A Brief Overview of the Current State of Human Rights in Syria

The Tharwa Foundation / Tharwa Syria Division
Last updated: September 19, 2008

The brief period of tolerated civil activism that marked the arrival of President Bashar al-Assad to power back in mid-2000 proved all too short and deceptive, and now serves more as a reminder of how deeply committed Mr. Assad is to consolidating his family’s usurpation of governance in Syria than in introducing anything resembling reform, by any objective standard or definition. Increasing reliance on family members and their lackeys to (mis)manage the affairs of the state, and the growing list of detained and exiled activists, dissidents and intellectuals are a clear testament in this regard.

In February of 2008, Syria ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights, but the government continues to declare a state of emergency which it uses to exempt itself from many of the charter’s requirements, such as the freedom of assembly and free speech, and the prohibition against capital punishment for political crimes.

Indeed, to many observers, the prevailing human rights conditions in Syria at this stage seem quite reminiscent of how things used to be in the darkest days of the 1980’s when Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president, was in charge: arbitrary arrests take place every day and for no apparent reason or cause, the country’s prison system is overflowing with political dissidents of all stripes and ages, torture is still widely practiced, with detainees often denied access to medical treatment, and travel bans are regularly imposed on the country’s activists and dissidents. In other words, impunity rules the day.

In July, 2008, specifically during the period of July 4-14, the poor conditions in Syria’s penitentiaries led to a deadly riot in the Saydnaya prison, which houses hundreds of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, from all different ideological and national backgrounds, including Jordanian, Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were imprisoned under spurious charges. After some of the prisoners allegedly protested their inhumane living conditions, guards and police opened fire on the inmates. Many tried to escape the shooting by crawling on the roof, where they reportedly took some hostages, including the prison director to be used as bargaining chips. Some used confiscated mobile phones to contact their family members and regional and international media, including the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeerah, to bring attention to their situation. Still, and as the media paid scant attention to the matter, Syrian authorities soon stormed the roof and put an end to the situation. Estimates from human rights organizations put the death toll between 25 and 100 inmates. Syrian authorities also cracked down on the parents of inmates who tried to protest the government handling of the situation.

Much ambiguity continues to surround this incident. Ironically, and despite strong protests by human rights group in Syria and the world, the Syrian President was still invited to take part in the Bastille Day celebrations and the inauguration ceremonies of the Mediterranean Union in Paris, where he met with French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and other European and regional leaders, effectively ending his regime’s years-long isolation.

Unsurprisingly, no accurate reports exist as to how many prisoners are currently hosted in Syrian jails, but most credible reports estimate those numbers to be in the thousands. Prisoners include Arabs, Assyrians and Kurds, Islamists and secularists, leftists and liberals, and even scores of non-Syrian prisoners, including Lebanese, Jordanians and Palestinians. The presence of non-Syrian political prisoners in Syrian jails, comes as a reflection of the Syrian regime’s long-standing habit of interfering in the affairs of its neighbors, creating ideological enemies and then punishing them by intimidation, kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment, just as it treats its Syrian critics.

More noticeably in recent times, youth and student activists were also specifically targeted by the regime. Indeed, young activists tend to be treated much more harshly than others at this stage, their relative obscurity serving to facilitate the matter.

Considering the increasingly young demographics in the country, the dismal state of the educational system, and the high rate of unemployment among the youth, the regime must be trying to send a strong and intimidating message to the country’s younger generations in order to preempt the development of any activist movements in their ranks. Hence the unjustifiably harsh sentences of 5-7 years in prison doled out to the eight leading members of the unofficial movement “Syrian Youth for Justice.” The “crime” that this group of 20-somethings committed was to publish a number of commentaries critical of the regime on an internet youth forum known as Akhawiya (now closed). Other active members in the organization have been detained then released, only to be dragged to various interrogations centers on almost weekly basis, while others have simply fled the country.

The Syrian authorities have also been quite wary of any attempt by its dissidents to reach out to the international community, or even neighboring countries, such as Lebanon. For this reason, Syrian authorities moved against Dr. Kamal Labwani, sentencing him to 12 years in prison in 2007, following his return from a world tour during which he met with high level European and American officials, including National Security Advisor, Mr. Stephen J. Hadley. In April 2008, an appeals court in Syria upheld the previous ruling, which is the longest jail sentence against an activist since Bashar took office.

Shortly after Labwani’s sentencing, the Syrian authorities moved against signatories of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration, a public statement calling for the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon, among other measures meant to normalize ties between the two countries. Jailed dissidents included such famous writers as Michel Kilo and Fayiq al-Mir, and human rights lawyer, Dr. Anwar al-Bounni, among many others who joined their colleague, the economist, Dr. Aref Dalilah, a long time critic of Assad economics, based on corruption, mismanagement, monopoly and nepotism.

