United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Syria, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa578.html [accessed 31 January 2015]
This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Syria is ruled by an authoritarian regime which, although it maintains some of the trappings of democratic government, places virtual absolute authority in the hands of President Hafiz Al-Asad. Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, and the economy are made by President Asad with counsel from his ministers and principal advisers. Although the Parliament is elected every 4 years, the Ba'th Party is guaranteed a majority. The Parliament generally does not initiate laws but only passes judgment on those proposed by the executive. All three branches of government are guided by the views of the Ba'th Party, whose primacy in state institutions is mandated by the Constitution. Except for a hiatus in 1973-74, Syria has been under a state of emergency since 1963. The Government has justified martial law by the state of war with Israel and continuing threats posed by terrorist groups (Islamic extremist, Iraqi, and Lebanese). However, the regime's suppression of all opposition has been so effective that antiregime manifestations have been very limited in recent years. The Government maintains an extensive security apparatus. The state of emergency allows this apparatus wide latitude in dealing with suspects, detainees, and prisoners. The several main branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside of the legal system. Each continues to be responsible for severe human rights violations. Syria's mixed economy, based on commerce and agriculture, is dominated by an inefficient public sector, but includes growing private and mixed sectors. Oil is a major export. The regime is trying to promote growth in the private sector through statutory changes providing incentives, but excessive bureaucracy and endemic corruption discourage domestic and foreign investment. Most agricultural land is privately owned. In the 1990's, real economic growth has been about 7 percent per year. Annual per capita gross domestic product is about $900. Although the Government released some political prisoners, responded to some international inquiries regarding detainees and prisoners, loosened exit permit issuance to Syrian Jews, and brought hundreds of other cases to trial, thereby ending long periods of indefinite detention, there was no basic change in the human rights situation in 1993. Basic human rights remain tightly restricted. It is widely accepted that several thousand persons remain imprisoned without trial. The major human rights problems include arbitrary arrest and detention, systematic torture, lack of a fair trial in security cases, and the denial of the right of citizens to change their government as well as the freedoms of speech, press, association, and certain worker rights. Syrian government resistance to human rights monitoring makes it difficult to know precisely the details and numbers of such abuses.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of executions for political beliefs in 1993 and no confirmed instances of the Government's extrajudicial killing of detainees. However, given past practice and the secrecy that still surround those held at various security facilities, the regime may still engage in summary executions at such facilities. There were credible reports of at least three people dying while in detention. The exact cause of death was not determined, and families were not allowed to view the remains. Human rights groups have received reports questioning whether the death in custody of long-time political prisoner and former President Salah Jadid was due to natural causes, as claimed by the Government, or whether Jadid was killed. Shakar Tabban, a lawyer, reportedly died in December 1992 due to torture and ill-treatment.
There were no reports of disappearances in 1993, but the welfare and whereabouts of hundreds of persons held incommunicado from previous years remain largely unknown (see Section l.d.). The Government has provided information on a small number of those held incommunicado.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the Constitution prohibits torture and the Penal Code provides severe penalties for government officials who engage in it, the practice of torture and abuse remains widespread and systematic in criminal, political, and security-related cases. Released detainees or prisoners have credibly reported that the Government maintains facilities specially equipped to inflict physical harm on those being held. Detainees are subjected to both physical and psychological abuse. Torture is used to extract information from suspects; in some cases relatives or acquaintances of the suspect have been tortured in order to obtain information about the suspect. Among the forms of physical abuse practiced by government-employed torturers are application of electrical shocks on sensitive parts of the body and beatings (sometimes while the victim is bent over and suspended from the ceiling in a tire or a chair). There are no known instances of the Government investigating or punishing those alleged to have committed torture or abuse. (See also Lebanon report.) Fifteen members of the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF) reportedly went on a 3-week hunger strike in August to protest their imprisonment and alleged torture. Prison conditions continue to be poor, particularly in older, more overcrowded facilities; security prisons are markedly worse than civilian prisons. Medical treatment and facilities are inadequate in both types, and injuries and chronic ailments from torture, overcrowding, and grossly inadequate sanitation and health facilities are either not treated or are treated unsatisfactorily.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
