Human Rights Developments
In 1993, Syria's fifteen million residents lived their thirtieth year under emergency law, imposed in March 1963 when the Arab Ba`th Socialist Party seized power. The reference by President Hafez al-Asad in a June 1991 speech to the need to "increase popular participation in political decision-making" had generated hope that an opening of Syria's political system might be in the offing. But, towards the end of the year, anticipated reforms had not been realized. As in past years, opposition political activity was not tolerated, independent institutions of civil society were not permitted to exist, and the media remained under total state control. The regime of President Hafez al-Asad, which has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1970, has earned the ignominious distinction of holding some of the world's longest-serving political prisoners, detained without charge or trial for over twenty years. One of them, Gen. Salah Jadid, by many accounts the most powerful figure in Syria from 1966 to his arrest in 1970, died in detention in August. Jadid's death -and the release earlier in the year of five former government and Ba`th Partyofficials arrested in 1970 or 1971-left eight long-term political prisoners, all arrested between 1969 and 1972, incarcerated without trial.
Despite the welcome mass releases over the last two years of thousands of Syria's security and political prisoners-including 4,018 in three successive amnesties between December 1991 and December 1992-Middle East Watch estimated that some 4,000 remained incarcerated. Among them were individuals held for association with political groups not engaged in violence, and writers and other professionals held merely for peaceful expression and association. Fifteen human rights activists from the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), an independent human rights organization formed in Damascus in 1989 that is barred from working openly inside the country, were part of this group of prisoners of conscience. The CDF members were arrested between December 1991 and March 1992.
There were reports in 1993 of arrests under the emergency law, incommunicado detention, and deaths believed to have been caused by torture. Additionally, during the year, the Supreme State Security Court began to hand down verdicts in trials begun the previous June of some 500 detainees accused of membership in outlawed political groups. Most had been held without charge since the 1980s. The legal proceedings fell short of international fair-trial standards and the court's decisions could not be appealed to a higher tribunal. Five detained CDF members were among those tried by the court; in a disgraceful move in 1992, the security court had sentenced fourteen other CDF members to prison terms of up to ten years (four were released in a subsequent amnesty).
Kurds, Palestinians and Jews all continued to be at risk as minorities. The large Kurdish population of over one million suffered from blatant state-sponsored discrimination. Most of Syria's 300,000 Palestinians remained as refugees under the law, pending final resolution of their status through the Arab-Israeli peace process. Thus, while Palestinian residents were issued identity cards, they were not granted Syrian citizenship and passports, even if born in Syria to refugee parents. In the second half of 1993, some thirty Palestinian families of Gazan origin were expelled after authorities confiscated their identity papers. Syria's tiny remaining Jewish community faced fresh obstacles in securing exit permits, in a reversal of the regime's April 1992 liberalization of departure rules that led 2,650 Syrian Jews to emigrate to the U.S.
Freedom of expression continued to be a casualty of the longstanding state of emergency. Syria's media served as state organs, and no independent publications were permitted to exist. In a clear articulation of the government's philosophy, Information Minister Muhammed Salman unabashedly stated, in an interview published in the Jordanian daily al-Dustur on May 10, that the role of Syria's media since 1970 has been to "express and explain the state's domestic development policy and Arab and foreign policy." He added: "We express in our media the policy drawn up by our political leadership, away from sensationalism or competition, or any other heading that could be used as a cover to propagate policies or ideas that are like harmful weeds that have a deceptive appearance." The minister cited Syria's state of war with Israel, and the occupation of the Golan Heights, as reasons for tight control of the media: "This requires immunizing citizens politically and culturally all the time through the official media, as well as through the parties of the National Progressive Front, and the popular, professional and cultural organizations."
In a June 1 report from Damascus, CDF noted that the Ministry of Information and the security apparatus both played a prominent role in monitoring and suppressing independent thought. Manuscripts, articles and other works-as well as Friday sermons in mosques-had to be authorized by state agents. Syrian writers and intellectuals had been interrogated for what they had said in public fora; many were blacklisted from traveling abroad. Special intelligence-service units at each university conducted surveillance of all activities and compiled periodic reports about the content of academic lectures.
