Dangerous Backlash in Syria (Human Rights Watch)
(New York, September 7, 2001) The Syrian government's recent targeting of prominent political critics represents an alarming return to the practice of arbitrary arrest and intimidation that marked the rule of former president Hafez al-Asad, Human Rights Watch said today.The organization condemned the arrest earlier this week of Riad al-Turk,71 years old, who is Syria's best-known former political prisoner. He was detained in 1980, and was held without charge or trial until his release in May 1998. It is not known where al-Turk is being held or what charges, if any, have been lodged against him. Since his release, al-Turk has publicly championed reform and democracy. Following his arrest, the government-controlled daily                 newspaper al-Thawra castigated him for slandering the authorities and spreading misinformation.
Freedom of expression is an indispensable benchmark of the transition to a free society," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The Syrian government is now blatantly trampling that right." Human Rights Watch also cited and condemned the continuing detention of independent member of parliament Mamoun al-Homsi, who was arrested on August 9, and the recent lawsuit filed against Nizar Nayouf, the journalist and human rights defender who was released in May after serving nine years of a ten-year prison term. "If this dangerous pattern continues, it threatens to snuff out the voices of citizens who have been openly and peacefully calling for political reform since Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father as president last year," Megally said.
Al-Homsi began a hunger strike on August 7 to highlight political demands that included the lifting of emergency law, in force in Syria uninterruptedly since 1963. The independent legislator was reportedly charged with "insulting the constitution, opposing the government and engagement in intelligence with foreign quarters," which could result in a maximum prison terms of fifteen years. On September 3, Nizar Nayouf's lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, reported that his client was summoned to appear before an investigating judge to respond to charges of attempting to change the Syrian constitution by illegal means, creating sectarian strife, and disseminating information abroad harmful to the state. Lawyers from the Ba'th party initiated the complaint, al-Bunni said. Nayouf, who is in France for medical treatment, has been outspoken in calling for accountability for past human rights abuses, including the massacre of up to 1,100  unarmed inmates at Tadmor military prison in June 1980 by commando forces under the command of Rifat al-Asad, the former president's brother who now lives in exile in Europe.
Emerging independent human rights and other citizens & # 8217; groups in Syria, such as the popular civic forums held in private homes, have no legal status and remain vulnerable to harassment or closure at the whim of authorities. One of the forums, hosted by outspoken member of parliament Riad Seif, met on September 5 with some 400 people reportedly in attendance. Seif said that he planned to hold meetings twice a month despite the fact that authorities twice refused to grant the group legal authorization. In addition, Syria has no law that permits the organizing of opposition political parties. Former political prisoners who have been meeting and speaking freely have reported to Human Rights Watch that they are under surveillance by security forces and that family members have been questioned about their political activities.
"Now is the time for democratic countries with close bilateral relations with Syria, such as France, to convince the government to reverse this alarming trend," Megally said. The European Union, with which Syria has been negotiating a free-trade Association Agreement, should also weigh in as forcefully as possible, he added. The agreement includes language that the pact is premised on respect for human rights and democratic freedoms. Syria is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression and association. The United Nations Human Rights Committee examined Syria's compliance with the treaty earlier this year and in March recommended that Syria lift the state of emergency "as soon as possible." It criticized the practice of incommunicado pre-trial detention, and called on Syria to ensure that anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge be brought promptly before a judge and provided access to lawyers and contact with family members. It also expressed concern "at the restrictions that can be placed on the establishment of private association and institutions, including independent non-governmental organizations and human rights organizations" and "restrictions on the holding of public meetings and demonstrations."
For more information on Syria, please see: Syria: Gagging of Citizens Groups Condemned
(HRW Press Release, February 20, 2001) at http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/02/syr0220.htm