V. Realities of Human Rights Groups in Syria

Denial of Legal Status

None of the existing human rights groups in Syria are registered, and accordingly none of them are legal. The main impediment to their registration is the refusal of the security authorities to recognize the legitimacy of these groups. One long-term activist in Syria told Human Rights Watch, “there can be no registration if there is no agreement from the security authorities.”44 While the continuing application of emergency laws in Syria means that even registered organizations are vulnerable to prosecution for violating the various provisions restricting freedom, this same activist added that obtaining legal registration “will weaken the influence of the security apparatus.”45

Involvement of security authorities in registration

Most activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that the real power behind decisions regarding their registration rested with security services and not MoSAL, as prescribed by law. One seasoned human rights advocate described the direct role of security services:

I went to the ministry [MoSAL] to register my organization. The clerk there told me that I should go see the Military Security agency [Amn al-`Askari]. The Military Security agency then called me to tell me that my request was under study. Ten days ago, I got a call from State Security [Amn al-Dawla,a different security agency] and they said, “Don’t hold your hopes up.”46

MoSAL’s acquiescence to the role of the security services extends to the highest levels. An activist who met with the minister of social affairs and labor to discuss his group’s registration application told Human Rights Watch, “We met with the minister in April 2001. She welcomed us and told us frankly that this was not in her hands.”47

When activists in the Jamal al-Atassi Forum applied to register with MoSAL, “the Ministry took in the papers initially, but then the Ministry said that they don’t consider the application under their jurisdiction.”48Later, the activists received a call from Political Security (Amn al-Siyasi), yet another security agency, telling them that they would not allow the Forum. When the activists asked for a reason, the answer on the phone was “I cannot tell you.”49

The involvement of the security authorities has deterred many human rights organizations from even trying to register. One human rights activist told Human Rights Watch, “Registration would place us under the control of the authorities. I want to register after there is a new law.”50 Other activists were fearful that their registration application would endanger their members by revealing their identity to the security services.

Denial of application without justification

Despite the extrajudicial role of the security services and the shortcomings of the current legislation, many human rights activists have tried to register their organizations by following the required steps. Their efforts met a bureaucracy that failed to apply its own regulations.

In at least one case, involving the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights (Al-Lijna Al-Kurdiyya Li Huquq al-Insan), MoSAL refused even to accept a group’s registration documents.51 According to one activist who went to submit the organization’s paperwork, “When the clerk saw ‘Kurdish’ in the name of the organization, he refused to accept the demand. I knew beforehand that our application would be rejected. I did not expect that they would not even accept our documents.”52

In other instances MoSAL accepted the request to register but failed to respond within the stipulated 60-day timeframe. At that point, the law requires MoSAL to consider the association as registered de factoand to then publish the formation documents of the association in the official registry. However, MoSAL has refused to act in accordance with the law to recognize the registration of these associations.

This was the case for the Human Rights Association of Syria (HRAS) and the Arab Organization for Human Rights – Syria (AOHR). HRAS applied for registration on December 11, 2001. Sixty-two days later, on February 10, 2002, MoSAL issued a decision rejecting the demand. The written decision did not specify any reason for the refusal as required by law. It simply stated, “We inform you that we do not accept.”53 HRAS challenged MoSAL’s decision before the Administrative Tribunal (Majlis al-Dawla) on July 28, 2002. However, the case is still pending and MoSAL continues to consider HRAS as illegal. In a letter dated May 10, 2006, MoSAL responded to the request by HRAS to hold their annual meeting by informing them that they considered them illegal and threatening them with legal prosecution if the meeting went ahead. AOHR applied for registration on April 15, 2004. Following the passage of 60 days without any response from MoSAL, AOHR requested that the ministry publish its formation documents in the official registry in accordance with Article 10 of Law No. 93. A week later MoSAL rejected the demand of AOHR “due to public interest.” Similar to HRAS, AOHR challenged the Ministry’s decision before the Administrative Tribunal; the case is still ongoing.54

