Human Rights Developments
The country's legal system lacks procedures by which a group can obtain status as a party, and criminalizes peaceful political dissent. Since 1992, criminal statutes have been used to prosecute before a court of exception_the state security court_hundreds of known or suspected members of unauthorized political groups for vaguely formulated offenses such as "opposing any of the goals of the Revolution" and membership in organizations "created to change the economic or social structure of the state or the fundamental fabric of society."
Extremely slow-paced, unfair trials of those accused of membership in unauthorized political groups continued in Damascus before the three judge state security court, whose verdicts cannot be appealed to a higher tribunal. Many of the defendants had been imprisoned without charge since the 1980s. In trial sessions observed by Human Rights Watch/Middle East in April, judges ignored defendants' complaints about coerced confessions and torture under interrogation; there was limited or no access to competent lawyers prior to and during trials; and key stages of some proceedings_such as presentation of evidence by the prosecutor_took place outside the public courtroom, with the defendants not present. Fifteen-year sentences handed down by the court could keep some political and human rights activists imprisoned until the year 2002.
For the fifteenth year, authorities maintained their relentless punishment of a leading opposition figure, sixty-five-year-old lawyer Riad al-Turk, the head of the Communist Party-Political Bureau. He was arrested in October 1980 and remained detained without charge in an isolation cell in the basement of the Military Interrogation Branch in Damascus. In May, Human Rights Watch/Middle East received information that al-Turk's health had seriously deteriorated and his life was in danger. In a letter to President Hafez al-Asad, we urged his release on humanitarian grounds, and took the position that detention without charge for nearly fifteen years represented a blatant contradiction of Syria's stated commitment to the rule of law.
Releases in 1994 and 1995 reduced the already small group of Syria's longest serving known political prisoners to three. In January 1995, authorities freed Fawzi Rida, Abdel Hamid Muqdad, and former minister Muhamed 'Id Ashshawi, all of them detained without charge since 1970. The remaining three continued to be held despite the completion of their prison sentences over ten years ago. Jalal al-Din Mirhij and Mustafa Tawfiq Fallah, both of whom were reported in poor health in Mezze military prison, were arrested in 1970 and sentenced by the security court in 1971 to fifteen-year prison terms. Khalil Brayez, a former Syrian army officer and author of two books critical of Syrian military operations during the 1967 war with Israel, was abducted from Lebanon in 1970 and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment in 1972. He too was held in Mezze prison. The continued detention of these men appears to be wholly arbitrary and they should be released. Interior Minister Muhammed Harba did not allow Human Rights Watch/Middle East to visit al-Turk, Fallah and Brayez when we requested access in April.
An estimated 500 to 600 political prisoners were freed in March and April, the largest number since the dramatic releases of several thousand long-term detainees in late 1991. While this was a welcome action, a prisoner's punishment did not end with his release. Former prisoners continued to be harassed and intimidated by the security apparatus. They have been summoned for questioning, threatened, asked to serve as informers, and warned to keep silent, explaining the reluctance of many to provide information to human rights investigators. Some prisoners were pressured to "give up politics" prior to release and to sign written loyalty oaths as a condition for release. Those convicted of offenses by the security court have been penalized with an accessory ten-year deprivation of civil rights following the completion of their prison sentences. They were barred by law from work in the state sector, even if they formerly held government jobs. They cannot vote, run for office, or serve in councils of syndicates or sects.
Some of the prisoners released in 1995 had been held incommunicado at Tadmor military prison since the early 1980s, in abysmally harsh conditions in the desert 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus. Many prisoners did not survive the depradations at Tadmor. The body of one of them, Ahmad Khoula, was delivered to his family in Aleppo on October 28, 1994. Khoula, a teacher of Arabic, was thirty-one years old when he was arrested by security forces in Aleppo on June 5, 1980. It was not known if Khoula was alive or dead until 1991, when released prisoners brought news that he was in Tadmor. They said that he walked with a limp because one of his legs, fractured when he was tortured under interrogation in 1980, had never been properly treated. Authorities did not explain the circumstances of Khoula's death and provided no information about why he had been detained for over fourteen years.
We received reports during the year about incommunicado detention, but in some cases families were too afraid to release names and other details. In January, a man in his twenties from a village near Jableh was arrested upon arrival at Damascus airport. Waiting family members were given his luggage, and he was held incommunicado for over two months, then released without charge. He was reportedly arrested because he had written his family from Cyprus, where he had been employed, describing the contents of newspaper articles about Syria published there. A Jordanian citizen who entered Syria in 1993, to obtain information about the whereabouts of his older brother who was arrested in Damascus in 1985 and held incommunicado, was himself taken into custody by security forces at the border. For the next month, family members made inquiries at various security agencies in Damascus, only to be told repeatedly that there were no records of his detention. In a meeting with the family in March 1995, we confirmed that the man was still "disappeared" as of that date.
In early 1995, there were incidents of violence against lawyers in Latakia. On February 14, two prominent lawyers, Dr. Burhan Zreg and Muhamed Radoun, were beaten in Sheikh Dhaher police station in the city center when visiting on behalf of a client who had been repeatedly harassed after he refused to pay one of the officers a large bribe. When the lawyers arrived, they were punched, kicked, and severely beaten by a dozen policemen, including officers, then dragged into the detention area and locked up for two hours. They were freed when members of the lawyers syndicate council arrived at the police station and facilitated their release. Following the attack, some 150 lawyers sent letters of protest to the national lawyers syndicate in Damascus. They were concerned and fearful because this was not an isolated case. In January, fifty-five-year-old lawyer Adam Aloush from Latakia had been beaten in the state security office, where he was visiting on behalf of a client. Colleagues said that his injuries kept him out of work for a month but that he remained silent. "He did not dare to complain. They threatened him," one lawyer told us. A March 1 order, signed by Interior Minister Harba and sent to the lawyers syndicate and all police stations, reminded the police to be "well mannered when dealing with people," but emphasized that lawyers were not permitted to interfere in police affairs.
