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The situation for human rights in Syria is considered exceptionally poor among international observers.[1][2] A state of emergency was in effect from 1963 until April 2011, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.[2]

Syria is a Multi-party state without free elections. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government.[3] Freedom of expression, association, and assembly are strictly controlled.[2][3] Women and ethnic minorities face discrimination.[2][3] According to Human Rights Watch, President Bashar al-Assad failed to improve Syria’s human rights record in the first 10 years of his rule,[4] and Syria's human rights situation remained among the worst in the world.[5] According to Amnesty International, the government may be guilty of crimes against humanity based on "witness accounts of deaths in custody, torture and arbitrary detention," during the crackdown against the 2011 uprising.[6]


French rule (1920–1946)

Three Syrian rebels hanged in Marjeh Square during Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927

From the early 1920s until 1946, Syria and Lebanon were under the control of a French Mandate, officially ratified by the League of Nations on 29 September 1923.[7] Human rights concerns during this period included the colonialist treatment of the Druze within their autonomous state in the southern portion of the mandate, as prisoners and peasants there were often used for forced labor.[8]

During the Great Syrian Revolt, French military forces sieged much of Damascus and the countryside,[9] killing at least 6,000 rebels and displacing over 100,000 civilians. Authorities would publicly display mutilated corpses in central squares within Damascus and villages throughout Syria as a means of intimidating opponents of the regime.[10] In 1926, the Damascus military court executed 355 Syrians without any legal representation.[11] Hundreds of Syrians were sentenced to death in absentia, prison terms of various lengths, and life imprisonment with hard labor.

Additionally, it was during this period that Syrian Women's Rights groups began to assert themselves, led by individuals like Naziq al-Abid.

Ba'athist Rule

In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad responded to an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama by sending a paramilitary force to indiscriminately kill between 10,000 and 55,000 civilians including children, women, and the elderly during what became known as the Hama massacre.[12][13]

Amnesty International reports that women have been subject to discrimination and gender-based violence.[2]

For several years, the "watchdog organization" Freedom House has rated political rights in Syria as "7" — the "least free" rating on its scale of 1 to 7 — and given Syria a rating of "Not Free."[14]

According to the 2008 report on human rights by the U.S. State Department, the Syrian government's "respect for human rights worsened". Members of the security forces arrested and detained individuals without providing just cause, often held prisoners in "lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention", and "tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees". The regime imposed significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, amid an atmosphere of government corruption.[15] According to Arab Press Network, "despite a generally repressive political climate", there were "signs of positive change," during the 2007 elections.[16] According to a 2008 report by Reporters without Borders, "Journalists have to tightly censor themselves for fear of being thrown into Adra Prison."[17]

In 2009 Syria was included in Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" section and given a rating of 7 for Political Rights: and 6 for Civil Liberties.[18] According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2009 Syria’s poor human rights situation had "deteriorated further". Authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers, and imposed travel bans. Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants. No political parties were licensed and emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remained in effect.[1]

Judicial process

Syria has a long history of arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and prolonged detention of suspects. Thousands of political prisoners remain in detention, with many belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party.[3] Since June 2000, more than 700 long-term political prisoners have been freed by President al-Asad, though an estimated 4,000 are reportedly still imprisoned.[3] Information regarding those detained in relation to political or security-related charges is not divulged by the authorities.[3] The government has not acknowledged responsibility for around 17,000 Lebanese citizens and Palestinians who "disappeared" in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s and are thought to be imprisoned in Syria.[3] In 2009, hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned for political reasons. Military Police were reported to have killed at least 17 detainees.[2] Human rights activists are continually targeted and imprisoned by the government.[2][3][19]

Political prisoners

Demonstration in Montreal in solidarity with the people of Syria. The sign reads: "Stop torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners in Syria!"

Among the scores of prisoners of conscience arrested in 2009, and hundreds political prisoners already in prison, some of the more prominent prisoners were:

