4.17.2008

Syria's Lost Independence: The Totalitarian Occupation

After the Syria's independence became an occupation imposing a totalitarian tyranny on Syria and Syrian people, our civilization was destroyed; citizens became refugees in their homeland; the state became a ranch owned by an oligarchy, which is a bunch of rural thugs, thieves and hit men, all thanks to the revolution's accomplishments of al-Baath terrorist group.

Many brave Syrians, like Aref Dalila, Anwar al-Bunni, Kamal Labawani, Riad Seif and many others, are struggling for Syria's democratic independence and Syrians' rights and freedoms.This is a tribute to all those heroes on our lost independence's anniversary.

We, Syrians, totally appreciate their struggle and we are so proud of them, and we believe that we will regain our democratic independence.


Syria: Opposition Activists Tell of Beatings in Interrogation

Authorities Should Release All 12, and Investigate Allegations of Physical Abuse

Human Rights Watch

(New York, February 5, 2008) – The Syrian government has arbitrarily detained at least 12 activists who attended a meeting of opposition groups in December, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release the detained activists, dismiss all charges against them, and promptly investigate credible allegations that State Security officials beat at least eight of the activists during interrogation.

The 12, including former member of parliament Riad Seif, have been detained as part of a government crackdown against individuals who attended a December 1 meeting of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change (NCDD), an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups.

On January 28, the third investigative judge in Damascus, Muhammad Subhi al-Sa`ur, referred 11 of the detainees to prosecutors on politically motivated charges of “weakening national sentiment,” “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country,” “membership in an organization formed with the purpose of changing the structure of the state,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and “joining a secret association.”

“The Syrian authorities are treating these activists like criminals simply because they called for democratic and peaceful change,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Eight of the 11 told the investigative judge that State Security officials beat them during their interrogation and forced them to sign confessions that they planned to take money from foreign countries in order to divide the country by giving the Kurds a separate state. The detainees’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the activists told the investigative judge in their judicial questioning how they were punched in the face, kicked, and slapped by State Security officials.

One detainee, `Ali al-Abdullah, was transferred on January 28 to a medical examiner to check his complaint that interrogators had injured his ear. The doctor declined to issue a report, saying that he was not a specialist in ear injuries. No investigation was reportedly opened in the allegations of ill-treatment. The detainees’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the investigative judge did not respond to their request to receive a copy of the interrogation that he conducted with the detainees.

The authorities are currently holding 10 of the detainees, including Riad Seif, in `Adra prison with common criminals. Fida’ al-Hurani, the only woman in the group and the recently elected president of the NCDD, is in the women’s jail in Duma, near Damascus. The 12th and latest activist to be detained, Talal Abu Dan, an artist and sculptor from Aleppo, has remained in the custody of State Security since he was called in for interrogation on January 30.

Since the activists’ referral to jails in `Adra and Duma, their relatives have been able to visit the activists. Conditions of detention are harsh: prison authorities do not provide mattresses, and many of the activists are still wearing the same clothes since their arrest in December. According to relatives, they are allowed to pass money to the activists but no clothes. Lawyers that have seen the detainees told Human Rights Watch that some looked “weak and tired.” Riad Seif, who suffers from prostate cancer and has a heart condition, was forced to sleep with a single blanket in the general hall of the prison, exposed to cold weather.

“Syrian prison authorities are mistreating these activists,” said Stork. “These people should not be in prison in the first place.”

Background

The government crackdown began on December 9 when State Security, one of Syria’s multiple security agencies, began arresting some of the 163 activists that attended the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change (NCDD). A total of 40 NCDD members have been arrested and 12 remain in detention. The 12 who remain in detention are:

1. Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician
2. Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet
3. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician
4. Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer
5. Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist
6. Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher
7. `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer
8. Fayez Sarah, 58, writer and journalist
9. Muhammad Hajj Darwish, 48, businessman
10. Marwan al-`Ush, 52, engineer
11. Riad Seif, 61,former member of parliament
12. Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor

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The dangers of speaking out in Syria

Amnesty International

Being a Syrian political or human rights activist requires courage -- the government is intolerant of dissent. The 45-year-old state of emergency gives the security police wide powers of arrest and detention, which they use against those who dare to speak out for human rights or in opposition to the authorities.