In cases where MoSAL responded to a registration demand within 60 days, its response often did not contain any justification for its rejection. This was the case for the National Organization for Human Rights (NOHR), which sent its application for registration in April 2006. From April to August 2006 NOHR was in constant communication with MoSAL, answering any additional information request by the Ministry. During this time, Political Security, State Security, and Air Force Security (Amn al-Jawwi) contacted some of the organization’s members and lawyers and ordered them to stop any activity they were undertaking until the organization was registered. In August 2006 NOHR submitted its complete application, and nine days later MoSAL rejected the application on the broadly worded basis of “public interest.”55

Impact of lack of legal status

One observer noted that civil society in Syria is “illegal but working.”56 In a January 2006 interview with an Egyptian newspaper,Bashar al-Asad echoed a similar sentiment when he stated:

We have civil societies that are tolerated even though they are not registered. But the state does not prohibit it. We are now looking for a mechanism that is more legal to achieve results with respect to this topic and to prevent personal or foreign exploitation.57

While the government tolerates the activities of unregistered human rights and other civil society groups to a limited extent, the lack of legal status has direct negative implications for their activities. A human rights lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the “lack of registration is like a sword over our necks. The mukhabarat [secret services] can act on it whenever they want.”58

More specifically, Syrian authorities can rely on two legal provisions to pursue anyone active in an unregistered association. Article 71 of Law No. 93 imposes a sentence of up to three months in jail for whomever engages in any activity before his or her organization has been registered. Article 288 of Syria’s Penal Code imposes a sentence of up to three years in jail for anyone in Syria who “without governmental authorization joins a political or social organization of an international character.” Syrian authorities relied in part on Article 288 when they arrested in June 2005 the then-president of AOHR, Muhammad Ra`dun (he was detained for six months).59

Lack of registration has weakened the ability of groups to increase in size and become more sustainable. A human rights lawyer noted that “because these organizations are painted as illegal, it has scared people away. It has slowed down the formation of a new generation of activists because they remain afraid of being arrested.”60 Another activist put it more basically: “registration allows you to have an office space to meet, to organize activities, to hold trainings. Right now, we are forced to meet in our own homes.”61

Another drawback is that unregistered organizations cannot officially correspond with officials on human rights issues. One senior representative of AOHR told Human Rights watch that “if we were registered, we could correspond with the authorities to ask about specific cases of violations of human rights. We could try to obtain precise information. Right now, we can only get the information from the relatives of victims of human rights abuses.”62

Lack of registration has also limited the access of human rights groups to funds. A number of activists expressed frustration that they are currently unable to fundraise inside Syria and to receive funds from foreign donors because they are unregistered. Registering under the current law will not solve this issue entirely, as Syrian law imposes tight restrictions on fundraising activities, but it will facilitate the task for human rights groups.

Prohibition of Meetings

Syrian authorities routinely prohibit or interrupt meetings by civil society and human rights groups. As mentioned above, when HRAS informed MoSAL (as required) that it was planning to hold its annual meeting, MoSAL responded that if the meeting went ahead it would prosecute HRAS’ members under Article 71 of Law No. 93, prohibiting any activity by an unregistered organization.

In instances where the groups decided to hold their meeting without informing the authorities, the authorities intervened to break up the meeting. A human rights activist told Human Rights Watch:

We had a gathering organized in our house to discuss secularism. The security [agents] came to our house and said that the meeting was prohibited. They asked people to leave. From 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. they would not let me back into my apartment, and they forced me to wait in the lobby. They also arrested a Kurdish activist who was attending the meeting.63

These prohibitions extend to meetings with international activists visiting Syria. One activist organized a meeting for Kamal Jendoubi, the president of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights, in a coffee shop in Damascus. Security officials circled the coffee shop and broke up the meeting. They also photocopied the identity papers of many of those attending.64

Security agencies also prohibit human rights groups from holding press conferences. On January 31, 2006, authorities prevented HRAS from holding a press conference to announce the release of a number of detainees whom the government had arrested four years earlier following the “Damascus Spring,” and to highlight the plight of others who remained in detention.65

The pressure on activists extends throughout Syria. A Homs-based activist told Human Rights Watch that “while the level of pressure may vary from area to area, the logic remains the same.”66 Another activist based in Hama echoed this view. He mentioned that the local head of Political Security himself came to his house to ask them not to hold a planned meeting: “During any meeting, we are harassed. Security forces prevent us from meeting. They always follow us.”67

The only public meeting of human rights activists that Syrian authorities appear to have allowed was when a delegation of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) visited Syria and held a meeting on February 13, 2006, in the Cham Palace Hotel with local human rights organizations to discuss the situation of human rights in Syria.

