Haitham Maleh said a reconciliation process similar to Morocco and South Africa is essential for Syria to come to terms with the legacy of Bashar's late father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron grip for 30 years.

"We need a similar approach. There is pent-up outrage," said 74-year Maleh, an independent Islamist who has campaigned against state coercion for years and was jailed in the 1980s.

A commission set up recently by King Mohammed VI of Morocco found thousands of cases of human-rights abuses, including killings, in the years before the death of his father, King Hassan, in 1999.

"The way out is to clear the fate of the missing, abolish emergency laws, free political prisoners and compensate the victims, instead of spending millions on dollars to provide officials with luxury cars and free petrol," Maleh said.

Reform pressures

Syria faces mounting US-led pressure to reform.

Opposition liberal parties called for an end to emergencies laws at a meeting in Damascus six months ago and exiled opposition leaders announced plans last month to form a transitional government.

Maleh, a lawyer and former judge, was awarded the Dutch Geuzen Medal for promoting democracy last month.

Bashar has to deal with his late
father's legacy, says Maleh

He could not collect the prize, named after a Dutch resistance fighter, because he has been banned from leaving Syria for years.

He said he has repeatedly written to al-Assad, urging him to meet opposition leaders and break from the legacy of his father.

Al-Assad took steps to ease restrictions on public life when he succeeded his father in 2000, but Maleh said modest liberalisation will not ensure the survival of a political system controlled by the Baath Party since 1963.

"People have been waiting for the president to take positive gestures. The big question is why he has done so little so far," Maleh said.

"We have military intelligence, political security, state security, air force intelligence, palace intelligence, you name it. All 15 intelligence divisions are outside the law"

Haitham Maleh
Syrian dissident

"He holds the key to avoid upheaval - corruption is rife, one-third of the workforce is unemployed and two-thirds of the population live in poverty."

Maleh, who defends political prisoners, was jailed for seven years in the 1980s after he called for the abolition of emergency law and the Talae System, under which all school students were obliged to join a Baath Party youth organisation.

"Hafez al-Assad imported the Talae from North Korea's Kim Il-sung. It was the start of the destruction of the human being in Syria," Maleh said.

The Talae still exists, along with emergency laws that leave the security forces without accountability, he said.

"We have military intelligence, political security, state security, air force intelligence, palace intelligence, you name it. All 15 intelligence divisions are outside the law."

Prisoners of conscience

The security apparatus, which remains powerful, put down a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, when 50,000 people were imprisoned for alleged political activity. Thousands were killed in an assault on the northern city of Hama alone.

"A third of the prisoners were liquidated while in jail. The majority were locked up for nothing. This country paid a high cost for seeking freedom and dignity," Maleh said.

Maleh said thousands of people killed in the 1980s are still listed in official records as alive, while Syrian jails hold 2,500 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.

"The regime is not comprehending how dangerous the situation is; it must make at least a symbolic move," he said.

"America might no longer want regime change, but there are other ways that trigger upheaval."