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SYRIA: Rights group blasts Bashar Assad's human rights record on 10-year anniversary of his rule

July 16, 2010 |  6:19 am


It was a long-awaited moment of hope.

In his inaugural speech on July 17, 2000, Syrian President Bashar Assad offered some refreshing rhetoric -- speaking of the need for  more "democracy" and "transparency" and "creative thinking" in Syria. 

But the period of relative tolerance in the immediate aftermath of his rise to power was not long-lived. Soon enough, Syrian prisons and detention centers once again filled up with activists, journalists and human rights advocates in a sweeping crackdown that continued throughout the decade.

"When he first came to power, there was a period of leniency from July 2000 to August 2001," Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Babylon & Beyond. "But then, there was a crackdown and the repression has been constant. We do notice waves of arrests or activity. But overall, I would say it is constant pressure."

The American-based watchdog group has issued a stinging report on Syria on the eve of Bashar's 10-year anniversary as president. The 35-page report, titled “A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad’s First Ten Years in Power", examines Assad's performance in five key areas: repression of political and human rights activism, clampdowns on freedom of expression; torture; treatment of Syria's Kurds; and enforced disappearances.

The group's judgment of Assad's record in these areas is less than flattering.

It says he has failed to deliver on his earlier vows of increasing democracy and ameliorating human rights in the country.The Syrian authorities continue to keep close tabs on dissidents and activists from minority groups.

Houry says the clampdowns do not target a specific group but are rather directed at any dissident or rights advocate who speaks his or her mind a bit too loudly. They run the risk of getting into serious trouble with the feared Syrian security services, the Mukhabarat, and being dragged through Syrian courts on broad charges.

"Everyone runs the risk of being tangled up. They include bloggers, Kurds, Islamists, pro-democracy types, journalists," he continued.

Three weeks ago, Syria sentenced prominent human rights lawyers Haytham Maleh, 78, and 42-year old Muhanad Hasani to three years in jail each for criticizing the country's human rights record.

Two years ago, Syrian blogger Tariq Baissi was sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting security services" and "weakening national sentiment". Human Rights Watch says Internet censorship is commonplace in Syria, with popular sites such as YouTube and Facebook blocked.

The report suggests that repression and clampdowns on activists in Syria today might not be as bad as during the early 1980s, when the security forces engaged in extrajudicial killings and carried out large-scale disappearances under the rule of Assad's father, Hafez Assad.

But witness testimony by Syrian activists suggest the current situation is far from good.

"In the 1980s, we went to jail without trial. Now, we get a trial, but we still go to jail," the report quoted a prominent Syrian dissident as saying.

Aside from political and human rights activism, there are also the more unusual cases of average Syrian Joes running into trouble with the authorities for being too outspoken in public.

Take the example of 67-year-old Muhamad Walid Husseini.

In April 2007, he was reportedly sent to prison for three years by Syria's Supreme State Security Court because a member of the security services overheard him insult Assad and criticize corruption in Syria while sitting in a Damascus cafe.

The Assad regime uses a number of tools in its efforts to keep dissidents at bay, according to Houry.

A common scenario is the security services calling people up for interrogation and keeping them incommunicado in detention for days or weeks. Others are charged under vague rules and sent before military and state security courts. Many detainees report ill-treatment or torture while imprisoned.

"At that stage, they can either be released or they remain in detention and get charged," said Houry. "Charges are very broad. The most common is 'spreading false information that weakens national sentiment.' Another favorite is 'membership in an illegal organization.' For lawyers, they have also sought to disbar them."

Many activists are subsequently banned from traveling upon their release. Human Rights Watch's report cites a study from another group which listed nearly 420 people with travel bans imposed on them. 

Why did Syria take such a dreary course? The driving forces behind Assad's failure to deliver on promises of increasing transparency and democracy in Syria are hard to determine, Houry said.

"Syria’s opaque decision-making process and the lack of public information on policy debates within the regime make it very difficult to know the real reasons that drove Bashar Assad to loosen some of the existing restrictions early on, only to clamp down a few months later and to maintain a tight grip ever since," he said.

Houry goes on to cite analysts who say Assad early in his reign did not stand much of a chance against Syria's old-school decision-makers -- an “old guard” that had been in place since the three-decade-long rule of his father. 

They were less than willing to agree to any kind of political opening. Others blame it on regional developments, saying the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in particular, stopped Assad from following through on his promised reforms.

But Houry's own analysis is that Assad never was particularly interested in implementing any sweeping reforms in Syria. Period.

"He was never serious about true reform," he said. "He was willing to engage in superficial reform as long as it did not challenge or question the regime. His main goal – as he often himself put it – was to reform the economy."

Assad’s crackdown on dissidents began in August 2001, before the U.S. invaded Iraq, and even before the Sept. 11 attacks, and continued throughout the decade. 

"So, in my view he was never really interested in political opening," he concluded.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad has failed to deliver on his vows to increase transparency and improve the human rights situation in his country during his decade in power, claims Human Rights Watch in a new report. Credit: Associated Press