The government did not ease its unrelenting grip on civil society, and the country remained bereft of independent institutions. Syrian daily newspapers and electronic media were state controlled, books were subjected to pre-publication censorship, and academic freedom was limited. Operatives from security agencies scrutinized the activities of private associations registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. They attended meetings and sometimes demanded information about the political affiliations of members.
There were arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement of suspected dissidents and former political prisoners. According to lawyers, there was one blacklist for those prohibited from obtaining passports, and another for persons barred from travel abroad without permission of one or more security services. There was no semblance of due process when the right to travel was curtailed: the Interior Ministry did not provide reasons for the rejection of passport applications and exit permits.
Syria's Kurdish minority continued to suffer acute discrimination under the law. The consequences of a special census conducted in 1962 in northeastern Hassakeh governorate, which has the largest concentration of Kurds in Syria, remained a major issue. The village-by-village census arbitrarily stripped over 100,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship, reclassifying them as "foreigners," in violation of international law. Kurds with this status, who have been issued special red identity cards, were unable to obtain passports, were barred from employment in the state sector, and could not own property or businesses. This mass denationalization has affected an increasing number of Kurds over the years because the legal status of parents was passed on to their Syrian-born children, who have been deprived by the state of their right to a nationality.
As of March 1995, there were 334,870 officially registered Palestinian refugees in Syria, with some 28 percent residing in ten refugee camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Information-gathering about human rights conditions in this community was exceedingly difficult. There were no independent Palestinian nongovernmental organizations in Syria, and the Damascus-based, anti-Arafat Palestinian political factions does not criticize the practices of their host President Asad. The refugee camps were reportedly under the surveillance of plainclothes forces from Military Intelligence, Political Security, and a joint body composed of representatives of both branches.
The Right to Monitor
The Syrian government does not recognize the right of its citizens to carry out independent monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses. When an emerging human rights movement became too vocal in late 1991, the state moved quickly and harshly to crush it. Suspected members and supporters of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF) were arrested by security forces. In March 1992, fourteen were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years, following a trial before the state security court that did not meet international fair trial standards. Other than monthly visits with immediate family members, these activists have had no contact with the outside world. Two of them, forty-four-year-old lawyer Aktham Naissa (sentenced to nine years imprisonment) and thirty-three-year-old writer Nizar Nayouf (sentenced to ten years), were said to be suffering from medical problems that have not being adequately treated. The government did not allow visiting Human Rights Watch/Middle East representatives to meet with the men.
Although Syrian rights activists languished in prison, the government allowed international human rights organizations to carry out research. Human Rights Watch/Middle East was notified in January that a long-standing request to conduct a fact-finding mission had been granted. During the mission, which began in March, no restrictions were placed on the freedom of movement of our investigators and there was no overt surveillance of their activities.
Authorities were, however, unresponsive on issues such as access to prisons and political prisoners which were still deemed sensitive. In October 1994, a Human Rights Watch/Middle East representative had discussions in Damascus with senior government officials, including the interior minister, about visiting places of detention and meeting with prisoners, including Syrian rights activists. The request was not turned down at that time. On March 29, while the mission was in progress, Justice Minister Hussein Hasoun informed us that we would be allowed to visit any civilian prison in the country that was under the supervision of his ministry. All facilities where political prisoners were being held, however, were closed to us as they were under military or security apparatus control: they included Tadmor, Sednaya, and Mezze prisons, the Damascus detention center of the Military Interrogation Branch of Military Intelligence, and the section of Adra prison controlled by Political Security. We responded on April 1, with a letter to Interior Minister Harba requesting a meeting to discuss access to these facilities and political prisoners. The letter was not answered.
The Role of the International Community
The European Union
On June 15, the European Parliament passed a strongly worded resolution, citing "continued violations of human rights" in Syria. The resolution deplored the fact that the European Commission had not yet submitted to the parliament a report on human rights in Syria and the results of the November 1994 meeting between the Syrian foreign minister and European Union (E.U.) foreign ministers. In July, Human Rights Watch/Middle East urged the European Council of Ministers and the European Commission to present the progress report on human rights in Syria to the European Parliament, in accordance with the commitment made by the commission during the December 1993 debate on the Fourth Protocol on financial and technical cooperation with Syria. The approval of this protocol released a five-year E.U. aid package of over $178 million to the Asad government.
The United States
U.S. diplomats, however, did have a positive reaction to our July recommendation to all embassies in Damascus that representatives attend security court trials. As of this writing, Human Rights Watch/Middle East understands that the U.S. embassy in Damascus was actively considering how to implement this recommendation in coordination with other interested governments.
The United Nations
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East
Human Rights Watch/Middle East conducted a fact-finding mission in Syria from March 23 to May 8. In July, we published Syria: The Price of Dissent, a fifty-four-page report on security court trials, torture, and the continuing pressures on political prisoners after release. The report, based on information collected during the mission and observation of security court proceedings, included the Syrian government's response to a detailed written summary of the major findings which we provided prior to publication.
Our representatives returned to Syria from July 19-25, following the publication of the report. Despite repeated contacts prior to and during this visit with the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus and the Syrian embassy in Washington, D.C., there was no response to our request to meet with government officials to discuss the report.
On July 12, we wrote to the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and expressed our desire to return to Syria later in 1995 to undertake additional research. As of this writing, we were waiting for an affirmative response from the government.