While the Civil Law Code generally provides for due process, these provisions do not apply to security and political offenses, which are treated under the State of Emergency Law. Under provisions of the state of emergency, the Government continues to suspend normal safeguards and engage in what the law calls "preventive arrest." Persons are arrested secretly without warrant, held indefinitely without charge or trial, and denied the right to a judicial determination of the basis for pretrial detention. Detainees have no redress for false arrest and usually cannot be contacted by family or friends, who most often do not know where the detainee is being held. Some have been held without trial for more than 20 years. Under the state of emergency, those suspected of economic-related crimes may also be detained without trial or access to counsel or to relatives. Many people who have disappeared are believed to be held in the security prisons. Frequently, the detained person is eventually released without being charged. Even with the reported release of more than 4,000 detainees and prisoners (including security detainees and some 60 women detainees) in 1991 and 1992, it is still believed that there are thousands of political detainees. The Syrian Government has not responded to requests by the U.S. Government and human rights organizations for a list of names of those amnestied or otherwise released. Members of Ba'thist organizations and the banned Party for Communist Action (PCA) were reportedly among those released in recent years. The Government released at least eight political prisoners in June-July 1993. In addition, of the six women taken into custody in late 1992 and early-to-mid 1993, three were released in late 1993. According to the Government, the other three were released earlier, although human rights groups contend that these three still remain in detention. Releases in 1993 included alleged members of the Kurdish Workers Party as well as members of the Party for Communist Action. One alleged PCA member had been detained previously for 5 years, released, and rearrested in June. There were also unconfirmed reports that the Government released in November at least 20 members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood after long periods of detention. It is possible that some of those released had been tried and found guilty by the State Security Court and then released because they had already served the periods of incarceration imposed in their sentences. The majority of detainees still held are reputed members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Other detainees are connected with factions of the Ba'th Party, the Iraqi wing of the Party, or are allegedly associated with the following banned groups: the Party for Communist Action, the Syrian Communist Party Political Bureau, the Arab Socialist Union Party in Syria, and the Nasserist Democratic Popular Organization. A group known as the Islamic Unification Movement claimed that 120 of its members were being detained. The Government has used the possession of material from banned political organizations as a frequent pretext for detention. The Government is known to have detained the relatives of suspects in both criminal and security cases as a means of compelling individuals being sought by authorities to surrender. Although the Government has exiled persons in the past, there have been no reported instances of exile for several years.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The court system comprises separate civil courts; penal and criminal courts, whose jurisdiction includes economic crimes; and religious, military, security, and constitutional courts. There are major differences between the types of Syrian courts in terms of respect for human rights. Persons charged with security or political offenses fall under the jurisdiction of the military-controlled State Security Court, established in 1968. Defendants in this Court have few safeguards of their rights; court sessions are generally closed (although an international observer was allowed to attend the sentencing portion of a prominent trial in 1992, and Amnesty International representatives attended sessions of some trials in May 1993); defendants have no say in the selection of a lawyer, who is chosen by the court; defense attorneys are unable to consult with their clients outside the courtroom or to call witnesses to refute prosecution charges; and the Government does not allow for independent medical examinations of the defendants to determine whether physical abuse has occurred during pretrial detention. The Government does not generally release information on the trial or sentencing, but relatives with influence in the Government sometimes succeed in obtaining information and even effecting the release of the accused. The sentences are not subject to appeal, but the President may nullify, alter, or confirm State Security Court sentences. A special military Field Court, created during the period of the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the early 1980's, reportedly still exists to deal with serious security offenses. As part of the Government's general crackdown on smuggling, the Field Court reportedly tried cases involving arms trafficking in 1993. The accused is not permitted legal representation at Field Court proceedings, which are held in secret. Regular civil and criminal courts are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. The accused in a criminal case is detained provisionally upon the accusation of the public prosecutor, then remanded to a judge for arraignment. The judge