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Human Rights Developments

Syrian citizens remained under the tight control of a powerful state system in which opposition political parties and independent nongovernmental organizations were not permitted, the elected parliament functioned as a rubber stamp, and daily newspapers and other media served as government mouthpieces. Peaceful dissent was criminalized; political detainees and prisoners suffered harsh treatment, including extraordinarily long imprisonment for nonviolent offenses. In Syria, the rule of law was supplanted by the continuing state of emergency, in force since 1963, which granted broad, unchecked powers to the vast, multilayered security apparatus.

President Hafez al-Asad, who in November 1996 celebrated twenty-six years in power, ruled unchallenged. By keeping a watchful eye on suspected domestic critics, punishing severely those who dared to speak out, and limiting the access of journalists and international human rights organizations to the country, the government made information-gathering and timely reporting about the human rights situation extremely difficult.

In a welcome development, a large number of political prisonersCreportedly up to 1,200Cwere released beginning in late November 1995 in a presidential amnesty, most of them held since the 1980s because of suspected links to the Muslim Brotherhood. This left some 2,700 political prisoners in Syria, the Paris-based Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF) calculated. Among the remaining prisoners were those suspected of affiliation with the nonviolent, secular political opposition, many of them held since the 1980s and early 1990s and serving ten- and fifteen-year prison terms handed down by the state security court on charges based on the exercise of their rights of freedom of association and expression. Their trials, flouting fair trial standards, took place between 1992 and 1994.

Some of these prisoners were denied proper medical care, and others were transferred to military prisons. Forty-three-year-old poet and journalist Faraj Bayraqar, who has been imprisoned since 1987 and was sentenced to fifteen years by the state security court in 1993, suffered from injuries sustained during torture and reportedly could not walk unassisted. Thirty-four-year-old writer and human rights activist Nizar Nayouf remained in Mezze military prison in Damascus, where he was, since 1993, reportedly held in solitary confinement. Another twenty-one prisonersCall alleged to be members of two unauthorized leftist political groupsCwere transferred to the infamous Tadmor military prison because they refused to sign statements of support for the government and repudiating their past political activities as conditions for release. Some of these men had also been in custody since the early 1980s; all of them were tried by the state security court in 1994 for vaguely formulated offenses, such as Aopposing the goals of the revolution,@ and sentenced to terms ranging from eight to fifteen years.

There were reports of continued arbitrary arrests in 1996. Forty Kurds were arrested in Aleppo and >Ain Arab during Nayrouz (Anew day,@ in Kurdish), the traditional Kurdish celebration of spring. In May, following a series of unclaimed and as-yet-unexplained explosions in Damascus and other cities, security forces reportedly rounded up scores of citizens, including some 400 from the Turkoman minority and smaller numbers of Kurds in Damascus, Aleppo, and areas in the north.

Suspected members of unauthorized political groups continued to be detained without charge, interrogated and mistreated by security forces. One Syrian activist who was detained in 1996 in the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus told us that he was first given a pen and paper and asked to write his life story before he was questioned by a high-ranking officer. Then he was blindfolded and handcuffed, and beaten every ten minutes on an hourly basis until the following day as interrogators sought to elicit a confession that he was a member of an illegal political party. AIf you die, we have ten doctors to say that you died of natural causes,@ his interrogator allegedly told him.

The government also maintained its policy of keeping political opponents behind bars for many years without trial or beyond the expiration of their sentences, despite advanced age or the onset of life-threatening illnesses. Journalist Rida Haddad died in a Damascus hospital on June 17, eight months after his release from prison. He had been arrested in October 1980, held without charge for fourteen years, and then sentenced by the state security court in 1994 to fifteen years, including time already served. Haddad suffered from leukemia but was not released until October 1995, after serving his full prison term.