Under the long-running state of emergency, a special court – the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) – was established to try those who dissent or are accused of offences against state security. Created in 1968, the SSSC’s proceedings are grossly unfair and it has sentenced hundreds of people to prison terms.

Defendants before the SSSC tend to be members of unauthorized political parties, human rights organisations, civil society groups and others who may have peacefully expressed opinions that differ from those of the authorities. Yet they are often accused and convicted of vague, widely interpreted and unsubstantiated security offences, such as membership of a terrorist organisation, "exposing Syria to the threat of hostile acts", "weakening nationalist sentiments", "opposing the objectives of the revolution" and "inciting sectarian strife."

Fateh Jamus, for example, was convicted of terrorism, although no evidence was produced in court to indicate that he had ever used or advocated violence. Of up to 1,000 individuals arrested for their suspected involvement in the banned Communist Labour Party, he and more than 20 others were detained for over a decade before they were eventually brought to trial at various times in the 1990s. He was eventually freed in 2000, three years beyond the expiry of his 15-year sentence.

Likewise, Muhammad Zammar was detained for nearly five years without charge before he was convicted in 2007, without any substantiating evidence, of membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The SSSC is not independent. It is effectively under the control of the executive branch of government and operates outside the ordinary criminal justice system. Its judges are invariably members of the ruling Ba'ath Party and are appointed on the recommendation of the Minister of the Interior.

For detainees and defendants, communication with a lawyer is restricted and rarely confidential. Defendants are unable to meet with a lawyer during pre-trial detention and usually first meet their lawyer at the first trial session, often for just a few minutes. Trials are usually closed to the public. Defendants tried before the SSSC are not allowed to appeal their conviction and sentence to a higher tribunal, in breach of international standards of fair trial.

“The violations do not affect only the detainees [but also] their families and lawyers,” said Razan Zaytounah, a Syrian human rights lawyer banned since November 2005 from working in the court by the SSSC’s president, following an argument during which he is also reported to have insulted her.

The SSSC, she explains, “violates the right of defence and the right of a convicted person to appeal against or challenge their sentence, because its verdicts are final… It does not abide by the criminal procedures applicable to the ordinary legal system [and] this court violates the principle of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.”

Even after release, “some effects will in fact haunt you to the grave,” adds Fateh Jamus. "You are forbidden from going back to work, from receiving any compensation and you are subject to a travel ban."

The SSSC contributes to impunity in Syria – the court has systematically failed to investigate numerous allegations made by defendants that they were tortured during pre-trial detention and interrogation, and that "confessions" were extracted from them under duress.

As Fateh Jamus says, "The fact that an individual may have been tortured at interrogation centres for instance is totally ignored. [The court] does not pay attention to this matter at all. Statements taken or investigations carried out by the security agencies are paramount in handing down judgments on prisoners."

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Syrian authorities to end unfair trials before the SSSC. In the run up to the 45th anniversary of the declaration of Syria’s state of emergency on 8 March, Amnesty International is again calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to fundamentally reform or abolish the SSSC and to ensure that Syria’s courts comply with the country’s obligations under international law

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Resurrecting the Wall of Fear: The Human Rights Situation in Syria

By Robert Grace

United States Institute of Peace
April 2008

Over the past several months, Syrian authorities have engaged in a harsh campaign of repression against leading dissidents and human rights activists. The crackdown, overshadowed by developments elsewhere in the region, has received scant media coverage in the U.S. and Europe. To shed light on recent developments in the Syrian political scene, USIP recently convened a public discussion on human rights in Syria, featuring the Institute’s Radwan Ziadeh, Mona Yacoubian, and Steven Heydemann, and Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. This USIPeace Briefing summarizes their presentations and the subsequent discussion.

