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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Syria

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Syria, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis 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.


Despite the existence of some institutions of democratic government, Syria's political system places virtually absolute authority in the hands of President Hafiz Al-Asad and a small circle of security advisers. 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 branch. 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.

Syria has been under a state of emergency almost continuously since 1963. The Government justifies martial law because of the state of war with Israel and alleged threats from terrorist groups (Islamic fundamentalists, Iraqi, and others.) It uses its vast powers so effectively that there have been few antiregime manifestations. Although the Constitution provides for the protection of fundamental rights, the state of emergency allows the security services to override these rights in their treatment of suspects, detainees, and prisoners. The branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside the legal system. They continue to be responsible for severe human rights violations.

The economy is based on commerce, agriculture, and some oil production. It is dominated by an inefficient public sector and hobbled by a complex bureaucracy and endemic corruption. The regime has sought to promote the private sector through legislated incentives and deregulation. Real economic growth is about 4 percent, annual per capita Gross Domestic Product is about $900, and inflation about 16 percent a year.

Despite some marginal improvements, the Government continues to restrict or deny fundamental rights. Serious abuses include the widespread use of torture; arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without trial; continued imprisonment after prisoners have served their sentences; unfair trials in state security cases; the denial of the freedoms of speech, press, and association; abuses committed under the state of emergency, and suppression of workers' rights. Discrimination and violence against women also exists, but not as a result of government policy. Because the Ba'th Party dominates the political system and the public sector, the people do not have the right to change the Government.

In positive developments, the Government completed issuance of travel permits to all Jews wishing them; exhibited somewhat greater responsiveness to international inquiries regarding political prisoners and detainees; and imprisoned some police officials who physically abused prisoners or employed excessive force against suspects.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings, although such killings have taken place in the past. There were reports of two deaths of persons in police custody in 1994. In April police beat Abd al-Hadi al-Mulhim to death at a police station during interrogation. The policemen who allegedly participated in the beating were arrested, then released by an investigating judge, and later rearrested by order of an Appeals Court. Also in April, a 33-year-old Lebanese citizen, Dani Mansurati, reportedly died in custody at the headquarters of the Air Force Intelligence in Damascus. Mansurati was reportedly arrested in May 1992 and detained by Air Force Intelligence officers.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances. There was little information on the welfare and whereabouts of hundreds of persons who have been held incommunicado for years (see Section l.d.).

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The police and security forces continue to use torture systematically, despite the existence of constitutional prohibitions and severe Penal Code penalties for abusers. The authorities have used torture in both criminal and national security cases Torture methods include the application of electric shocks on sensitive parts of the body; beatings, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; and the use of a device that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim and, in some cases, to fracture the spine. The Government generally does not respond to allegations of torture and seldom punishes offending officials.

For the first time in memory, the Government prosecuted security officers for abuse. It convicted more than 40 officers for physically abusing or using excessive force against detainees--including abuse that caused an undetermined number of deaths. The victims in all these cases were suspected criminal felons. However, there were no known cases in which the Government investigated or prosecuted security officials for abusing detainees arrested for political or national security offenses. This failure has created a climate of impunity which encourages the continuation of the abuse. Prison conditions are poor. Prisons are old and overcrowded, and health services and sanitation facilities inadequate. Conditions for most national security prisoners are markedly worse than those for common criminals.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Although the Penal Code provides for safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, the Emergency Law, which authorizes the Government to conduct "preventive" arrests, overrides these provisions. Under the Emergency Law, arrests are generally carried out in secret, and suspects are detained incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and are denied the right to a judicial determination for the pretrial detention. The Emergency Law also authorizes the Government to arrest persons for economic crimes.

Detainees have no legal redress for false arrest. Security forces usually do not provide detainees' families with information on their welfare or location of detention. Consequently, many disappeared persons are believed to be in long-term incommunicado detention. The authorities often release detainees without charge or explanation.

Since 1991 the Government has continued to release prisoners, many of whom were detainees held without charge. The exact number is not known because the Government does not make a public accounting of persons granted amnesty or otherwise released. The Government may have released as many as 300 detainees in 1994. However, persons still in prolonged detention include members of the Ba'th Party, the Iraq Ba'th Party, the Party for Communist Action, the Syrian Communist Party, the Arab Socialist Union Party, the Nasserist Democratic Popular Organization, various Kurdish groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Scores of doctors, health professionals, and engineers have been detained without trial since a mass arrest in 1980, and hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese citizens arrested in Lebanon and in Syria were detained without charge, although most were subsequently released.

