Human Rights Watch criticized the Syrian government's clampdown on the independent civil forums that have grown in popularity over the last few months and invigorated the country's political life.

The organizer of one of the groups, parliament member Riad Seif, reported on February 18 that authorities informed the groups' leaders that meetings could no longer be held without prior government permission. Human Rights Watch called for an immediate reversal of the decision, and said Syrian citizens should enjoy the right to peaceful assembly and association without government interference.

"This heavy-handed tactic is reminiscent of the repression of the past," said Joe Stork, Washington director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "It sends a terrible signal to everyone who was hopeful that Syria was turning a new page."

Independent civil society in Syria stagnated under the domination of the Ba'th Party and the harsh rule of former President Hafez al-Asad, who died in June 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar. Since taking office, the younger Asad took positive steps that reformers welcomed, including the release of some 600 political prisoners and licensing the country's first privately owned newspaper in 38 years.

Article 26 of Syria's constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to participate in the country's political life.

Syria is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the international treaty that guarantees the right of freedom of association and assembly. Syria's compliance with the treaty will be examined next month, when the U.N. Human Rights Committee convenes in New York.