President Bashar al-Asad's government launched a crackdown on peaceful but outspoken advocates of reform in August, sending a clear message that it would tolerate a political opening only on its own terms and according to its own timetable. Authorities arrested leading critics and others active in the freewheeling discussion groups, or civil society forums, that emerged as Syrians sought to claim freedoms that had been denied them during the thirty-year rule of former president Hafez al-Asad. The arrests reversed a trend toward greater openness in a country long dominated by the ruling Arab Ba'th Socialist Party and institutions it controls, and followed earlier positive developments. These included the release of some six hundred political prisoners under a presidential amnesty in November 2000, a January 2001 announcement that the emergency law in force since 1963 was "frozen" and "not applied," and the release in May 2001 of Nizar Nayouf, then the last remaining imprisoned human rights activist. In addition, the government initially relaxed some controls on the press, but in September introduced a tough new decree that regulated the press and other publications as part of a wider strategy to control critical expression.
The crackdown began with the arrest of Mamoun al-Homsi, an independent member of parliament, on August 9. Previously, the authorities did not acknowledge or give reasons for detentions, but in this case the Interior Ministry confirmed al-Homsi's arrest on August 10, charging that a list of political demands that he had issued publicly on August 7, when commencing a hunger strike at his office, constituted "an attempt to change the constitution by illegal means, trying to stop the authorities from carrying out their duties mentioned in the law, trying to harm national unity, defaming the state and insulting the legislative, executive and judicial authorities." The ministry also alleged that al-Homsi owed almost U.S. $1 million in back taxes and had issued his call for political changes, ranging from the lifting of the emergency law to stronger anti-corruption measures, in order to portray himself "as a political victim whereas in fact he is someone accused of a crime." Al-Homsi's trial began in Damascus criminal court on October 30, and continued as of mid-November.
On September 1, the authorities arrested seventy-one-year-old Riad al-Turk, head of the unauthorized Communist Party Political Bureau and possibly Syria's best known former political prisoner. Official sources said he had been detained "in accordance with Syrian criminal and penal procedure law." The government's al-Thawrah newspaper reported on September 5 that he had "expressed views that encroach upon the constitution, violate the general law, and defame the state." By mid-November, al-Turk was still being held, reportedly awaiting trial in the State Security Court, whose procedures do not satisfy international fair trial standards, including the right of appeal to a higher tribunal.
The authorities next detained Riad al-Seif, another member of parliament and a vocal champion of political reform, on September 6. He was later charged, according to his lawyer, with "seeking to change the constitution through illegal means," "inciting inter-religious division," "forming a secret society," and "organizing subversive meetings" and "gatherings aimed at causing disorder." The day before al-Seif's arrest, hundreds of people had attended the National Dialogue Forum, a weekly political gathering that he hosted at his home. Al-Seif suspended the forum in March and opened it in September only after he was unable to obtain an official permit. He had also planned to launch a new political party, the Movement for Social Peace, with a platform that included ending the Ba'th party's grip on political power. In February, a prosecutor had questioned al-Seif about the proposed party's aims, and reportedly accused him of threatening the constitution and "attempting to create a sectarian rift." Al-Seif's trial commenced in the Damascus criminal court on October 31 and continued as of mid-November.
Seven more activists were arrested and imprisoned between September 9-12. These included prominent economist Arif Dalila, founding member of the nongovernmental Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, and others involved in the civil forum movement: lawyer Habib Issa, engineer Fawaz Tello, Hassan Saadoun, and Habib Saleh. Two of those arrested, Issa and physician Walid al-Bunni, were at the July 2 founding meeting of the independent Human Rights Society in Syria, and physician Kamal Labwani was a member of the administrative council of the Committees for the Defense of Human Rights. Issa was also a member of the defense team for the detained parliamentarians and before his arrest had spoken about the cases on the pan-Arab al-Jazeera television station. As of mid-November, all seven were awaiting trail before the State Security Court.
In the months preceding the clampdown, senior officials signaled the government's increasing unease with the opening up of public debate. On January 29, Information Minister Adnan Omran warned publicly that discussions about reform "must be responsible," and disparaged the term "civil society," describing it as "an American expression." President Asad also took up this theme in an interview published on February 8 in the pan-Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, stating that civic organizations should complement and be "based on" state institutions, "not built on their ruins," and that in Syria "the development of civil society institutions must come at a later stage and they are not therefore among our priorities."
In mid-February, the government imposed controls on the independent civic forums, compromising the unprecedented freedom of assembly that Syrian activists and their supporters had been enjoying. Meetings reportedly could no longer be held without prior government approval, a list of participants, and a copy of the speakers' lectures. In March, President Asad warned further that there were "principles in Syria which nobody should break," citing "the Ba'th party, the armed forces, and the policies of president Hafez al-Asad." He added: "Challenging these fundamentals amounts to harming the national interest . . . and serving the nation's enemies." An internal Ba'th party memorandum, publicized in March, echoed the president's remarks. It charged ominously that groups which sought to "weaken the state and dwarf its role" were, "intentionally or not, serving the enemies of the homeland."
Another human rights setback occurred on September 22, when President Asad issued a restrictive decree governing newspapers and other periodical publications as well as anything else printed in Syria, from books to pamphlets and posters. Decree no. 50/2001 granted the executive, specifically, the prime minister and the minister of information, powers to regulate publishers, printers, distributors, and bookstores, and provided harsh criminal penalties for violations of the decree, including substantial fines and imprisonment for up to three years.
