|Syria Says 11,000 Freed in Prisoner Amnesty|
|[AnNahar] Syria has freed around 11,000 detainees since declared a general amnesty in June, the country's National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar said.|
rights groups including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say 200,000 people are still languishing in government jails.
Speaking to AFP in Damascus on Monday, Haidar said "11,000 people have benefited from the amnesty and been released from prison."
He was referring to a "general amnesty" announced by Assad a week after his controversial re-election as president.
Haidar said the figure was rising gradually as the justice ministry, which is in charge of applying the presidential decree, examined prisoner files.
The Syrian government presented the amnesty as the largest since the outbreak of the country's conflict in 2011.
It was also the first to include those accused of crimes under a controversial "anti-terrorism" law that has in fact been used to jail thousands of peaceful and armed opponents alike.
But the Observatory disputed the government's figures, saying the number of people released was closer to 7,000 people.
"Between 70,000 and 80,000 detainees were supposed to benefit from the amnesty, and only 10 percent of them have been released," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
And a number of high-profile activists, journalists and lawyers, including Khalil Maatuq and Mazen Darwish, remain behind bars despite the amnesty.
Rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni told AFP that many of those released were not political prisoners but rather accused common criminals who were not meant to be covered by the amnesty.
Additionally, he said, "security services have refused to meet with the committees charged with applying the amnesty."
"In fact, the amnesty decree has benefited very few people," he said.
In some cases, he said, tribunals considering prisoners for release simply changed the allegations against them so they would no longer be covered by the terms of the amnesty.
Asked about the reported 200,000 people being held in Syrian prisons, Haidar insisted the figure was "exaggerated."
"They have no documents. We have asked them multiple times to give us the names so we could cooperate together to solve the problem," he said.
|Syria Begins Freeing Prisoners after Assad Amnesty|
The amnesty declared by came a week after his controversial re-election as he seeks to portray himself as the champion of reconciliation in the war-torn country.
"This is the most important amnesty since Hafez Assad (the president's father and predecessor) came to power nearly 45 years ago," said lawyer and ex-prisoner of conscience Anwar al-Bunni.
He said the amnesty should cover "tens of thousands of prisoners behind bars because of the anti-terror law passed in July 2012", more than a year into an anti-regime revolt.
According to Bunni, "dozens of prisoners began to be released from Adra prison (in Damascus province) yesterday (Monday) and the releases will continue today."
State television showed dozens of prisoners being freed in Hama in central Syria.
The amnesty is unprecedented because it extends for the first time to those accused under the country's anti-terrorism legislation.
The government has dubbed all of those opposed to Assad's rule -- armed opposition fighters and peaceful activists alike -- of "terrorism", and used the law to imprison high-profile dissidents.
The amnesty is also the first to offer clemency to foreign jihadists fighting for the opposition, as long as they hand themselves in within a month.
Army deserters will be given full pardons if they hand themselves in within three months of the decree, according to the text.
But it was unclear how many prisoners might be freed under the amnesty, as previous clemency decisions have not seen large numbers of detainees released.
"This amnesty should not be yet another false promise, and the released should not be replaced by new activists being wrongfully imprisoned," Nadim Houry, deputy director of 's Middle East and North Africa division, told Agence Presse.
Lawyer Michel Shammas said it was unclear how the decree would apply for thousands of people detained in branches of Syria's notorious security establishment, where torture is systematic.
But both he and Bunni said several prominent figures were expected to be freed.
"Mazen Darwish, Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir will be released, as will activist Leyla Awad, psychologist Jamal Nawfal and Raneem Maatuq, daughter of ( lawyer) Khalil Maatuq," Shammas said.
"But there is no meaning for an amnesty if it doesn't include all the detainees, and we don't know yet how the decree will be applied for more than 50,000 people being held in security branches."
Darwish, Ghreir and Zaitani were in February 2012 in a raid on the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) where they work.
The three face trial for activities "such as monitoring online news and publishing the names of the dead and disappeared".
Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi told Agence Presse that more than 100 people who handed themselves over to authorities after being trapped by a nearly two-year siege of the central city will be at home within 72 hours.
Assad issued the amnesty five days after securing another seven-year term in Syria's first multi-candidate presidential vote, which the opposition and much of the international community denounced as a "farce".