The Government has exiled citizens in the past but there were no known instances in 1994. The practice is not as extensive as it once was.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial system is composed of the civil and criminal courts; the religious courts, which adjudicate matters of personal status such as divorce and inheritance; military courts; and the State Security Court, which tries cases involving national security charges, and the Economic Security Court. Civil and criminal courts are organized under the Ministry of Justice.

Defendants in civil and criminal courts are entitled to the legal representation of their choice; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents; defendants are allowed to present evidence and confront their accusers; and trials are public, except for those involving juveniles or sex offenses. Although defendants have the right to appeal, their appeal efforts are hampered because the courts do not provide verbatim transcripts of cases--only summaries prepared by the presiding judges. There are no juries: verdicts are rendered by the trial judge.

A public prosecutor may order suspected felons held in prearraignment detention. At the arraignment, the judge may dismiss the charges or refer the case to a criminal court. There is a system of bail. In noncontroversial cases, courts are normally free of governmental coercion, although high-ranking officials may exert influence at times. However, a government minister was apparently removed from his position for interfering in a case.

The High Constitutional Court is empowered to rule only on the constitutionality of laws and decrees. It does not hear appeals from the civil or criminal courts. However, criminal and civil cases may be appealed, first, to a provincial appeals court and, ultimately, to the Court of Cassation.

The criminal justice system is backlogged: many criminal suspects are held in pretrial detention for months. The bribery of judges has become more prevalent in recent years.

The Economic Security Court tries persons prosecuted for violating the foreign exchange laws as well as for other financial crimes. Defendants in such trials are not accorded due process. The trials are widely believed to be subject to executive branch interference. Some lawyers have refused to defend clients in the Economic Security Court because they purportedly believe the verdicts have been predetermined.

Defendants in the State Security Court are not granted due process. Most trials are closed; the judges appoint the defense lawyers who are not permitted sufficient opportunity to consult with their clients or examine witnesses; the courts do not order medical examinations in cases of alleged torture; court proceedings and sentences are not made public; and defendants do not have the right to appeal. All sentences are reviewed by the Minister of Interior in his capacity of Military Governor, who may ratify, nullify, or change sentences; however, the President may also intervene in the review process. Although the State Security Court has acquitted some defendants, the outcomes of most trials are determined by top political leaders.

The Government tried hundreds of persons in State Security Courts in 1994, many of whom were imprisoned for more than 10 years. Most of the charges related to membership in banned political groups. Between 1992 and 1994, the State Security Court tried more than 275 defendants, sentencing 200 and acquitting 75. The Government reportedly has failed to release from detention some of those who were acquitted. The Government denies that it detains political prisoners. However, it has tried, convicted, and imprisoned many people for attempting to exercise such fundamental rights as the freedom of speech and association. The Government maintains that these people either engaged in subversive activities or were members of subversive organizations. Such prisoners were convicted in trials that fall far short of internationally accepted standards of due process. According to a Western press report, the Government in January 1995 released three former Baath Party officials--Fawzi Rida, Muhammed Id Ashawi, and Abd Al-Hamid Miqdad. The three had reportedly been detained without charge or trial for nearly 25 years.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Although laws provide for the freedom from arbitrary interference, the Emergency Law authorizes the police to enter homes or conduct searches without warrants in national security cases.

The authorities arbitrarily set up security checkpoints on streets and roads. At these sites, security officials search persons and vehicles without warrants, looking for weapons, drugs, subversive literature, and smuggled goods.

The security services selectively monitor telephone conversations and facsimile transmissions and interfere with the mail. In some cases, censors have prevented the delivery to private citizens of foreign human rights publications.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to express their opionions freely in speech and in writing. However, the Government restricts this right significantly. It permits no spoken or printed criticism of the President or the legitimacy of the regime and strictly controls the dissemination of information. Persons violating these restrictions are subject to arrest. The Government has imprisoned several journalists for years for failing to observe press restrictions.

The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censor the domestic and foreign press. They prevent publication or distribution of any material regarded as threatening or embarrassing to the Government. Commonly censored subjects include the Government's human rights record, allegations of official involvement in the Lebanese drug trade, and aspects of the Government's political and security role in Lebanon. Censors remove from imported publications articles critical of the Government's role in Lebanon.

