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Defending Human Rights

There were no locally based human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) allowed to operate freely and openly with the protection of legal status as NGOs. But activists with the lone independent watchdog group, the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), including several former detainees, convened "publicly" in Damascus on September 15 for the first time in eleven years. Their purpose, they said, was to underscore their hope for a democratic transformation in Syria. They elected a new board of trustees, including eight persons living in Syria and three in Europe. Aktham Naisse, an attorney who was released in 1998 because of poor health, was elected president of the organization.

Ten CDF activists, including Naisse, had been tried in the state security court in 1992 and sentenced to terms ranging from five to ten years of imprisonment. Thabet Murad and Bassam al-Shaykh were released from Sednaya prison after their sentences expired in early 2000. Three others -journalist and writer Nizar Nayouf, Muhammad Ali Habib, and Afif Muzhir-remained imprisoned, Nayouf reportedly in solitary confinement in Mezze military prison. The World Association of Newspapers denied reports that Nayouf had been released in April, and said that he "adamantly refused" an offer of release in exchange for signing a statement that he would relinquish all human rights awards and refrain from future political activity. Nayouf, disabled years earlier by torture under interrogation and at Mezze and Tadmur military prisons, suffered from serious medical problems. Syrian authorities continued to deny reports that Nayouf suffered from Hodgkin's disease, a form of lymphatic cancer.

In Lebanon and France, independent human rights groups actively campaigned for the release of several hundred Lebanese they knew or suspected were being held in Syria prisons. While confirming reports that dozens of political prisoners had been released by late July, CDF's Paris-based spokesman Ghayath Naisse said that the "prisoner release is partial, not the comprehensive one we were hoping for." Representatives of eighteen human rights organizations from Palestine and Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries wrote in June to the Ninth Regional Congress of the Syrian Ba'th Party calling for an end to emergency law. The letter said that hundreds of political prisoners released from "grisly detention centers" were "still deprived of their civil rights by order of the Supreme State Security Court. They are prevented from traveling, their movements are restricted, and many have lost their jobs." The letter called on the authorities "to make the brave and historic decision to do away with political detention once and for all, release all political prisoners, and restore to them their full civil rights as guaranteed by the Syrian Constitution."

Syrian authorities continued to be unresponsive to letters from Human Rights Watch, and did not respond positively to a long-standing request to visit the country to carry out research.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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