Voting took place only in regime-held territory, amid a raging conflict that has killed more than 162,000 people in three years, and excluded any anti-regime opponents from standing.
On Tuesday, state television
... and if you can't believe state television who can you believe?
broadcast footage of Assad meeting Maher al-Hajjar and Hassan al-Nuri, the two regime-approved candidates who stood against him but who together secured less than 12 percent of the votes cast.
During their meeting, Assad said "the citizens' turnout showed very clearly the strength of the Syrian people and their determination to decide their destiny all alone, despite very difficult circumstances".
Since the anti-Assad revolt erupted, the regime has blamed all violence on a foreign-backed "terrorist" plot.
|Security forces detain Syrian actress May Skaf: Lawyer|
|[Al Ahram] A prominent Syrian actress and outspoken activist against the regime of was on Thursday, a lawyer said.|
"At noon (0900 GMT) today, the security forces detained the free actress May Skaf while she was on her way home in the Mashru Dummar neighbourhood" of Damascus, Anwar al-Bunni reported on Facebook.
"Skaf made a mobile phone call to her son, to tell him her identity card had been taken from her by members of the security forces at a checkpoint," Bunni told AFP.
Her mobile phone has since been switched off, he added.
Skaf's "detention... confirms that the Syrian authorities... are seeking to silence the voices of cultural and political figures, to try and give credence to their narrative that the regime is fighting terrorism", Bunni said.
Since the eruption of the uprising in March 2011, the Assad regime has claimed to be fighting "terrorism" in Syria, while denying the existence of any peaceful movement for change.
The uprising morphed into an armed insurgency after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent.
Skaf has consistently spoken out against the regime, frequently posting criticism on her own Facebook page.
In summer 2012, she was detained for three days after taking part in a Damascus protest that became referred to as the "intellectuals' demonstration".
|Syria's Assad issues 'counter-terror' laws|
|[Al Ahram] Syrian issued three new "counter-terrorism" laws on Monday, the official SANA news agency said, nearly 16 months into a deadly crackdown on an uprising against his rule.|
"Those who create or direct terrorist groups may be sentenced with 10 to 20 years of hard labour, but the punishment may be more severe if the goal is to change the regime or the structure of the state," said the text of the laws passed on Thursday.
"If these (terrorist) acts result in death or disability for the victims, the death sentence may be imposed," it added.
Moreover, "the financing of terrorism, including any action to collect and directly or indirectly provide money, weapons, ammunition, explosives, communication equipment or intelligence to aid acts of terrorism are punishable by 15 to 20 years in prison."
The lowest penalty is five years in prison for acts that do not result in loss of life or property.
Another law says state employees convicted of "any act of terrorism -- whether he is directly engaged, an accessory to the crime, or providing material or moral support to terrorist groups in any way -- will be fired," SANA said.
This law also applies to former government employees, who risk losing their pensions if convicted.
A third law provides for jail terms of 10 to 20 years with hard labour and a fine for any kidnapping for ransom, the news agency said.
SANA said that during a debate on Thursday, members of parliament said the laws were "needed at this stage, given the negative impact of terrorism on the security of the country and its citizens."
Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said the new laws were not intended to establish security.
Instead, they were "another tool in the hands of the regime to defend itself and pursue its security solution," said the head of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research.
"The new laws contain broader definitions for acts of terrorism and stronger punishments than the former Penal Code," said Bunni, who has himself spent several years in prison.
"The government emphasises the idea of a conspiracy in the face of the revolution of a people who want democracy and liberty."
But by using more violence, the regime was "closing the door to any political solution," Bunni added.
|Families Flee Syria's Hama as Ban Says Killings 'Must Stop'|
|[An Nahar] Around 100 families have Syria's central city of Hama fearing a military crackdown on massive protests against the regime of , a rights group said on Thursday.|
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that about 1,000 people in total had left Hama, where it said Syrian troops had killed 23 civilians since Tuesday.
U.N. Secretary General said the killings must stop.
"In Syria meanwhile, the killing continues. This must stop," Ban said in Geneva.
"I call on the Syrian leadership to deliver on its commitments and to allow our U.N. humanitarian assessment team and the fact-finding mission mandated by the Human Rights Council in.
