Baath's Crackdown on Syrian Dissent and Bush Statement

Syria: More Activists Arrested Following Opposition Meeting

Human Rights Watch

The Syrian government claims that it wants to engage with the outside world, but its only engagement with peaceful critics inside the country is with the boot of repression. Calling for democratic and peaceful change should not be treated as a criminal offense.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC, December 17, 2007) – Syria should immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Ahmad Tohme, Jabr al-Shoufi, Akram al-Bunni, Dr. Fida’ al-Hurani, and `Ali al-Abdallah from detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities detained the five political activists following a meeting of opposition groups in Damascus last week.

State Security officers arrested the five as part of a countrywide crackdown that began on December 9 against people attending the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, a December 1 gathering of numerous opposition groups and activists calling for democratic reforms in Syria.

“The Syrian government claims that it wants to engage with the outside world, but its only engagement with peaceful critics inside the country is with the boot of repression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Calling for democratic and peaceful change should not be treated as a criminal offense.”

More than 163 Syrians associated with the National Council of the Damascus Declaration met on December 1 to elect a new executive committee. On December 9, State Security detained over 30 of those who attended, including Dr. Ahmad Tohme and Jabr al-Shoufi, two leaders of the movement. While most activists were released a few hours later, the authorities kept Tohme and al-Shoufi in detention.

State Security officials have continued to harass members of the opposition coalition since then, arresting Akram al-Bunni on December 11, Fida’ al-Hurani on December 16, and `Ali al-Abdallah on December 17. Al-Bunni, a former political prisoner during Hafez al-Assad’s rule, is the brother of prominent lawyer and rights activist Anwar al-Bunni, who in April was sentenced to five years in jail for “spreading false news” when he made a statement that a man had died in a Syrian jail from the inhumane conditions under which he had been held. Al-Hurani is a medical doctor who was elected president of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change when the group met on December 1. The group chose al-Abdallah, a former political prisoner who already served three separate prison terms for his activism, to be on its executive committee.

All five of the activists remain in custody although the authorities have brought no charges against them yet. The Syrian authorities provided no explanation for the arrests or their continued detention.

“Real domestic political reforms have to be part of any opening up by the authorities in Damascus,” Whitson said. “A crucial first step would be to stop arresting peaceful political activists and release all those now in detention.”


President Bush Applauds Formation of National Council of the Damascus Declaration

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
December 14, 2007

I applaud the recent formation of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration in Damascus, Syria. The brave men and women who formed this Council reflect the desires of the majority of Syrian people to live in freedom, democracy, and peace, both at home and alongside their neighbors in the region.

The Syrian regime continues to hold hundreds of prisoners of conscience and has arrested more than thirty National Council members in the past few days. All those detained should be released immediately.

The Syrian regime continues to deny its citizens fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and the right to elect a representative government responsive to their needs. The formation of the National Council is an encouraging sign to all people who support freedom and democracy. We support the National Council's principles of non-violent struggle and open membership to all the people of Syria who believe the time has come for change.



Challenged, Syria Extends Crackdown on Dissent

Thanassis Cambanis

Syrian authorities this week arrested more than 30 people who had been working for political change, escalating a crackdown on dissent just a week after critics elected a leadership committee in an unusually direct and public challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's authority.

A majority of those arrested were questioned and released, dissidents and human rights advocates said. But three of the most outspoken opposition leaders remained in custody on Thursday, and others had been summoned for questioning.

Last month, government security forces shut Facebook, the online host to a vibrant if virtual debate on the president. On Sunday, security agents began rounding up dozens of dissidents who had been meeting to create a joint opposition front, acting like a political party despite emergency laws that ban any group not connected with the government and ruling Baath Party.

The arrests followed Syria's participation in the Middle East peace forum at Annapolis, Md., which was seen in the region as a coup for Syria and a sign of a thaw in relations between Mr. Assad and the White House.

Emboldened by a sense that Syria's tough anti-American policies have paid dividends, human rights advocates say, the authorities have turned to closing the last channels of public debate.

"This goes back to what we've always seen as a problem, that the opening with the West has never been contingent on Syria improving its human rights records," Nadim Houry, who tracks Syria for Human Rights Watch, said. "It's contingent on Syria cooperating on Lebanon, Iraq and the peace process."

Dissidents and human rights advocates contend that the fact that intellectuals with no political organization, and with many leaders who are frail or in jail, still pose a threat is a sign that the government is weak.

Akram Bunni, a newspaper columnist and brother of an imprisoned human rights lawyer, was detained Tuesday; he still writes in Arab papers of the "moral bankruptcy" of Mr. Assad's rule.

"They're concerned about public opinion," he said. "They don't want anyone, internationally or internally, to see that there are public figures who might be an alternative to the regime."

Dissidents say the crackdown is, paradoxically, a sign of strength and of weakness — the government has consolidated enough internal power to re-establish "red lines" limiting public criticism of its absolute leader.

Mr. Assad briefly allowed free expression and civil society activity when he assumed the presidency after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. But he has gradually tightened control over the small political class, with arrests and new rules. In the past year, security services have arrested not only seasoned political advocates but also people who posted comments deemed subversive on Web sites.

Still, dissidents challenge the government, disobeying a ban on public meetings.

On Dec. 1, Riad Seif, a former businessman and member of Parliament and now an opposition spokesman, held a meeting with more than 160 advocates who had signed the Damascus declaration in 2005, calling on the state to lift emergency laws and allow free speech and political organization, Syrian rights advocates said.

In a challenge to the government, which prohibits independent political parties, the dissidents formed the National Council, electing a president and leadership committee. The group includes Communists, Islamists, former Baathists and Kurds. [Editor note: liberals won the National Council elections, the council includes leftists and Islamists as well.] Younger dissidents schooled on the Internet have also spoken out, mostly on opposition Web sites and on Facebook groups. Some have ended up in prison, and others, like Ahed al-Hendi and Muhammad al-Abdallah, have fled to Beirut. "They are afraid because people online meet together, share ideas, criticize the regime," said Mr. Hendi, 23, who was held for a month after posting critical reports. "They are strong on one hand, but on another they are so weak they are afraid of an Internet cafe."

Despite contentions that the crackdown stems from insecurity, some Syrian analysts and diplomats say the Assad rule has staved off several crises and now feels strong enough to restore limits that once cowed critics.

"States around us are collapsing and there's a high perception of danger, but Syria is deterring the dangers," an analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government harassment, said. "The opposition doesn't pose a threat."


Some related posts:

- Save Syrian People from Brutal Totalitarianism

- Syria under Totalitarianism

- The Beirut-Damascus Declaration

- Syria's Independence: Free Anwar al-Bunni

- Totalitarian Baath and Free Anwar al-Bunni

- Free Kamal Labawani

- Middle East Human Rights 2007

- The Conflict over the New Middle East and the Middle East Totalitarian Axis

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