Place of Launch: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London
Date of Launch: 12/10/06
Launched by Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett
Major Countries of Concern
Syria is a socialist Arab republic based on a 1973 constitution, which guarantees a leading political role to the Ba’ath party. Other smaller parties are allied to the Ba’ath party in a Progressive National Front (PNF). All other political activity is illegal. Syria has a presidential system with strong executive power and a People’s Assembly that approves and modifies, but does not initiate, legislation. Emergency law has been active in Syria since 1963 and overrides a number of rights guaranteed under the constitution. This can lead to abuses of human rights.
The current president, Dr Bashar al Assad, came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al Assad. There has been a slight improvement in Syria’s human rights record since 2000. However, we continue to have concerns, particularly about: the detention and treatment of political prisoners (there are believed to be at least several hundred); freedom of expression and association; the independence of the judiciary; and the use of the death penalty.
Since the beginning of 2006 the situation has worsened. A recent crackdown on both human rights and civil society leads us to believe the future is bleak. In an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat, President al Assad defended the crackdown on signatories to the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which, among other things, called for the establishment of Syrian-Lebanese diplomatic relations. He said the individuals concerned “had been warned not to sign”. When they then ignored that warning, they “threatened national security and had to be dealt with accordingly”. Civil society organisations are very concerned about the statement and have curtailed their activities.
There have been a number of positive developments. The Syrian government has begun preparations for establishing an official human rights council. The exact responsibilities of the council and whether it will have executive power remains unclear, and there is no timetable for setting it up.
Amnesty International was allowed to visit Syria in January 2006 for the first time since the early 1990s. They were allowed access to various ministers, including the minister of justice.
After the 10th Ba’ath party congress in June 2005, the Syrians began discussions about reforming the law of association and political parties. To date they have announced an easing of restrictions on party formation, but continue to ban political parties based on religious or ethnic principles. In reality, the situation remains unchanged.
Prisoner amnesties took place in November 2005 and January 2006. Around 400 prisoners were released, among them five political prisoners from the “Damascus Spring” (the early period of Bashar al Assad’s rule). The releases included the two MPs Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi. During the same period, there was also a significant increase in freedom of speech, with a number of discussion forums starting up. However, all of these have subsequently been closed.
We remain deeply concerned by Syria’s ongoing support for Hizbollah. Hizbollah’s role in the major outbreak of violence this year with Israel included abducting and detaining two Israeli soldiers and firing unguided rockets into Israeli towns and cities. In total, Hizbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israeli territory. These indiscriminate rocket attacks killed approximately 40 Israeli civilians and injured up to 2,000 more. Hizbollah’s tactics included firing rockets from domestic buildings, which then became the target of Israeli attacks.
In response to the major escalation of violence in the Middle East, we summoned the Syrian Ambassador to raise our concerns and to call on the Syrians to use their influence with Hizbollah to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldiers. After one month of fighting, a ceasefire was established on 14 August. Two days later, President Assad delivered a speech in which he openly affirmed his support for the Lebanese “resistance”.
Even though independence of the judiciary is guaranteed under the constitution, the judicial system remains under the control of the executive. Under emergency law, civilians can be tried at a military court, the Syrian State Security Court (SSSC) or the normal criminal courts for a number of crimes, including creating an illegal organisation, fomenting sectarian strife and defaming the name of the state or its organisations.
The SSSC does not offer the right to a fair trial. There is no presumption of innocence, no right for the defendant to present evidence and no right of appeal. The court also has the power to impose the death penalty. The president of the SSSC has recently allowed EU observers to attend trials held at the court. This unprecedented move was welcomed publicly by the EU.
Arbitrary arrests are regularly made and detainees can remain in incommunicado detention for long periods of time. Torture is most commonly inflicted during this time.
Death by hanging can be imposed for murder, grave sexual or drug offences, membership of the outlawed political party the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and inciting a foreign power to commit an aggressive act against Syria (if the act is actually committed). Death sentences are not normally announced publicly and there are no statistics available.
Torture and prison conditions
Torture is common, although statistics and details are scant. The information available suggests that beatings, including to the soles of the feet, electric shocks to sensitive parts of the body and sleep deprivation are the most common forms.
No independent or foreign organisations are allowed access to Syrian prisons. Criminal and political prisoners are normally held separately and we understand that conditions in political prisons are slightly better than in criminal prisons. However, recently political prisoners have been detained in criminal prisons and tried through criminal courts. They are held in cells with no beds and which hold about 50 criminal prisoners. Prison guards have encouraged criminal prisoners to attack political prisoners and denied them basic items, such as blankets.