"It's time to see progress here. We cannot go on like this."
The crowds leaving Hama were headed for Salamiyah, some 30 kilometers from Hama which is around 210 kilometers north of the capital .
Syrian authorities have been trying to quell protests in Hama, traditionally a center of opposition to central government, and had positioned tanks on the main entrances to the city except in the north.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights, said on Wednesday there had been a worsening of the security situation with the "pursuit of search operations, s and arrests in this city."
Hama has been a symbolic city of opposition since the 1982 crackdown on a revolt by the banned against then-president Hafez al-Assad, father of the present leader. Some 20,000 people were killed in the revolt.
The newspaper Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, said on Thursday that the situation in Hama was calm and that barricades erected in the streets by protesters had been dismantled.
It reported that the authorities had told demonstrators to avoid any confrontations and clear the streets so residents could go to work and to avoid what it called a "last resort" military operation.
According to Al-Watan, the protesters were calling for the former governor to be reinstated, for demonstrators to be freed, for a pledge that the security forces would not intervene and for a guarantee of freedom to demonstrate.
Last Friday, an anti-regime rally brought out half a million people in Hama, according to . The security services did not intervene and the city's governor was fired the next day by presidential decree.
Human rights activists said on Thursday that anti-regime demonstrations took place overnight in several towns in response to a number of pro-regime rallies held on Wednesday.
The activists said thousands demonstrated in the northwest town of Idlib, at Harasta in the southwest and near the southern town of Daraa, while hundreds of protesters rallied in Saqba, a Damascus suburb.
The army on Thursday slapped a curfew on Jebel Zawiya in the Idlib region, a focal point of the military sweep in which 300 people have been in the past two days, the Syrian Observatory said.
"The unannounced curfew imposed on the villages of Nasfara, Kfar Awaid, Kfar Ruma and Kfar Nubol prevented residents from meeting their needs," said activist Rami Abdul Rahman.
"It also prevented farmers from doing their daily work," he added.
residents of Hama and the central city of Homs staged a general strike ahead of Friday demonstrations, which activists have called under the theme of "no dialogue" with the regime, Abdul Rahman said.
"Dialogue makes no sense if security forces do not pull out of the streets and the regime does not stop its violence against citizens," lawyer Anwar al-Bunni told Agence Presse.
Rights groups say that more than 1,300 civilians have been killed and 10,000 people by security forces since mid-March.
|Syria Activists: Assad Speech Deepens Crisis, Revolt Must Go On|
|[An Nahar] Pro-democracy activists said the three-month-old "revolt" in Syria must go on after a speech by on Monday that they said only deepened the crisis.|
The Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of activists calling for street protests, called for "the revolution to carry on until all its aims have been achieved."
"We consider any dialogue useless that does not turn the page on the current regime," it said in a statement received by Agence Presse. Assad's speech on the three-month-old unrest only served to "deepen the crisis."
Witnesses and opposition activists said the speech was followed by protest marches in the northern city of , in the flashpoint province of Idlib in the northwest, and in the central regions of Homs and Hama, as well as in the suburbs of .
"The protesters condemned the speech which branded them as saboteurs, ... The demonstrators are calling for freedom and dignity," the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul Rahman, told AFP by telephone.
An opposition figure said the speech failed to specify concrete steps such as the army's withdrawal from population centers.
"There were a lot of ideas in the speech. But the withdrawal of the army and security forces was not raised, which is not very reassuring and puts the emphasis on a military solution," said Hassan Abdul Azim, a lawyer.
The president "did not mention any dialogue with the Syrian opposition," said the 80-year-old Abdul Azim, for the National Democratic Gathering, a coalition of leftist opposition movements.
Prominent lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who was freed from five years in prison last month, called Assad's speech "disappointing."
"The key demands made by the people were not mentioned and the existence of a political crisis has been ignored," Bunni told AFP.
"The president spoke of a military and security solution and reaffirmed the thesis of a conspiracy and ," blaming for sowing chaos in the country, said Bunni.