may either dismiss the charges on the basis of insufficient evidence or refer the case to a criminal court. Defendants in civil and criminal courts are entitled to legal representation of their choice. If they cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed by the court. These courts impose no restrictions on lawyers representing their clients and allow the right of appeal to criminal or civil appellate courts found in each province. Criminal courts also provide for bail. In noncontroversial cases, courts are normally free of governmental coercion, although the Government can bring pressure to bear if it wishes to do so. Defendants in criminal cases are allowed to present evidence and confront their accusers. Trials are public, except for cases involving juveniles or for crimes such as rape. Cases are tried before a judge; there is no jury system. The slow and cumbersome legal system can leave suspects languishing in prison for months. Following the fire in Hassakeh prison in May, the alleged perpetrators were rapidly executed, raising questions as to whether they had been afforded due process. According to the Constitution, the High Constitutional Court investigates and rules on petitions submitted by the President or at least one-fourth of the members of the People's Assembly challenging the constitutionality of laws or legislative decrees. It has no appellate jurisdiction over cases from the civil or criminal courts. Human rights groups estimated that in 1993 some 330 to 500 cases of political detainees were brought before the State Security Court. Many of those tried in 1993 reportedly had been imprisoned for 10 or more years before trial. One human rights group estimated that the State Security Court handed down about 60 sentences between July 1992 and May 1993. The defendants in many of these trials were reportedly accused of membership or participation in the activities of banned political organizations whose activities the Government claims include the forcing of political change through violence. Some of the alleged activities do not include violence but rather opposition to the objectives of the Ba'th Party or the dissemination of false information which could weaken the people's confidence in the objectives of the Ba'th revolution. At least 34 defendants were found guilty of disseminating false information, receiving money from abroad, or withholding information from the authorities. Those tried in 1993 included members of a Syrian human rights group, the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), and those accused of membership in the banned Party for Communist Action. While the defendants in the 5 CDF cases tried in 1993 had not yet been sentenced at year's end, the 10 CDF members found guilty in 1992 received sentences ranging from 5 to 10 years. Some sentences specified the "deprivation of civil liberties" after prison sentences are completed; such deprivations reportedly include prohibitions on foreign travel and holding government positions. Twenty-four members of the PCA were also found guilty and sentenced to between 10 and 15 years in prison, some with forced labor. The Government charged that the PCA sought to change the government by violence and opposed the objectives of the Ba'thist Revolution. One CDF defendant, the writer Nizar Nayyuf, was convicted for his alleged activities in the CDF and for having circulated a leaflet reportedly questioning the legitimacy of the 1991 presidential referendum. The court found him guilty of disseminating false information that would undermine public confidence in the Ba'th revolution. Nayyuf was awarded one of the Pen Freedom to Write awards in May 1993. Another trial involved an engineer, Sayih Khayr Bek, who had been detained since 1980 when the regime cracked down on professional associations that had organized a national strike to protest the state of emergency. The Government does not release information on the number of persons detained or imprisoned for political or security offenses, but credible estimates run from 3,800 to 9,000 (including persons held in Syrian detention facilities in Lebanon). The Government continues to contend that persons are detained not because of their political beliefs but because of criminal acts or actions that violate the state of emergency. It is clear, however, that many persons have been jailed without charge or as a result of unfair trials for nonviolent opposition to the regime. In June and July the Government released at least eight political prisoners, several of them prominent figures. These included four former ministers and at least three Jordanian members of the Ba'th Party-February 23 Movement (supporters of former Syrian Leader Salah Jadid, who was imprisoned after the coup that brought Hafiz Al-Asad to power in 1970). The Jordanians, Majli Nasrawin, Hakim Al-Fayez, and Yusuf Al-Burji, had spent 23 years in prison. One human rights group says that seven Ba'th Party political prisoners remain in a special wing of Mezze prison. All reportedly continue to be allowed monthly family visits under guard in government rest houses in Damascus. (See Section l.a. on the death of Salah Al-Jadid in custody.) Of six female political prisoners taken into custody in late 1992 and 1993, three were reportedly released in late 1993. Although human rights organizations contend that the other three were still being held in Duma women's prison at the end of 1993, the Syrian Government claims that these three were released earlier. The Government does not permit access to prisoners by international humanitarian organizations.