Despite the regime's poor rights record, Syrian officials in 1993 celebrated the country's political system, glossing over the lack of pluralism, the absence of an independent civil society, and the thousands of victims of human rights abuse. Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, quoted on April 27 in theKuwaiti newspaper al-Watan, proclaimed that Syria was "the most stable country in the Third World." He said that the political system had "proved its efficacy because of this stability over the past twenty-three years." During an official visit to France in February, Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shar`a was asked by the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat about human rights. "As regards human rights," he stated, "we believe that no state in the world, not even a superpower interested in a new world order, has a right to dictate the political regimes of other states." But when the foreign minister addressed the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna on June 17, he declared that Syria was "committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and "reflected in its different legislation and laws the humanitarian yardsticks which are encapsulated in [international human rights] charters and covenants." He neglected to mention that exceptional powers under the longstanding emergency law have essentially voided any human rights guarantees enshrined in Syrian law.
The regime demonstrated sensitivity to its human rights image abroad, however, when it dispatched three representatives to an October 18 conference in Paris organized by CDF, the International Federation of Human Rights and Amnesty International. The three were: Ghassan Rifa'i, former editor-in-chief of the government daily Tishrin; Gen. Asad Muqaed, president of the official association of the Syrian community in France; and Dr. Adel Zaaboub, head of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) in France and a former government censor. In their remarks, Mr. Rifa'i and Gen. Muqaed noted that the government was involved in a struggle against terrorism, and acknowledged that some abuses had occurred from the state's efforts to protect society from terrorist actions. (According to CDF, there had not been a terrorist incident in Syria since 1983.) They also misleadingly characterized the efforts of CDF and international human rights organizations on Syria as political rather than human rights work.
There was no space for opposition political parties independent of the ruling Ba`th Party and the National Progressive Front (NPF), which the Ba`th dominates. Law No. 49 of July 1980, which banned the Muslim Brotherhood and made membership in the organization a capital offense, remained in effect. President Asad offered a defense of Syria's one-dimensional political landscape in an interview with his English-language biographer Patrick Seale. As published in the May 10 to 16 issue of the London-based Arabic weekly al-Wasat, Asad maintained that the seven political parties in the NPF were "deep-rooted movements" with "differences among them." Seale responded that these parties had extremely limited power, and asked the Syrian leader if he intended to give them more room to maneuver. Asad's reply provided no indication that any form of political pluralism was in the offing, despite some signs to that effect at the end of 1991.
The Syrian leader provided his own view of the system: "I believe that these parties have real power. They participate...in the decisions that affect the fate of every citizen. They monitor the government's work....There is nothing that prevents them from voicing their opinion on any issue....Not one member of these parties has been arrested for his activities within the Front." He did not mention that political activity outside the narrow band of the state-controlled NPF was not permitted.
Despite the dramatic and encouraging reduction in the number of security and political prisoners in Syria during 1992 and 1993, developments in 1993 demonstrated that independent political activity not only would not be tolerated, but also would be punished severely, as would human rights work inside Syria by Syrians. Trials of over 500 detainees, which started in June 1992, continued before the Supreme State Security Court, a tribunal created in 1968 to try violations of emergency-law regulations. The defendants, almost all of whom had been arrested between 1980 and 1992, included suspected members or supporters of communist, rival Ba`thist, Nasserite, and Kurdish nationalist organizations. The trials of five CDF members arrested in February and March 1992-Kurdish writer Ahmad Hasso, Palestinian writer Salama George Kila, free-lance journalist Ibrahim Habib, athletics teacher Najib Ata Layqa and merchant Jihad Khazem-also began.
All of the defendants faced charges of membership in organizations attempting to change the structures of the state or the foundations of the society through the use of violence; the dissemination offalse information in order to undermine public confidence in the goals of the revolution; and opposition to Arab unity, socialism and other objectives of the revolution-offenses itemized in a 1965 military decree. Amnesty International reported in June 1993 that, while a small number of the 500 defendants stood accused of participation in violent incidents, the majority had neither advocated nor participated in political violence but were prisoners of conscience "detained simply because they are suspected of membership of links with illegal political parties, distribution of leaflets and attending their meetings."
