|Syrian Arab Republic
Head of state: Bashar al-Assad
Head of government: Muhammad Mustafa Miro
Population: 16.6 million
Official language: Arabic
Death penalty: retentionist
Scores of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were released during 2001, most as a result of a presidential amnesty. Dozens of people, including prisoners of conscience, were arrested during the year on political grounds. Hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, continued to be held, most following unfair trials before the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) and Field Military Courts. Torture and ill-treatment continued to be used against political prisoners, especially during incommunicado detention. There were reports that the health of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners was deteriorating as a result of lack of medical care. At least one person died in custody.
Restrictions were imposed during 2001 on pro-democracy movements which emerged in 2000 following President Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of office and advocated political participation and freedom of expression in Syria. The authorities accused these groups of defying government guidelines and stipulated that such groups must obtain an official licence.
There were reports that all political prisoners were transferred from Tadmur Military Prison to other prisons, including Sednaya Prison, and that the civilian section of the prison had been closed down.
2001 also witnessed an increasing demand for respect for human rights and for political and legal reform. A new human rights group, the Human Rights Association in Syria, was established during the year.
A legislative decree issued by President Bashar al-Assad in September restricted press coverage of a range of loosely defined topics including national security, national unity, security of the army, and the country’s dignity and prestige. Following changes in laws governing the ownership and publication of newspapers, new newspapers were launched by junior members of the ruling Progressive National Front and the first privately owned newspaper was published.
The UN Human Rights Committee examined the second periodic report on Syria’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which had been due in 1984. The Committee called on the Syrian authorities to, among other things, investigate allegations of extrajudicial executions, torture, and ”disappearances”.
Scores of political prisoners were released, most as a result of a presidential amnesty issued in November. They included nine prisoners of conscience, mostly leading members of the unauthorized Party for Communist Action (PCA) who had been detained since 1987; dozens of political prisoners who had been held since the early 1980s in connection with their involvement with the unauthorized Muslim Brotherhood organization; and Jordanians and Palestinians who had been imprisoned for over 15 years in connection with the Palestinian Fatah movement.
Human rights defenders
Syrian human rights organizations and civil society groups stepped up their campaign against human rights violations in the country, despite restrictions imposed by the authorities in February outlawing any activities carried out without a prior licence from the authorities.
Human rights defender Nizar Nayyuf was released in May and subsequently allowed to travel to France to seek medical treatment after restrictions imposed on his movements were lifted. He had spent nine years in detention as a prisoner of conscience in connection with the unauthorized Committees for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria. However, as a result of statements critical of the Syrian government which he made to the media, the authorities issued a warrant for his arrest if and when he returned home. He was charged with, among other things, disseminating false information abroad and seeking to change the Constitution by illegal means. One of his brothers was reportedly dismissed from his job and other members of his family were intimidated and reportedly threatened with exile by the Syrian authorities.
There were reports of physical assault and intimidation of members of emerging civil society groups and intellectuals.
Nabil Sulayman, a novelist and founder of the Cultural Forum, a civil society group, was attacked by unidentified assailants in January in Latakia and hospitalized as a result. Nabil Sulayman, who along with other intellectuals had been calling for the lifting of the state of emergency and the release of political prisoners, said the attack was ”aimed against all critical thinking and cultural activities which are pushing for change”. No investigation was known to have been carried out and there were reports that members of the security forces may have been involved in the assault.
Dozens of people were arrested during the year for their alleged involvement in anti-government activities. Most were members of unauthorized political parties or emerging civil society groups. Among those arrested in August and September were doctors, lawyers, teachers and businesspeople. At least 10 prisoners of conscience were arrested during 2001 and brought to trial before courts whose procedures fell short of international fair trial standards (see below). Most were initially held incommunicado at ‘Adra Prison.
Kurdish political activists continued to be intimidated, threatened and detained. Among them were prisoners of conscience detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression including distribution of Kurdish literature and involvement in Kurdish cultural activities.
Muhammad Hammu, the owner of a Kurdish bookshop in Aleppo, was detained from 27 August to 3 September. He was released without charge but was threatened that his bookshop would be closed unless he ”cooperated” with the authorities.
At least 25 Kurdish political activists were detained in June, apparently following violent confrontations with the security forces who reportedly used excessive force to disperse a rally in the city of Aleppo in support of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who remained under sentence of death in Turkey. The activists were charged with ”resisting the socialist system”. They remained detained pending trial at the end of the year.
Exiled Syrian nationals returning home voluntarily continued to risk detention and prolonged interrogation.