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Although the legal system provides nominal safeguards, including the requirement of an arrest or search warrant before police are allowed to enter private homes, regulations under the state of emergency suspend these protections in security-related cases. Domestic intelligence organizations maintain a network of guards to protect officials and important buildings, as well as to monitor the activity of people living in the neighborhoods of protected officials. The presence of police and security officials is pervasive, especially in Damascus, although some observers say it is less pronounced than it was several years ago. Security checkpoints can be set up anywhere by government authorities. Security personnel require no warrant for search or arrest in dealing with persons stopped at such locations. Security forces at the checkpoints are mostly concerned with clandestine shipments of weapons and subversive literature but also search for smuggled goods, including drugs. It is generally accepted that telephone conversations and facsimile transmissions are selectively monitored and that conversations are sometimes recorded. The Government-run postal system selectively censors the mail, including foreign publications.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
This freedom is sharply limited. The Government does not permit criticism of the President and the regime's legitimacy. Some controlled criticism of the Party and the performance of government ministries is allowed. In 1992 and 1993 trials, the Government accused CDF members of "committing acts against the goals of the March 8, 1963, revolution." The group had distributed leaflets critical of the handling of the 1991 referendum which granted President Asad his fourth 7-year term. Approximately 200 Kurds were reportedly arrested in October 1992 for distributing a pamphlet which marked the 30th anniversary of the Government's never completed effort to move the Kurds out of the northeastern part of Syria and which purportedly depicted an idealized Kurdish state extending southward into Syria; 30 of these Kurds were said to remain in detention in 1993. Several journalists have been in detention for long periods, some for more than 10 years. The Government or the Ba'th Party wholly owns and operates all newspaper publishing houses and strictly controls the dissemination of information. Censorship of foreign and domestic news is exercised through offices in the Ministries of Information and Culture and National Guidance. Subjects deemed by the Government contrary to its interests are not permitted to be discussed in the press. In 1993 censored subjects included Syria's human rights record, allegations of Syria's involvement in the Lebanese drug trade, and various aspects of Syria's continuing political and security role in Lebanon. Any criticism of government policies or performance usually has received official approval, and officials above the middle rank are rarely criticized. There was slightly more openness in the media's coverage of the Middle East peace process than in the past. The Government also owns the broadcast media. Reports on sensitive subjects are not broadcast, and new television programs scheduled for broadcast must be approved by the Minister of Information. Radio broadcasts from neighboring countries, including Israel and Iraq, may be received in Syria. Foreign television may be received, although only with special equipment in many areas. Syria prohibits the reception of Jordanian television in Syria by technical means. Imported printed material and films are subject to censorship. Articles critical of Syria or Syria's role in Lebanon are occasionally deleted from foreign magazines and newspapers before distribution. Fiction and nonfiction literature is censored if it is considered overly critical of Syria, offensive to one of Syria's religious groups, or too graphic in its description of sex. Control is particularly strict on materials in Arabic. Films are censored for a variety of reasons, such as unfavorable interpretations of the Middle East conflict, sectarianism, or the use of actors or production companies targeted by the Arab boycott of Israel. The Government closely controls public schools at all levels. The Education Ministry dictates the curriculum followed by the primary and secondary schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for the Palestinian refugees, as well as those operated by minority religious groups, and these schools are subject to regular inspection. In all schools, an hour each day is devoted to instruction on Syrian patriotism. Teachers are not permitted to express ideas contrary to government policy, although some freedom of expression is tolerated at the university level.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Public meetings, assemblies, or demonstrations may be held only with official permission and are usually held at the instigation of the Government or the Ba'th Party. This policy is also applied in the 13 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. Private societies, including religious groups, are allowed to meet if they have received government permission to organize. Such permission is usually granted, but only for nonpolitical activities. The Government closely controls the activities of professional associations. The Ba'th Party must be notified in advance of association meetings. In 1980 several professional associations (doctors, lawyers, and engineers) were dissolved after striking and calling for an end to the state of emergency; numerous professionals were detained at the time. Although the associations have been reconstituted with government appointees, and some of the detainees have been released, others remain in detention without trial. At least one of these detainees had his case brought before the State Security Court at the turn of the year.
