Human Rights Developments
The unprecedented pardon in late 1991 of some 3,500 long-term detainees prompted hopes that all political detainees might soon be released in Syria. As 1991 came to a close, the government of President Hafez al-Asad also dangled the promise of wider political participation. Neither promise was fulfilled through November 1992. Only one amnesty had been announced, in April, and that was limited to those convicted of economic crimes and to other detainees over 70 years old.
The government made no moves toward greater democratization. And the narrowing of the scope of martial law regulations begun in 1990 and 1991 was not continued. Membership in ten of 12 opposition parties remained a security crime under martial law; direct criticism of the ruling Ba`th Party continued to be prohibited to the two other, legal parties. Despite the fact that 84 independents won seats in the 250-seat People's Assembly elected in 1990, this body could display no independence from the Ba`th.
The Ba`th Party Congress, a legislative body with greater power to set policy than the Assembly, was expected to discuss democratization of the unions and other political reforms in 1992. However, despite officially inspired expectations, the body had still not been convened by the President through November. The Congress has not been convened since 1986.
Executive power remained unchallenged and virtually unlimited in scope. Real power remains in the hands of Asad. In a December 1991 referendum in which he was the only candidate, he was confirmed for a fourth seven-year term as president, with a declared 99.98 percent of the popular vote.
Meanwhile, most civil and political rights remained suspended under the 30-year-old State of Emergency Law. The law was initially imposed to prevent a counter-coup soon after Asad's faction seized power from the previous regime. Its retention was later justified as a necessary response to the state of war with Israel. In statements in July 1992 to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Syrian officials continued to argue that the State of Emergency Law was necessary because of continuing conflict with Israel. However, since its enactment and still in 1992, the law has been used largely against Syrian political opposition groups-not one of which posed a military threat during the year.
The law authorizes sweeping powers of censorship and the preventive arrest and administrative detention of individuals for vaguely defined reasons of "state security." Some 4,400 individuals are believed to remain in detention on state security grounds at the end of 1992. The vast majority of these detainees had been arrested for suspected involvement with banned political parties, some of which advocate violent opposition. However, lists of current detainees collected by Middle East Watch include many non-violent dissidents, including 114 members of medical and engineering associations arrested in 1980 for their peaceful advocacy of democratic reforms. As in pastyears, the Syrian government failed in 1992 to respond to requests for information about its political detainees from relatives or human rights organizations.
The 1991-92 releases-confirmed in early 1992, by relatives and by opposition parties in exile monitoring their members in detention-included roughly 1,800 who had been arrested between 1980 and 1982 for suspected membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The remaining 1,700 people released were suspected of advocating democratic reform or membership in other illegal parties or out-of-favor factions. They included members or suspected members of the Party of Communist Action; the Communist Party-Political Bureau; the Arab Socialist Democratic Ba`th Party; Ba`thists loyal to Iraq or to Salah Jadid, the leader of a Ba`th Party faction who has been in detention since 1970; political independents; and members of professional associations who had campaigned in 1980 for democratic reforms. Leaders of opposition parties, with few exceptions, remained in detention.
But even as the government was releasing some, its security forces were detaining others. In the first ten months of 1992, Middle East Watch received reports documenting more than 250 politically motivated arrests. The Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (cdf), the leading Syrian human rights group, reported that an additional 1,250 individuals were detained for questioning about their political activities between January and mid-July, most for short periods; 40 were believed still detained at the end of November, 16 of whom were reportedly facing trial before the State Security Court. Those arrested in 1992 included human rights activists as well as their families and friends, Lebanese citizens suspected of loyalty to the pro-Iraqi Ba`thist faction, and alleged members of two illegal communist factions.
Arrests continued to follow the patterns set in past years. Detainees were arrested without warrant and held incommunicado during an interrogation period ranging from a few days to a few months.
Torture of political detainees during the incommunicado interrogation period also continued. In the weeks following their arrest, in mid-December 1991, two human rights activists, `Afif Mezher and Aktham Nu`aissa, were bound, suspended by the wrists, and beaten with extension cords during interrogation at the Military Interrogation Branch in Damascus. Nu`aissa was already suffering from a chronic ailment attributed to a previous spell of imprisonment in 1982.