On June 24 and June 29, the security court handed down a first set of verdicts and sentences against thirty-four defendants, all accused of supporting the illegal Party for Communist Action (PCA). Harsh prison terms were imposed on twenty-two defendants. Twelve men were sentenced to fifteen years with hard labor: two were political prisoners who had already been detained for over ten years, Malik al-Asad and Rustum Ahmad Rustum; a third was Dr. Ayman Daghistani, detained since 1987 and sentenced for reading the banned PCA newsletter Red Flag. Ten other defendants received sentences of ten to thirteen years with hard labor, and seven received lesser terms. All of those sentenced were stripped of civil rights, including the right to vote, travel abroad and hold government jobs. Amnesty International observers who attended some of the trial proceedings found gross violations of internationally accepted fair-trial norms, including a failure to investigate complaints of torture, lack of full access by defense lawyers to the files of their clients, and the denial of private meetings between lawyers and their clients.
The continuing practice of incommunicado detention in Syria-coupled with the lack of independent mechanisms for investigating suspicious deaths in detention-rendered conclusive documentation of torture extremely difficult. CDF reported in 1993 that six political prisoners were believed to have died under torture at two prisons between October 1992 and January 1993. Ahmad Mattar, Abdel Karim Dhouehi, and Muhammed Barakat died at al-Riqqa prison, east of Aleppo, some time between December 20, 1992, and January 15, 1993. Three others died at Sednaya prison, north of Damascus. The body of one of them-Shakour Ta`ban, a lawyer in his fifties who had been arrested in connection with a communique issued in January 1991 in opposition to the Gulf War-was returned to the family in November 1992. (Two other lawyers arrested in the same case, Mrs. Naif al-Hamaoui and Walid Mouteiran, remained in detention as of the end of October 1993.) The other deaths at Sednaya prison were those of sixty-year-old Muhsen Abdallah, who died in November 1992, and sixty-three-year-old Qasem Hesso, who died sixteen days after his arrest in October 1992.
Suspected Kurdish political activists remained detained for freedom of expression. On October 5, 1992, four illegal Kurdish organizations had published materials to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Decree Law No. 93 of 1962, which effectively stripped about 120,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship and passports (the number of stateless Kurds has since risen by natural increase to 180,000). The groups had called upon Syrian citizens to support equal civil and cultural rights for the Kurds. The authorities responded with the arrest of about 260 Kurds in al-Hassakah, Ras al-`Ain and al-Qamishli in the northeast, and in Aleppo and Afrin in the northwest. Forty of the Kurds remained in detention in 1993, most of them suspected of membership in the banned Kurdish Popular Union Party. CDF reported that authorities prevented some Kurdish intellectuals from traveling abroad throughout 1993, and prohibited the formation of Kurdish cultural centers, bookshops, publishing houses and other associations. In a further mark of discrimination against Kurdish culture, a September 1992 decree (No. 122) prohibited Syrian civil servants from registering children with Kurdish first names.
Syrian prisons, known for their abysmal conditions in violation of minimum international standards, remained off-limits to independent domestic or foreign scrutiny. There continued to be grave concerns about inadequate medical care for prisoners suffering from serious illnesses. In August, CDF submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Commission the names of fourteen prisoners believed to be in poor health, including lawyer Riad al-Turk, arrested in 1980, and former government minister Muhammed `Id Ashshawi, arrested in 1970.
Some of the longest-serving political prisoners in the world remained incarcerated in Syrian jails.Their advanced age, coupled with conditions of confinement and medical care, raised humanitarian and human rights concerns. In 1993, the government released five prisoners, former high-ranking officials, who had been held for over twenty-two years; these releases reportedly left thirteen men in detention who had been arrested between 1969 and 1972: eight of them were never tried, and four (all arrested in 1970) had been held beyond the expiry of their sentences in 1985. One of the prisoners never charged or tried was sixty-nine-year-old Gen. Salah Jadid, a key figure in the 1963 coup and de facto head of the Ba`th Party at the time of his arrest in November 1970 following a bloodless coup led by his former colleague, then-Defense Minister Hafez al-Asad. Gen. Jadid had been held in al-Mezze military prison in Damascus and died on August 19. Rights groups and Jadid loyalists called for an independent investigation of the circumstances of his death. CDF received information that ten members of Jadid's family were arrested after his death, including his grandsons Nidal Jadid and Salah Jadid.