c. Freedom of Religion
There is no state religion, but nearly two-thirds of Syrians are Sunni Muslim. As a concession to Muslims who object to Ba'thi secularism, the 1973 Constitution requires that the President be Muslim. Moreover, the Constitution refers to Islamic jurisprudence as a principal source of legislation. Otherwise, no official preference is given to one religion over another, and the Government officially observes all major Christian and Muslim holidays. Ba'thi secular ideology and modernizing influences have had some impact in diminishing the importance attached to religion and ethnicity, but individual Syrians continue to identify themselves by their communal associations. Most religious groups, including Syria's small Jewish community, are largely free to practice their religions. The Government closely controls fund raising, the construction of worship sites, and the holding of all meetings except for worship but generally permits such activities under restrictive conditions. Religious training in the language of the religion is permitted within the curriculum for Jews and Christians in Jewish and Armenian schools. Non-Muslim groups maintain links with coreligionists outside Syria. Interreligious groups visit Syria periodically and meet Syrians of all faiths. One such group met with Foreign Minister Shara in 1993. One exception to the official policy of religious tolerance is the treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, who are forbidden to organize formally or own church property. Despite these prohibitions, individual followers of these religions are allowed to practice their religion privately. Foreign missionaries are permitted to preach and minister. While proselytizing and conversion are not legally proscribed, in practice, the Government discourages such activities aimed at Muslims. The publication of religious material is subject to the same controls as secular material.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Internal travel is restricted in the security zone of the Golan Heights and occasionally near the borders with Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Syrian women over the age of 18 have the legal right to travel without the prior approval of male relatives, but in practice the husband may file a request with the Ministry of Interior to prohibit his wife's departure from Syria. Similarly, a father may request that the Ministry prohibit travel abroad by unmarried daughters, even if they are over 18 years of age. In general, the Government restricts foreign travel for citizens liable for military service and for certain categories of professionals trained at public expense who have not completed required government service. Students traveling abroad for higher education must obtain permission from the Foreign Ministry and, like all Syrians, are subject to recall by the Government. Travel to Israel, with which Syria remains in a state of war, is illegal for all Syrian citizens. Druze inhabitants of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights may visit relatives in Syria under a system operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Syria has set an annual quota of 120 adult visitors per year. In October the Government denied the Druze permission to attend the funeral of a Druze spiritual leader in the Golan Heights. Thereafter, however, between late October and the end of the year, the Government allowed some 300 Golan Heights Druze to enter Syria at al Qunaitra, according to the press, although it continued to refuse to let Druze living in Syria cross into the Golan Heights. In April 1992, President Asad issued a decision permitting Syrian Jews freedom of travel; by the end of 1993, the Government had granted exit permits to more than 85 percent of the Jewish community. Between October 1992 and mid-December 1993, exit permits were issued at a substantially lower rate than in the period from April to October 1992. By mid-December, the Government had again accelerated the issuance rate. There were 500-600 Syrian Jews who had applied for exit permits but had not received responses to their applications at the end of 1993. Syrian Jews no longer need to post a bond to ensure their return. Palestinians sometimes encounter difficulties obtaining the requisite travel document. Moreover, travel restrictions are sometimes imposed on them. For example, one young Palestinian married to a Syrian was not allowed to return to Syria to rejoin his wife after a trip to a neighboring Arab country. Any Syrian caught trying to emigrate or travel abroad without permission, or suspected of having visited Israel illegally, may be arrested and prosecuted. There is a credible estimate that the Syrian Government has withdrawn Syrian nationality from between 90,000 and 120,000 Kurds since the 1960's. In addition to 330,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom have been born in Syria, there are also at least 4,700 Iraqi nationals, half of them Iraqi Christians, currently registered at a refugee camp in northeastern Syria operated under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There are over 500 Somali refugees at the same camp. Residents of the camp have been allowed to leave the camp freely and seek employment in neighboring areas.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Syrians do not have the ability to change their government legally and peacefully. President Asad and his senior advisers effectively control all aspects of political and economic life. The ruling Ba'th Party, which emphasizes socialism and secular Arabism, is dominated by the military. In recent years, the Party has served principally to legitimize President Asad's rule. Although the Government seeks to build national rather than ethnic identity, ethnic, religious, and regional allegiances remain important. Members of President Asad's own sect, the Alawis, hold most of the important military and security positions. President Asad's fourth 7-year term will expire in March 1999. Women play a significant but not a leading role in government. Two of the 29 ministers in the present Cabinet are women; 21 of 250 parliamentarians are women. Women are also active in Ba'th party "popular organizations."