Article 29 of the decree listed banned topics, including "details of secret trials," "articles and reports about national security, national unity, details of the security and safety of the army, its movements, weapons, supplies, equipment and camps," and material "affecting the right to privacy." Article 51a criminalized the publication of "falsehoods" and "fabricated reports," with imprisonment of one to three years for violators and/or hefty fines. The article added, in sweepingly vague language, that the maximum penalties "shall be imposed if such acts have been committed by reason of ill-will, or caused public unrest, or harm to international relations, offense to state dignity, national unity, the morale of the army and the armed forces, or caused some damage to the national economy and the currency." Violators of articles 29 and 51a were further penalized with suspension of their publications for periods of one week to six months.
The decree also prohibited "propaganda publications" financed "directly or indirectly" by foreign countries, companies or foundations, raising concern that it could be used to target independent civil society groups that receive funding from abroad. Breaches of this provision brought fines and prison terms of six months to one year.
The decree also required that all periodicals, including those of "legally established political parties," obtain in advance a license to publish from the prime minister, who was empowered to deny licenses "for reasons he deems to be related to public interest." Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), professional associations, and unions, however, were exempted from this licensing requirement, but it remained to be seen if NGOs without official legal status would be permitted to publish magazines or other periodicals.
Other provisions of the decree, set out in article 16, limited the ownership of periodical publications to Syrian Arabs, suggesting that members of the Kurdish minority and stateless Kurds born in Syria were excluded as well as foreigners. The same article also barred ownership to anyone convicted of a criminal offense, stripped of civil or political rights, or "dismissed from employment," penalties that had been imposed on many peaceful critics of the government who were previously imprisoned on criminal charges after State Security Court trials. The decree also required all periodical publications to obtain Information Ministry approval before they changed their owner, director, or chief editor, and distributors and sellers of foreign periodicals to submit advance copies to the same ministry, which can ban their entry or circulation if they "infringe upon national sovereignty and security or offend public morality."
The issue of Lebanese in secret Syrian custody, including those who were apprehended on Lebanese soil by Lebanese or Syrian security forces and then "disappeared," remained unresolved, despite official Syrian government acknowledgment that it had been holding scores of prisoners. On December 11, 2000, Syrian authorities transferred fifty-four prisoners to Lebanon; forty-six of them were Lebanese and eight were Palestinians. One of the Lebanese, Khaled Tawfiq, said he had been held for thirteen years. Several days later, Lebanon's prosecutor general released a list of another ninety-five Lebanese who remained jailed in Syria for alleged criminal offenses committed on Syrian territory. Despite Syrian government assertions that the file was now closed, Lebanese human rights organizations insisted that there were additional Lebanese held in unacknowledged detention in Syria, including some whose relatives had managed to visit them over the years. Other "disappeared" included twenty-six Lebanese soldiers who were last seen alive on October 13, 1990, the day Syrian troops began fighting against forces loyal to Gen. Michel Aoun.
Human rights organizations lacked official legal status and could be denied authorization in arbitrary fashion under the broadly worded 1958 private associations law, article 2, which states: "Any association which is established for an illicit reason or purpose, or which contravenes the law or the moral code, or the purpose of which is to prejudice the integrity or form of the republican government shall be null and void." The government also reported to the U.N. Human Rights Committee (HRC) that the law placed "restrictions" on the establishment of private associations "in order to protect public safety, national security, public order, public health and morals and rights of others."
One recently organized human rights group that elected its board of directors in July told Human Rights Watch that it would seek authorization from the government but planned to carry out activities during this process. One of the group's leaders said he was under surveillance by several security agencies, and that family members had been questioned about his activities as a form of intimidation and pressure. Another activist and former political prisoner reported that security forces monitored his telephone and mail and that he was "not feeling safe."
Despite such pressures and in contrast to earlier years, intellectuals and human rights activists in Syria openly issued regular communiqués and statements, proposing sweepings reforms and criticizing government actions. In January, over 1,000 intellectuals and others signed the Basic Document, a petition circulated by the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society. This called for political reform, including free elections, press freedom, the lifting of emergency law, and an end to the Ba'th party's political domination. The document noted "the consequences of undermining democracy in the name of socialism," and said that in Syria the rule of law had been "replaced by patronage, rights by favors, and the general interest by personal interest."
Following the arrest of member of parliament Mamoun al-Homsi in August, the Committees for the Defense of Human Rights issued a statement that called for his release and urged the government to "stop using the judiciary as an instrument of pressure or terror against political activists." In a separate document, thirty-five intellectuals and human rights activists also condemned the arrest and advocated al-Homsi's release.
Human rights activist Nizar Nayouf was released from prison in May after serving in solitary confinement most of the ten-year prison sentence that the State Security Court imposed in 1992. Following international publicity, he was provided a passport and finally allowed to leave Syria in July to seek medical treatment in France. Following his release, Nayouf campaigned for accountability for past abuses, including torture, deaths in detention, and extrajudicial executions. He told Human Rights Watch that while still in Syria he had formed the National Council for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation to document abuses, press for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, and assist former political prisoners who were stripped of their civil and political rights and denied reemployment in their former jobs.
On September 3, Nayouf's lawyer Anwar al-Bunni reported that lawyers from the Ba'th party had filed a case against Nayouf, accusing him of seeking to change the constitution by illegal means, creating sectarian strife, and publishing abroad reports harmful to the state. Nayouf, who was still in France, was ordered to appear before an investigating judge for questioning.
Syria remained largely closed to international human rights organizations, although authorities permitted a representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists to visit the country in April and May; the mission took place without government interference.
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