Syria moves to scrap emergency law

State media says committee set up by president to study abolition of decades-old law will finish work by April 25.

    Assad spoke day after thousands of Syrians joined government rallies across country in mass outpouring of support

    Syria is to set up a judicial committee to study the abolition of its emergency law, in force since 1963, the state news agency said.

    Thursday's announcement came a day after Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, blamed "conspirators" for anti-government protests in a speech in which he was widely expected to unveil reforms demanded by protesters but simply said "staying without reforms is destructive to the country".

    "Under a directive by President Bashar al-Assad, a judicial committee has been formed to prepare a study with the aim of abolishing the emergency law," read a brief report on the SANA news agency.

    "The committee should finish its work by April 25," it added.

    Al Jazeera's Cal Perry travelled to Daraa to gauge reaction to President Assad's speech

    Assad, who assumed power after the death of his father in 2000, is facing unprecedented domestic pressure on his rule as protests demanding political reforms and an end to emergency law enter their third week.

    Demonstrators, scores of whom have been killed by security forces, have called for more rallies across Syria after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday.

    Activists estimate more than 130 people have died in clashes with security forces, mainly in the southern governorate of Daraa and the northern city of Latakia.

    Officials put the death toll at closer to 30.

    Saying Wednesday's speech by Assad disappointed many protesters, Al Jazeera's Cal Perry in Damascus, the Syrian capital, hinted that it would take some time to lift the emergency law.

    "The president can't just unilaterally lift emergency law - it's quite a complicated process," he said.

    "I think even a Syrian legal expert would take some time to explain the steps that go into that. It has to go through parliament and in a number of other places as well."

    More protests are expected after Friday prayers, said our correspondent.

    'Precipitating moment'

    "Friday is going to be a real ... precipitating moment here: how people will protest. Will they continue to protest for just reforms or could we see something more drastic perhaps - people protesting to end his rule?" he said.

    During his speech, which lasted almost one hour, Assad hit out at social networking websites and pan-Arabic satellite television news channels for stoking and reporting the protests.

    He said he supported reforms but offered no new commitment to change Syria's rigid, one-party political system.

    "I know that the Syrian people have been awaiting this speech since last week, but I was waiting to get the full picture ... to avoid giving an emotional address that would put the people at ease but have no real effect, at a time when our enemies are targeting Syria," said Assad.

    Patrick Seale, a Middle East expert and a biographer of Assad's father, said the speech was a "missed opportunity".

    "Syria does need reform on many fronts. We have to try to understand his situation ... [but] we don't know the extent of domestic pressures on him," Seale told Al Jazeera.

    "He is, of course, surrounded by a lot of people - several thousand people perhaps - who have a stake in the stability of the regime.

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    "He has to think of them too. The interesting thing about the speech, I think, is what it reveals about him. There's obviously a stubborn streak in his character, which we know he inherited from his father.

    "He doesn't like to be pushed around. If you look at the last 10 years of his rule, he has been pushed a great deal; he has survived a whole series of crises, which have obviously shaped his present character."

    Protesters emboldened by uprisings in the Arab world are pushing for reforms in a country where power is concentrated in the hands of Assad, his family and the security apparatus.

    The president's speech came a day after the cabinet resigned, but Assad appointed Naji al-Otari, the resigning premier, as a caretaker prime minister. Otari has been prime minister since 2003.

    The 32-member cabinet will continue running the country's affairs until the formation of a new government.

    The new cabinet, which is expected to be announced by the end of the week, will face the task of implementing the reforms.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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