Prisoners of conscience
Ten prisoners of conscience were referred for trial during the year before the Criminal Court and the SSSC. They included two parliamentarians whose trials before the Criminal Court fell short of international fair trial standards. They were charged with, among other things, seeking to change the Constitution by illegal means, insulting the authorities, and inciting sectarian strife. Their lawyers said there were serious flaws in the trial procedures, including during the arrest and interrogation stages, and dismissed the charges as ”null and void”. They called for the immediate release of the defendants as their detention was ”unconstitutional”, but this was rejected by the court which ordered the detainees to be remanded in custody.
Riad al-Turk, a lawyer and first secretary of the unauthorized Communist Party-Political Bureau, was arrested in September and held incommunicado during the first month of his detention at ‘Adra Prison, where he remained at the end of the year. There were concerns about his health as he was suffering from heart disease and diabetes and had undergone major heart surgery two years earlier. Riad al-Turk was a former prisoner of conscience who had been detained without charge or trial, mostly incommunicado, between 1980 and 1998.
Dozens of prisoners of conscience, belonging to various unauthorized political groups, continued to be detained without trial or after unfair trials by the SSSC.
‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Khayyir, a leading member of the PCA, remained in detention. He had been excluded from the presidential amnesty which led to the release of all other members of the PCA. He was serving a 22-year prison sentence, the longest sentence known to have been handed down by the SSSC, imposed after an unfair trial on charges of membership of the PCA. A medical doctor, he was arrested in Damascus on 1 February 1992 by members of Military Intelligence and subsequently tortured and ill-treated while being held incommunicado. While he was being sought by the Syrian authorities prior to his arrest, his wife had been arrested and detained from August 1987 until December 1991. She was held without charge or trial and was a prisoner of conscience.
Hundreds of political prisoners arrested in the early 1980s in connection with their involvement with the unauthorized Muslim Brotherhood organization remained in detention serving long sentences, mostly handed down by Field Military Courts after unfair trials.
Scores of other political prisoners continued to be held. They included members of the Islamic Liberation Party, the Democratic Ba’th Party and the Arab Communist Organization; Kurdish political activists and Palestinians; and Jordanian and Lebanese nationals. Some had been held for more than two decades.
Dozens of seriously sick political prisoners remained without adequate medical care in conditions amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
News came to light during 2001 of the execution by the Syrian authorities in the early 1990s of Yusuf ‘Abd al-Khaliq Mustafa Shahada, a Jordanian teacher with two children, for his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Torture and ill-treatment
Torture and ill-treatment continued to be inflicted routinely on political prisoners, especially during incommunicado detention at the Palestine Branch and Military Interrogation Branch detention centres.
Sisters ‘Ayisha and Asma Taleb and their father, an Iraqi family resident in Syria, had been held incommunicado at the Palestine Branch detention centre since the second half of 2000. ‘Ayisha Taleb and her father were arrested following a dawn raid on a house in Hama by members of Military Intelligence who reportedly beat the father in front of his children before taking him and ‘Ayisha Taleb away. Four months later a younger daughter, Asma Taleb, was arrested. The family’s arrest was apparently connected to the father’s alleged involvement with unauthorized Islamist groups. He was reportedly subjected to torture in the ”German Chair”, a metal chair with moving parts which stretches the spine and causes severe pressure on the neck and legs; given electric shocks; and beaten with cables while held in solitary confinement. On one occasion he was reportedly left naked during the winter in freezing conditions. ‘Ayisha Taleb, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest, was reportedly severely beaten and as a result suffered a miscarriage. She was said to have suffered from severe pain as a result but no medical care was provided despite her pleas for help. Asma Taleb was detained in a solitary cell in the men’s section of the Palestine Branch detention centre where she was said to have been repeatedly beaten and ill-treated. All three remained in incommunicado detention at the end of the year.
No investigations were known to have been carried out into recent or past allegations of torture.
Death in custody
At least one person died in custody in circumstances suggesting torture may have contributed to his death.
Muhammad Shukri ‘Allush, an 18-year-old Syrian Kurd, died in Jandrays police station on 2 May. Muhammad Shukri ‘Allush was arrested at his home in Jandrays in ‘Afreen earlier the same day and taken to the local police station for questioning, reportedly in connection with a theft. About four hours later his family was asked to report to the police station where they were told that he had committed suicide and ordered to collect his body. According to reports, there were visible injuries and bruises on his body and it was feared that torture may have contributed to his death. According to the authorities, Muhammad Shukri ‘Allush ”hanged himself inside the police station using his shirt which he fastened to the door of the lavatory”.
AI country reports/visits
Syrian Arab Republic: Briefing to the Human Rights Committee 71st session – March 2001 (AI Index: MDE 24/001/2001)
Syria: Torture, despair and dehumanization in Tadmur Military Prison (AI Index: MDE 24/014/2001)
Repeated communications to the Syrian authorities asking for AI to be allowed to visit the country to conduct talks with officials and carry out research were ignored.