HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH 1999 REPORT ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA
Human Rights Developments
I do not go into the prisons, but I believe that there are not many prisoners any more, President Hafez al-Asad said in an interview with the French television station TF-1 in Damascus on July 11, the week before his official state visit to France. Indeed, there were welcome releases during the year of 121 Lebanese political prisoners and an unconfirmed number of Syrians. But the underlying features of Syrias bleak human rights landscape did not change. Emergency law remained in force, peaceful expression and association were criminalized, newspapers and other media were tightly controlled, and no political will was evidenced to encourage the development of independent institutions of civil society. There were no legal mechanisms by which opposition groups could operate freely as political parties, and the prospects for timely and effective monitoring of human rights conditions were severely circumscribed. Prisoners who refused to compromise their political principles continued to be treated with cruelty, and their families and supporters found it exceedingly difficult to communicate information to the outside world.
In May, in advance of President Asads July 16-18 trip to Paris for meetings with President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, at least thirty Syrian political prisoners were released, including several whose cases were well-known internationally. There were unconfirmed reports that several hundred others had also been set free. Among those known to have been released was lawyer Riad al-Turk, leader of the unauthorized Communist Party Political Bureau, who had been held without charge and in solitary confinement since his arrest in October 1980. According to information that reached Human Rights Watch, al-Turk endured extremely harsh conditions and was allowed books and newspapers only during the last two years of his imprisonment. Also released was Mustafa Tawfiq Fallah, who was arrested in 1970, tried by the Supreme State Security Court the next year, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government. Fallahs imprisonment continued after the expiry of his sentence in 1985 and his health deteriorated. Lawyer and human rights advocate Aktham Nuaissa, a leading figure in the independent Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), gained his freedom too. Nuaissa was arrested in December 1991, tried by the security court in March 1992 with other CDF members, and sentenced to nine years in prison for membership in an illegal organization, among other offenses. He had been tortured and injured under interrogation and suffered poor health in prison.
For the hundreds of political prisoners who remained behind bars, there were reports throughout the year of gross medical neglect. Amnesty International called attention to the deteriorating health of some of these prisoners, many of them serving ten- to fifteen-year sentences imposed after unfair trials in the security court, whose decisions cannot be appealed to a higher tribunal. Most were in Adra and Sednaya prisons, but sixty-year-old lawyer Abdallah Qabbara, a chronic diabetic who was sentenced to fifteen years in 1994, was held in the infamous Tadmor military prison. In September, word reached the international community that Nizar Nayouf, the thirty-six-year-old writer and human rights activist serving a ten-year sentence at Mezze military prison in Damascus, had been diagnosed with Hodgkins disease. According to information that Human Rights Watch received, authorities made provision of medical care to Nayouf conditional on his pledge to refrain from all political activities, and his signed statement announcing the dissolution of CDF.
Nayouf, a founding member and secretary general of CDF, was a driving force behind the organization and a strong advocate that the group maintain its independence from Syrias various unauthorized political parties. He was arrested in January 1992, during the states crackdown on the nascent CDF network and after his wife and infant daughter had been arrested to force his surrender. He was tortured in detention at the Syrian Military Intelligences Palestine Branch, and tried with Aktham Nuaissa and other CDF members in the security court. Nayouf was sentenced in March 1992, drawing the longest prison term, for founding and leading an unlawful organization, activated to shake public confidence in the revolution and the regime, and publishing false information concerning human violations in Syria. With the news of his life-threatening illness, international human rights organizations rallied to publicize Nayoufs plight, urging the Syrian government immediately to provide specialized medical care without conditions, release him on humanitarian grounds, and permit him to leave Syria for medical treatment abroad, if necessary. As of October 23, there were no replies from Syrian authorities about this case.