As in the past, families of those arrested in 1992 were not officially informed of the place of detention or the reason for the arrest. Even when the family was able to confirm the place of detention independently, there was no guarantee of access. Several relatives reported being unable to visit their kin in detention in Damascus. Others reported that their visits were inexplicably halted in mid-year.
The Asad government continued to conceal information about prisons and detainees in 1992. Middle East Watch learned of numerous cases in which the government obstructed families in their private search for official confirmation of the whereabouts or condition of detained relatives. Relatives of current detainees or disappeared individuals told Middle East Watch that they had been harassed and even detained for short periods in 1992 while pursuing information about detained relatives.
In one case, the writer Salama George Kila, a Palestinian born in the West Bank, was arrested on March 12 by Political Security forces in Damascus. After several weeks, he was transferred to Adra Civil Prison. While his family was able to visit him initially, visits were terminated in June. Officials told the family that Kila was facing a State Security Court trial, but could not tell family members when the trial was to begin or what charges Kila was facing. As of November, he was still without access to his lawyer or family. There was no word of his whereabouts or condition.
Suspected members of the Party for Communist Action (pca) were targeted in waves of arrest in the early months of 1992. Two physicians, Muhammad Ghanim and `Abd al-`Aziz al-Khayyir were among those arrested in January and February. Both were held incommunicado at the Military Interrogation Branch in Damascus following their arrest, and later were believed transferred to Saydnaya Prison prior to trial before the State Security Court. Rozette 'Isawas also detained for suspected membership in the pca; her husband, Akram al-Bunni, had been previously arrested and remained in detention on similar grounds. The folk singer, Turki Muqdad, was arrested in Latheqiyya (Latakia) in March, reportedly because of his friendship with individuals believed by authorities to be members of the pca.
Others arrested on political grounds in 1992 included suspected members and relatives of suspected members of banned Ba`thist and Nasserist factions, as well as the illegal human rights group cdf. Marwan Ghazi, for example, was one reportedly arrested because of a suspected association with the Nasserist Democratic Popular Organization.
Some were detained for reasons that remain unclear. Two poets, members of the official Writers Union, were arrested at the end of August. One was released after two weeks; the other, Hussam al-Din Kurdi, remained in incommunicado detention. A relative claimed the arrests followed the publication of their writings in the Lebanese press. Although freer than the Syrian press, the Lebanese media is under indirect Syrian government control. Fourteen other writers remained in detention, including Khalil Brayez, seized in 1970, in Lebanon. He was reportedly being held in the military wing of al-Mezze Prison in Damascus.
Syrian security forces continued the practice of arresting suspects in Lebanon, sometimes in coordination with the Lebanese Army and police, and later transferring them, via the Beqa` Valley, to detention centers in Damascus. Six of seven Lebanese known to have been abducted by Syrian forces in Beirut remained in incommunicado detention in late 1992. One of them, a Lebanese Palestinian, `Abd al-Rahman Mahmud Nisar, a traveling salesman who supported a family of seven, was reportedly abducted on suspicion of sympathizing with the pro-Iraq wing of the Syrian Ba`th Party.
In some cases, family members were detained when authorities were unable to apprehend a political suspect. In one case in January, Dr. Akram Salim Ishty, a physician and university lecturer at the American University in Beirut, was abducted from Beirut, apparently to compel his brother to turn himself in to Syrian authorities. The brother was reportedly wanted for membership in the pro-Iraq wing of the Ba`th. Ishty was reportedly being held in Saydnaya Prison, north of Damascus, without access to his family or attorney.
Abandoning a long-standing practice of ignoring any form of judicial process, the government in 1992 turned many political detainees over to the State Security Court for trial. This was not an unqualified step forward. Laws constituting this Court severely weaken its political independence; the court is not subject to judicial oversight, and appeals are prohibited. Under the regulations, the chief prosecutor can ignore all normal courtroom procedures, creating a situation in which the right of the accused to defend himself is subject to the whim of the presiding judge. Through this procedure, a patina of legality and justice can be given to a patently illegal detention, often many years after the defendant's arrest.