The persistence of this pattern of treatment raised grave concern about the fate of other long-term prisoners who had became seriously ill. One of them was Mustafa Tawfiq Fallah, a fifty-nine-year-old Syrian army officer who was sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 1971 but continued to be held illegally in Mezze prison long beyond the expiry of this term. It was reported in 1996 that Fallah was suffering from heart and kidney disease, among other ailments. As of this writing, we were aware of no response from Syrian authorities to calls for Fallah=s release. In June, CDF named thirteen prisoners whose medical condition it described as critical, including lawyer and opposition political activist Riad al-Turk (detained without charge since 1980); lawyer and human rights activist Aktham Nouaisseh (sentenced to nine years by the state security court in 1992); and Faraj Bayraqdar, the poet mentioned above. The others were: Abbas Abbas, Nu=man Abdo, Safwan Akkash, Wahij Ghanem, Mustafa Hussein, Muhammed Kheir Khalaf, Issa Mahmoud, Ahmad Hassan Mansour, Nizar Mradni, and Munif Mulhem.

Human Rights Watch in 1995 documented the demand that political prisoners sign loyalty oaths to the government, abandon political activity, and collaborate with security forces, as conditions for release. This practice not only continued in 1996, but a group of twenty-nine long-term prisoners were reportedly punished by transfer in January 1996 from Adra civilian prison to Tadmor military prison for refusing these demands. As of this writing, the prisoners reportedly had no contact with the outside world because family visits were not permitted. They were all arrested between 1981 and 1990 and were not tried by the security court until 1994; they were serving prison terms of up to fifteen years for alleged membership in three unauthorized political groups (the Party for Communist Action, the Communist Party-Political Bureau, and the pro-Iraqi Ba=th Party). Two of the prisoners, Safwan >Akkash (arrested in 1983, serving a fifteen-year sentence) and >Ammar Rizk (arrested in 1990, serving a twelve-year sentence), reportedly have serious health problems.

In 1996, Syrian security forces in Lebanon detained Lebanese citizens and Palestinian refugees, who then Adisappeared.@ Some of these abductions began with short-term detention, interrogation and torture at Syrian intelligence headquarters at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Beirut, followed by transfer to Syria and imprisonment there without charge or due process. In one 1996 case, after a high-ranking Syrian officer called at the home of a Lebanese citizen and took him away, family members made inquiries at the local office of Syrian security. AFirst they said that they didn=t have him, then they said that he was being questioned for a few days and would be released. After some days, they said that he was moved to Anjar [a Syrian detention facility inside Lebanon, near the Lebanese-Syrian border] and probably was in Damascus,@ a relative said. The family later was able to confirm this.

Using influence, bribery, or a combination of both, families sometimes learned where their relatives were detained in Syria and visits were permitted. One Lebanese, who was taken in 1994 and as of this writing continued to be held in a Military Intelligence facility in Damascus, saw his wife every two weeks. In other cases, families searched for Adisappeared@ relatives at Lebanese prisons and detention facilities, only to be informed that the person was not in custody and Aprobably@ was in Syria. Inaction by Lebanese authorities in such cases only exacerbated the fear felt by victims= families, who insisted that names and other identifying details remain confidential. Lebanese lawyers identified Col. Rustom Ghazali as the officer in charge of Syrian intelligence in Beirut, and Gen. Ghazi Kan=an as the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon.

The Kurdish minority of some eight to ten million people continued to suffer from state-sponsored discrimination, and those Syrian-born Kurds classified by the interior ministry as Aforeigners@ (ajanib, in Arabic) or Aunregistered@ (maktoumeen) were officially rendered stateless. Authorities maintained various bans on the use of the Kurdish language, establishment of Kurdish private schools, and the publication and circulation of books and other materials written in Kurdish. Suspected Kurdish political activists were dismissed from their jobs at state-owned companies and from educational institutions were they were studying, and were prevented from traveling abroad by blocks upon the renewal of their passports.

In the continuing legacy of a controversial 1962 census in Hasakeh governorate in the northeast that stripped many Syrian-born Kurds of their citizenship, over 142,000 men, women and childrenCby the government=s own countCremained arbitrarily denied of a nationality, in violation of international law. They were not permitted to vote or own property, hold public-sector jobs, or be issued passports.