The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censors fiction and nonfiction works, including films. Censorship is stricter for materials in Arabic. Censors remove material critical of the Government, offensive to any of Syria's religious groups, too graphic in its description of sex, unfavorable to the Arab cause in the Middle East conflict, or partial to sectarianism. Censorship also affects films available at foreign cultural centers.

The Government or the Ba'th Party owns and operates the radio and television companies and the newspaper publishing houses. There are no privately owned newspapers. The Ministry of Information censors the televised news programs to ensure they follow the government line. The Government does interfere with radio or television broadcasts from neighboring countries.

The law prohibits citizens from owning satellite receiving dishes. In early 1994, security forces began to confiscate satellite-dish components but later halted the practice. Although ownership remains illegal, citizens resumed installing satellite dishes without any apparant government action. However, in November the Government announced that it would fully implement the ban on private dishes and create a monopoly to distribute satellite programs to selected consumers.

Nonetheless, there was greater openness in 1994 in the media's coverage of regional developments, including the peace process. The Government aired extensive coverage of the peace agreement reached between Arab parties and Israel, e.g., the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. The Government also permitted more media criticism of government performance. Several newspaper articles highlighted government malfeasance and low-level, but not high-level, corruption.

Public school teachers are not permitted to express ideas contrary to government policy, although authorities allow somewhat greater freedom of expression at the university level.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

This freedom does not exist. Citizens may not hold public meetings unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior. The Government or Ba'th Party organizes most demonstrations. The Government applies the restriction on public assembly in the Palestinian refugee camps.

The Government regards all private associations as illegal unless they are duly registered with the Government. Unregistered groups may not hold meetings, and the authorities do not allow the establishment of independent political parties. It usually grants registration to groups not engaged in political activity. In 1980 the Government dissolved several professional associations after some of their members staged a strike and called for an end to the state of emergency. Security forces arrested an undetermined number of strikers and sympathizers. Many of these people remain in detention without trial or are being tried in the State Security Court. The associations have since been reconstituted, but the Government strictly controls their activities. Any association must notify the Ba'th Party of its scheduled meetings.

c. Freedom of Religion

Citizens enjoy a considerable degree of religious freedom. Although nearly two-thirds of the population is Sunni Muslim, there is no state religion. However, the Constitution requires that the President be Muslim.

Most religious groups, including the remaining 300-member Jewish community, are free to practice their faiths. All religions and sects must register with the Government, which monitors fundraising and requires permits for all meetings by religious groups, except for worship. The permits are routinely granted. Non-Muslims may operate schools and religious training facilities,and maintain links with coreligionists abroad. The Government prohibits the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists from organizing as churches and from owning church property. Followers practice their religion in private homes.

Foreign missionaries are permitted to preach and practice. Although no law prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing Muslims, the Government discourages such activity. The publication of religious material is subject to the same censorship as secular material.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government restricts travel near the Golan Heights and occasionally near the borders with Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Travel to Israel is illegal.

Citizens require government permission to travel abroad. The Government refuses permission to anyone thought likely to express views contrary to its policies. The authorities may prosecute any person found attempting to emigrate or travel abroad without official permission, or suspected of having visited Israel illegally.

Women over the age of 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission 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 1994 the Government fulfilled its commitment to grant exit permits to Jews who sought one. In the past, the Government required Jews to post bond before traveling abroad. It has abolished that requirement.

There are some 360,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria, some of whom were born in the country. These refugees sometimes encounter difficulties in obtaining travel documents and re-entering Syria after traveling abroad. The Government closely monitors Palestinians who are not residents in Syria, including those with third-country passports. The authorities sometimes refuse such travelers entry into Syria.

The number of non-Palestinian refugees assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dropped to less than 4,600 from some 5,500 in 1993. Some 3,500 of these are Iraqis, and over 900 are Somalis. The UNHCR estimated that another 34,000 non-Palestinian refugees--including 31,000 Iraqis and 2,000 Somalis--were in Syria but did not receive UNHCR assistance. There were reports that security forces detained some persons seeking asylum and reportedly forced some--in particular Somali, Egyptian, and Libyan nationals--to return to their countries where they face possible abuse from their Governments. Such reports were unconfirmed. In general, the Government provides information on asylum seekers to the UNHCR.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the ability to change their government legally and peacefully. The President and his senior aides, particularly those responsible for internal and external security, ultimately make all basic decisions on political and economic life. In recent years, the ruling Ba'th Party, which is dominated by the military, has served principally to legitimize President Asad's rule.