In the first such proceedings, on February 22, 1992, the Syrian government put 17 Syrian human rights monitors on trial on charges of violating state security laws. Fourteen were sentenced to between three and ten years in prison with hard labor; four of these were later released. For the first time ever, the State Security Court trial was observed by a delegate from an international human rights organization, the International Commission of Jurists, who condemned the proceedings as falling far short of international standards. Defense attorneys were not permitted to meet with their clients prior to the proceedings or to introduce evidence on their behalf. Allegations of torture of three of the defendants were ignored by the court.
Six months later, in proceedings unmatched in scale since 1971, the Syrian government quietly restarted State Security Court trials, this time against an estimated 600 political detainees. Those facing trial included at least 150 suspected members of banned Communist factions. Some of them had already been held without formal charges for up to 12 years. Trials began on August 27, but through the end of November, no verdicts had been delivered. The trials were viewed by some as a response to international pressure; however, the government gave no public rationale for taking this step.
Defendants were charged under security laws that criminalize the peaceful exercise of internationally accepted rights to free association, expression and political opinion. The prosecution reportedly asked defendants just three questions: whether they were a member of a banned party; whether they had participated in the dissemination of party literature; and whether they agreed with the political line of the party. The prosecution rested its case if the defendant answered in the affirmative to any of those questions. Defense lawyers reported to Middle East Watch that the presiding judge decided to admit as evidence confessions allegedly extracted under torture.
Those undergoing trial included the lawyer Riad al-Turk, the head of the Communist Party-Political Bureau, who has been tortured and hospitalized several times since his arrest in 1980. Detainees released in early 1992 said he continued to be held in incommunicado solitary confinement in a basement cell in the Military Interrogation Branch in Damascus. He reportedly was still being held there during his trial. Al-Turk has not been seen by his family or any other outsiders since his arrest.
Although Syria's overall human rights record in 1992 was disappointing, there was some encouraging news. Seven political prisoners were released following international appeals on their behalf: four human rights activists convicted in the February State Security Court trials, and three detainees held without charges for 22 years. The three long-term detainees-Dr. Nour al-Din Atassi, president of the former regime deposed by Asad's supporters; Muhammad Rabah al-Tawil, former minister of interior; and Yousef al-Burji, former Ba`th leader-all reportedly suffered from serious health problems. As of the end of November, the government had denied an exit visa to Atassi, who was reportedly in critical condition, to seek medical treatment abroad.
There were also improvements in the treatment of the Jewish minority. The last two Jewish detainees being held for attempting to leave the country illegally, Jacob and Eli Swed, were released in early 1992. On April 28, in a widely publicized gesture, Farouq al-Shar`, Syria's Foreign Minister indicated the government would relax travel restrictions for the country's 3,800-member Jewish community. For years, the U.S. State Department had been putting diplomatic pressure on the Syrian government to halt its repression of the community, which had included bans on entire families leaving the country together. Hundreds of Syrian Jews took advantage of the new freedom to visit or emigrate to the United States.
However, minorities expressing any overtly political aims continued to be targeted for arrest. The arrest in March of Ahmad Hassu, a Syrian Kurdish writer, was apparently related to his Kurdish nationalism. He was believed to have been detained for his involvement in a demonstration held in 1986, on the occasion of the Kurdish new year. There were also reliable reports that during the first three weeks of November, scores of supporters of the United Kurdish Party had been arrested for their political activity.
The Right to Monitor
Human rights activism is not permitted inside Syria. When such activity is discovered, it is punished severely. In February 1992, the State Security Court tried 17 suspected members of the independent human rights group in Syria, the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria. Their clandestinely circulated protests against the manner in which President Asad was re-elected were deemed violations of state security laws. Fourteen were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years, with hard labor. The group had been peacefully advocating the release of long-term prisoners and democratic reforms.
As in the past, the government has failed to acknowledge repeated appeals and information requests about state security detainees. Middle East Watch is not aware of a single instance where the Syrian government has authorized a visit by international organizations to investigate human rights conditions in the country, despite many requests. Information from within the country thus has to be gathered clandestinely, at risk to the researcher and the sources.
