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Middle East
Protests prompt Syria to pledge reforms
Government to consider ending emergency rule and licensing political parties in wake of deadly protests.
Last Modified: 25 Mar 2011 03:14
Protests turned deadly on Wednesday after security forces opened fire on demonstrators in Daraa [Reuters]

Syria will "study" ending emergency rule - in place since 1963 - and look into legalising political parties, a
presidential adviser has said, after a week of deadly protests in the country's south.

"I am happy to announce to you the decisions made today by the Arab Baath party under the auspices of President Bashar al-Assad ... which include ... studying the possibility of lifting the emergency law and licensing political parties," the president's media adviser Buthaina Shaaban said at a news conference on Thursday.

The current emergency law allows people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial.

The announcement came after a week of protests in the southern city of Daraa against Assad's government which has left scores dead.

Soon after the promises of reforms were made, the prisoners detained in the city during the protests were released. There were also reports of orders being issued by the president for the army to pull out of Daraa.

Motee al-Batten, a Daraa resident, told Al Jazeera that the army was still present in the city on Thursday night, and that the situation was peaceful.

He said a majority had reacted positively to the announcement from the president's office but that the people of Daraa still want to know the whereabouts of missing people and bodies and why they were held or killed. 

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Syrian government appeared to be confused over how to deal with the protests.

"This is widespread. This is Syrians who are in pain, who are in poverty, who have been treated badly and the government understands that," he said.

"Buthaina Shaaban made some important statements saying no issue is taboo and the government feels your pain.

"At the same time, they [the government] crack down harshly, and this shows there is real confusion in the government on how to deal with this."

'Major steps'

Rula Amin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the capital, Damascus, said many of the pledged measures address demands Syrians are talking about. They included a raise in salaries for all workers in the public sector and health insurance for them.

"Saying there will be a study to lift emergency law is a major step, as is the promise of a new law for the media to increase transparency.

"But will this be enough? I think for some this is a good sign, others will want more measures to be undertaken immediately."

About 20,000 Syrians were marching in Daraa on Thursday, calling for liberty. Defying a security crackdown, they took to the streets during funerals for nine protesters killed a day earlier by security forces.

The nine were among at least 25 people shot dead on Wednesday, residents said.

Khaled al-Abboud, the member of parliament representing Daraa, reiterated the government's position that security forces never intentionally clashed with demonstrators.

"Security forces never used live ammunitation, and were never in direct clashes with demonstrators," he told Al Jazeera. 

"Shortly after these demonstrators took to the streets, a group of armed personnel appeared to be joining them. Therefore security forces never retaliated - but in the end they handled those armed thugs. Yes, security forces used force, but against those thugs - not against peaceful demonstrators.  

"Therefore, if people among peaceful demonstrators were hurt or killed in these clashes, we demand an investigation, in order to come to a conclusion."

A witness told Al Jazeera that more than 100 people were killed. He said many people have gone missing and bodies have been dragged away from the streets.

"Syria targeted"

Government media adviser Buthaina Shaaban told reporters that ten people were killed on Wednesday, in what she called an attempt to target Syria because it supports resistance against Israel.

"What is being targeted is Syria's position, Syria's security and ability to be a pillar of resistance against Zionism and US schemes,'' she said.

She said the Syrian government had no objection to peaceful protests, and claimed that demonstrators in Daraa had attacked security forces.

"The demands of the people are being studied night and day and Syria will witness important decisions that meet the ambitions of our people,'' she said.

Activists arrested

Shaaban said the president had chaired a meeting of the ruling Baath party at which decisions taken included guaranteeing security for the people, and a higher committee to discuss with Daraa residents what had happened and sanction those responsible.

"If there is a legitimate demand by the people then the authorities will take it seriously, but if somebody wants to just cause trouble then it is a different story," she warned.

Meanwhile, the US condemned what it said was the Syrian government's brutal repression of demonstrations and the killing of civilians by security forces.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that those responsible for the violence must be held accountable and that the US is calling on the Syrian government to exercise restraint and respect the rights of its people.

According to Amnesty International at least 93 people had been arrested this month, some for their online activities, in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Banias, Daraa, Hama, Homs, and others.

Mazen Darwish, a journalist and activist, was arrested in Damascus on Wednesday and released on Thursday evening.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the arrest of blogger Ahmad Hadifa in the capital on Thursday.

The government crackdown has led to harsh criticism from the US, Britain, France and the United Nations.

Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the Arab world, Daraa residents have held protests since last week, with more planned across the country on Friday.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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