Middle East
Syria to lift decades-old emergency law
Government approves end of 48-year-old emergency powers hours after crackdown leaves restive Homs resembling "war zone".
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2011 14:49
Protesters perform prayers on Monday in Homs, a city described by locals as resembling a "war zone" [Reuters]

Syria's government has passed a bill lifting the country's emergency law, in place for 48 years, just hours after security forces fired on protesters.

Tuesday's move is a key demand of pro-reform demonstrators who have been holding protests across the country for weeks.

A senior lawyer said Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, was yet to sign the legislation, but that his signature was a formality.

According to the country's official SANA news agency the government also abolished the state security court, which handled the trials of political prisoners, and approved a new law allowing the right to peaceful protests.

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However the interior ministry also passed a law that says citizens must obtain permission to demonstrate, the agency said, hours after the ministry imposed a total ban on political gatherings.

Syria's emergency law gave the government a free hand to arrest people without charge and extended the state's authority into virtually every aspect of citizens' lives.

Cal Perry, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Damascus, said the three steps were a major concession to protesters.

"The people on the ground here really wanted to see not only that court dissolved but also the state of emergency lifted because of these arbitrary detentions, as they would put it.

"But the government is certainly going to draw a line between what they call peaceful protesting and an armed insurrection."

Hours before the decision, security forces had fired on protesters in the city of Homs, killing at least six people.

Rights groups say that more than 200 people have been killed in the protests which started in the southern city of Daraa one month ago, inspired by uprisings gripping Arab nations.

Rights campaigners also raised concerns that the end of emergency rule will not halt repression following the arrest of a leftist opposition figure on Monday night.

Mahmoud Issa was taken from his house in Homs around midnight by members of Syria's feared political security division. 

"Issa is a prominent former political prisoner. Arresting him hours after announcing a bill to lift emergency law is reprehensible," Rami Adelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

"Lifting emergency law is long overdue, but there are a host of other laws that should be scrapped, such as those giving security forces immunity from prosecution, and giving powers to military courts to try civilians," he added.

Homs 'like a war zone'

The latest developments come after protesters in Homs, Syria's third largest city, began a three-day strike and vowed to continue demonstrations in Clock Square after security forces opened fire and used teargas on Monday night to disperse a sit-in.

"We have announced a three-day general strike in the city starting from today to show our objection," Khalid, a shopkeeper from the city who did not wish to give his last name for fear of reprisal, said on Tuesday.

He said the general strike in the industrial city had been announced from the Grand Mosque in Homs.

Locals described Homs, a city of 1.5 million people, as looking "like a war zone", with all shops and businesses closed for the strike.

According to eyewitnesses hundreds of security agents have taken up positions in and around Clock Square, sealing the area off, despite the efforts of 100 more protesters to join the central square.

"They have blocked all the roads to the square with fire trucks," said Abu Mohammed, a local university student.

"It's like a war zone. There is glass everywhere and we can see snipers on the roof tops."

Funerals for four people killed during the crackdown on protests in Homs took place on Tuesday, according to an eyewitness who took part in the processions.

"Mourners are chanting: 'We sacrifice our blood and our soul to the martyrs,'" said Abu Haider, a car painter from the city.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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