The Right to Monitor

Syrians were not permitted to criticize any aspect of President Asad=s rule or to monitor openly the human rights situation, much less publish and distribute information about abuses. Fear of arrest severely hampered the collection of information and its dissemination to the outside world. The state=s clampdown in 1991-1992 on activists associated with CDF, the nascent human rights movement inside Syria, continued to have its intended chilling effect. Suspected CDF leaders and activists were prosecuted in the state security court in 1992 in an unfair trial and sentenced to prison terms of up to ten years. Their imprisonment continued to be a grim reminder of the consequences for Syrians who dared to criticize the state.

In a troubling change of the policy that prevailed in 1994 and 1995, Syrian authorities did not consent to visits to Syria in 1996 by international human rights organizations that sought to carry out field research. The government continued to delay its response to a Human Rights Watch request, pending since July 1995, for another investigative mission.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

In July, Human Rights Watch provided detailed information to the U.N. Human Rights Committee about the stateless Kurds in Syria. On the basis of this submission, the chairman of the committee met with Syrian representatives in Geneva, and asked that their overdue report on the country=s compliance with the treaty be submitted as soon as possible and that it put special emphasis on the situation of the Kurdish population in Syria.

European Union

European Union countries account for over 55 percent of Syria=s annual exports, giving the E.U. substantial influence as a key trading partner; additional clout is provided by a five-year aid package worth US$178 million. Despite these potential levers to press for human rights improvements, the E.U. has long shown little political will to press for substantive improvements in Syria=s dismal human rights situation. It continued its policy of public silence in 1996, sparing President Asad the constructive criticism that the government merited.

The joint press release issued on June 11 after the second meeting of the European Union-Syria Cooperation Council at the ministerial level omitted mention of human rights. Instead, the joint statement lavished praise on Syria, cited the improvement and expansion of its Apolitical ties@ with the European Union, and noted the common interest in Asecurity, stability and prosperity throughout the Mediterranean.@ It added that Aboth sides were pleased to note that since 1994 the resumption of financial assistance had enabled cooperation to enter a very active phase.@ Emphasizing reforms geared toward economic modernization, the statement continued, AThe E.U. is prepared to support Syria in this course of action and to help it to create a favorable climate for the modernization and development of its economy.@

United States

For the seventeenth consecutive year, Syria was precluded from receiving U.S. aid because it was included on the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism, along with Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns tempered the news of Syria=s continuing stigmatization by inclusion on this list, which was disclosed in February, with these conciliatory words: AWe have a much more regular set of contacts with the Syrian government [compared to the other states on the list]. We may not like everything the Syrian government does...but we do have a dialogue with the Syrian government which is a mature dialogue.@ And, as in past years, frequent high-level diplomatic contacts between the two countries continued, including face-to-face meetings in Damascus between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and President Asad in April, as the secretary attempted to broker a cease-fire in the fierce fighting between Israel and Hizballah.

Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau made clear in an address on August 21 that U.S. interests in the Middle East include Afirst and foremost, achieving a just, comprehensive, secure and durable Arab-Israeli peace.@ He added that Syria was central to this process: AWe have long felt that peace between Israel and Syria is essential for closing the circle of peace and producing a comprehensive settlement. We are committed to working toward this goal.@ The administration indeed continued its efforts to facilitate Syrian-Israeli negotiations. But, as in previous years, the administration=s exclusive focus on the peace process left its spokespersons publicly silent about Syria=s rights record.

To the best of our knowledge, the only public criticism by the Clinton Administration during the year of Syria=s human rights performance appeared in the State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995. The assessment of Syria noted accurately that President Asad rules with Avirtually absolute authority,@ security forces operate Aoutside the legal system,@ torture in detention is Awidespread@ and state security court trials Afundamentally unfair,@ freedom of peaceful assembly and association Adoes not exist,@ and freedom of speech and press is restricted Asignificantly.@ Secretary Pelletreau repeatedly stressed in 1996 that one of the U.S. policy goals in the region is promotion of Amore open political and economic systems and respect for human rights and the rule of law.@ Despite the damning assessment of Syria in Country Reports, we could find no evidence of how the administration pursued its professed policy of promoting human rights in its bilateral relationship with Syria.

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