  • Kamal al-Labwani, a prisoner of conscience who had three years added to his 12 year sentence for allegedly “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”, on account of remarks he was alleged to have made in his prison cell.[2]
  • Nabil Khlioui, an alleged Islamist from Deir al-Zour, who with at least 10 other Islamists "remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of 2009.[2]
  • Nabil Khlioui and at least 12 other alleged Islamists, mostly from Deir al-Zour, were arrested. At least 10 of them remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of the year.
  • Mashaal Tammo, the killed spokesperson for the unauthorized Kurdish Future Current group, who was `held incommunicado for 12 days and charged with “aiming to provoke civil war or sectarian fighting”, “conspiracy” and three other charges commonly brought against Kurdish activists, charges that could lead to the death penalty.
  • Twelve leaders of a prominent gathering of opposition groups, the Damascus Declaration, continue to serve 30-month prison terms. Among those detained is Riad Seif, 62, a former member of parliament who is in poor health.[1]
  • Habib Saleh was sentenced to three years in jail for “spreading false information” and “weakening national sentiment” in the form of writing articles criticizing the government and defending opposition figure Riad al-Turk.[1]
  • one released prisoner was Aref Dalila. He had served seven of the ten years in his prison sentence, much of it in solitary confinement and in increasingly poor health, for his involvement in the so-called “Damascus Spring” before being released by a presidential pardon.[2]
  • In June 2010, Mohannad al-Hassani, head of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights (Swasiya) and winner of the 2010 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, was convicted of "weakening national morale" and "conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation." He was sentenced to three years in prison.[20]

Sednaya prison alone houses more than 600 political prisoners. The authorities have kept many for years behind bars, often well past their legal sentence. The estimated 17,000 prisoners who have disappeared over the years suggests that Syria may have hidden mass graves.[12]

In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch reported on the continued detention of "thousands" of political prisoners in Syria, "many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party." According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee that there were 4,000 political prisoners held in Syrian jails in 2006.[21]

Freedom of religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion.[22] However, the Government restricts this right. While there is no official state religion, the Constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence, an expansion of Sharia Islamic law,[23] is a principal source of legislation. According to the U.S. Department of State's "International Religious Freedom Report 2007", the Constitution provides for freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that the religious rites do not disturb the public order. According to the report, the Syrian Government monitored the activities of all groups, including religious groups, discouraged proselytism, which it deemed a threat to relations among religious groups. The report said that the Government discriminated against the Jehovah's Witnesses and that there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups, some attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation.[24] There is some concern among religious minorities that democratic reforms will result in oppression of religious minorities by Islamist movements that are now repressed.[25]

LGBT rights

Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, prohibits having homosexual relations, i.e. "carnal relations against the order of nature", and provides for up to three-years imprisonment.[26]

In 2010 the Syrian police began a crackdown that led to the arrest of over 25 men. The men were charged with various crimes ranging from homosexual acts and illegal drug use, to encouraging homosexual behavior and organizing obscene parties.[27]

Freedom of movement

The secret police prevents people from even approaching embassies of foreign countries, making it difficult to get a visa to travel abroad. Furthermore, Syrians can not leave the country without an "exit visa" granted by the authorities.[12][28]

Freedom of speech and the media

The number of news media has increased in the past decade, but the Ba'ath Party continues to maintain control of the press.[29] Journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tried.[4] In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria number three in a list of the ten worst countries in which to be a blogger, given the arrests, harassment, and restrictions which online writers in Syria faced.[30]

Internet censorship in Syria is extensive. Syria bans websites for political reasons and arrests people accessing them. Internet cafes are required to record all the comments users post on chat forums.[31] Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked from 2008 to 2011.[32] Filtering and blocking was found to be pervasive in the political and Internet tools areas, and selective in the social and conflict/security areas by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2009.[33] Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders' Enemy of the Internet list since 2006 when the list was established.[34]

In addition to filtering a wide range of Web content, the Syrian government monitors Internet use very closely and has detained citizens "for expressing their opinions or reporting information online." Vague and broadly worded laws invite government abuse and have prompted Internet users to engage in self-censorship to avoid the state's ambiguous grounds for arrest.[33][35]

The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed by the government in September 2009. It was the country’s only NGO specializing in media issues, Internet access and media monitoring during election campaigns. It had operated without government approval, and had monitored violations of journalists’ rights and had taken up the cause of the ban on the dissemination of many newspapers and magazines.[29]

Ethnic and racial discrimination

Syria is home to 1.7 million Kurds who constitute 10% of the population, forming the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in the country.[2][3][4][4] They were denied citizenship until April 2011 (Decree 49).[2][3][36]

Syrian civil war

During the Syrian civil war, a UN report described actions by the security forces as being "gross violations of human rights".[37] The UN report documented shooting recruits that refused to fire into peaceful crowds without warning, brutal interrogations including elements of sexual abuse of men and gang rape of young boys, staking out hospitals when wounded sought assistance, and shooting of children as young as two.[38] In 2011 Human Rights Watch stated that Syria's bleak human rights record stood out in the region. While Human Rights Watch doesn't rank offenders, many have characterized Syria's human rights report as among the worst in the world in 2010.[5]

