Covering events from January - December 2002

Head of state: Bashar al-Assad
Head of government: Muhammad Mustafa Miro
Death penalty: retentionist
International Criminal Court: signed

Scores of people were arrested during the year for political reasons, including Syrian exiles who had voluntarily returned and others suspected of membership of unauthorized political groups. There was an increase in the repression of human rights defenders and lawyers. Hundreds of political prisoners remained in prolonged detention without trial or following sentences imposed after unfair trials. Some were ill but were still held in harsh conditions. Ten prisoners of conscience were sentenced to up to 10 years' imprisonment after unfair trials before the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) or the Criminal Court. There were fewer reports of torture and ill-treatment, but cases from previous years were not investigated. At least two people died in custody.


President Bashar al-Assad issued an amnesty in June reducing by one-third prison sentences imposed on children aged from seven to 18 who had been convicted of criminal offences. It was not clear what offences were covered or how many children benefited. Another amnesty in October applied to people who had failed to do military service or had deserted the army.

In June the European Parliament passed a resolution on Syria expressing grave concern at the imprisonment of intellectuals and opposition figures. It called on the authorities to ensure that detainees were not tortured or ill-treated and to ratify and implement the UN Convention against Torture.

Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country stepped up their peaceful activities during 2002. In April, 137 former prisoners of conscience living in Syria sent a memorandum to President al-Assad calling for all former prisoners of conscience to be reinstated in their previous jobs and urging him to revoke restrictions on their employment, movement and travel. In August a conference initiated by al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) in London led to the adoption of a National Charter for Syria, containing principles including respect for human rights, including the rights of women, and rejection of all forms of violence.

Human rights defenders

The year witnessed an increase in the repression of human rights defenders and lawyers. The two major human right groups, the Committee to Defend Human Rights and the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS), continued to function despite lack of official authorization, government restrictions and detentions of their members.

  • In April, the Damascus Bar Association (DBA) imposed an arbitrary disciplinary punishment on human rights defender Haytham al-Maleh, a lawyer and director of the HRAS. He was suspended from practising law for three months after expressing concern about the fairness of the trial of a client, prisoner of conscience Mamun al-Humsi (see below). During 2002 Haytham al-Maleh was summoned several times by the security forces and the DBA to be questioned about his involvement with the HRAS and about his public statements on human rights in Syria. In June the DBA barred him from practising law for three years and in September the Deputy Military Prosecutor referred him, with Qasub 'Ali al-Malla and three other men, to the Military Court, on charges including distribution of the HRAS journal Teyyarat without a licence, and involvement with an organization (HRAS) "of an international nature" without government permission.
  • In April lawyer Anwar al-Bunni was arbitrarily suspended from practising law for three months by the DBA in connection with the case of Mamun al-Humsi. In June, he was physically ejected from the SSSC when he demanded that allegations of ill-treatment made by his client, prisoner of conscience 'Aref Dalilah, be noted and investigated. The court president banned Anwar al-Bunni indefinitely from practising before the SSSC and he was ill-treated by the security forces who ejected him from the courtroom. Anwar al-Bunni was also threatened by the security forces.
  • Razan Zaytunah, a human rights defender and member of HRAS, was harassed by the security forces and barred from travelling abroad.
  • Restrictions imposed on the movement of human rights defender Khalil Ma'tuq were lifted during 2002.

Scores of people were arrested during 2002 for political reasons. They included former political activists affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood who had been in exile but had been given clearance to return home by the authorities. Also arrested were suspected members of unauthorized Kurdish political organizations, and Islamist activists suspected of links with al-Qa'ida. Most were held incommunicado, apparently without charge or trial, and there were fears that they might be tortured or ill-treated.
  • In May Musallam Shaykh Hasan, a leading member of the Syrian Kurdish Yekîtî Party, was arrested in 'Ayn al-'Arab for distributing Kurdish political literature. He was taken to the Aleppo Political Security Department and later transferred to a detention centre in Damascus. He was released in August after three months in prison. He was a prisoner of conscience.
  • At least 32 Islamist activists were held incommunicado for alleged links with al-Qa'ida. Muhammad Haidar al-Zammar, who has dual German and Syrian nationality, was reportedly held in a detention centre after being extradited from Morocco in October 2001. Maher 'Arar, who has dual Canadian and Syrian nationality, was deported from the USA to Syria via Jordan in October 2002. He was reportedly held in a secret location in Syria and there were fears for his safety. Before his deportation Maher 'Arar had been detained by US authorities for interrogation about links with al-Qa'ida. A Canadian consular official was reportedly allowed to see him in October, but only in the presence of Syrian officials and Maher 'Arar was not allowed to answer all the questions asked.
  • In February Nawras Husain al-Ramadan, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested in Damascus airport upon his return from the United Arab Emirates, where he had lived in exile since 1980. He was reportedly given assurances of safety by the Syrian authorities before his return. He remained in incommunicado detention at the end of 2002.