As in past years, political prisoners were held beyond the expiry of their sentences. Some of them, arrested in the early 1980s, had been detained without charge for many years and then prosecuted and convicted in the security court for membership in unauthorized political parties, in legal proceedings that concluded in 1993 and 1994. In April, Human Rights Watch received information from Syria that nine political prisonerswho had completed prison sentences ranging from eight to fifteen yearswere being held in Tadmor beyond the expiry of their terms. Eight of themMustafa al-Hussein, Usama Ashour, Abdel Karim Issa, Al-Harith al-Nebhan, Adib al-Jani, Hussein Seibarani, Taysir Hassoun, and Bassam Bedour -- were the subject of a letter that Human Rights Watch sent to President Asad in February 1996 but which went unanswered. They and thirteen other prisoners, most of whom at that time had completed or were close to completing their sentences, had been transferred to Tadmor because of their refusal to sign written statements of support for the government and repudiate their past political activities. It appeared that these eight prisoners continued to be detained because they refused to sign loyalty oaths as a condition for release.
Released political prisoners also faced formidable obstacles to resuming normal lives. Syrias penal code strips of their civil rights ( huquq madaniyya ) persons convicted of criminal offenses and sentenced to imprisonment with temporary hard labor, from the day of sentencing to ten years after the expiration of their sentences. This provision bars these individuals from voting, running for office, serving in councils of syndicates or sects, and working in government jobs. This sanction has also reportedly been used to prevent former prisoners from continuing studies at universities they were attending at the time of their arrest.
Syria maintained its troops, security forces, and pervasive influence in Lebanon, a role that was formally cemented by two bilateral pacts: the May 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination, and the September 1991 Defense and Security Agreement. On September 12, the director-general of the state-controlled Syrian daily newspaper al-Thawra lambasted Ghassan Tueni, editor of the independent Lebanese daily al-Nahar , in a front-page article for editorials critical of the Syrian role in Lebanon. In such an intimidating atmosphere, it remained difficult for most Lebanese to criticize directly and publicly Syrias ubiquitous, dominating presence, and the Lebanese media either did not address the issue or only did so occasionally in the most circumspect or indirect manner. Syrian officials also publicly equated anti-Syrian sentiments in Lebanon with support for Israel. On June 22, for example, Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam commented ominously on Syrian state television that: All Lebanese politicians, whether in power or in the opposition, are allies of Syria. He added: All the Lebanese are our friends, except those who collaborate with Israel.
But with respect to the issue of disappearances in Lebanon, a problem directly linked to the Syrian role, Lebanese courageously came forward in 1998 in public events in Paris and Beirut to demand accountability from the Syrian government. In France, Lebanese activists, with support from the Paris-based nongovernmental Franco-Lebanese organization SOLIDA ( Soutien aux Libanais Détenus Arbitrairement ) as well as international organizations, organized a Week of Action and Support for Lebanese Detainees in Syrian Prisons, from January 26 to February 1. Highly visible events included a press conference, public testimony by relatives of the disappeared, and meetings with French and European government officials.
In the aftermath of this public advocacy, March brought the welcome release of 121 Lebanese who had been imprisoned in Syria without official acknowledgment of their detention or whereabouts. But an unknown number of Lebanese, stateless Palestinians, and other foreign nationals remained disappeared, outside the protection of the law. Among them were two Lebanese priests, Suleiman Abi Khalil and Albert Sharfane, both of whom disappeared in Lebanon in October 1990. Another was Boutros Khawand, a well-known and influential member of the political bureau of the Phalange party, who was abducted near his home in the Sin al-Fil neighborhood of Beirut by a group of men in civilian clothes on September 15, 1992. On April 2, Lebanese human rights organizations held a press conference in Beirut, releasing the names of 228 Lebanese they said were imprisoned in Syria, some of them since 1978. But Syrian authorities were deaf to appeals from Lebanese and international organizations to provide the names of all those held and disclose publicly their whereabouts and the full details of their cases.
Human Rights Watch was unaware of government actions to remedy the problem of Syria-born Kurds it has rendered stateless, a population that numbered 142,465 by the states own count in 1996, or to address systematic discrimination against the Kurdish minority, whether citizens or stateless. Kurds comprise the largest non-Arab ethnic group, numbering about 8.5 to 10 percent of Syrias population of almost 14 million.
THE END OF THE REPORT