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(New York) - President Bashar al-Asad's decision to lift the state of emergency should be accompanied by concrete measures to halt the grave daily human rights violations being committed by Syria's security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to permit Syrians to exercise their right to peaceful assembly on April 22, 2011.

On April 21 President al-Asad issued decrees to lift the state of emergency that has been in place since 1963 (decree no. 161), to abolish the state security court (decree no. 53), and to recognize and regulate the right to peaceful protest (decree no. 54). A fourth decree (decree no. 55) will extend the period that security forces can hold a suspect in certain crimes against the state before referring them to a prosecutor from one to seven days. The longer a person is detained before being brought before a judicial authority, the greater the risk of abuse and violations of their rights in detention, Human Rights Watch said.

"The reforms will only be meaningful if Syria's security services stop shooting, detaining, and torturing protesters," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "President al-Asad has the opportunity to prove his intentions by allowing tomorrow's protests to proceed without violent repression."

Syria's security forces have repeatedly used live ammunition against protesters throughout Syria since large-scale demonstrations began on March 16, killing at least 200, according to Syrian human rights activists. Human Rights Watch also documented a regular pattern of arbitrary detention of protesters, activists, and journalists, many of whom have been tortured and mistreated. Detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported being forced to sign confessions without being allowed to read them, as well as to sign pledges not to participate in future protests. Some of the detained protesters and journalists are still being held incommunicado.

The newly-enacted decrees do not address the extensive immunity that Syrian law provides to members of its security services. 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 General Intelligence employees for crimes committed while carrying out their designated duties ... except by an order issued by the Director."

To Human Rights Watch's knowledge, the director of General Intelligence 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 (one of Syria's security services), and customs police.

"The Syrian people want real reforms, and such reforms cannot take place as long as Syria's security services are above the law and can violate people's basic rights at will," Stork said.

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

  • Release all political prisoners, including all those arrested for protesting peacefully;
  • Order prompt and impartial investigations into the allegations of serious violations committed by the security services and the armed forces against protesters and detainees during the wave of protests that started in March and ensure that all those responsible are brought to justice;
  • Rescind decrees that shield General Intelligence employees and other security services from investigation;
  • Ensure that anyone detained is granted prompt access to a lawyer of their choosing from the outset of custody to safeguard against violations of their rights;
  • Institute wide-ranging reforms to restrict the prerogatives of the security forces;
  • Amend or abolish the vague provisions of the Syrian Penal Code that permit the authorities to suppress and punish people arbitrarily for peaceful expression, including the following: 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);
  • Ensure the right to freedom of association by: 1) amending 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 status by making registration of associations automatic once these associations fulfill the formal requirements; and 2) 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 remove government control over newspapers and other publications; and
  • Enact a political parties' law in compliance with international human rights norms.

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