More recently, beginning in December 2007, the Syrian authorities moved swiftly against the top leaders of the country’s largest opposition coalition, the Damascus Declaration Council, putting all 12 members of its recently elected General Secretariat in prison, including coalition leaders, former MP Mr. Riad Seif, one of the better-known icons of the Syrian opposition, and Dr. Fida al-Horani, one of the most active and respected women in the oppositional scene in Syria. The ability of this group to defy the authorities and organize internal elections under their nose and in the face of their constant monitoring and harassment took the authorities by surprise and made it clear that the Council is getting more sophisticated in terms of its organizational structure and its intercommunication tactics. This was a dangerous development as far as the Assad regime is concerned, and merited an all-out crackdown that began in early December 2007, with the arrest of more than 40 of its signatories, 33 of whom were released after a few days. But, the suppression of those who support the declaration continues unabated to this day, and of  the 12 detained members of the group’s General Secretariat, eight have reported being beaten while in jail. Furthermore, the authorities are pressing hard against the group’s known members, investigating them, and harassing their families on a daily basis. In 2008 the harassment has been followed by arrests of several members, including Fayez Sarah, Mohammad Haji Darwish, and Talal Abu Dan, among many more. Every week seems to bring with it news of new arrests.

This new wave of suppression and arbitrary arrests is serving to complete the roundup of the country’s top dissidents who took part in the Damascus Spring Movement that briefly flourished in 2000-2001. The remaining members of the movement now live in constant fear for their freedom and their lives, not to mention the lives and freedoms of their loved ones.

In addition to a zero-tolerance policy toward democratic activists, the regime has extended its crackdown to include those who peacefully advocate for minority rights. In July 2008, the military security services in Damascus arrested Mohammed Mussa, secretary general of the Kurdish Left Party, under the previously mentioned emergency law. In August, Talal Mohammad of the banned Wifaq party, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party was arrested and has not been heard from since. Authorities had also earlier arrested Mashaal Tammo who was charged on Aug. 27, 2008 with arming Syrians to start a civil war, an accusation that carries the death penalty and is rarely directed against well-known political activists. The fabricated charge and Tammo’s arrest was condemned by the U.S. State Department. Each of these three activists represents groups that advocate for democracy and equal rights for Syria’s large Kurdish population.

Despite these recent high-profile arrests, the plight of the 350,000 denaturalized Syrian-born Kurds continues unaddressed despite repeated promises by Mr. Assad to resolve this unjustifiable situation. Furthermore, Kurdish detainees tend to receive particularly harsh treatment in prison. Indeed, there were a number reported deaths under torture over the years, with the most recent such case taking place on February 18, 2008, when the well-known Kurdish activist Othman Suleiman, died in hospital a few days after his release from an interrogation center in Aleppo. He was never charged with a crime.

There is also the episode on March 21st, 2008, when Syrian security officers opened fire on unarmed Kurdish youths gathered in the center of the northern city of Qamishly to celebrate Nowruz, a national Kurdish holiday commemorating the advent of Spring. Three Kurdish civilians were killed and eight were wounded as a result. The event was never mentioned by the Syrian media and the Syrian authorities offered no explanation.

Suppression and detention is not reserved for those who actively challenge the government, but is liberally applied to those who simply express a critical view of the regime as well, even journalists who should be protected under the guarantee of freedom of speech. However, this is far from the case. As the case of Mazen Darwish, President of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, shows, the government is now even taking steps to preemptively arrest reporters before they have published their work. Journalist Darwish was sentenced to ten days in prison simply for being on hand to cover riots in Adra, a suburb of Damascus. He will not be able to renew his passport or identification papers for three to seven years.

The Syrian government vigilantly monitors foreign reporters as well, and in July 2008 denied entry to a group of journalists from Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that exposes abuses of free speech and cases of imprisoned journalists around the world. The government later commented that the group would never be given visas to enter Syria. This is evidence that the regime realizes how far out of step Syria is with international human rights standards and fears the repercussions that exposure of such abuses could have as Syria has recently reappeared on the global scene.

The White House, the State Department and the European Parliament, along with all major international human rights organizations, have been monitoring the situation over the past year and have issued numerous statements and reports describing and criticizing this dismal state of affairs. But so far, all statements and reports have fallen on deaf ears.

Some human rights and opposition groups argue that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s newfound friendship with Bashar al-Assad, which has ushered in the end of Syria’s isolation from the West, could undermine the pressure the international community has been putting on the regime to make fundamental changes. However, the August release of political prisoner Dr. Aref Dalilah, who was in failing health after having served seven of his ten year sentence, shows that international pressure is working. Many rights groups hope that this release could be a preview of more to come, but so far the Dalilah case seems to be nothing more than a PR move by the regime which has recently felt the heat of the international spotlight.