At least a dozen political prisoners, including Jordanian nationals, were released during 2002.
  • Haytham Na'al was released in August after 27 years in prison in connection with the Arab Communist Organization (ACO). He was reportedly tortured and ill-treated. He was seriously ill and had injuries sustained as a result of torture.
  • Ferude Yaman, a Turkish political activist, was released in October after five years in prison. She had been held incommunicado until 2001 when members of her family were allowed to visit her. She was held on charges including involvement in activities detrimental to Syria's relations with foreign countries. She needed urgent medical care for a heart disease.
Trials of prisoners of conscience

Prisoners of conscience were brought before the Criminal Court and the SSSC in trials that fell seriously short of international standards for fair trial. During trials before the Criminal Court, defendants were denied the right to call witnesses or to have confidential access to their lawyers. Trials before the SSSC were equally flawed and prisoners of conscience and their lawyers were harassed and intimidated throughout the trials.
  • Ten prisoners of conscience were sentenced to up to 10 years' imprisonment by the SSSC or the Criminal Court after unfair trials in related cases in June and July. They were charged with attempting to change the constitution by illegal means and similar offences. All were held in Adra Prison and were reportedly denied access to reading material. Prisoners who were ill were reportedly not given adequate medical care. They included Riad al-Turk, a 72-year-old lawyer, first secretary of the unauthorized al-Hizb al-Shuyu'i al-Maktab al-Siyassi, Communist Party-Political Bureau, and a former prisoner of conscience, who was sentenced to 30 months' imprisonment by the SSSC. Suffering from diabetes and a heart condition, he was released in November by a personal presidential amnesty. Riad Seif and Mamun al-Humsi, both independent members of the People's Assembly and businessmen, were sentenced to five years' imprisonment by the Criminal Court. Hasan Sa'dun and Habib Saleh were reported to be ill and in need of medical care.
Political prisoners

Hundreds of political prisoners, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, remained detained for years without trial or after unfair trials before the SSSC or Field Military Courts (FMC).

At least 800 political prisoners, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pro-Iraqi Ba'th Party, and Hizb al-Tahrir, [Islamic] Liberation Party, remained in detention at Sednaya Prison. Hundreds of others remained held, mostly incommunicado, in detention centres including Far'Falastin, Palestine Branch, and Far'al-Tahqiq al-'Askari, Military Interrogation Branch.
  • Khalil al-Khayrat, aged about 65, was arrested in 1992 for distributing a leaflet criticizing the stance towards the Gulf War of Arab countries including Syria. He was believed to be affiliated to the pro-Iraq Ba'th party. He was tried and sentenced by a Field Military Court and was held in Tadmur Prison until 1997, when he was transferred to Sednaya Prison. He was reportedly tortured and was also suffering from arthritis. He had been detained three times in the past and at one time spent 15 years in prison. His family have apparently been given special permission to visit him once a year.
Scores of political prisoners with long-term illnesses continued to be held in prison conditions which fell short of international standards.
  • Faris Murad and 'Imad Shiha, both serving life sentences in Sednaya Prison, were arrested in 1975 in connection with their involvement with the ACO. Faris Murad was suffering from a spinal injury and high blood pressure. He lost his teeth as a result of dental disease and has a deeply bowed posture, possibly as a result of torture in a metal chair known as the "German chair" which stretches the spine and causes severe pressure on the victim's neck and legs. 'Imad Shiha was suffering from several health complaints including a chronic intestinal disease and an injured leg.
  • Mustafa Dib Khalil (also known as Abu Ta'an), a Palestinian political activist in his mid-sixties, remained detained in Sednaya Prison. He was reportedly suffering from a spinal problem, hypertension, loss of sight and psychological problems due to prolonged incommunicado detention. Mustafa Dib Khalil was arrested in 1983 by Syrian Military Intelligence officers near Tripoli in northern Lebanon. He was later transferred from Lebanon to Syria. He was reportedly arrested for belonging to the Fatah movement, and for coordinating Palestinian fighters in Lebanon. He was held for eight years in solitary confinement and then remained in incommunicado detention for about 14 years. He was apparently held without charge or trial.
Torture and ill-treatment
There were fewer reports of torture and ill-treatment during 2002, but previous allegations of torture were not investigated.
  • 'Aref Dalilah, a former dean at Aleppo University, was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment by the SSSC in July. He was reportedly beaten and ill-treated in Adra Prison and was injured as a result. In April he was taken to hospital because his health deteriorated but was returned to his cell without receiving adequate medical treatment. On 6 June, during his trial before the SSSC, he told the court of his ill-treatment and presented a blood-soaked handkerchief as evidence. He contracted deep vein thrombosis, possibly as a result of the harsh prison regime and restricted movement.
Death in custody

At least two political detainees, including a Lebanese national, died in custody.
  • Muhammad Hasan Nassar died in custody after being detained incommunicado for a week. He was arrested on 17 March on his voluntary return to Syria after a long period of exile in Jordan. Muhammad Hasan Nassar, a teacher, married with nine children, reportedly fled Syria in 1980 following violent confrontations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian authorities. He was reportedly suffering from serious physical and psychological complaints, and required constant care.
An AI delegate visited Syria in May to observe the trial of prisoners of conscience but was denied access to the courtroom.

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