Syrian Arab Republic

Head of state: Hafez al-Assad
Head of government: Mahmud al-Zu'bi
Capital: Damascus
Population: 15 million
Official language: Arabic
Death penalty: retentionist

A general amnesty issued by President Hafez al-Assad in July resulted in the release of an unspecified number of political prisoners (although the main beneficiaries were prisoners charged with economic offences). Restrictions imposed on the travel of Syrian nationals were relaxed during the year, but AI remained concerned about continued infringement of the rights of former political prisoners, including their right to freedom of movement and travel. Hundreds of people, including foreign nationals, were arrested on political grounds. Hundreds of political detainees, including prisoners of conscience, remained in detention, some held without charge or trial and others serving long sentences passed after unfair trials before the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC). There were reports of torture and ill-treatment and a number of sick detainees remained held without access to adequate medical care. At least one person "disappeared" during 1999, and scores of "disappearances" from previous years remained unresolved. The death in custody of a Lebanese detainee was reported. At least two people were sentenced to death and executed.


President Hafez al-Assad was re-elected in a national referendum in February for a further five years in office. Since 1973, he has presided over a government led by the National Progressive Front, an alliance of the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party and other smaller parties. During 1999 there were violent clashes between the authorities and supporters of Rifa't al-Assad, brother of President Hafez al-Assad and former Vice-President, in the coastal city of Latakia. At least two people were killed and scores of Rifa't al-Assad supporters were rounded up and questioned.

Opposition activities remained outlawed and members of unauthorized political parties were at risk of detention. A state of emergency, with attendant legislative and security measures leading to grave and continuing human rights violations, remained in place; it had been in force since 1963.


Hundreds of people were arrested and detained during 1999, apparently for political reasons. They included members of the unauthorized Islamist groups al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, Muslim Brotherhood, and Hizb al-Tahrir, [Islamic] Liberation Party, and foreign nationals from other Arab states.

More than 500 members of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun and Hizb al-Tahrir were rounded up in a wave of arrests in December when Syrian security forces raided homes of suspected members of these groups in the cities of Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. They were reportedly held in incommunicado detention in Damascus and there were fears that they might be tortured or ill-treated. Also in December, the former Deputy Controller General of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, Amin Yakun, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen.

Foreign nationals arrested during the year were reportedly held incommunicado, mostly in two detention centres: Far ' Falastin, Palestine Branch, and Far ' al-Tahqiq al- ' Askari, Military Interrogation Branch. Among the detainees were 'Abdallah Ahmad Muhammad, a 71-year-old Iraqi Kurd arrested in July, and Ali Hussein Muhaimid, an Iraqi arrested in August. Both men were reportedly arrested at Damascus airport, and taken to Far ' Falastin . Muhammad Himo, a Syrian, the owner of a Kurdish bookshop in Aleppo, was reportedly arrested in October. There were fears that these detainees were at risk of torture or ill-treatment, while held in prolonged incommunicado detention.


At least a dozen political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were released during 1999. Most had served long sentences of up to 15 years imposed by the SSSC after unfair trials. They included Doha 'Ashur al-'Askari, and Ratib Sha'bu, who had been held beyond the expiry of long sentences handed down for their involvement with the unauthorized Hizb al-'Amal al-Shuyu'i (PCA), Party for Communist Action. Doha 'Ashur al-'Askari staged a hunger strike in protest against her detention beyond the expiry of a six-year sentence.

After the general amnesty in July, an unspecified number of Jordanian and Palestinian political prisoners were reportedly transferred to Far ' al-Tahqiq al-'Askari, apparently pending release. They included 'Adnan 'Abd al-Rahman al-Dabak, and Nail Isma'il 'Izzat, both detained since 1985 in connection with alleged involvement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). They had not been released by the end of 1999.

Prisoners of conscience

Scores of prisoners of conscience remained in detention serving long sentences imposed in previous years by the SSSC after unfair trials. Dozens of prisoners of conscience detained for alleged membership of the PCA continued to serve sentences of up to 22 years. They included Muhammad Ghanim, a doctor, and Faysal 'Allush, a former university student of mechanical engineering, both serving 15 years' imprisonment with hard labour.

At least five prisoners of conscience detained for their involvement with the PCA continued to be held beyond the expiry of long sentences. They included Basel Hurani and 'Abd al-Halim Rumieh, both former students of electrical engineering at Damascus University.

The precise number of prisoners of conscience held on charges of involvement with al-Hizb al-Shuyu'i al-Maktab al-Siyassi (CPPB), Communist Party–Political Bureau, was not known. At least one, 'Umar al-Hayek, remained in detention at Tadmur Military Prison, serving a 15-year sentence handed down after an unfair trial. 'Abdalla Qabbara, a lawyer sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment in 1994 in connection with his involvement with the CPPB, was released from Tadmur Military Prison during 1999. He had reportedly been tortured during the interrogation stage of his detention and was suffering from chronic diabetes.

Human rights defenders

The work of human rights groups remained unauthorized in Syria. Five prisoners of conscience remained in detention serving up to 10 years' imprisonment for their involvement in the distribution of a leaflet to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The leaflet was produced in 1992 by an unauthorized human rights group, the Committees for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). The prisoners of conscience were Nizar Nayyuf, Muhammad 'Ali Habib, 'Afif Muzhir, Bassam al-Sheikh and Thabit Murad. Aktham Nu'aysa, a leading member of the CDF released in 1998, continued to have his civil liberties restricted and was barred from travelling abroad to seek medical treatment.