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
There are no human rights groups legally operating inside Syria, and the Government actively discourages the formation of any such organizations. Most Syrians are afraid to criticize their government publicly for human rights violations, and several members of a now banned human rights group, the CDF, have been imprisoned (see Section l.e.). The Government continues to deny charges of human rights violations, often ignoring them or calling them an intrusion into its internal affairs. However, in a departure from past practice, the Government responded in 1993 to some written inquiries on detainees and prisoners. An ad hoc government committee on human rights determined whether and, if so, how to respond to inquiries regarding individual cases. In some cases, the Government claimed that the people in question were no longer being held or that they were never held. It responded to some inquiries from foreign governments on specific cases, although it has not provided a list of those released in the 1991 and 1992 amnesties. Two representatives from Amnesty International (AI) were allowed to visit Damascus in December 1992. The AI team focused, in part, on ongoing State Security Court proceedings; the team met with judges hearing a variety of these trials and with defense attorneys and relatives of the defendants. One of the trials the delegation had planned to attend was postponed. The team also met with Syrian officials on other human rights matters. Another AI delegation visited Syria again in May 1993 to observe sessions of State Security Court trials of some defendants arrested between 1980 and 1992 in connection with banned political groups.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution in principle provides for equal rights and equal opportunity for all Syrian citizens. In practice, membership in the Ba'th Party or close familial relations with a prominent Ba'th Party member can be important to prospering in Syria. Party connections can pave the way for entrance into better elementary and secondary schools, access to more lucrative employment, and greater power in the Government.
Syrian law stipulates that the State is to provide equal opportunity to women and is to remove impediments that hinder the development of women and their full participation in society. Government policies include equal pay for similar work and encourage the enrollment of women at all levels of education. Nonetheless, traditional concepts of male guardianship of women continue to prevail in many segments of the society. These concepts often limit a woman's rights in matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and personal decisions. Moreover, the Government accords religious authorities or courts the right to rule on the majority of matters involving social and interpersonal relations. Under Islamic laws of inheritance, the male offspring receive a disproportionate share of the inheritance. Wife beating and other physical abuse of women are known to occur, but conservative social mores in Syrian society discourage public discussion of the issue, making it difficult to estimate the extent of the problem. There are no official or unofficial statistics on domestic abuse. Under the legal system, women have access through the courts to redress any grievance caused by violent acts against them. There has been an indeterminate, although almost certainly small, number of court actions involving spousal abuse. The vast majority of incidents involving abuse probably go unreported because of the social stigma attached to legal proceedings in such cases. Incidents are usually handled within the family where a husband's physical abuse of his wife is criticized and viewed with shame. Outside the family and the courts, the Syrian Women's Federation also offers a mechanism to help solve individual family problems.
Syrian law stresses the need to protect children and ensure conditions favorable to the development of their faculties. The Government mandates education through the sixth grade and provides optional but tuition-free education at higher levels. Although the quality of health care varies among regions and facilities, children are provided treatment free or at relatively nominal charge. The Government attempts to enforce legislation restricting child labor and to protect the institution of the family, although violations of these laws still occur. Violence against children warrants tough legal penalties as well as social stigma.
