Middle East

Assad prisoner amnesty deemed meaningless

Khatib speaks at a National Coalition meeting in Istanbul in March.

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad announced a general amnesty Tuesday to cut some prisoners’ sentences to mark a national holiday, a move opposition groups rejected as meaningless without the release of thousands of political detainees believed to be held in jail.

The amnesty, which follows several other recent pardons, commutes a death sentence to a life of hard labor and reduces punishments for several other crimes, but excluded “crimes of treason, espionage and terrorism,” state media reported.

“Terrorists” is the term used by the government to describe the rebels trying to topple Assad.

The decree was announced on state news agency SANA ahead of Independence Day Wednesday, which marks the end of the French Mandate over Syria in 1946. SANA did not say how many prisoners it covered.

Several amnesties have been issued since the conflict began in Syria in March 2011, but they have done little to satisfy opposition activists who say thousands of political prisoners are held in state detention centers. Many disappeared without notice from state security forces.

Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition National Coalition, said on Facebook that before any amnesty could be meaningful, “we require the release of over 160,000 innocent prisoners, primarily women and children. If that happens, we will say that the amnesty was a token toward a real Syrian solution.”

He added: “Release all women and children, I repeat, release all women and children. This should occur within the next few days.”

Last month Khatib formally resigned from his post. He has yet to provide further comment on his move.

Human rights groups have reported widespread abuse of prison detainees, and there are thought to be tens of thousands of “enforced disappearances” of prisoners.

The Syrian Violations Documentation Center, an activist group which documents deaths, detentions and missing persons in Syria, has documented some 37,000 detainees but says many more people are missing.

This week the VDC issued a report detailing accounts of what they believe to be people detained without charge, held in military compounds it says are being used because Syria’s prisons are overfilled due to the massive arrest campaign.

The center, headed by the veteran dissident and lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, issued a statement on Facebook Tuesday also denouncing the amnesty. It said it had evidence that lawyer and human rights activist Burhan al-Saqqal died under torture Tuesday, after being detained by security forces in October, 2012.

“His family has not heard from [Saqqal] ever since, until today when they were asked to pick up his body from the military police in Damascus,” the VDC said, “at the same time that the phantom ‘amnesty’ was issued, which almost does not include any revolutionary detainees.”

Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said he did not see it as sufficient because it did not address political prisoners: “Many will ask what good it does if political activists continue to be arrested daily.”

“We are certain that there are still tens of thousands of people detained, many of them simply missing. What concerns us most is that the government stop taking political prisoners and free the many already held in Syrian jails.” – With agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 17, 2013, on page 8.

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