Syria: Stifling freedom of expression

'This wave of detentions against activists and government opponents raises fears that the Syrian authorities might be trying to turn back the clock to the country's recent past when thousands of people of all political affiliations were imprisoned and often subjected to human rights violations including torture, unfair trials, and judicial and extrajudicial executions,' the organisation added.

Amnesty International's 15-page report 'Smothering Freedom of Expression: the Detention of Peaceful Critics' highlights the cases of 12 people imprisoned exclusively for their peaceful political activities and criticism of the authorities. People like Riad Seif, arrested in September 2001 after organising a seminar at which a guest speaker called for political reform and democratic elections; or Hussain Daoud, arrested in December 2000 after being forcibly returned from Germany, where his asylum application had been rejected, on charges of involvement with Kurdish groups abroad.

The report also includes the case of 72-year old Riad al-Turk, who is now being tried before the Supreme State Security Court in Damascus on charges including attempting to change the Constitution by illegal means. On 19 May the Syrian authorities refused an Amnesty International trial observer, as well as diplomats and members of the press, permission to attend the court hearing in his case.

'The only 'crime' these people committed was to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression. They should have never been detained in the first place and must be released immediately,' said Amnesty International, which considers them to be 'prisoners of conscience'.

The organisation is concerned that some of these prisoners may be subjected to torture or ill-treatment and denied prompt access to medical care, lawyers and family members.

The organisation is further concerned that political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Syria have been denied the basic right to a fair trial. This is particularly the case with trials before the Supreme State Security Court, which fall short of international standards of independence and impartiality of the judiciary and whose decisions cannot be appealed to a higher court.

'The Syrian authorities should release immediately all 'prisoners of conscience' and ensure that those charged with a recognisably criminal offence are tried in accordance with international fair trial standards,' Amnesty International said.

The organisation also urged the Syrian government to take measures to ensure that detainees are not tortured or ill-treated at the hands of security forces agents and to ratify and implement the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Background

There are currently hundreds of political prisoners in Syria, including 'prisoners of conscience'.

The election of President Bashar al-Assad in July 2000 was followed by a relaxation of restrictions on freedom of expression. The new climate of openness, known as the Damascus Spring, fostered the creation of a variety of political forums, and civil society, pro-democracy and human rights groups. However in February 2001 the Syrian government imposed a number of restrictions on the activities of these discussion forums and civil society groups stating that they had violated the government guidelines.

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