USIP Senior Fellow Radwan Ziadeh's account of the current situation in Syria underscored that the regime often uses national security concerns as a pretext to silence all forms of dissent. Placing recent repression in historical context, Ziadeh noted that government repression of political and human rights activists has come in several waves in the past decade. While political activism briefly flourished after the death of longtime Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in June 2000, the so-called Damascus Spring ended within months, after a severe government crackdown. Another wave of detentions followed the May 2006 "Beirut-Damascus Declaration," which called for improved relations between Syria and neighboring Lebanon. (Lebanon is a sensitive subject for Syria, which claims historic title to the Mediterranean nation and has long played an active role in Lebanon’s internecine political struggles. Complicating matters further is a U.N. tribunal convened to investigate Syria’s suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.)

The latest regime crackdown followed a December 1, 2007, meeting of 163 activists who gathered in Damascus to declare their support for democratization in Syria. These activists formed a new coalition—the National Council of the Damascus Declaration—that issued a unified call for freedom of association and speech, and the establishment and protection of human rights. Rallying around the Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change, written in October 2005, the Council comprised a wide-ranging coalition that included Islamists, secularists, and Kurds.

The government crackdown began in earnest eight days later, when Syrian authorities undertook a wave of arrests targeting meeting participants. Former parliamentarian Riad Seif was among those detained on charges of "weakening the national sentiment," illegal association activities, and "sectarian incitement." Seif suffers from prostate cancer and has been denied medical treatment by Syrian authorities. His health continues to decline in Adra Prison, where he is detained alongside the prominent writer and fellow Council member Ali Abdullah. Numerous international human rights organizations assert that Syrian political prisoners suffer harsh abuses at the hands of their prison guards and that torture is widespread 1. Indeed, according to Abdullah’s lawyers, he was beaten so severely that he sustained a hole in his trachea.

In his presentation, Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch discussed what he called "capricious cruelty on the part of the regime." Activist Kamal al-Labwani, sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for meeting with U.S. government officials and NGO representatives, is a case in point. Another is Fida’ al-Hurani, one of the first Syrian women to be imprisoned for speaking out on the issue of human rights. Recent reports indicate that her husband was forcibly exiled to Jordan—according to Stork, the regime’s first forced expulsion in many years. Hurani’s case is all the more dramatic given that her father, Akram al-Hurani, was one of the early founders of the Syrian Baath Party.

Stork reiterated Ziadeh’s assessment that national security is used as a catch-all excuse to silence critics of the Syrian regime. In another high profile case, Aref Dalila, former dean of the economics department at Damascus University, was arrested and jailed in September 2001. His detention came after a meeting of democracy activists, held at the house of Riad Seif. As with Seif, Dalila suffers serious health problems that a prolonged imprisonment, including months of solitary confinement, have exacerbated. Noting that Dalila was held on charges that include "holding gatherings aimed at causing disorder" and "forming a secret society," Stork surmised that Dalila’s imprisonment had as much to do with an impassioned opinion piece that he wrote for the daily Al-Hayat in March of that year. Dalila wrote, "We live in a republic with a progressive constitution. ...What, then, are we missing?...You’ve shelved the constitution and the laws," and replaced them with "one law, composed of one line, unwritten, invisible."2

In this chilling environment, organizations such as Stork’s Human Rights Watch have difficulty performing their work. Although the official ban on their presence in Syria does not prevent them entirely from doing investigative work, their interlocutors are under constant watch by the secret police. Stork argued that the tenuous state of diplomatic relations between Syria and Western powers hampers progress on the human rights front as well. Visits between Syrian officials and their EU and U.S. counterparts are rare. When such visits have occurred—as with Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Damascus in April 2007, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s visit the preceding month—opportunities to discuss the human rights situation have been missed, Stork contended. He stated further that while White House press statements have responded to particular cases, such as Labwani’s, in a forceful manner, the Bush administration has been "extremely selective" and inconsistent in highlighting human rights abuses throughout the region. To raise the profile of individuals such as Labwani, Dalila, and Hurani, Stork concluded that more attention should be paid to regional repression in general and Syrian victims in particular.