Although the regime seeks to deemphasize ethnic and religious sectarianism, members of President Asad's own sect, the Alawis, hold most important military and security positions. President Asad's fourth 7-year term expires in March 1999.

An election was held in August for the 250-seat Parliament, or People's Council. Members serve 4-year terms. The Parliament has the constitutional power to initiate laws but has not yet done so. To date, it merely approves or revises draft legislation proposed by the executive branch.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no local human rights groups: the Government does not permit the establishment of such organizations.

In October the Government allowed representatives from Amnesty International (AI) to visit Damascus where they met various ministers and other officials. The AI delegation described its discussions as the "first ever substantive talks with Syrian authorities covering all its human rights concerns." The delegation met with the president of the State Security Court but was not able to observe State Security Court trials. During its visit, AI raised with the Government the cases of over 1,000 victims of human rights violations over the past 25 years, including political prisoners, detainees without trial, and people who have disappeared. Earlier in October, government ministers also received a representative from Human Rights Watch, the first time that organization has visited Syria.

As a matter of policy, the Government denies that it commits any human rights abuses and does not permit representatives from international humanitarian organizations to visit prisons. In instances in which foreigners are arrested, the authorities sometimes delay or deny prison visits by embassy officials.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for equal rights and equal opportunity for all citizens. In practice, membership in the Ba'th Party or close familial relations with a prominent Ba'th Party member is important for prospering. Party connections can pave the way for entrance into better elementary and secondary schools, access to lucrative employment, and greater power in the Government and the military.


Historically the Government has sought to overcome traditionally conservative and religiously inspired discriminatory attitudes toward women. It encourages women's education and has expressed its intention to align its laws more closely with international conventions on equal opportunity for women.

Women constitute some 10 percent of the Members of Parliament and the diplomatic corps, 6 percent of judges, almost 10 percent of lawyers, 57 percent of teachers below university level, and 20 percent of university professors.

Nonetheless, social attitudes and practices continue to discriminate against women. Matters of personal status, such as divorce and inheritance, are adjudicated by courts associated with the various religious denominations. Muslim women face discrimination in such cases under Islamic law which grants women a smaller share of inheritance than male heirs.

Spousal abuse against women occurs, but conservative social mores discourage any public discussion of the issue. There is no evidence that spousal abuse is widespread, but there are no official statistics. Battered women have the legal right to seek redress in court, but few do so because of the social stigma attached to such an action. The Syrian Women's Federation offers services to battered wives to remedy individual family problems.


The law stresses the need to protect children, and education is mandatory up to the sixth grade, with tuition-free education provided at higher levels. However, mandatory education is not strictly enforced in rural areas where there are often not enough schools. The Government provides health care to children at a nominal fee, although the quality of the care varies in different regions. There is no pattern of societal or familial violence against children, which is discouraged by tough legal penalties as well as social stigma.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Government has placed limits on the use and teaching of Kurdish language, Kurdish cultural expression and, at times, the celebration of Kurdish festivals. Kurds lost seats in the parliamentary election. There were claims that the Government manipulated the elections of some Kurdish candidates who allegedly support the terrorist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) movement, which advocates creation of a Kurdish state located, in part, on Syrian territory. The authorities reportedly detained some citizens for protesting the Government's policy towards the Kurds.

There is a credible estimate that previous governments withdrew the nationality of 90,000 to 120,000 Kurds during the 1960's. The current Government apparently stopped this practice, but has not restored nationality to those who lost it.

Religious Minorities

There is no state religion and a significant amount of religious tolerance. Religion is occasionally a factor in determining the opportunities available to Syrian citizens. For example, members of the President's religious sect, the Alawis, generally enjoy preference for high-level security and military positions.

The few remaining Jews are generally barred from government and military service. They are the only minority group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.

People with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against the disabled and seeks to integrate them into the public sector work force. However, implementation is lax. Regulations reserving 2 percent of government and public-sector jobs for the handicapped are not rigorously implemented. The disabled do not have recourse to the courts regarding job discrimination. There are no laws mandating access to public buildings for the disabled.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Although the Constitution provides for this right, workers are not free to establish unions independently of the Government's bureaucractic structure. All unions must belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) which is dominated by the Ba'th Party and is actually a part of the State's bureaucratic structure. The Government would not permit the establishment of an alternative trade union federation.