On March 24, fifty-seven prisoners perished in a fire in al-Hassakah prison in northeastern Syria. Most of them reportedly were Kurds, and at least four were political prisoners. Following the fire, one political prisoner at al-Hassakah wrote in a letter to his brother that sleeping quarters designed for fifty or sixty had been packed with up to 115 inmates, and that political detainees were not separated from criminal prisoners, as required by international standards. The Ministry of Interior appointed a four-member committee of high-ranking military and security figures to investigate the fire. The committee found eight prisoners culpable, and condemned five to death, two to life imprisonment, and a seventeen-year-old to twelve years in prison. SANA reported on May 20 that the five condemned men-described as "criminals"-were hanged that morning in a public square in the city of Hassakah. According to CDF, the condemned men were not afforded the right to legal counsel or the right to appeal the committee's decision.
Syria's remaining Jewish community of 1,100 to 1,200 persons faced renewed obstacles to emigration, following the liberalization of exit-visa procedures in April 1992. According to the New York-based Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews (CRSJ), beginning in October 1992 the issuance of exit permits slowed down again to a trickle. CRSJ reported in October 1993 that exit permits were not being issued to entire families (a pre-liberalization practice); Jewish prisoners released in 1992 had not been permitted to travel abroad; harassment by security forces had noticeably increased; and the sale of personal and business property continued to be barred, government promises notwithstanding.
The Right to Monitor
The Syrian government did not recognize the right of local human rights monitors to carry out work inside the country. But in a welcome change of policy, beginning in 1992 several international human rights organizations received permission to undertake missions to Syria.
The regime sent an unmistakably strong signal in 1992 that human rights work by Syrians inside Syria would not be tolerated when the Supreme State Security Court tried seventeen members of the independent, four-year-old Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). In March 1992, the court sentenced fourteen CDF members to prison terms ranging from three to ten years. Four given three-year sentences were released in March and April, as part of the March 1992 amnesty, but ten remained in prison as of November 1993. In 1993, the security court began to try another five CDF members, all arrested in February and March 1992.
On August 10, the fifteen imprisoned CDF members-held in Sednaya and Adra prisons near Damascus-began a hunger strike to protest their continued detention. In remarks to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva on August 18, the Syrian government representative, Clovis Khouri, denied that the rights activists were on hunger strike. He accused CDF, whose representative had addressed the Commission two days earlier and publicized the hunger strike, of making false claims. He denounced CDF, stating that the organization's name was "a cover-up of their crimes against the internal and external security of Syria." He noted that CDF was an illegal organization and claimed that the "political" goal behind CDF's reports was "to distort Syria's reputation abroad."
To date, two international human rights organizations have been granted permission to undertake work in Syria. Amnesty International conducted its first fact-finding mission in December 1992, followed by a second mission in May 1993. Syrian authorities also granted permission for a representative of the International Commission of Jurists to observe a portion of the March 1992 security trial of the CDF members. In November 1993, Middle East Watch transmitted a letter to President Asad through the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., requesting permission to conduct a fact-finding mission in Syria in 1994. Previous requests made by Middle East Watch to visit Syria went unanswered.
The Role of the International Community
There were numerous high-level meetings during the year between the Clinton administration and Syrian government officials concerning the Arab-Israeli peace process and U.S.-Syria relations, but no evidence that Syria's thirty-year state of emergency and poor human rights record occupied a prominent place on the bilateral agenda. Early in the year, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher summarized the relationship with Syria. "In recent years, the U.S. and Syria worked together to advance the peace process and regional security, and we expect that this cooperation will continue and we look forward to it," he was quoted by the Syrian government news agency SANA as saying upon his arrival in Damascus on February 20.
Middle East Watch was aware of only one specific human-rights problem in Syria on which the Clinton administration spoke out publicly in 1993-freedom of travel for the remaining Syrian Jews. If other rights abuses were raised and discussed in the numerous bilateral meetings during the year, the issues were not publicly disclosed by either side. For example, after Secretary Christopher met President Asad on February 21 in Damascus, he declined to offer specifics about discussions on improving bilateral relations between Syria and the U.S.: "My talks with President Hafez al-Asad covered a wide range of issues. The discussions lasted for more than three and a half hours. I do not want to get into the details of the issues we discussed together. However, I can say that there was common ground between myself and President al-Asad." Asked to comment about a possible political opening in Syria and the removal of Syria from the U.S. terrorism list, the Secretary of State was equally opaque. "We discussed both issues and I do not wish to go into more details about the nature of these discussions," Syria Television Network quoted him as saying.