Arrests and Trials

Syrian security agencies frequently arrest human rights activists for their peaceful activities. This trend has increased in 2006. Many security agencies are involved in these arrests: Political Security, Military Security, State Security, and to a lesser extent Air Force Security. Activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that there are no guidelines to determine which agency will get involved and noted that in some cases security agencies duplicated efforts.

Syrian security agencies frequently arrest activists following their return from trips overseas, apparently as a form of punishment for the activists’ discussion of Syrian human rights issues abroad. On March 12, 2006, Military Intelligence detained Dr. Ammar Qurabi, former spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights – Syria and one of the founders of the National Organization for Human Rights for four days upon his return from Washington DC and Paris, where he had attended two conferences on democratic reform and human rights in Syria.68

Security agencies have arrested other activists for their activities inside Syria. On March 22, 2006, security forces detained Muhammad Najati Tayyara, former vice-president of the Human Rights Association in Syria, for remarks he made at a ceremony on March 12 held to commemorate the second anniversary of clashes in March 2004 between Kurdish demonstrators and security forces in the northern city of Qamishli. Tayyara spent 24 hours detained in a filthy jail cell before being released.69

While the security agencies released some activists without charge, others were tried on politically motivated charges relating to their human rights activities. On November 8, 2005, Syrian security forces detained Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, moments after he had landed in Syria following a two-month trip to Europe and the United States.70 While abroad, Labwani had met with foreign government officials, journalists, and independent human rights organizations, and had appeared on two pan-Arab television networks where he called on the Syrian government to respect fundamental freedoms and human rights. On May 10, 2007, a Damascus criminal court sentenced Labwani to 12 years in prison including hard labor for “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” because he had met with US officials during his time in the United States.71  

On March 23, 2006, State Security arrested the writer `Ali al-Abdullah and his son Muhammad a day after they intervened outside the Supreme State Security Court to protest the harassment by security officers of relatives of defendants due to appear before the court.72 A military court sentenced them on October 4, 2006, to six months in prison for "broadcasting abroad false or exaggerated news that would damage the reputation of the state."73 They were released from the court on the basis of time served awaiting trial. However, State Security continues to harass `Ali al-Abdullah. One month following his release, in November 2006, Branch 255 of State Security called him in and threatened him with jail if he continued his activities.74

State Security arrested Anwar al-Bunni, one of Syria’s most prominent human rights lawyers, on May 17, 2006, after he signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations based on respect for each country’s sovereignty. Two men wearing civilian clothes dragged al-Bunni away as he was getting into his car outside his home in Damascus.75

The general prosecutor’s office charged al-Bunni with “spreading false news” in connection with a statement he had made claiming that a man had died in a Syrian jail because of the inhumane conditions under which he had been held. On April 24, 2007, the First Damascus Criminal Court sentenced al-Bunni to five years in jail for “spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation,” and also ordered him to pay the equivalent of US$2,000 to MoSAL for his membership in an unlicensed human rights center.76 Al-Bunni had been slated to run the human rights center that had opened in February 2006 with funding from the European Commission, but Syrian security forces had immediately shut down the center (see Section VII, below).

The arrest and trial of al-Bunni were the latest measures in the government’s campaign against him. Four months before his arrest, unknown strangers approached him on the street and beat him. Around the same time, he had problems with the Syrian Lawyers’ Union, which suspended his membership for one year, reportedly for publicizing the plight of his dissident clients.77

These sentences against prominent human rights activists recall the harsh sentences imposed on activists following similar crackdowns in 1992 and in 2001. One difference is that the Syrian authorities tried Labwani and al-Bunni before the regular criminal courts and not before the Supreme State Security Courts (SSSC).78 On one level, this is a positive development as the SSSC are exceptional courts that are not constrained by the usual rules of criminal procedure. However, this change in court venue has not prevented interference by state security agencies and has failed to guarantee a fair hearing for Labwani and al-Bunni.