Mona Yacoubian echoed Stork’s assessment that more attention should be paid to human rights in Syria. It is difficult to gauge the intentions or mindset of the Syrian regime, but it seems that the lack of attention paid to their repressive measures emboldens them. However, if Syria has confidence that it can act with impunity, it is a shallow confidence. Syria exhibits vulnerability on several fronts. The economy is beset by soaring inflation, driven by rising petroleum prices, in combination with the influx of over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. The U.N. investigations and tribunal could result in the indictment of high-level Syrian officials. According to Yacoubian, some in the inner circles of Syrian power believe the tribunal to be a "Trojan horse" for regime change. The continued activity of the Syrian dissident community in Lebanon, from which Syria withdrew its military in May 2005, compounds this concern. Finally, the December 1 Council meeting, drawing together such a broad coalition, signaled to the regime the growing strength, scope, and boldness of the domestic opposition.

President Bush’s meeting with three exiled Syrian activists on December 4 may have further spooked the regime. Yacoubian underscored that such high-profile meetings with Syrian oppositionists may do more harm than good, having little impact on the ground in Syria, while giving the regime a pretext to crack down further. She characterized U.S. policy toward Syria as based largely on isolation, with some "episodic engagement," limited to specific issues such as Iraq.

Meanwhile, intensified sanctions, such as those placed in February on the assets of President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, have little real impact on the corrupt autocracy they are intended to weaken (Makhlouf has no known assets in the U.S.). Ultimately, the effect of U.S. sanctions has been largely symbolic, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty for U.S. business interests, but not having an appreciable impact on the ground. Currently, Yacoubian argued, the U.S. occupies a "muddled middle ground" on policy. The U.S. needs either to "supercharge" its isolation policy—strengthening it significantly by getting European allies and others (such as Russia, China, and Turkey) to agree to multilateral sanctions—or to engage the Syrian regime, laying the gamut of issues on the table for discussion, including human rights.

Moderator Steven Heydemann stated that the combination of verbal condemnation of Syrian behavior with the relative inefficacy of sanctions has led to growing Syrian disregard of external pressures. In 2003 the U.S. vocally pressed its case for a regional "freedom agenda"; by 2005, with the situation in Iraq spiraling out of control, U.S. rhetoric had become far more subdued. In this context, the Syrian regime seems to consider its anti-opposition activities to have a low opportunity cost. At the same time, said Heydemann, Syria sees little reward for steps taken to secure U.S. favor, as in the case of its increased surveillance of insurgent traffic across its border with Iraq.

In this low-risk, low-reward environment, tolerance for alternative perspectives within Syrian civil society has diminished—particularly regarding Syria’s role in Lebanon. The scope and severity of the crackdown on the National Council of the Damascus Declaration underscores the sensitivity of the Lebanon issue. In short, Heydemann concluded, Syria’s perception of the threat of internal opposition has become heightened at precisely the moment that the threat of external intervention has begun to appear empty.

With the human rights situation in Syria worsening, successfully confronting Syrian repression will require sustained attention and carefully crafted policy. Cautious engagement with Syria, the panelists agreed, seems to be the best of the admittedly problematic options that the U.S. and the international community have at their disposal. While more constructive relations with Syria must never come at the expense of Lebanon, the Syrian role in Middle Eastern affairs is too important to ignore. None of the essential issues must be left off the table—least of all the issue of human rights.

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Some related materials:

- Baath's Crackdown on Syrian Dissent

- Save Syrian People from Brutal Totalitarianism

- Syria's Baath and Online Censorship: The Internet Black Hole

- The Beirut-Damascus Declaration

- Syria's Independence: Free Anwar al-Bunni

- Totalitarian Baath and Free Anwar al-Bunni

- Free Kamal Labawani

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