While it is claimed that 'the majority of these violations have been committed by the Syrian government's forces',[39] Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said that both sides appear to have committed war crimes.[40]

See also

References and footnotes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 World Report 2010 Human Rights Watch World Report 2010, pg. 555.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Amnesty International Report 2009, Syria
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Human Rights Watch World Report 2005 Events of 2004, Human Rights Watch 2005. (The same group also highlighted, in a report "Syria: End Opposition Use of Torture, Executions" (Abuses Show Need for Accountability) September 17, 2012, That "A detainee who had been held in a school told Human Rights Watch that FSA fighters there had beaten him regularly for 25 days before he was transferred to the detention facility...") ISBN 1-56432-331-5.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Black, Ian (2010-07-16). "Syrian human rights record unchanged under Assad, report says". The Guardian. London. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Syria among worst for rights abuses: HRW report". Reuters. 2011-01-24. 
  6. "Amnesty International says Syrian forces may have committed war crimes during crackdown". Associated Press. 2010-07-06. 
  7. League of Nations Official Journal, Vol 3, August 1922, p1013
  8. Miller, Joyce Laverty (1977). "The Syrian Revolt of 1925". International Journal of Middle East Studies. pp. 550–555. 
  9. Provence, Michael (2005). "The Spread of Rebellion". The Great Syrian Revolt: And the Rise of Arab Nationalism. University of Texas Press. pp. 87–107. 
  10. "Colonial Origins of the Syrian Security State". Al Akhbar English. 4 October 2011. Retrieved 2 March 2013. 
  11. Christoph Schumann (31 October 2008). Liberal Thought in the Eastern Mediterranean: Late 19th Century Until the 1960s. Brill. pp. 70–71. Retrieved 2 March 2013. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Ghadry, Farid N. (Winter 2005). "Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath". The Middle East Quarterly. 
  13. Syrian Human Rights Committee, The Massacre of Hama, February 19, 2004, reporting 30,000-40,000 massacred and 10,000-15,000 disappeared.
  14. "Freedom in the World 2006" (PDF). Freedom House. 2005-12-16. Retrieved 2006-07-27. 
    See also Freedom in the World 2006, List of indices of freedom
  15. 2008 Human Rights Report: Syria, US Department of State
  17. Syria Reporters without Borders, Published on 7 February 2008
  18. Special Report Section Freedom House, Worst of the Worst 2009
  19. see also "Human Rights Watch 2006 Report". Human Rights Watch. 
  20. "Syria jails leading rights lawyer". BBC. 2010-06-23. Retrieved 24 June 2010. 
  21. "Human Rights Watch 2006 Report". Human Rights Watch. 
  22. Syrian Constitution, Article 35, Paragraphs (1) and (2).
  23. Mutahhari, Morteza. "Jurisprudence and its Principles". Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an. Retrieved 2010-12-08. 
  24. United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Syria: International Religious Freedom Report 2007. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  25. For Syria's minorities, Assad is security. Al Jazeera, 16 September 2011.
  26. Syria: Treatment and human rights situation of homosexuals
  27. Brocklebank, Christopher (2010-06-23). "Syrian authorities crack down on gay men". Pink News. Retrieved 2010-12-07. 
  28. "How Syria controls its dissidents - Banning travel". The Economist. 30 September 2010. 
  29. 29.0 29.1 Ten years after Bashar el-Assad’s installation, the government still decides who can be a journalist, Reporters Without Borders USA.
  30. "10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger", Committee to Protect Journalists, 30 April 2009
  31. "Bashar Al-Assad, President, Syria". Reporters Without Borders.,37213.html. 
  32. "Red lines that cannot be crossed - The authorities don't want you to read or see too much". The Economist. 2008-07-24. 
  33. 33.0 33.1 "ONI Country Profile: Syria", OpenNet Initiative, August 2009
  34. "Internet Enemies: Syria", Reporters Without Boarders, March 2011
  35. "Syrian jailed for internet usage". BBC News. 21 June 2004. 
  36. Legislative Decree on Granting Syrian Nationality to People Registered in Registers of Hasaka Foreigners, SANA
  37. "UN report: Syrian forces commit 'gross violations' of human rights, CNN". November 29, 2011. 
  38. Joe Lauria (November 29, 2011). "More than 250 children among dead, U.N. says". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 29, 2011. 
  39. "Syrian army behind majority of abuses: UN". News24. 24 May 2012. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 
  40. "Assad's regime, Syrian rebels both committed war crimes: U.N. official". Al Arabiya News. 2 July 2012. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 

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