For example, during Labwani’s trial, the head of National Security sent a letter on November 17, 2005, to the Minister of Justice asking him to add the charge of “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” to the lesser charges that the General Prosecutor’s office had initially filed against Labwani. In his defense pleadings, Labwani’s attorney argued that the new charge would not have been included if National Security had not intervened because the investigation had not revealed any evidence that Labwani had called on any country to initiate aggression against Syria.79

Commenting on the use of regular criminal courts to try Labwani and al-Bunni, a respected human rights lawyer expressed worry that as long as the judiciary is not independent, such trials before the ordinary criminal courts are simply “an attempt to legalize repression. It is a shame to drag the judiciary into this system of repression.”80

Travel Bans

Syrian authorities routinely use travel bans as punishment for activists and dissidents. The use of such bans expanded dramatically in 2006. While there are no official statistics on the number of those banned from traveling, the Syria-based Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights (CDF) has published a list of over 110 activists banned from traveling.81 However, the actual number is likely much higher.

In a typical example, Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, was traveling from Damascus to Amman, Jordan, on June 26, 2006, to attend an international conference on human rights and criminal justice organized by the Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies. Syrian security forces at the border prevented him from leaving the country. They did not explain the reason for the travel ban but indicated that the General Intelligence Agency (al-Mukhabarat al-`Ama) had issued the order and that Ziadeh had to report to them. 82

Such restrictions constitute a violation of the activists’ right to freedom of movement and an undue interference with their rights to freedom of expression and association. Under international law, everyone is free to leave his or her country. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bars states from restricting someone’s right to leave the country, except when the given restrictions are prescribed by law and are “necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others,” and are consistent with the other rights recognized in that treaty. Syrian security agents have issued travel bans in Syria without any explanation and without any judicial basis.

The UN secretary-general’s special representative on human rights defenders, Hina Jilani, expressed concern in her March 2006 report about the lack of freedom of assembly and freedom of movement for defenders in Syria, in particular with respect to their participation in seminars and workshops abroad on human rights issues.83

Other Forms of Harassment

Almost all the activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that security agencies routinely question them about their activities. According to an activist in Homs, “we get called in for questioning by various security branches: Political Security, Military Security, Internal Security. They ask you about your role, your activities.”84

In a typical incident, border guards stopped Aktham Nu`aissa, a long-time human rights activist, at Damascus airport as he was coming back from Paris on August 10, 2006. They told him that Branch 255 (Information Branch) of State Security wanted to speak to him and that he should report to them the following day. As soon as he got home, another security agency, Military Security, called him and asked him to go see them as well.85

In addition to being routinely asked to report on their own activities, one activist in CDF told Human Rights Watch that Political Security tried to pay a young member in CDF to follow the more senior members and report on them.86

Some activists have lost their jobs for their outspoken activities. Ossama Nu`aissa, the brother of Aktham Nu`aissa and an activist in his own right, was fired from his job as a medical specialist for children at the National Hospital in Lattakia on December 12, 2002, for his activities on behalf of detainees.87 More recently, 17 state employees were fired from their jobs in June 2006 following their signing of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for an improvement in relations between Lebanon and Syria, and a subsequent statement calling for the release of 10 signatories of the declaration who were arrested in mid-May.

Most activists reported that security services usually exercised pressures directly on them and not their relatives. However, in a number of instances, activists told Human Rights Watch that their relatives also had come under pressure. As one activist told Human Rights Watch, “for any government job, you need to fill out a security sheet.” In that sheet, you are asked about your relatives, so it causes problems.”88

44 Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian political activist (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.

45 Ibid.

46 Human Rights Watch interview with a CDF member (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.

47 Human Rights Watch interview with a Syrian human rights lawyer (name withheld), Damascus, November 15, 2006.

48 Human Rights Watch interview with a founder of Jamal al-Atassi Forum (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.