Syria's Palestinian population, estimated at 330,000 (296,000 of whom were registered with UNRWA as of mid-1992), occasionally suffers some forms of discrimination. Although Palestinians enjoy many of the same rights as Syrian nationals, they are considered to be temporary residents, pending resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While generally free of socioeconomic restrictions, they may not vote in Syrian elections or obtain Syrian citizenship except through marriage to a Syrian male. For the most part, Palestinians are integrated into Syrian society. The largest Palestinian camp is, in fact, a neighborhood of Damascus. The Government has placed limits on the use and teaching of the Kurdish language, on Kurdish cultural expression and, at times, on the celebration of Kurdish festivals.
Although the Constitution stipulates respect for all religions, there are various forms of discrimination against religious minorities. Under the Constitution, the President must be Muslim. Religion is also a factor in determining the opportunities available to Syrian citizens. For example, members of the Alawi sect, President Asad's religious group, generally enjoy job preference in the Government. Though Jews hold some low-level government jobs, such as clerks and teachers, they are generally barred from government service. They are also prohibited from joining the military, and Jewish professionals are exempt from the requirement to give the 5 years of government service expected of other Syrians trained at public expense. Jews are the only minority whose passports note their religion. They are under more thorough surveillance by the intelligence services than is the general population. Although all Syrians regardless of religion are theoretically required to follow Islamic laws of inheritance, in practice non-Muslims are usually able to arrange their own distribution of inheritances.
People with Disabilities
Syrian law is intended to assure the integration of handicapped persons into the public sector work force, although practical problems hinder its implementation. The Government has not enacted special legislation to benefit the disabled. However, it allows the disabled to import specially equipped cars with none of the normal vehicle import restrictions except the mandatory payment of customs fees.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Although the 1973 Constitution provides for the right of the "popular sectors" of society to form trade unions, and the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) is purportedly an independent organization, in practice the Government uses it as a framework for controlling nearly all aspects of union activity. Effectively, workers are not free to form labor unions independent of the government-prescribed structure. All public sector employees join the GFTU union as a condition of employment. Approximately half of all private sector workers belong to unions. Agricultural workers are not unionized. As with other organizations dominated by the Ba'th Party, the GFTU is charged with providing opinions on legislation, devising rules for workers, and organizing labor. The elected president of the GFTU is a senior member of the ruling Ba'th Party and a member of the Regional Command. With his Deputy, he participates in all meetings of the Cabinet's ministerial committees on economic affairs. According to GFTU officials, the secretaries general of the eight professional unions, some of whom are not Ba'th Party members, are each elected by the respective union's membership. While the unions are used primarily to transmit instructions and information to the labor force from the Syrian leadership, elected union leaders also act as a conduit through which workers' dissatisfaction is transmitted to the leadership. Strikes are not legislatively prohibited (except in the agricultural sector), but in practice they are actively and effectively discouraged. While the right to strike exists, there does not appear to be specific legal protection from antistrike retribution. Since there is labor participation on all public sector boards of directors, public sector strikes do not occur. There were occasional work stoppages in the private sector, but wage disputes were usually settled informally through negotiations between employers and employees or through resort to legal action based on wage laws. Private sector employers may fire any employee at any time, although they are required to pay severance and prescribed social security benefits. There were no reported strikes in 1993, as was also the case in 1991 and 1992. A number of workers who attempted to strike in 1980 remain in prison. One worker, who had been in detention for 13 years for involvement in a strike in 1980, was brought to trial at the end of 1992 and found guilty and sentenced to prison in 1993. According to an April 1993 International Confederation of Free Trade Unions report, some of the 68 members of the Syrian Engineers' Association, who were arrested along with members of the Doctors' Association because of a 1980 strike action, were released under the 1991 and 1992 amnesties. Others reportedly remained in detention in 1993. While noting that the Government has under consideration a draft legislative decree containing some improvements, the International Labor Organization's Committee of Experts reiterated its regret in its annual report that there are no plans to move away from the single trade union system or to repeal the ban on strikes in the agricultural sector. The GFTU is affiliated with the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions.
