(New York) - President Bashar al-Asad's speech on March 30, 2011, failed to commit to a specific reform agenda that would safeguard public freedoms and judicial independence and prohibit the Syrian government from encroaching on human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The much anticipated speech was delivered before parliament.

Commentators and analysts had expected the president to announce specific reforms to increase public freedoms, including lifting the state of emergency, in place since 1963, following announcements by senior Syrian officials that his speech would "please Syrians." However President al-Asad did not offer any specifics and only declared general support for reform.

"It's extremely disappointing that President al-Asad has done nothing more than repeat the same vague promises of reform that he's been uttering for over a decade," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "What's needed immediately if the authorities are to restore any shred of credibility are concrete actions to dismantle Syria's special courts and abolish provisions that criminalize free speech, assembly and association."

Syrian authorities regularly rely on broadly worded "security" provisions in Syria's Penal Code, such as bans on "issuing calls that weaken national sentiment" or "spreading false or exaggerated information," to restrict free expression and detain and prosecute activists. Prior to the government's latest crackdown, Human Rights Watch had documented the arrests of 92 prominent political and human rights activists since al-Asad's ascent to power. The government has used its Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), a special court outside the ordinary criminal justice system that is exempt from most rules of criminal procedure, to try political activists.

Human Rights Watch also urged al-Asad to introduce new laws to broaden political and civil society participation and guarantee freedom of expression. In June 2005 the Ba`ath Party Congress recommended a law to allow formation of new political parties, but the government has failed to introduce a proposed law for that purpose.

Despite statements by Asma al-Asad, the president's wife, in January 2010 that the government "wanted to open more space for civil society to work," Syria's security services continue to deny registration requests for independent nongovernmental organizations and none of Syria's human rights groups are licensed. The main impediments to their registration is the 1958 Law on Associations and Private Societies (Law No. 93), which governs the establishment of any type of organization in Syria and authorizes the security services to refuse registration requests. The government has relied on this law to refuse to register independent organizations that may criticize the country's human rights record or discuss political matters.

Syria's press law (Decree No. 50/2001), promulgated on September 22, 2001, gives the government sweeping control over newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals, as well as virtually anything else printed in Syria, from books to pamphlets and posters. The government has extended these restrictions to online outlets, and the authorities have prosecuted journalists, bloggers, and citizens who dare criticize the authorities or the president.

"Syria needs legislative reform to enshrine the right to participate in all aspects of government and policies, including debating, discussing and criticizing the government's failures," Whitson said. "If President al-Asad is unwilling to take the legal muzzle off Syrians' mouths and to end the tyranny of its Security Courts, then he's not serious about reform."

Syria's security forces have used live ammunition against protesters throughout Syria in the last two weeks, killing at least 61 in Daraa and its surrounding villages, and have arrested scores of people since large-scale demonstrations began on March 16. In his speech, al-Asad indicated that he had "issued clear instructions not to harm any Syrian" and promised that there would be an investigation into the shooting of protesters.

Human Rights Watch urged the president to set up an independent and transparent investigation into the security forces' actions and to hold accountable any member of the security services who shot at or ordered the shooting of protesters. The investigation should look into the role and responsibility of the heads of security services in Daraa, particularly `Atef Najeeb, the head of Political Security in Daraa. Two Daraa residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch accused Najeeb of responsibility for the violent repression of protests in their village.

Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups also have documented a frequent pattern of torture and other ill-treatment by Syria's security services of political and human rights detainees as well as criminal suspects. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any prosecution of a member of the security forces for torture or other ill-treatment of detainees.

In addition, Syria's security services benefit from extensive legal immunity. Legislative Decree No. 14, of January 15, 1969, which established the General Intelligence Division (Idarat al-Mukhabaraat al-`Ama), one of Syria's largest security apparatuses, provides that "no legal action may be taken against any employee of General Intelligence for crimes committed while carrying out their designated duties ... except by an order issued by the director." To Human Rights Watch's knowledge, the General Intelligence director has never issued such an order.

On September 30, 2008, al-Asad issued Legislative Decree 69, which extended this immunity to members of other security forces, by requiring a decree from the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces to prosecute any member of the internal security forces, Political Security, and customs police.

"The Syrian people want real reforms, which can't take place as long as Syria's security services are above the law and control people's day to day lives," Whitson said. "Not only does President al-Asad need to ban torture and to hold those responsible for it accountable, but he needs to put real muscle behind the policy, by putting in jail those responsible for the bloodbath we've seen this month."

To ensure that Syria is on its way to real reform, Human Rights Watch called on al-Asad to:

  • Lift the state of emergency and repeal Syria's Emergency Law;
  • Amend or abolish the vague provisions of the Syrian Penal Code that permit the authorities arbitrarily to suppress and punish people for peaceful expression, including Article 278 (undertaking "acts, writings, or speech unauthorized by the government that expose Syria to the danger of belligerent acts or that disrupt Syria's ties to foreign states"), Article 285 ("issuing calls that weaken national sentiment or awaken racial or sectarian tensions while Syria is at war or is expecting a war"), Article 286 (spreading "false or exaggerated information that weaken national sentiment while Syria is at war or is expecting a war"), Article 307 (undertaking "acts, writings or speech that incite sectarian, racial or religious strife"), and Article 376 (which imposes a sentence from one to three years on anyone who insults the president);
  • Amend the 1958 Law on Associations and Private Societies (Law No. 93) to ensure that groups formed for any legal purpose are allowed to acquire legal personality by making registration of associations automatic once these associations fulfill the formal requirements and by abolishing penalties for participation in unregistered associations if such associations are not otherwise breaking the law;
  • Introduce a new media law that would remove all prison penalties for defamation and libel, stop government censorship of local and foreign publications, and end government control over newspapers and other publications;
  • Enact a political parties' law in compliance with international human rights norms, and establish an independent electoral commission to register new political parties;
  • Abolish the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) and create an independent judicial commission to review the existing cases before the court;
  • Rescind decrees that provide immunity to security services, investigate their abuses, particularly the shooting of peaceful protesters in the last two weeks, and prosecute those found to be responsible.