"A real political solution must be based on ... the army's withdrawal from cities and must respect the right to peacefully protest," he added.
|Release political prisoners, Syria told|
|THE US has harshly criticised Syria for arbitrarily arresting political opponents and today called on it to free four dissidents. The US State Department made its appeal before Syria's April parliamentary election, urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to show greater respect for political freedoms. "We deplore arbitrary arrest and detention of political prisoners by the Syrian government," the State Department said, saying it was particularly concerned about activists Anwar al-Bunni and Kamal al-Labwani. |
Bunni, a non-partisan campaigner for political freedoms, was dragged screaming from his home by security forces in May 2006. Labwani was jailed in November 2005 after he attended a White House meeting. The State Department said both men were being tried in criminal courts "for expressing their opinions".
"We join others in calling on the Syrian government to immediately and unconditionally release them and other prisoners of conscience including Mahmoud Issa and Michel Kilo," the State Department said. Issa, a Communist politician, and Kilo, a prominent political writer, were detained after signing a declaration that criticised Syrian policy toward Lebanon.
|President Bush's Statement on the Government of Syria|
|President's Statement on the Government of Syria|
The United States supports the Syrian people's desire for democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression. Syrians deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force.
The Syrian regime should immediately free all political prisoners, including Aref Dalila, Michel Kilo, Anwar al-Bunni, Mahmoud Issa, and Kamal Labwani. I am deeply troubled by reports that some ailing political prisoners are denied health care while others are held in cells with violent criminals.
Syria should disclose the fate and whereabouts of the many missing Lebanese citizens who "disappeared" following their arrest in Lebanon during the decades of Syrian military occupation. The Syrian regime should also cease its efforts to undermine Lebanese sovereignty by denying the Lebanese people their right to participate in the democratic process free of foreign intimidation and interference.
The people of Syria hope for a prosperous future with greater opportunities for their children, and for a government that fights corruption, respects the rule of law, guarantees the rights of all Syrians, and works toward achieving peace in the region.
|Syria's silent purge|
by Simon Tisdall
Almost a year after Syria completed a humiliating military withdrawal from Lebanon amid predictions of imminent regime change in Damascus, President Bashar Assad is clawing back lost ground. Dozens of dissidents have been arrested in recent weeks. Among those detained were Michel Kilo, a prominent democracy activist, and Anwar al-Bunni, a top human rights lawyer. US and EU diplomatic protests have been brusquely rejected.
A silent purge of other signatories to this month's so-called Damascus-Beirut Declaration is also under way, sources said yesterday. Backed by about 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, it urged normalisation of bilateral relations. It coincided with a UN security council resolution demanding an end to Syrian interference in Lebanon. But Mr Assad, encouraged by Russia and China and backed by Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, ignored that, too. The Syrian leader has cracked down on travel abroad for political purposes and renewed pressure on national media to toe the official line. And in a bid to neutralise the rise of political Islam, the secular ruling Ba'ath party has made a series of conciliatory gestures to the Sunni majority. Mr Assad has even taken to praying for the cameras. That contrasts with his late father's brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, symbolised by the 1982 Hama massacre.
"There's a big effort to try to get everybody on side. The strong message is that no criticism will be tolerated from whatever quarter," said Rime Allaf, a Syria analyst and Chatham House fellow.
Explanations of the regime's new bullishness lie largely beyond its embattled borders and, paradoxically, owe much to US policy choices. Washington's enthusiasm for regional democracy was tempered by Hamas' election victory in Palestine. The ensuing crisis there has in any case distracted attention from Syria, as has nascent civil war in Iraq. And then there is Iran, America's next big thing.
Isolating Tehran means inducing Syria, one of its few Arab allies, to stand back. Though it would not admit it, Washington needs Mr Assad. At the same time, the Syrian leader's recent muscle-flexing is also motivated by fear, fixated on two looming events.
One is next month's UN report into the killing last year of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Whether or not Mr Assad is accused of wrongdoing, senior officials have already been implicated. But the extent of the regime's embarrassment is likely to be directly proportionate to American determination to pursue it.
Potentially more problematic for Mr Assad in the longer term is the National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition alliance that will hold its first conference in London next month. The NSF brings together two formidable figures: Syria's former vice-president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, who defected last year; and Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, the exiled leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.
