‘Giving with one hand, taking with the other’

The Syrian president has promised to lift emergency law but many doubt this will end human-rights abuses.

President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to lift emergency law but Syrians continue to protest [Reuters]

The anticipated lifting of emergency law in Syria will do little to reduce human rights abuses, say experts.

Without moves to also end the immunity from prosecution which allows security forces to have a free reign and without the creation of an independent judiciary that is not controlled by the ruling Baath Party, little can be achieved.

Concerns were also raised that when parliament meets in the coming weeks to abolish the 48-year-old state of emergency, which allows for arbitrary arrest and detention and severely curtails freedom of speech, a new anti-terrorism law that will take its place is likely to contain many of the same provisions. 

“Syrian judges are under the control of the Baath and the intelligence. There is no independent judiciary. The problem is not the law but how they manipulate the law,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a former Baath Party reformer who is now editor of the All4Syria news site.

“When they lift the emergency law they will enact a new anti-terrorism law which will be a change in name and language only: Giving with one hand while taking with the other.”

‘Security and dignity’

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, named a new cabinet last week and in a speech to his ministers on Saturday said legislation to replace the emergency law should be ready this week. 

Supporters of the reforms pledged by al-Assad in the wake of unprecedented protests against the four-decade long rule of his family argue that the lifting of the emergency law will ease pressure on ordinary Syrians.

“The new anti-terrorism law will guarantee the citizens’ security and dignity and will not be the same as the emergency law,” said the director of a Damascus-based think-tank who is an advisor to the Baath Party Command, the body studying the lifting of the emergency law.

“I don’t think in the future the security forces will arrest any citizen without a clear charge and if they do arrest someone it should be through legal procedures and they should be tried by the normal judiciary state, not the Supreme State Security Court.”

The advisor said a separate committee was preparing a draft Party’s Law which would replace Article 8 in the constitution, which guarantees the Baath Party the right to rule society and state, but offered no timetable for this move to multi-party politics, first announced in 2005.

The Baath Command is believed to be studying anti-terrorism laws enacted in the US, France and Britain to see how they might be applied in Syria.

Continued force

However, Syria’s security forces are likely to continue to operate with immunity from prosecution. Laws dating back to 1969 meaning that members of Syria’s dreaded secret police can only be prosecuted by their superior officer were extended to cover all branches of security by a decree in 2008.

In a month-long violent crackdown on the peaceful protest movement, Syrian security in uniform and plain clothes have killed more than 200 people and detained over 900, according to lists kept by local activists.

“Syrian security forces are and have been acting above the law for 40 years. There needs to be oversight to change the rampant culture of not feeling accountable,” said Nadim Khoury, the director of Human Rights Watch in Beirut. 

Razan Zeitouna, a human rights activist and lawyer said: “The question is, can this regime be changed to the extent that security is separate from Syrian life? Would the regime put those security officers who committed crimes on trial? The answer is no.”

Syria’s emergency law was introduced on March 8, 1963, the day the Baath party took power following a series of military coups after independence from the French mandate authorities.  

The law overrides many rights guaranteed under Syria’s constitution, allowing for arrest and incommunicado detention for long periods on a series of catch-all charges, such as “working against the goals of the revolution”.

Access denied

Detainees are often tried in either the military court or the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), where they are denied access to a lawyer.

The majority of those tried in security courts are those deemed to be political opponents, ranging from democracy activists to Kurds or Islamists.

The emergency law also restricts public gatherings and the free movement of individuals and allows state security to enter private homes at any time, as well as to read emails and tap phones.

Under the state of emergency citizens are also required to gain security approval before undertaking many ordinary tasks, such as becoming a state school teacher or setting up a small business. Investigations commonly lasts several months.

Syrian authorities have regularly used the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights to justify the application of emergency laws.

Hassan, a 26-year-old accountant, said he hoped the lifting of emergency laws might give Syrian citizens a greater chance to stand up for their rights.

“I don’t care about the name of the law, I care about the result,” said Hassan.

“I want to be free not to demonstrate against the regime but against the bosses who hire us workers without giving us any fair rights. If we have a free country, I will work to establish an NGO to protect us, or a union.

“Today, under the emergency state, if security heard I was trying to establish an NGO I might get three years in jail on charges of establishing ‘a secret society’.”

Source: Al Jazeera


At least 17 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by security forces as demands for president Assad’s ouster continue.

18 Apr 2011
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