Indeed, unless the Assad regime knows that improving its relations with the rest of the world will be made contingent on specific measures to improve its human rights record — including releasing all political prisoners, lifting travel bans, allowing for all exiles to return home, and establishing a proper legal framework to prevent the recurrence of such abuses, which necessitates the lifting of the country’s long-standing state of emergency, in effect since the Baath coup of 1063,  — it is highly unlikely that the regime will refrain from such practices of its own volition and initiative.

Engaging the Assad regime should have a clearly defined prerequisite: a drastic improvement of the country’s dismal human rights record.

In order for the ruling regime in Syria to get this message, an international consensus is required. Meanwhile, policymakers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the free and democratic world, should behave with a greater degree of responsibility towards the Syrian people, and should refrain from sending mixed messages that help shore up the regime’s sagging morale, while undercutting the efforts of the democracy activists, driving the Syrian people deeper and deeper into despair.

Regardless of the regime’s current dismissive attitude towards international condemnations of its behavior, every statement made by a government or an internationally recognized organization will go a long way in helping achieve the required international consensus, and the regime will be hard-pressed to comply, especially if such moves continued to coincide with growing internal civic agitation for reform and democratization. 

Cases that require immediate intervention:

  • Prior to his recent arrest, Mr. Riad Seif was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Still, the Syrian authorities insisted on including him in their swelling travel ban lists, despite the unavailability of suitable treatments inside the country. The current arrest, therefore, comes, in effect, as a death sentence for Mr. Seif, especially when we take under consideration the inhuman conditions of his imprisonment: Mr. Seif is made to sleep on the bare concrete floor in a dark and cold hallway, and has been denied access to medical supervision. To boot, he was reportedly beaten and his head was recently shaven by way of humiliation.

  • Shortly after her arrest, Dr. Fida al-Horani was reportedly slapped and beaten, sustaining injuries to her left eye. She has more recently been reported to have developed a case of high blood pressure and irregular heart palpitations.
Current High Profile Prisoners:

  • The twelve members of the General Secretariat of the Damascus Declaration Council’s: Riad Seif, Dr. Fidaa Al-Horani, Ahmad Tomei, Akram al-Bounni, Ali Al-Abdallah, Yasser al-Eiti, Jabr Al-Shoofi, Walid al-Bounni, Muhammad Hajji Darweesh, Marwan al-Ish, Fayiz Sarah. 
  • The members of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration members: Michel Kilo, Dr. Kamal Labwani, Lawyer Anwar al-Bounni, Fayik al-Mir, Riyad Darrar and Nizar Rastanawi, among others. 
  • The Kurdish activists: Fatimah Tayfur, Maarouf Ahmad Malla Ahmad, Nazmi Muhammad Abdel Hannan, Yesha Kader Khaled, Dalkoush Memmo Shimmo, Ahmad Darweesh Khalil, Tahseen Mahmoud Khairi, Mohammad Mussa, Talal Mohammad, and Mashaal Tammo, among many others. 
  • The members of the Syrian Youths for Justice: Husam ‘Ali Mulhim (22, a student in the Faculty of Law at Damascus University, sentenced to 5 years), Tareq al-Ghorani (21, an associate engineer, sentenced to 7 years), Maher Isber Ibrahim (26, shop-owner, sentenced to 7 years), Ayham Saqr (30, works in a beauty salon, sentenced to 5 years), Allam Fakhour (29, a student in the sculpture section of the Art Faculty of Damascus University, sentenced to 5 years), Omar ‘Ali al-‘Abdullah (21, a second-year philosophy student at Damascus University and son of prominent dissident and former political prisoner, Ali Abdallah, sentenced to 5 years), Diab Siriyeh (21, a part-time student, sentenced to 5 years). 
  • Karim Arbaji (29), manager of the web-forum Akhawiyah.com on which the eight prisoners above made their comments. Mr. Arbaji’s exact whereabouts are still unknown after months in detention. 
  • The young blogger Tarek Bayasi whose exact whereabouts remain unknown as well.
Note: Syrian authorities are also reported to detain large numbers of Lebanese, Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners, as well as prisoners from various other Arab and neighboring countries. Albeit the Syria authorities continue to deny this, the recent release of a number of Jordanian and Lebanese prisoners as well as reports from other released prisoners, confessions by security guards, and the unofficial visits that some families were allowed with their loved ones (bribes facilitating the way) serve to confirm these accounts.

Crackdown methods and tactics:

  • Repeated interrogation of activists, their friends, families and neighbors
  • Travel bans
  • Kidnapping
  • Imprisonment
  • Torture
  • Vandalism and illegal confiscation of property
  • Violent suppression of nonviolent demonstrations, especially in Kurdish areas
  • Increased censorship of the press
  • Restricting internet access, including closing of internet cafes and blocking key sites such as opposition portals as well as useful networking sites such as Facebook and Youtube, and more recently Amazon.com, Haaretz (a well-known liberal Israeli newspaper) and the Arabic-language version of Wikipedia
  • Spying on internet users and web traffic with a filter called Thundercache.