The Bush administration's policy towards Syria in 1992 appeared to be drivenby sometimes competing interests: encouraging Syria's engagement in multilateral peace negotiations with Israel, and stamping out international terrorism. However, there was little evidence that the administration attempted to engage the Asad government-one of the region's worst rights abusers-in a serious dialogue about its rights record.
While Middle East Watch welcomed the administration's longstanding efforts to secure the rights of the Jewish community to travel abroad and to emigrate, it is unaware of any comparable effort to urge Syria to ease repression of all Syrian citizens. Discussion of human rights issues, with the exception of the situation of Syria's Jewish population, remained primarily a matter for private, diplomatic channels. In an overview of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, given in testimony on October 1 to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Edward Djerejian made no reference to Syria's human rights record at home or the conduct of its occupation forces in Lebanon. The contrast with Iraq, to which the U.S. official, a former ambassador to Damascus, devoted much time and harsh language, was striking.
The U.S. in its criticism of Syria continued to focus primarily on the problem of terrorism. In April, the State Department's annual report on terrorism worldwide listed Syria as one of six nations that continued to sponsor terrorism.
For the first time, the U.S. government also took a more critical stand on Syrian violations of international workers' rights, specifically noting the problem of restrictions on free association of workers. President Bush announced on June 15 that Syria would be dropped from the list of countries receiving preferential General System of Preferences (gsp) tariff benefits because of violations of workers rights. The decision came following the fifth straight year in which the AFL-CIO had petitioned the U.S. Trade Representative to get Syria dropped from the gsp program, which gives 137 developing countries duty-free access to the United States for certain goods. Syria joined four other countries for which all gsp benefits are suspended: Burma, Liberia, Sudan and Yugoslavia. A U.S. Trade Department official said the administration was particularly disturbed that Syrian workers did not have the right to form independent trade unions and that the Federation of Trade Unions, "a government organization, controls trade unions ipso facto or by law."
The decision will have limited economic impact, since Syria's exports specifically covered by the gsp are minuscule and the country continues to enjoy Most Favored Nation trade status. Syria exported just $225,000 worth of products to the U.S. in 1991 under the gsp scheme. Such exports will, in the future, be subject to customs duties of around five percent of their value.
A Syrian official source quoted in the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat said the Labor Ministry had received messages from American trade unions protesting Syria's failure to uphold trade union freedoms and workers' rights to collective bargaining. The Labor Ministry had responded by explaining that Syrian labor laws "guarantee the freedom to engage in trade union activity."
Syria receives no official aid from the U.S. On the other hand, it is actively seeking international economic assistance from the European Community and from multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank where the U.S. government has a strong voice.
Middle East Watch was disappointed that the administration failed to utilize fully its position of increased influence with the Asad government, resulting both from the end of the Cold War and the de facto military alliance between the two countries in the Gulf War, to press for human rights reforms.
The Work of Middle East Watch
Middle East Watch closely monitors the human rights situation in Syria, through a variety of sources including political groups in exile and the cdf. It regularly communicates with Congress and the State Department on cases in which intervention or international pressure is urgently needed.
In March, Middle East Watch released a newsletter, entitled "Syria: Human Rights Workers on Trial," documenting the government's decision to put suspected supporters of the cdf on trial before the State Security Court. In April, it issued an update, criticizing the court for its failure to observenormal judicial procedures. Following news of additional trials in August, the organization appealed to the Asad government to permit international observers to attend the state security court trials; regrettably, no response was received.
In May, Middle East Watch appealed to President Asad to release former president Dr. Nour al-Din al-Atassi, whose health was deteriorating, and his associates, who have been in prison for 22 years.
Middle East Watch conducted a mission to the region in July and August to collect updated information on conditions of detention and the denial of due process. In October, it submitted its findings to the Asad government for comment, but no response was received. On November 1, a 64-page report entitled Throwing Away the Key: Indefinite Political Detention in Syria was released. Simultaneously, the organization appealed for a halt to the ongoing State Security Court proceedings.
In 1992, Human Rights Watch chose Attorney Aktham Nu`aissa, a cdf leader, as one of 12 international rights monitors to be honored at its annual human rights week event. It unsuccessfully appealed to the Asad government and to the Saydnaya Prison director for his release to attend the event.