Freedom of association and expression
The formation of associations and political parties requires a licence under Syrian law. Any gathering of more than five people without prior permission from the authorities can lead to imprisonment. NGOs continue to require a licence in order to operate. NGOs regarded as “political” are not granted licences, and therefore work illegally. The definition of a “political NGO” is not clear. It is normally the responsibility of the security services to consider this aspect of the application.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution but is restricted under the emergency law. Most national media – both print and electronic – is state controlled. Private publications are closely monitored and access to certain websites is blocked. Journalists are often harassed and/or imprisoned. No BBC-FM presence has been allowed in Syria, although in some parts of the country the signal transmitted from the BBC’s relay in Jordan is audible.
Human rights defenders and civil society activists
Human rights defenders and civil society activists continually face the threat of arbitrary arrest, intimidation and harassment, including of their family members. Travel bans are frequently imposed.
There has been a significant increase in the arrest of human rights defenders, oppositionists and civil society activists since February 2006. The arrests have targeted individuals involved in Syrian opposition conferences outside Syria, those with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, human rights activists and, most recently, signatories to the Beirut Damascus Declaration (see page 107).
The following individuals were arrested due to their participation in one or more of the opposition conferences held in Paris, Washington, Berlin and Brussels:
Dr Ammar Qureibi was arrested on 12 March 2006 after attending seminars and conferences in Europe. He was held for five days and is now being charged at the SSSC for having contact with a foreign state. On 26 March, he was again arrested and held for 24 hours. He continues to be called in for questioning on an almost daily basis by the security services.
Dr Kamal al Labwani was arrested in November 2005 and charged with conspiring with a foreign state to commit an aggression against Syria and with publishing false information to weaken the character of the nation. If the state in question were to attack Syria, the first charge would carry the death penalty. Dr al Labwani’s trial began on 29 May 2006.
Mr Ali Abdullah was arrested on 23 March 2006 along with his son Mohamed. They are accused of insulting the president of the SSSC. Their case was being tried at the SSSC but has now been moved to a normal criminal court. Ali Abdullah’s other son, Omar, was arrested on 18 March 2006 for allegedly campaigning to form an illegal youth group. No one has had access to Omar Abdullah since his arrest and no one knows where he is. Some human rights organisations believe he was arrested by Syrian air force intelligence services.
The following individuals have also been arrested or harassed in the past 12 months:
Mr Nizar Rastanawi was arrested on 18 April 2005. He has been charged with insulting the president, publishing false information and “weakening national feeling”. He remains in custody and is being tried at the SSSC.
Mr Riad Drar was arrested in June 2005 after reading a eulogy at the funeral of the prominent Kurd Sheikh Khaznawi. He was tried at the SSSC and sentenced to five years in prison.
Mr Fateh Jamus was arrested on 1 May 2006 on his return to Syria following a trip to Europe during which he met various human rights organisations and political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. He gave a number of interviews, including to the pan-Arab satellite channel, Al Jazeera. He is being tried at a criminal court for inciting sectarian strife, weakening national feeling and publishing false information. He has already been interrogated; EU observers were not allowed to attend the proceedings.
Association with the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic Groups
Since 2004, there has been an increased number of cases relating to alleged membership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. These cases are tried at the SSSC. According to article 49 of the Syrian penal code, membership of the Brotherhood is punishable by death. However, in some recent cases, defendants who have been found guilty have been given a life sentence, although this is usually commuted to 12 years.
The Beirut-Damascus Declaration
The Beirut-Damascus Declaration called for, among other things, the establishment of proper diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon. It was signed by a number of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals. The most prominent Syrian signatories were promptly arrested. Michel Kilo was detained on 14 May 2006. Others followed on 17 May 2006, including Anwar al Bunni, Mahmoud Meri, Nidal Darwish, Ghaleb Ammar, Safwan Tayfour, Mahmoud Issa, Abbas Abbas, Suleiman Shammar, Mahmoud Issa and Khaled Hussein. We understand from his lawyer that Anwar al Bunni has been on a hunger strike since his arrest. All have had access to their lawyers and some have received family visits.
We regularly raise our concerns about human rights abuses in Syria with the government, making representations both bilaterally and with our EU partners, both about the general situation and individual cases. For example, in May 2006, we made a public declaration with EU partners condemning the arrests of signatories to the Beirut-Damascus Declaration.