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Ending Five Decades of Emergency Rule Fails to Halt Syrian Protests

April 21, 2011

Syrian President Ends Five Decades of Emergency Rule

By FRANCE 24 (text)  -

After more than a month of anti-government protests, President Bashar al-Assad has lifted Syria’s longstanding emergency law, abolished controversial state security courts and ended a ban on public protests.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday officially lifted Syria’s emergency law, which had been in place for nearly fifty years, while abolishing state security courts and enacting a new law that will allow citizens to protest peacefully.

The moves come after several weeks of deadly anti-regime protests, which erupted across Syria on March 15 and have been upping pressure on the government to loosen its restrictions on political freedom in the Arab nation.

The Syrian government approved a draft law ending the state of emergency on Tuesday, and news reports in Syria emerged Wednesday indicating that Assad would circumvent parliament in order to expedite the lifting of the rule.

‘Still a lot to be done’

But the abolition of Syria’s emergency law does not mean the country is on a decisive path toward democratic reform or that the protests will end, according to Khaled Issa, a Syrian lawyer who spoke to FRANCE 24. “Assad could have done it directly and rapidly, but he decided to buy himself some time by drawing out the lifting of the emergency rule and bringing attention to it,” he said.

Issa added that Assad likely prolonged the process to give guarantees to those who did not want the reforms, including conservatives from the ruling Baath party and senior officials of the Syrian army “who benefit from the system of emergency rule and have no desire to see things change”.

The emergency law was established in 1963 when the Baath party seized power. It prohibited several civil liberties, such as public gatherings, and authorised the arrest of any individual thought to pose a security threat.

State security courts operated independently from the conventional judicial system and were used to prosecute people accused of challenging the government. The verdicts reached in these courts could not be appealed. Rights groups inside and outside Syria frequently condemned the courts as institutions used for the persecution of citizen activists and political opponents.

For Issa, the end of emergency rule is just the beginning of what needs to be accomplished in Syria. “There are still a lot of things to be done,” he said. “We want widespread democratic reforms.”

Among the specific reforms Issa would like to see introduced are the creation of a new constitution and the declaration of an amnesty for political prisoners.

End of emergency rule fails to halt opposition crackdown

France 24, April 21, 2011

By Carla WESTERHEIDE / Kethevane GORJESTANI / Shirli SITBON (video)
News Wires (text)  

Opposition figure Mahmoud Issa was arrested early Wednesday in a move that may suggest the Tuesday passage of President Bashar al-Assad's draft law ending 48 years of emergency rule will not halt political repression, rights groups say.

The Syrian authorities' arrest of a leftist opposition figure overnight suggests that a bill passed by the government to end emergency rule after 48 years will not halt repression, rights campaigners said on Wednesday.

The draft law was passed on Tuesday as a concession by President Bashar al-Assad in the face of increasingly determined mass protests against his authoritarian rule. More than 200 people have been killed, rights groups say.
Assad's speech lifting the state of emergency.

The end of emergency rule was, however, coupled with new legislation requiring Syrians to obtain a permit from the state if they want to hold demonstrations. Defiant protests continued regardless and sit-ins were held in several areas overnight.   Rights advocate Wissam Tarif said a protest was held in the Zabadani suburb of Damascus late on Tuesday. A Youtube video showed protesters chanting "the people want the overthrow of the regime", the rallying cry of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  

A prominent leftist in the city, Mahmoud Issa, was taken from his house around midnight by members of Syria's feared political security division.   Rights campaigners said at least 20 pro-democracy protesters had been shot dead by security forces in the city of Homs in the past two days.   "Issa is a prominent former political prisoner. Arresting him hours after announcing a bill to lift emergency law is reprehensible," said Rami Adelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, speaking from Britain.  

"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."   U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations made it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive regime.  

"This new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced," he said, adding that the Syrian government "needs to urgently implement broader reforms".     "There must be no more slaughter"   Prominent civic figures in Homs, a central city known for its intellectuals and artists, signed a declaration calling on the army "not to spill the blood of honourable Syrians" and denying official allegations that Salafist groups were operating there.   In a sign of resistance to protesters' demands for reforms, the Interior Ministry on Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by "armed groups belonging to Salafist organisations" trying to terrorise the population.  
Portrait of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad

Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam that many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al Qaeda. Assad and most of his inner circle are from Syria's minority Alawite community, who adhere to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.   "Not Salafist, not Muslim Brotherhood. We are freedom seekers!" hundreds of people chanted in Tuesday's demonstration in Banias on the Mediterranean coast.   Analysts said authorities would be keen to prevent protesters gaining a visible focal point like Egypt's Tahrir square. Security forces forcibly cleared out a gathering in Homs at the weekend, killing 17 people, activists said, and another three were shot dead early on Tuesday.  

"The concessions now being made by the government have been achieved at a very heavy cost in human lives," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa.   "There must be no more slaughter. Syria's president must take firm action now to stop the bloody crackdown by his security forces and ensure that those responsible for it are held to account."   Emergency rule, in place since the Baath Party seized power in a 1963 coup, gave security organs blanket power to stifle dissent through a ban on gatherings of over five people, arbitrary arrest and closed trials, lawyers say.  

Syria is involved in several Middle East conflicts. Any change at the top -- Assad, backed by his family and the security apparatus, is Syria's absolute ruler -- would ripple across the Arab world and affect Syria's ally Iran.   The leadership backs the Islamist movement Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah but seeks peace with Israel. Assad was largely rehabilitated in the West after years in isolation after the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.

SYRIA Syria lifts emergency law, sets new curbs on protests
SYRIA Syrian security forces 'open fire' on mass protest
SYRIA Q&A 'The regime in Syria is not as strong as it seems'

SYRIA End of emergency rule fails to halt opposition crackdown

SYRIA Syria lifts emergency law, sets new curbs on protests

SYRIA Syrian security forces 'open fire' on mass protest

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