Covering events from January - December 2000
Syrian Arab Republic
Hundreds of political prisoners including prisoners of conscience were released during 2000, mostly as the result of a presidential amnesty issued in November. Restrictions on freedom of expression were apparently relaxed to some extent. Dozens of people were arrested during 2000 for political reasons. Hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, remained in detention without trial or serving long sentences passed after unfair trials by the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC). At least one political prisoner died in custody and scores of ill political detainees remained held in cruel and inhuman conditions. The fate of hundreds of people who ''disappeared'' in the late 1970s and 1980s remained unknown. There were continuing reports of torture and ill-treatment of political detainees.
Following the death of President Hafez al-Assad in June, his son Bashar al-Assad was elected President in a general referendum in July. He was nominated as the sole candidate for the presidency by the ruling Ba'th party.
There were calls for political and economic liberalization from people including members of the National Assembly. A public statement issued by 99 Syrian intellectuals, mostly resident in Syria, called for the lifting of the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963, and the release of political prisoners. This was the first time that such a statement had been issued without those involved being arrested and detained or otherwise harassed. In addition, the Ba'th party leadership approved a resolution allowing junior members of the Progressive National Front, including the two wings of the Syrian Communist Party, to publish their own newspapers.
HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
Restrictions imposed on the Committees for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF) were relaxed during 2000, allowing a plenary meeting to take place, attended by CDF members and other human rights activists and intellectuals. (In a related development, the restrictions imposed on the movement of Aktham Nu'aysa, a former prisoner of conscience, were lifted). During 2000, four members of the CDF who had been detained in connection with the distribution of a CDF leaflet marking the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were released, although prisoner of conscience Nizar Nayyuf remained in detention. The four released prisoners were 'Afif Muzhir, Muhammad Ali Habib, Bassam al-Shaykh and Thabit Murad.
Sporadic arrest and detention of individuals for political reasons continued during 2000.
Among those detained were individuals critical of the government and nationals of neighbouring Arab countries.
There were reports about the arrest and detention of asylum-seekers forcibly returned to Syria. They included Hussain Daoud, reportedly forcibly returned to Syria from Germany accompanied by German police officers. He was reportedly arrested in December at Damascus airport and transferred to Far 'Falastin, Palestine Branch, where he was held at the end of 2000. His arrest was believed to be connected to his involvement with the unauthorized Kurdish Popular Union Party in Syria.
The arrest and transfer from Lebanon to Syria of at least five Lebanese soldiers in 1999 came to light. They included sergeants Nimer al-Naddaf and Fuad 'Asaker. They were held incommunicado in detention centres including Far 'Falastin, Palestine Branch, and Far 'al-Tahqiq al-'Askari, Military Interrogation Branch, where torture and ill-treatment were routine.
There were reports of harassment and intimidation of former prisoners of conscience released during the year and of the families of exiled Syrians.
RELEASES OF POLITICAL PRISONERS
Hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were released in November following an amnesty issued by President Bashar al-Assad marking the 30th anniversary of the military coup which brought the late President Hafez al-Assad to power in 1970. The main beneficiaries were members of the unauthorized al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, Muslim Brotherhood, and their sympathizers. They had been held, mostly incommunicado, in Tadmur Prison. Some had been detained without trial since 1979. Out of a total of around 600 released prisoners, according to the official media, more than 400 had been held in Tadmur Prison.
Among those released were scores of prisoners of conscience, most of whom were detained in connection with their involvement with the unauthorized Hizb al-'Amal al-Shuyu'i (PCA), Party for Communist Action, and al-Hizb al-Shuyu'i al-Maktab al-Siyassi (CPPB), Communist Party – Political Bureau. All these prisoners of conscience had been sentenced to up to 15 years' imprisonment after unfair trials before the SSSC. They included Faraj Ahmad Birqdar, Jurays Yusuf al-Talli, Nu'man 'Ali 'Abdu and 'Umar al-Hayek.
The presidential amnesty also led to the release of 46 Lebanese political detainees, some of whom who had been imprisoned since the 1980s.
A pattern of releases of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, after the expiry of their sentences or after long-term detention without trial, continued during 2000. Among those released were prisoners of conscience Fateh Jamus and Aslan 'Abd al-Karim, both leading members of the PCA, who had been held beyond the expiry of their 15-year sentences. Also released were more than 20 Jordanian and Palestinian political prisoners.
PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE
Although the number of prisoners of conscience decreased significantly during 2000 as a result of releases, dozens remained in detention, some of them serving long sentences passed by the SSSC after unfair trials. They included nine members of the PCA serving up to 22 years' imprisonment, and scores of prisoners of conscience or possible prisoners of conscience detained incommunicado since the late 1970s in connection with their involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose fate remained unknown. All the remaining prisoners of conscience who had been sentenced to prison terms of up to 15 years in connection with their membership of the CPPB were released during 2000.
The cases of hundreds of people, including suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Lebanese nationals, who ''disappeared'' in the late 1970s and 1980s remained unresolved. Despite the release of 46 Lebanese political prisoners, the fate of scores of others remained unknown. They included Lebanese soldiers believed to have been taken to Syria in October 1990 following armed clashes between Syrian forces and troops loyal to the former Lebanese Army Commander Michel 'Aoun.
Hundreds of long-term political prisoners, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Communist Party (ACP) and the Democratic Ba'th Party (DBP), remained held in prisons since being arrested in the 1970s and 1980s. Many were held incommunicado without trial and others were serving long sentences passed after unfair trials.
Reports indicated that members of the ACP were particularly harshly treated while held in Sednaya Prison. They were said to be suffering from serious health and mental problems. They included Haytham Na 'al, a university law student arrested in 1975; Ghayyath Shima, a university science student; and Faris Murad.
Scores of people, including women taken as ''hostages'' in the early 1980s and in recent years instead of relatives suspected of links with the Muslim Brotherhood, remained detained incommunicado in Tadmur Prison and other detention centres.
There were fewer reports of torture during 2000, but the system allowing for its application remained intact and there were apparently no investigations into previous allegations of torture and ill-treatment. Torture and ill-treatment of political detainees continued to be systematically applied in Tadmur Prison and other detention centres, including Palestine Branch and the Military Interrogation Branch in Damascus and other centres operated by the Political Security Department.
According to reports reaching AI from Tadmur Prison during 2000, torture and ill-treatment, though decreased in intensity, continued to be routine. Political prisoners, including those who were ill, were reported to be held in solitary confinement in underground cells. They were reportedly subjected to falaqa, beating on the soles of the feet, and repeated kickings, especially on the back and hips, leading to fractured vertebrae. Political prisoners were also allegedly ordered to beat fellow prisoners, especially those from their own political parties. Political prisoners who refused to obey orders were reportedly tortured.
DEATHS IN CUSTODY
At least one political prisoner died in custody.
The death penalty remained applicable in law for a wide range of crimes but information on the number of death sentences and executions during 2000 was not available.
AI sent several letters to the authorities. Among the issues raised were cases of arbitrary detention. The authorities responded, addressing some of AI's concerns.
AI submitted dozens of cases from Syria to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
Download this country report as a pdf file