49 Ibid.

50 Human Rights Watch interview with a CDF member (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.

51 Human Rights Watch interview with a Kurdish activist (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.

52 Ibid.

53 MoSAL letter to Mr. Muhammad Omar Kardas (secretary of HRAS), copy on record with Human Rights Watch.

54 Human Rights Watch interview with a senior AOHR member (name withheld), Damascus, November 12, 2006.

55 Human Rights Watch interview with an NOHR member (name withheld), Damascus, November 12, 2006.

56 Glada Lahn, “Illegal But Working: Civil Society in Syria,” The World Today, Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), London, Vol. 62, No. 4, April 2006.

57 “Text of interview given by President Bashar al-Asad to al-‘Usbu` newspaper,” al-‘Usbu` (Cairo), January 9, 2006.

58 Human Rights Watch interview with human rights lawyer (name withheld), Damascus, November 17, 2006.

59 Ibid.

60 Human Rights Watch interview with young human rights lawyer (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.

61 Human Rights Watch interview with AOHR member (name withheld), Damascus, November 12, 2006.

62 Ibid.

63 Human Rights Watch interview with CDF member (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.

64 Ibid.

65 See HRAS, Third Annual Report, “For the Citizen and the Individual in Syria”, 2005-2006 (June 2006).

66 Human Rights Watch interview with Homs-based activist (name withheld), Homs, November 13, 2006.

67 Human Rights Watch interview with Hama-based activist (name withheld), Hama, November 13, 2006.

68 “Syria: Rights Activist Arrested Upon Return Home,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 14, 2006,

69 “Syria: Rights Activists Detained in Crackdown,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 25, 2006,

70 “Syria: Rights Activist Detained after Travel Abroad,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 18, 2005, The Democratic Liberal Gathering is a group of Syrian intellectuals and activists who advocate for peaceful change in Syria based on democratic reforms, liberalism, secularism, and respect for human rights.

71 “Syria: Peaceful Activist Gets 12 Years with Hard Labor,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 11, 2007,

72 “Syria: Rights Activists Detained in Crackdown,” Human Rights Watch news release.

73 ‘Ali al-‘Abdullah was sentenced to another six months on charges of "damaging" the financial reputation of the state, but the judge took the decision to merge ‘Ali al-‘Abdullah’s sentences into one six-month sentence. See Amnesty International, “Syria: Further information on Incommunicado detention/Prisoners of Conscience,” AI Index: MDE 24/062/2006, October 6, 2006, (accessed August 10, 2007).

74 Human Rights Watch interview with activist (name withheld), Damascus, November 18, 2006.

75 Human Rights Watch interview with relative of Anwar al-Bunni (name withheld), Damascus, November 17, 2006.

76 “Syria: Harsh Sentence for Prominent Rights Lawyer,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2007,

77 The Center for Human Rights was to provide training for Syrian civil society and the project was funded by the European Commission through its initiative for Democracy and Human Rights. Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian activist (name withheld), Damascus, November 17, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with European official (name withheld), Damascus, November 16, 2006.

78 The Supreme State Security Court had been regularly used in the past to prosecute human rights activists. See for example, Middle East Watch, Syria – Human Rights Workers on Trial.

79 For more details, see “Syria: Activist’s Trial Enters Final Stage,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 7, 2007,

80 Human Rights Watch interview with human rights lawyer (name withheld), Damascus, November 12, 2006.

81 Copy of list on file with Human Rights Watch.

82 “Syria: Civil Society Activists Barred from Traveling,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 12, 2006,

83 UN Commission on Human Rights, Report submitted by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders, Hina Jilani, E/CN.4/2006/95/Add.5, March 6, 2006, (accessed June 20, 2007), paras. 1527-1543.

84 Human Rights Watch interview with Homs-based activist, Homs, November 13, 2006.

85 Human Rights Watch interview with CDF member, Damascus, November 11, 2006.

86 Human Rights Watch interview with activist (name withheld), Lattikia, November 13, 2006.

87 Ibid.

88 Human Rights Watch interview with Homs-based activist (name withheld), Homs, November 13, 2006.