b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively
In the public sector, unions do not normally bargain collectively on wage issues, but union representatives participate with the representatives of the employers and the respective ministry to establish sectoral minimum wages according to legally prescribed cost-of-living levels. Workers make up the majority of each board of directors in public enterprises, and union representation is always included on the boards, although the boards are firmly under government control. Unions also monitor and enforce compliance with the Labor Law. Under the law, the unions in the private sector may engage in negotiations for collective contracts with employers. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor sets minimum wages in consultation with the GFTU. Unions have the right to litigate contracts with employers and the right to litigate in defense of their own interests or those of their members (individually or collectively) in cases involving labor relations. Union organizations may also claim a right to arbitration. Most workers are protected by law from antiunion discrimination, and there were no reports of its being practiced (see also Section 6.e.). However, there is no union representation in Syria's seven free trade zones, and firms in the zones are exempt from Syrian laws and regulations governing the hiring and firing of workers, though some provisions concerning occupational health and safety, hours, and sick and annual leave apply.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
There is no law banning forced or compulsory labor; such practices may be imposed in punishment, usually in connection with prison sentences for criminal offenses, under the Economic Penal Code, the Penal Code, the Agricultural Labor Code, and the Press Act. Such compulsory labor is usually in the handicraft industry.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The minimum age in the public sector is 14, though it is higher in certain industries. The minimum age varies more widely in the private sector. The absolute minimum is 12, with parental permission required for children under age 16 to work. Children are forbidden to work at night. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for enforcing minimum age requirements but lacks an adequate number of labor investigators. In February a Syrian newspaper reported frankly on the widespread use of child labor in several factories in one of Syria's largest cities. The report noted that Syrian law prohibited such practices and called for Ministry of Social Affairs officials to investigate. Work hours of young employees are limited, compared to those of the regular work force.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
As mandated in the Constitution, the Government legislatively establishes minimum and maximum wage limits in the public sector and sets limits on maximum allowable overtime for public sector employees. The minimum wage, as set most recently in 1989, was $40 a month plus subsidies for staples and bonuses depending on rank and type of job. The minimum wage is not adequate to support a worker and his family, and, as a result, many workers take additional jobs, open businesses, or rely on extended families for support. There is no single minimum wage in the private sector for permanent employees. According to the 1959 Labor Law, minimum wage levels in the private sector are set by sector and are fixed by the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor. Recommendations are put to the Minister by a committee that includes representatives of the Ministries of Industry and Economy, as well as representatives of the Employers' Association and the Employees' Unions. In practice, private sector monthly minimums are not less than those in the public sector. In both sectors, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for enforcing minimum wage levels and does so effectively. The courts are also available to settle wage dispute cases, although the adjudication process can take months or even years. In the private sector, wage disputes are settled by union/worker negotiations with management or by resort to the courts. The statutory workweek consists of six 6-hour days, although in certain fields in which workers are not continuously busy, a 9-hour day is permitted. Labor laws also mandate a full 24-hour rest day per week. The Labor Law extensively regulates conditions of work. There are rules and regulations that severely limit the ability of an employer to fire an employee without due cause, an issue that the employer may take to a labor committee. Labor committees are composed of representatives of the municipality, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, and the union, as well as a judge and the employer. In the majority of cases, labor committees have decided in favor of the employee. Workers, once hired, cannot easily be fired. In practice, workers also have exercised their right to contest planned dismissals in the labor committees. One exception in the heavily regulated labor field relates to day laborers. They are not subject to minimum wage regulations and receive disability compensation only for job-related injuries. Small private firms and businesses commonly employ day laborers in order to avoid the costs of permanent employees. Public laws mandate safety standards in all sectors, and managers are expected to implement them fully. A special department of the Social Security establishment works at the provincial level with inspectors from the Ministries of Health and Labor to ensure compliance with safety standards. In the private sector, unions are active in monitoring compliance with the laws and ensuring workers' health and safety. Workers have occasionally brought employers before judicially empowered labor committees to seek improvements in working conditions that affect their health. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardy to their continued employment. However, there is no statutory language defining "dangerous situations." Foreign workers theoretically receive the same benefits but are often reluctant to press claims because their workers' permits may be withdrawn at any time. Moreover, many work illegally and are not covered by the government system. In the latter half of 1993, the Government began denying extensions of domestic workers' temporary residency permits, thereby forcing them to leave the country. However, the Government soon rescinded this policy.