lawyer, Maroun Nasrani, and accused them of distributing pamphlets critical of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. They were tried on April 17 in the military court and fined for "distributing pamphlets harmful to the government and to its ties with a sisterly country." On the day of the trial, several dozen student protesters at the Justice Palace clashed with police and five were arrested and referred to the military court. The Daily Star reported that the demonstrators "struck at police with their fists and chanted anti-Syrian slogans. `Syria get out of here,' they shouted."

In June, Tueni penned another editorial, this time directed at Syrian foreign minister Farouq Shara' who had said that pressure from media campaigns and foreign governments would not lead to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, which he contended prevented the eruption of sectarian strife in Lebanon. "Allow us to completely reject your words and the words of some Lebanese trumpets that use the same justification to defend the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon," Tueni wrote. He added that it was "natural for Minister Shara'to believe journalism does not havethe right to claim it represents the views of citizens because in Syria, as in similar regimes, journalism does not represent public opinion but talks with the tongue of the ruling regime."

By September, the Council of Maronite Bishops, led by Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, was openly calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, whose presence it said "embarrasses the Lebanese." In a September 20 statement the council charged that Syria's "hegemony covered all Lebanese institutions, administrations and government departments." The patriarch pledged that the efforts would continue: "We are not going to be frightened into silence. Nothing will bring this campaign to a halt especially after the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon has ended."

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