In October, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Shar`a visited Washington, the first visit to the U.S. capital by a senior Syrian official in almost two decades. The State Department said that human rights were among the topics discussed but would not disclose details of the talks. On October 5, Foreign Minister Shar`a met with Secretary Christopher in a ninety-minute private meeting. The State Department's spokesman said that the talks focused "on all aspects of our bilateral relations," including the Arab-Israeli peace process. Asked to describe the types of issues discussed, said: "We've discussed terrorism, we've discussed human rights, we've discussed the situation involving Syrian Jews, there have been other aspects as well." He provided no additional details.
On October 7, the Syrian foreign minister met briefly with President Clinton. According to the White House press secretary, the "constructive" discussion focused on developments and next steps in the peace process.
The European Community
European Community (E.C.) aid to Syria was delayed, and also blocked, due to concerns about the human rights record of the Asad regime by members of the European Parliament. In 1992, the European Parliament twice blocked implementation of the ECU 158 million, ($178.4 million) five-year Protocol on financial and technical cooperation, the fourth such protocol between the E.C. and Syria. On January 15 and again on October 28, the parliament did not give its assent to the aid package because of concern about the human rights situation in the country. (An earlier protocol with Syria-ECU 146 million in loans and grants, or $164.834 million -did not receive final approval until November 1992.)
In 1993, the E.C.-Syria fourth protocol again ran into difficulty because of human rights concerns. Prior to the European Parliament's first 1993 vote on the protocol, Foreign Minister al-Shar`a visited the E.C. headquarters in Brussels and met on February 26 with E.C. Commissioner for Foreign and Security Affairs Hans van den Broek, the former Dutch foreign minister. During the visit, the Syrian foreign minister "rejected any link between the domestic situation in Syria and cooperation with the [European] Community," the Bulletin of the European Communities reported. The vice-chair of the Green Group in the European Parliament, Brigit Cramon Daiber, called on Commissioner van den Broek to ask the Syrian foreign minister for details about the human rights situation in Syria and information about Alois Brunner, the alleged Nazi fugitive who reportedly has lived in Syria since the 1950s. Mrs. Cramon Daiber demanded clear answers from the Syrian government as a condition for assent to the fourth financial protocol by the parliament.
Commissioner Van den Broek told the European Parliament that he wanted an end to the E.C.'s "isolation" of Syria. "Syria is an important player in the Middle East peace process," the March 5 issue of Middle East International quoted him as saying. "Our relations with Syria must be relaunched." But, on March 10, the fourth protocol was turned down by the European Parliament. The vote was 249 in favor and 75 opposed, with 29 abstentions; the proposal fell just eleven votes short of the 260 required for assent. Another vote on the protocol, scheduled for October, was postponed.
The Work of Middle East Watch
Middle East Watch pursued a strategy of monitoring and advocacy with respect to Syria during the year under review, focusing in particular on long-term detainees and the jailed human rights activists.
Throughout the year, Middle East Watch participated in the efforts of the U.S. Congressional Friends of Human Rights Monitors to free the fifteen CDF activists imprisoned since 1992. It selected imprisoned Palestinian writer and CDF member Salama George Kila as one of the thirteen international human rights monitors that Human Rights Watch would honor in December 1993.
Middle East Watch also provided information to the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which in January sent a letter to President Asad expressing concern over the fate of long-term detainees and criticizing the state security trials then in progress. In August, it provided information to members of the U.S. Senate working on behalf of those detained in Syria for union activities.
In November, Middle East Watch distributed a report on human rights developments in Syria to members of the European Parliament, in advance of an anticipated vote by the parliament on the European Community aid package to Syria. It recommended that aid, with the sole exception of assistance of a humanitarian nature that directly benefits the needy, be conditioned upon specific human rights improvements.
At the initiative of Middle East Watch, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) launched in December 1992 a campaign on behalf of detained Syrian professionals. Based on research conducted by Middle East Watch the previous year, the effort involved, in addition to AAAS, four engineering societies, five health professional associations and three general scientific societies. These organizations sent a stream of letters in support of jailed professionals to Syrian officials and to their counterpart professional associations in Syria. With backing from Middle East Watch, a similar effort was undertaken by the Washington-based National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
Middle East Watch selected Salama George Kila, a member of CDF imprisoned since March 1992 for his human rights work, as one of the international monitors to be honored by Human Rights Watch in its observance of Human Rights Day, December 10.