The GFTU is an information transmission belt between political decisionmakers and the workers. The GFTU leadership transmits instructions downward to the unions and workers but also conveys information to decisionmakers about worker conditions and needs. The GFTU provides the Government with opinions on legislation, organizes workers, and formulates rules for various unions. The GFTU president is a senior member of the Ba'th Party. He and his deputy attend Cabinet meetings on economic affairs. The GFTU controls nearly all aspects of union activity. At the end of 1994, legislation was pending before Parliament that would grant individual unions more authority to adopt their own bylaws.

There were no reported strikes. Although strikes are not legally prohibited, workers are inhibited from striking because of previous government repression. In 1980 the security forces arrested many union and professional association officials who planned a national strike. Many of those arrested remain in detention without charge or are being tried in the State Security Court.

The GFTU is affiliated with the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions.

In 1992 the U.S. Government suspended Syria's eligibility for tariff preferences under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences because the Government failed to take steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights to Syrian workers.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

This right does not exist in any meaningful sense. Government representatives are part of the bargaining process in the public sector. In state-owned companies, union representatives negotiate hours, wages, and conditions of employment with representatives of the employers and the supervising ministry. Workers serve on the boards of directors of public enterprises.

The law provides for collective bargaining in the private sector, but any such agreement between labor and management must be ratified by the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, who effectively has the power of veto. The Committee of Experts of the International Labor Organization (ILO) has long noted the Government's continuing resistance to abolish the Minister's power over collective contracts.

Unions have the right to litigate disputes over work contracts and other workers' interests with employers and may ask for binding arbitration. In practice, labor officials and management settle most disputes without resort to legal remedies or arbitration. Management has the right to request arbitration, but this is seldom exercised. Arbitration usually occurs when a worker initiates a dispute over wages or severance pay.

Since the unions are absorbed into the Government's bureaucratic structure, they are protected by law from antiunion discrimination. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination.

There are no unions in the seven free trade zones. Firms in the zones are exempt from the laws and regulations governing hiring and firing, although they must observe some provisions on health and safety, hours, and sick and annual leave.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

There is no law prohibiting forced or compulsory labor. There were no reports of forced or compulsory labor involving children or foreign or domestic workers. Forced labor may be imposed as a punishment for some convicts.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment is 14 in the public sector and 12 in the private sector. In all cases, parental permission is required for children under age 16. The law prohibits children from working at night. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for enforcing the minimum age requirements but does not have enough labor investigators. Nonetheless, child labor is common. The Ministry is not able to monitor compliance with the child labor laws in rural areas or in small family businesses which employ young children.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Minister Labor of and Social Affairs is responsible for enforcing minimum wage levels in the public and private sectors. Following reductions in subsidies for foodstuffs, the Government in April raised the minimum wage to $50 a month in the public sector and $44 a month in private sector. A committee of labor, management, and government representatives submits recommended changes in the minimum wage to the Minister. The minimum wage does not provide for an adequate standard of living for a worker and his family. As a result, many workers take additional jobs or are supported by their extended families.

The statutory workweek is 6 days of 6 hours each, but in some cases a 9-hour workday is permitted. The laws mandate a 24-hour rest day per week.

Rules and regulations severely limit the ability of an employer to dismiss employees without due cause. Dismissed employees have the right to appeal before a committee of representatives from the union, management, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the appropriate municipality. Such committees usually find in favor of the employee.

The law does not protect temporary workers who are not subject to regulations on minimum wages. Small private firms and businesses employ such workers to avoid the costs associated with hiring permanent employees.

The law mandates safety standards in all sectors, and managers are expected to implement them fully. In practice, there is little enforcement without worker complaints, which occur infrequently despite Government efforts to post notices on safety rights and regulations. Large companies, such as oil field contractors, also employ safety engineers.

The ILO has noted that a provision in the Labor Code allowing employers to keep workers at the workplace for as many as 11 hours a day might lead to abuse. However, there have been no reports of such abuses. Officials from the Ministries of Health and Labor inspect work sites for compliance with health and safety standards. Such inspections appear to be haphazard, apart from those conducted in hotels and other facilities which cater to foreigners. Workers may lodge complaints about health and safety conditions with special committees established to adjudicate such cases.

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