Such collaboration by secular and religious opposition leaders was unusual, Ms Allaf said, and was an echo of Mr Assad's own recent efforts at cohabitation. "This is the first time in four decades that we've seen significant organised opposition to the regime. They've gone out on a limb to draw in other exiles and groups from around the world." If the NSF proved a serious proposition, she said, all Mr Assad's machinations could count for nought.
|Syrian jailers are 'beating' detained rights lawyer|
|BEIRUT: A prominent Syrian human rights lawyer who was arrested this week is being subject to beatings, his brother said Friday, even as the European Union condemned Syria's latest crackdown on dissidents.|
The official Syrian press announced Friday that 17 "Syrian traitors" have been arrested this week - including lawyer Anwar al-Bunni - in connection with the signing of the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration," which urged the Syrian government to recognize Lebanon's independence and called for better relations between the two countries.
"It has now become forbidden to even think in Syria," Bunni's brother Akram told The Daily Star in a telephone interview.
Late Wednesday, Anwar Bunni was taken from his home by Syrian security personnel.
"He called out to me for help as we live in the same building, but by the time I got to him, he was gone," said Akram, adding that he had been informed by lawyers who visited his brother that "he was beaten, with visible marks on his face."
The EU issued a statement criticizing Syria and urged the "Syrian authorities to reconsider all cases of political prisoners and immediately release all prisoners of conscience."
"The EU expresses its deep concern about the recent widespread harassment of human rights defenders, their families and peaceful political activists, in particular arbitrary arrests and repeated incommunicado detention," said the statement.
Contacted by The Daily Star, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the arrests were "a clear message by the Syrian regime that it has zero tolerance toward any form of dissidence in Syria."
HRW's representative for the Middle East, Nadim Houry, said: "The arrests of activists and intellectuals by Syrian authorities have been happening over the past year, with increased intensity over the past few days, to declare there is no room for a third middle opinion, one between the official Syrian line and the international community line."
Akram al-Bunni cast doubt on the official reason given for the arrests, saying that "there are tens of other writings and petitions of this nature, so why such a strong reaction to this particular petition, which in no way offends the regime?"
Akram, a journalist, spent 17 years behind bars for some of his writings, which were considered "against the regime."
"This new campaign is probably a local reaction to the international pressures on Syria, such as the new UN Security Council Resolution 1680," he said, "but what is the logic in that? I don't know."
Akram Bunni said he expects to be arrested soon, adding that "the wave of arrests will continue until all Syrians who signed the petition are behind bars."
"The sentencing can take up months, if not years, as has been known to take place in Syria's judicial system," he added.
The petition was signed by at least 300 Syrian and Lebanon intellectuals and was published in Beirut last Thursday.
Denunciations of the arrests were also launched by Lebanese officials such as Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and former Prime Minister Salim Hoss, who sent a letter to President Bashar Assad requesting the release of the detainees.
|Syria closes EU-funded human rights centre|
|DAMASCUS - Syrian authorities have shut down an EU-funded centre for human rights barely a week after it opened, the head of the centre said on Saturday. A security force came and sealed the premises with red tape a few days ago. They have taken a decision not to tolerate anything, human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni told Reuters.|
There was no immediate official comment from Syrian authorities.
European diplomats, including EU ambassador Frank Hesske, attended the opening of the centre on Feb. 21, part of an effort to train lawyers and activists across the region in the human rights field.
|Syrian authorities briefly detain MPs|
|Syrian authorities briefly detained two former opposition MPs who were freed only a month ago after nearly five years in jail following the so-called "Damascus Spring" of liberalization. Riad Seif, 54, and Maamoun al-Homsi, 45, had only been released on January 18, along with three opposition figures.|
Prominent Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said that the authorities had picked up Seif from his home before dawn on Wednesday, while Homsi was also held for several hours on Tuesday. Seif "was arrested at his home at 4:30 a.m., and we do not know why," Bunni said. He later said Seif had been freed after five hours.
Homsi had been picked up Tuesday night and then released, before police went back to his home but did not find him. "The security services had released Mr. Homsi on Tuesday evening then returned to arrest him. When they did not find him at home they took his son Yassin Homsi as a hostage," Bunni said.
Seif and Homsi were jailed on charges of working "to change the Constitution through illegal means," an offence punishable by between five years and life in jail. They were sentenced to five years and were released under a provision of the law for having served more than three-quarters of their jail terms.