Long-term political detainees

Hundreds of political prisoners and possible prisoners of conscience, including foreign nationals, remained held. Some were detained incommunicado without charge or trial, others were serving sentences passed after grossly unfair trials.

Hundreds of political prisoners held in connection with activities related to al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun remained in incommunicado detention, mostly without charge or trial. They included 'Aziza Jallud, arrested in 1979 in lieu of her husband who was sought by the Syrian authorities, reportedly in connection with a bombing incident. An unspecified number of political prisoners held in connection with al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun were reportedly released following the July amnesty. Scores of Lebanese nationals held since the 1980s and 1990s remained in Syrian prisons. Most had been arrested by the Syrian intelligence forces in Lebanon and transferred to Syria where they were mostly held in incommunicado detention.

  • 'Isam 'Uthman al-Mistrah, a Lebanese carpenter born in 1961, was taken by Syrian forces from Beirut on 8 August 1992 and transferred to Syria. The Syrian authorities acknowledged his detention after nine months' incommunicado detention, and allowed his family monthly visits. He was reportedly tried and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment on charges of being "an agent'' of the intelligence service of former Lebanese army General 'Aoun.

Scores of Palestinian and Jordanian political detainees, most of whom were held in connection with Palestinian political movements, remained in detention without charge or serving long sentences passed after grossly unfair trials.

  • Tawfiq Yunis 'Abd al-Rahman al-Ashqar, a Jordanian contractor born in 1948, married with six children, was arrested in early 1982 at Dara' on the Jordanian-Syrian border. He was reportedly held in incommunicado detention in Tadmur Military Prison for alleged involvement with an Islamist group. He was reportedly acquitted by a court before his transfer to Tadmur Military Prison, but was never released.


Torture and ill-treatment of detainees continued to be routine, especially during the initial stage of detention and interrogation and in Tadmur Military Prison, notorious for its harsh conditions. There were also fears that prisoners of conscience transferred to this prison in 1998, including Nu'man 'Ali 'Abdu, may have been tortured and ill-treated as a form of punishment. New cases of torture and ill-treatment were reported during 1999, especially of political detainees held at Far' Falastin in Damascus.

  • Fa'iq Ibrahim al-Yasseri and Khalil Ibrahim Hussain, two Iraqi nationals released in March after being held from November 1998 to March 1999 at Far' Falastin, were reportedly tortured or ill-treated, apparently for their involvement with the Damascus-based Iraqi Centre for Humanitarian Activities. They had been held incommunicado for six weeks in an underground cell and were repeatedly beaten by the interrogating officers.

Death in custody

The death in custody during 1999 of a Lebanese detainee gave cause for grave concern, especially given the failure of the Syrian authorities to improve prison conditions and investigate dozens of deaths in custody of political prisoners in previous years.

  • 'Adel Khalaf Ajjuri, a Lebanese political prisoner detained since 1990, died in custody on 22 September in Sednaya Prison, reportedly after being denied access to specialist medical care. No autopsy was performed on his body by either the Syrian or Lebanese authorities. His family was not informed until almost a month after his death and were forced to collect his body from Syria themselves. The death certificate issued by the Syrian authorities indicated that the cause of death was heart failure.

Cruel and inhuman prison conditions

Dozens of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, continued to be held without adequate medical care in prisons where conditions fell seriously short of international standards. They included prisoner of conscience Wajih Ghanim, serving 15 years' imprisonment on charges of membership of the PCA, who suffered severe strain on the neck affecting the spine apparently caused by torture. 'Abd al-Majid Nimer Zaghmout, a Palestinian political prisoner, remained in detention despite an order by the Minister of Defence for him to be released. 'Abd al-Majid Nimer Zaghmout, held since an unfair trial more than 30 years earlier in 1966, suffered from advanced cancer and was held at Teshrin Military Hospital in Damascus.


At least one person "disappeared" during 1999, after reportedly being taken by the Syrian security forces from his home in April following years of residence abroad. Scores of previous "disappearance" cases remained unresolved.

  • Khadija Yahya Bukhari, a Lebanese national, was arrested by Syrian forces at Beirut airport on 28 April 1992 along with her son and daughter and taken to the Syrian Intelligence centre near the Beau Rivage Hotel in Beirut. They were then transferred to Far' al-Tahqiq al- 'Askari and Far' Falastin in Syria. Both her son and daughter were subsequently released, but the fate and whereabouts of Khadija Bukhari remained unknown. She and her husband, a Syrian officer, were apparently suspected of "collaboration" with Israel.

Death penalty

The death penalty continued to be applied and at least two people were sentenced to death for murder and executed during 1999.

  • Haytham Sa'id Yaghi, aged 21, and Firaz bin Qassem Yaghi, aged 19, two Syrian nationals from the same family, were executed in June in a public square within a week of being convicted of murder.

Government communications

AI received some responses from the Syrian authorities on cases raised by the organization.

AI country reports

  • Syria: Caught in a regional conflict – Lebanese, Palestinian and Jordanian political detainees in Syria (AI Index: MDE 24/001/99)
  • Syria: Double Injustice – prisoners of conscience held beyond the expiry of their sentences (AI Index: MDE 24/010/99)

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